Category Archives: dance

Review: Smuin Ballet’s 2010 Spring Program

Brooke Reynolds and Ryan Camou in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

Michael Smuin’s Songs of Mahler
Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort
Ma Cong’s French Twist

I’ve anticipated Smuin Ballet’s spring program since the beginning of the year, and it rightfully took the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by storm in a breathtaking display of the power of new choreography. With this program, you see artistic and executive director Celia Fushille’s careful eye for the future of Smuin Ballet and the right feeling for the pulse of what’s hot in the international dance world, with a nod to the company’s history and tradition as well.

This program thankfully gave me new perspective on some recent thoughts of cynicism I’d been having on the world of dance. I’d had the depressing thought that perhaps I’d just seen too much dance, because everything felt so done and overdone. Everything I saw seemed to remind me of Petipa, Balanchine, or more Balanchine. An article I read recently states, “Your average state-of-the-art premiere is so derivative of Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins that it feels secondhand (even when the ballets actually are by Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins, they feel secondhand).” The remedy to cliche is really good choreography, not just rehashed inspirations which just aren’t enough anymore in a bloated dance repertoire filled with similar pieces.

Smuin Ballet in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort, part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort is a piece which hits right to the heart, dissecting, through movement, the heartache in Mozart’s music. Created in 1991 celebrating the second centenary of Mozart’s death, the music is set to the slow movements of two of Mozart’s piano concertos. Like the music, the choreography is simple and sculptural, yet undercut with drama and melancholy. The dancers are symbolic works of modern art, set in the framework of the prim and proper. Men manipulate fencing foils, and the women navigate their rigid dresses. But within this framework, there is a rapid exchange between the tension in angular limbs and stillness, and the vulnerable release in the partnering lifts. Rounded arcs in the arms breathed with tense and overwhelming desire. The dancers are dressed in flesh-toned minimal costumes with corsets for the women and bare chests for the men, personifying vulnerability and the core of humanity within a rigid society that aims to cover with decorum. The music literally hangs in the air, notes clinging and dying into silence. Petite Mort means “little death”, a metaphor for orgasm. Wikipedia defines, “More widely, it can refer to the spiritual release that comes with orgasm, or a short period of melancholy or transcendence, as a result of the expenditure of the “life force”.” Kylian’s Petite Mort is an ingenious abstract take on this idea.

Travis Walker and Jessica Touchet in Jiri Kylian's Petite Mort presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

The world premiere of Ma Cong’s French Twist was a raucous romp of high-speed energy and quirky charm. Made up of a vocabulary of everyday movements with the men in shirt and pants and the women in flat ballet shoes, the shoulders

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and head all get involved in carrying one movement to the next. The costumes seem to refer to people in a French cafe or an every day setting, yet I personally couldn’t help but to wonder if a sleeker look would have worked better than the rumpled white dresses on the women. The earthiness of the grounded movement is mirrored in the throaty yet seductive French spoken word in the darkly humorous music of Hugues Le Bars (preview here). The trio between Susan Roemer, Darren Anderson, and Aaron Thayer was a particular highlight, with these dancers expertly capturing the humor, sarcasm, and violence in this movement with gusto. There is dark mystery, humor, violence, and fun – an all-encompassing exercise of the senses and emotions and poignant musicality. At just the beginning of his career, Cong proves himself to be a masterful fresh voice with a unique vision, and a clever orchestrator of this darkly funny production. It’ll be really exciting to see where his career takes him next.

Ryan Camou, Terez Dean, and John Speed Orr in Ma Cong's French Twist, presented as part of the Spring Program by Smuin Ballet. Photo credit: Scot Goodman

The evening started with Michael Smuin’s ballet, Songs of Mahler. This piece appropriately set the context for the rest of the evening. In Songs of Mahler, Smuin brings a lightness to the movement to set to the densely lush and heavy songs by Mahler. There are a series of sketches, most of them drawing a story of relationships amongst small groups of people. It’s also a technical showcase for the dancers – Brooke Reynolds’ precision in her lines was pointed and poignant, Olivia Ramsay was all softly fluid lines and femininity, and Erin Yarbrought-Stewart embodied effortless grace and a natural flirtiness. Ryan Camou impressed with his high-flying bravura, and Aaron Thayer and Matthew Linzer in elegant lines. Although this piece stretched a little long, it still reminded the audience of the importance of Smuin Ballet’s past and its relevance to the present. It’s the qualities of Michael Smuin’s choreography

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– his musicality, his abilities to weave a heart-tugging storyline – that sets the standard for Smuin Ballet’s present repertory and their future. And with this program, the future of Smuin Ballet looks like one that will definitely be an exciting one.

