Category Archives: review

Review: 2013 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8: Wheeldon’s Cinderella

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Wheeldon's Cinderella. © Erik Tomasson

The sold-out run of the U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella brought a modern fairytale to life on the War Memorial Opera House stage in San Francisco. This much anticipated production revived a classic fairytale that both appeals to today’s audiences with an appropriate nod to its past, with an updated libretto by

Craig Lucas that adds interest to the age-old story. Costume and scenic design by Julian Crouch is equally spare with clean lines as well as expansive in scope, which adds both intimacy and luxury to this new production. All these production elements, including the choreography, complements the sumptuous and dark score by Sergei Prokofiev, played by the San Francisco Ballet orchestra and conducted by Ermanno Florio in the Wednesday May 8 production that I saw, which was worth the price of admission alone.

Wheeldon’s choreography fills in the normally perfunctory plotline-moments with interesting twists and turns that continually engages the mind and heart, with the classic Balanchinian traits of speed and heartaching musicality. Experimentation with both creative partnering challenges and delights the audiences throughout the production. There is a particularly lovely pas de deux at the end of Cinderella with her prince under a tree, and although they had fallen in love at the ball, you get the sense that they are truly falling in love as they as dancing under no false identity for the first time. The variations of the “spirits” in Act I were colored by the seasons that each variation represented, keeping to the tradition of the classic ballet but also adding the twist that each variation “taught” Cinderella a dance move she could use at the ball. Each variation was charming and delightful, danced by soloists Clara Blanco, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Hansuke Yamamoto, and Sasha DeSola.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella. © Erik Tomasson

However, I do think that Wheeldon is a better choreographer than storyteller; the beginning of the production stalls a bit with brief scenes and quick scenery changes that is disorienting. There are quirky production elements such as a bevy of floating chairs and the appearance of tree gnomes which add a touch of fantasy but appear a little out of context. There are also the four “Fates”, danced by Gaetano Amico, Daniel Deivison, Anthony Spaulding, and Shane Wuerthner, who make the most out of this difficult but mostly thankless part, which mostly requires overseeing the important plot points and partnering as they are masked. But overall, this production serves as a stunning vehicle for his choreography, heightened by the sumptuous Prokofiev score.

Yuan Yuan Tan lit up the stage as Cinderella, playing the youthful and kind heroine who uses her fluid limbs and speed to the fullest to highlight the wonders of Wheeldon’s choreography. She was partnered by the fresh-faced Luke Ingaham as the Prince Guillaume, who danced with more youthfulness than royalty. He danced with broad strokes in his phrasing, and he often took his time in the air which lent a mellow air to his dancing. It was also great to see Katita Waldo back on the stage as the droll Stepmother Hortensia, with an amusing interlude of a drunken solo during the royal ball. The roles of the stepsisters were danced by Vanessa Zahorian and Dores Andre, which made most of the slapstick