Smuin Ballet repeats their performances in Walnut Creek, Cupertino, and Carmel. Go see it!! For more information, click here.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

Saturday night was the opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s last program of the year, Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo and Juiet. It’s a beautiful production of a classic love story, full of sumptuous details in the sets and costumes by Jens-jacob Worsaae and lighting by Thomas R. Skelton. In a story that’s freely moved around to different locales or to no location at all, San Francisco Ballet’s production reminded us of its original setting in Verona, Italy. The Capulets party in a setting that looks like the Sistine Chapel. Renaissance frescoes of Mary peer down gently upon the altar where Friar Lawrence prays. Burgundy velvet curtains and gold saturate the production in rich colors.

The evening starts out with an injection of drama with the opening fight scene with excellent fight choreography by Martino Pistone (in collaboration with Tomasson), in a realistic portrayal of fencing and flaring tempers especially amongst the excellent male corps. (The riveting intensity of Gaetano Amico and Luke Willis stood out to me). But unfortunately for the rest of the evening, the emotion and the drama of the story is often left up to the dancers’ facial expressions and horrified hands, rather than in the dancing itself. There is a lot of running around, especially at important plot points, where storytelling is left to gestures and emoting. When Friar Lawrence exits the stage to retrieve the vial that will temporarily suspend Juliet’s life, Juliet is left onstage, walking back and forth in anxiety and fear for about 20 seconds (feeling more like 5 minutes) to the backdrop of Prokofiev’s opulent score. The dancing is reserved for group dances such as the acrobats dancing at the festival (Dores Andre, Benjamin Stewart, Matthew Stewart), or the “angry dance” after Juliet refuses Paris, or the balcony pas de deux when Romeo and Juliet share their first kiss. I just wished there was more integration in the use of the choreography to express the plot points that propel the storyline forward.

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

But thankfully, it’s difficult to tell because the dancers spin a magical tale with their dancing, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into creating something more than what they were given. There is no other dancer who does this better than Sarah Van Patten, dancing in the role of Juliet. Her musicality and complete embodiment of the character spun phrases in the music, even if it wasn’t fully supported by the chroeography. Her quick turns capture spontaneity and ecstasy in the golden glows of first love, and her arabesques rise higher and higher like the hope that overcomes all odds. Her dance monologue, right before she drinks the potion that will temporarily halt her life, was full of fury and fear. As Juliet, Van Patten was a wonderful balance of childlike innocence and womanly grace, the latter increasing more and more with time after her first meeting with Romeo.

The role of Romeo was slightly miscast with Pierre-François Vilanoba. With his magnificent stage presence, he was definitely more princely with a presence to take over the world, than an impetuous boy in love. And with a bigger build than Damian Smith as the volatile Tybalt, no amount of spark-shooting glares could match Vilanoba’s presence. Even when every cell in Smith’s being seemed pissed off and ready to fight, it didn’t fit the story as well as Romeo being the long shot to win a fight against Tybalt. But nonetheless, Vilanoba was a strongly secure and ardent Romeo for Van Patten’s Juliet. Pascal Molat excelled as the quick-footed prankster, Mercutio. Every moment onstage and every movement described his character as a boy who takes nothing seriously, and everything is a joke. Especially impressive was his ability to mix fencing and comedy with perfect split-second timing. I can’t help but to wonder if Molat was more suited for the impulsive Romeo, although it’s difficult to imagine anyone else to capture the comedy in the role of Mercutio as well as Molat does. Hansuke Yamamoto rounded out the group of the skirt-chasing Montague boys with high flying virtuosity, and the harlots Courtney Elizabeth and Pauli Magierek did an excellent job shimmying it up with a surprisingly visible and scene-stealing presence in the second act. Quinn Wharton was an elegant Paris with a glint of cruelty who was fine with forcing a girl into marriage who obviously did not want him in return.

Pierre-François Vilanoba and Damian Smith in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet. © Erik Tomasson

In all, the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was highly entertaining in this beautiful production in a tale of timeless love. (My date quipped that this tale was a warning against the perils of punctuality, pointing out that if Romeo had come to Juliet’s tomb a few minutes later, their deaths would not have happened.) The straightforward and literal interpretation of the tale will please a wide range of audiences, and Tomasson always knows how to put on a great show; the dancing is sublime. It’s a good one to bring children to as well, and I saw many of them in the audience. It’s a great way to end another year with the San Francisco Ballet.

Anyone have any updates on the other casts (Kochetkova/Boada, Zahorian/Karapetyan)? What did you think?

San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet runs through May 9. Click here for more info.

Spotlight: Ballet San Jose’s Spring Repertory 2 program

It seems like a lot of ballet companies are all closing on the same weekend. It pours, and then it’s a desert for a few months in the dance

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South of the Bay, Ballet San Jose is a company that will be closing their season this weekend with their Spring Repertory 2 Program – Massine’s Gaite Parisienne, Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas, and Balanchine’s Agon. They’ve been on my radar for a while, but it’s another company I haven’t had a chance to go see. This company was critically acclaimed for their Tudor interpretation, so Jardin Aux Lilas was something I really wanted to go see.

Click here for more information and report back if you go see them!

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6

Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony
Renato Zanella’s Underskin
Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons

Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat in Zanella's Underskin. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6 was an important one for the company, despite looking like the calm program before the storm before its grand finale of Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet that will close out the season. It included yet another world premiere built on the company by choreographer Renato Zanella – would it be appropriate to call him up and coming? His work is mainly been Europe-centered with occasional forays elsewhere, and his name is new to my ears. It also reprised a recent (and important) acquisition of Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, and performed a Tomasson piece that hadn’t been performed in many years.

Zanella’s Underskin is said to have been inspired by the mystique of San Francisco Ballet dancers. Swathed in darkness, a centerpiece of beams angling from the floor to the ceiling moved slowly throughout the piece, wavering and glinty in the low light. The piece opened with a soloist, Jennifer Stahl, dressed in a dark shimmery unitard, slithery and undulating with drama. With sky high extensions and remarkable fluidity, this role called for the ability to stun with a turn of a head and a dark look. This height of drama wasn’t quite achieved, but there were glimpses of Stahl’s potential to grow into such a dancer with that kind of presence. She will definitely be one to watch. Three couples weaved in and out, in addition to a corps of dancers in this mood piece, moving to the sighs and cries of Schoenberg’s unpredictable and moody Verklarte Nacht. The duet with Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat was a tumble of turbulent struggle and fury. Jaime Garcia Castilla and Courtney Elizabeth were sweetly melancholy, Castilla with velvety extensions and jumps that lingered in the air. Chung and Wharton were a mesmerizing partnership as they breathed as one, bewitching the audience with unbridled intensity. The corps of men were particularly striking, with a weight that permeated throughout the piece. Even their arms had weight, as they powered through the air. Zanella captured the company’s sense of drama and power in an impressive display of both their soloists and their corps who danced in breathtaking unison.

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Ratmansky's Russian Seasons. © Erik Tomasson

I missed Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons last year due to a last minute replacement due to dancer injury, but I’m really glad that I got to see it this year. With this piece, you see Ratmansky honoring Russia and the qualities of its people. The stories that he tells onstage are of peasants, with hunched shoulders and the heavy burden of strife countered with an irrespressible spirit that refuses to die. Camaraderie pervades throughout the piece, with people talking and acknowledging each other. I’m so used to watching such dance stories of peasants swathed in rags and hats – very literally – but Ratmansky brilliantly frames the piece in the unexpected world of the abstract. With dancers in bright primary colors and a simple background and nothing more than decorative headgear, Ratmansky tells these provincial stories and themes with pure movement. Balletic brises with an upward center of gravity are mixed with tantrum stomps of oppression; this mix of weight and ebullience speaks of hope in the midst of hardship. Elana Altman was compelling in sleek lines and dramatic angles in her solo set to the melancholy cries of mezzo soprano Susannah Poretsky in the music of Leonid Desyatnikov’s Russian Seasons. There was sadness in Lorena Feijoo’s entire being of the woman who later reappears, seemingly resurrected, in white and a white flower wreath on her head. This piece may have been a tad too despondent for some (I think one reviewer had compared it to life in the gulag), but I was pleasantly surprised by its provincial storytelling in the modern packaging of the bright abstract and a remarkable quickness in its movement vocabulary.

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson's "Haffner" Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

Tomasson’s neoclassical Haffner Symphony was pleasant and regal, with a distinguished use of space in the placement of dancers around the stage. The use of negative space between the dancers, in one instance by placing two dancers upstage left and one far downstage right, spoke of an airy spaciousness in a royal garden with a backdrop of flowers with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto. Tomasson’s elegant use of space is inconsistent however, as in several moments dancers squeeze by each other uncomfortably as a line of dancers move past another. Gennadi Nedvigin wowed the audience with crisp lines and soft landings, but clearly the realm was Maria Kochetkova’s playground, coloring her lightning quick feet with a softness and gentility. Clearly she was a reigning queen where everyone else were occasional visitors, and it was a marvel to watch her and the other dancers at play.

San Francisco Ballet’s website. Only one more program left for this season! Romeo and Juliet starts on May 1.

Review: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on Tour

Photo by Lois Greenfield

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is an energetic company with genius management (under founder Bebe Schweppe and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty) that distinguishes itself by capitalizing on showcasing today’s best modern ballet choreographers to new audiences. They also expose audiences to some of these big names’ lesser works, which is a huge draw for balletomanes such as myself. With a lineup of choreographers like Elo, Tharp, Forsythe, and Pendleton, an evening at the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Mondavi Center was a program that had its finger on the heartbeat of today’s world of modern ballet. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a small company of 12 dancers, but it’s a talented company with a palpable energy of youthful vitality.

The program opened with Jorma Elo’s Red Sweet, which was commissioned by the company in 2008. It’s a visual wonder in movements a mix of precision and speed in Elo’s busy choreography that’s packed with a combination of balletic and robotic movement. With music by Vivaldi and Biber, this is the most musical piece of Elo’s that I’ve seen, with musical motifs that mirror choreographic structural motifs in a moment of mental clarity amidst a sea of random but pretty movements. But as with the other Elo works, I found that the novelty of his thrilling dance vocabulary wore off, and the piece would have benefited from a shorter presentation.

Twyla Tharp’s Sue’s Leg choreographed in 1975 gave us a glimpse of Tharp’s earlier works in a piece that’s rarely performed today. Set to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller, it features a small group of dancers in plain clothes, swinging easily to the jazzy stylings of the music. The easy shoulders and floppy arms remind me of the caricature of Robin Williams doing Twyla Tharp in the movie Birdcage, which must have characterized her work early on in her career. The softly shifting formations ease in and out, and without solid conclusions, this piece captures a nostalgic mood and the beginnings of her storytelling ability that would define her later works.

William Forsythe’s Slingerland was a sleek and dramatic duet for Katherine Bolanos and Sam Chittenden. Choreographed in 2000 for Ballet Frankfurt, the dancers dive and reach and lunge in a backdrop of undulating musical lines. An alien echo of atonal singing lines with harmonics gave an eerie edge in Gavin Bryars’ stirring music. The evening ended with Moses Pendleton’s Noir Blanc, also commissioned by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2002, a curiously whimsical display of floating limbs flying through space lit with black light and a haze of stage magic.

This program was a versatile program of the little engine that could – a small but powerful dance company with the ambitious spirit packaged in a way that makes people want to buy tickets for. It was a program that showed both the dance world of present, past, and future in four living choreographers and their lesser known works which still highlight their style and substance. The spirit of this company is infectious, with a pleasing sleek and dynamic style, and an example of what a small dance company can do.

Mondavi Arts

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 7

Damian Smith and Katita Waldo in Wheeldon's Rush. © Erik Tomasson

Program 7 at the San Francisco Ballet was all about the pretty. After the alien exoticism of the Little Mermaid, this program was a welcome breath of fresh air to San Francisco audiences eager to watch what San Francisco Ballet does best. Two out of the three pieces in Program 7 were created for the SF Ballet, including a world premiere of Possohkov’s Classical Symphony. There’s nothing like the sense of organic flow that comes from a piece built around the strengths of the company. The adoring audience seemed to relish the idea that no other company can perform these pieces like SF Ballet, and it was thrilling to watch.

Kristin Long and Pascal Molat in Wheeldon's Rush. © Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush was a rush of adrenaline, personified. Created for the San Francisco Ballet in 2003, the first movement featured an ensemble of dancers in exhilarating momentum. Propelled from beginning to end by the insistent, joyful music of Martinu’s Sinfonietta de Jolla, the dancers’ costumes in bright primary colors added an extra shot of liveliness to the non-stop fast choreography. The fluid choreography is broken up by geometric arms – rounded or straight in upward V shapes – and a tilting off-center motif that looked dangerously like near falls. The tilting motif carries through in the slow second movement, a spare duet danced by Damian Smith and Katita Waldo. Dressed in black and gently romantic, there’s a tinge of sadness and regret, but also a sense of being very much alive in the moment. Limbs unfolding, movements unfurling inside out, Waldo and Smith let the movement and atmosphere speak volumes in stillness with breathless vulnerability. Waldo and Smith’s duet was a stunning highlight of the program.

Maria Kochetkova and Frances Chung in Possohkov's Classical Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

Possohkov’s Classical Symphony is a staunch example of neoclassical ballet that’s brightly classical but not restrained. Firmly rooted in the classical ballet vocabulary, this piece almost seems retro in the way that it showcases classical virtuosity as a virtue worthy of applause. Unabashed displays of sky high leaps and spinning turns rouse the spirit of ballet’s Christmas past, and I dare you not to get excited over the technical brilliance of the SF Ballet dancers, led expertly by Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto. This piece also draws on strong gender lines, with sweeping, strong jumps for the men and delicate, petite allegro for the women. There’s a full movement of an ensemble of men that repetitively features flying leaps in unison, with very little in between. This movement was the one movement that felt a bit underdeveloped. Occasional breaks from the textbook ballet positions give way to reaching arms and dramatic lines to give it a modern feel. There’s a relief in the familiarity of a world of the expected, and although no particularly new revelations were made, it was just really fun to sit back and enjoy.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody). © Erik Tomasson

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ abstract and comedic The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody). Its spoof of modern theater is filled with audience members with loud candy wrappers,  a snooty piano soloist reluctant to share the spotlight (in a brilliantly dry and funny portrayal by pianist Michael McGraw), and obsequiously single-minded fans of the theater (such as myself :) ). The dancers brilliantly skirt the difficult balance between earnestness and pushing too far, especially with Pascla Molat’s perfectly timed performance as a cigar-chomping butterfly. Not being just a comedic ballet, the choreography holds incredible depth under its comedic veneer, with a disarming nod to the tender strains of Chopin’s music, and in being more than what it appears to be. But still, the most satisfying part of this program is hearing the laughter of children ring out loud over the general audience.

San Francisco Ballet‘s Program 7 plays through April 20.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s The Little Mermaid

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet presented the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid starting last weekend. Largely marketed as an adult story not intended for children, this production was an abstract psychodrama using the familiar tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as a launching point. Although closer to the original Andersen tale than the more ubiquitous Disney version, the Andersen tale still serves as a rather distant inspiration, as the emotions of unrequited love and character development are more salient features than storytelling plot points. The strangely hypnotic world is also created by the stunning atonal music by Lera Auerbach, with sounds coming from the orchestra pit that sounded eerily human, in wordless sighs and groans.

Neumeier’s strength as a choreographer lies in his ability to take the abstract thematic elements of the story and to address it creatively. Set in a cinematic framework, the story starts off almost like a movie, with sounds of laughter and talking in the excited scene of wedding preparations amidst giggling bridesmaids and congratulatory groomsmen.  But from there, the story takes unexpected twists and turns, as the ocean grows from a tear dropping from the face of a forlorn male bystander (named “The Poet”, danced with veiled vulnerability and assurance by Damian Smith), who creates the little mermaid as a vessel of his unrequited love for the prince, a warmly oblivious and ever elegant Tiit Helimets. An underwater world is revealed, where movements are inflected with Asian influences – think Japanese butoh and Balinese dance, with the rippling arms and attention and detail in the wrists and fingers as free as the ocean. Time warps and bends, with mermaid sisters and a corps called “the sea” creating a slow and casual alien world.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. © Erik Tomasson

In stark contrast is the world on land, harshly lit and unsympathetic. Characterized by conformity in boisterous unified group dances, people are such strange creatures, breaking out into dance and breaking out a golf club and golfing at random moments. Humans are seen from the viewpoint of the little mermaid, curiously interesting yet odd. Filled with non sequiturs often with a violent edge, the world of humans is depicted as an absurdist tragic comedy. In the midst of this, the little mermaid’s innocence in her love for the prince and the wholeheartedness of her devotion is heartbreaking, a beacon of humanity in this exotic and strange world.

Neumeier states that his story is inspired by the little mermaid’s love that transcends boundaries. Yet it’s hard to take her love for the prince seriously, as she falls in love with him with such innocence and later, determination. Rather than a love story, this ballet to me was more of a cautionary tale of tragedy. The audience is swept up by the pilgrimage of the little mermaid, a slow transformation from innocent girl leading to the psychological climax of her final solo, a dance of determination, surrender, and the realization of being trapped by her own desires. Principal Yuan Yuan Tan portrays the many facest of the role of the little mermaid with ferocity and the stage presence of an unassuming star. The dress that she once desired to wear after seeing the prince fall in love with a princess wearing the same dress, becomes constricting. The life on land she once desired becomes instruments of her own undoing, with the Sea Witch who gave her legs merely an instrument of what she thought she wanted. This dance represents both her psychological unraveling as well as her maturity in acceptance of her fate and the consequences of her decisions. For the first time, instead of being a victim of the ebb and flow of life, she learns to stand on her own two legs and takes authority of her life into her own hands.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. © Erik Tomasson

This monumental ballet has lofty goals, encompassing a large spectrum of emotions and psychological and dramatic themes in the framework of a familiar timeless story. The overall impression is a lot to take in at once, yet it’s also a world that’s easy to get lost in. Neumeier’s cinematic tale of The Little Mermaid is buried in abstraction and swirling in emotion and images, nonsensical yet urgent, a sentiment that can’t be put into words.

San Francisco Ballet’s website.

Preview: Smuin Ballet in Ma Cong’s French Twist

Last weekend, Smuin Ballet welcomed a few bloggers into their rehearsal room for us to get a preview of their upcoming spring program. Choreographer and Tulsa Ballet principal dancer Ma Cong was there to stage his ballet, French Twist, on the company. With this rehearsal, we got a glimpse of the piece that will be performed in May.

Since it’s still a few months away and Smuin Ballet is still knee-deep in their Winter program, it was such a different experience watching a piece in its early stages. From what I could see so far, French Twist is a piece that’s packed with movement, wit, and quirky humor. Set in ballet flats, there’s a momentum that’s outwardly horizontal with a radiating energy, rather than elevated and vertical as in classical ballet. There’s always something to see, and the movement emphasizes the syncopation in the music by French composer Hugues Le Bar. The music can be best described as post-Romantic neo-Baroque with an overlay of French cafe music + voice. The music is difficult to classify with multiple influences, but these genres comes together nicely with a quirky ease.

Cong ran rehearsal by dancing the steps himself along with the dancers, with a careful eye for detail. Even spacing of the fingers was addressed more than once, and his background in Chinese dance was visible especially in the way in dealing with the wrist and the hands. In the post-rehearsal Q&A with artistic director Celia Fushille, Cong talked about his background as well as his inspiration for this piece, first set at the National Choreographer’s Initiative last summer. His inspiration was Tom and Jerry cartoons, specifically in the way that the movement was not only perfectly musical, but there was inherent humor in the way the movement was so direct and sudden and perfectly placed and timed. He also talked about the challenges of resetting a work that was originally built on another set of dancers. He said one of the difficulties was remembering the original steps, but also adapting it to the strengths and personalities of the Smuin Ballet dancers. He’s tweaking a few details to the original piece, as well as almost revamping the entire finale.

It’s going to be quite a show, especially with Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Smuin’s Songs of Mahler. Many thanks to Smuin Ballet and their warm hospitality for opening up their rehearsal.

Smuin Ballet’s 2010 Spring Program will be playing at the following places/dates:
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (415)978-2787
May 7 – May 16
Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek (925)943-7469
May 21 – May 22
Flint Center, Cupertino (650)903-6000
May 29 – May 30
Sunset Center, Carmel (831)620-2048
June 4 – June 5

Smuin Ballet website

My favorite Tom and Jerry cartoon. I had forgotten how violent they are, and it’s still funny after all these years.

Review: 2010 San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson's Swan Lake. © Erik Tomasson

There are so many other factors that can affect your experience in the theater. Expectations are a big one – high expectations are hard to meet. However for some reason last Saturday afternoon, the stars were aligned – my expectations in check from last year’s experience, a pleasantly honest and savvy date, and a gorgeous sunny day after days of rain – and I had a wonderful time at San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake.

This isn’t your grandmother’s staid Swan Lake of fluttering self-pitying swans. The sparkling costumes and sets by Jonathan Fensom still have that new car smell, with the sets creating an expansive open space for the story to unfold. As beautiful as the sets and costumes are, the best thing is that they allow for the story told through movement to shine.

Despite its deep roots in traditional classical ballet, San Francisco Ballet’s production isn’t a dusty one with uptight perfect fifth position arms. Arms are spread back like wings, twisted in angst and fear. Swans lean forward in lines of regret and surrender. The evil Von Rothbart’s extensions whip out in raging anger as he leaps through the air. Rather than a showcase of textbook technique which can be an end in itself, classical technique is used to further the purposes of the story. The corps of swans were a powerful entity, dancing not only with a remarkable unity but a single minded purpose, dancing with power and an overlay of sadness all communicated through body movements, from assured sweeping arms to eyes cast down. The effect is dramatic and deliciously intimidating in their sheer numbers and solidarity, more like a pack of wild birds than precious animals found in fairytales. The choreography of the pas de trois in the first act is restrained, but dancers Frances Chung, Hansuke Yamamoto (a last minute replacement for Vitor Luiz), and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun danced with such style that it was hard to notice. Aided greatly by a clipping pace by the orchestra led by Martin West, Chung was delightfully spry with remarkably clear footwork, Pipit-Suksun infused her dancing with a warmth and grandeur in her long extensions, and Yamamoto soared in a winning combination of bravura and gentility in partnering the two ladies. Anthony Spaulding was a mix of fierce aggression and dauntless nobility as Von Rothbart, which made him an intimidating foe. In addition, Anita Paciotti was a strikingly fabulous Queen mother, with a magnetic stage presence dripping with royal airs merely parading around the stage. The dancers brought this classical ballet to life, carving out a cinematic journey that carries the audience through this timeless tragic fairytale.

The near-perfect cast was headed by Sarah Van Patten in the role of Odette/Odile. Her portrayal of the tragic heroine was one that unfolds slowly, sensuously, organically over time. There’s a sumptuous luxury in the way that her movements are unforced yet always growing, and we clearly see the development of her love story from start to finish. From a skittish fear with wide eyes, to growing still when Prince Siegfried catches her hand and looks into her eyes, to a growing trust of backward trust falls trusting him to catch her, to a tremulous foot beating betraying her beating heart. As she turns, she slows and hesitates as she sees her prince – it’s the very picture of a heart faltering. As Odile, Van Patten was all sleek lines glinting cruelly in the light, her confidence in the role visibly improved from last year. She soared in the role of seductress and looked like she was having fun doing it. There was something thrillingly dangerous about the way that she looked up at the audience slowly, fiendishly, deliberately, while dancing with her arms presented and spread wide. Her final pose was triumphant as the Prince is holding her hand, as she throws back her head in silent cruel laughter.

It’s interesting that in this version, I saw not just a love story between two people, but more of a picture of a woman falling in love despite its consequences. Weight is unfairly given to the role of Odette over Prince Siegfried in this romance. It’s a thankless role to be sure, and Prince Siegfried was danced by guest artist Vadim Solomakha. His natural acting ability helps with the angsty moments he had onstage, but in general, he lacked a princely posture when he stood or walked, as he played his part more like a jovial accessible leader who interacts with his people in the first act. In dancing with Odette, he almost disappeared next to Van Patten, and was otherwise unremarkable and technically tenuous in his jump landings and footwork.

In general, I was reminded of how timeless this ballet is, where deception is damning, and the choice to love is heartfelt. San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake is a stunning production that will continue to tell the classic tale to modern day audiences. This production rests on the abilities of the dancers to bring it to life, and with the cast that I saw, this can be a very good thing.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2 starts on February 9, including a world premiere with Christopher Wheeldon set to the music of recording artist Kip Winger.

Review: Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company – the West Coast Tour

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company

When Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses rolled into town for their first highly anticipated West Coast tour, I got to thinking about the music behind ballet. In its best scenarios, the music is everything – it is the basis for the movement choreographed to it. In other examples, the music disappears into the background – in Tudor’s Lilac Garden, I can’t remember the music or the composer of that piece for the life of me. I’ve also found that music can be the stumbling block for me to be able to enjoy certain pieces. The pieces set to undanceable pieces come to mind – such as Mark Morris’ Joyride set to the cacophanous music of John Adams. Wheeldon’s Continuum is another piece, and this piece opened the evening with Morphoses.

The momentum in Wheeldon’s Continuum is derived mostly from the sharply-cornered music by Gyorgy Ligeti. The most challenging piece of a very forward-thinking program, the angular choreography pieced together stark images of geometric angles, alternating flexed and pointed feet, insect-like images, and tension that always seem to result from movements in silence. (The audience seems to start breathing again once the music starts up again.) It’s colored by a bewildering sense of randomness to this piece. Momentum is built up between images from moment to moment, but its logic remains murky and elusive. However through movement, Wheeldon is able to point out the humanity and the dark humor in the music I never would have heard otherwise. Even in tension, an urgency and a driving energy challenges the audience to consider it, most of all. Gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz (recredited by Mary Louise Geiger) offsets the clean angles and creates different worlds, from an austere world with black and bright white, or a warm glow of red.

The program also features choreography other than Wheeldon’s, which is an advantage in variety not only for its dancers but for the audience as well. Lightfoot Leon’s Softly As I Leave You featured a dramatic duet about loss between dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk. Even entrapped in a box, the dancers struggle with angry intensity, yet an atmosphere of surrender and sadness pervades. Lush earthiness is backed by Bach’s sensuous, drawn out phases, and Jacoby and Pronk dance with a mercurial power that’s breathtaking.

Ratmansky was also featured on the program, with Bolero. Six dancers wearing numbers on their leotards dance to the familiar strains of Ravel’s Bolero in movements that mirror the repetitive motif with imperceptible yet building climax. It starts slowly, with a solo and a background chorus of softly shifting shapes. More people join as the music builds. There is a sense of competition (perhaps because of the numbers on their leotards?) yet a nonchalance and a haughty disregard for each other. Yet it’s always changing, as partners switch and different groups dance with each other. Ratmansky’s choreography emphasizes the complex detail in the music, with offbeats that are given as much attention as the onbeats. The irrepressible shifting and pointed movement slowly casts its spell as does the music, which only broke when an accidental skirt came loose and had to be tossed to the back. It was only at this point when I realized how much I had been emotionally caught up in the piece. The piece soldiers on, skirt or not, with the piece coming to an impressive crashing close.

The evening ended with Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie, which was my favorite for the night. Highlighted with searing red costumes by Francisco Costa, from beginning to end, the piece was all seamless fluidity, seething with power and life. The dancers were like watching animals in the wild – a harnessed invincibility, an expansive confidence to fly.

With Morphoses’ West Coast tour, California audiences were privileged to be exposed to a company with such a cutting-edge sensibility and an amazing repertoire. Yet it was hard not to notice the empty seats that appeared after each of the two intermissions. Perhaps Wheeldon is ahead of his time with audiences not used to change – at the post performance Q&A, a woman admitted she had never seen such sensuality onstage before. I have to remember that this sort of dance is still new to a lot of people. Or perhaps he’s still trying to find a convincing voice with his lofty vision to challenge audiences as well as seek their favor and support. This favor is made more difficult by music like Ligeti’s. Yet Wheeldon is not afraid to take that risk, and everyone benefits as he searches for beauty, even in difficult places.

An adorable Christopher Wheeldon at the post-performance Q&A.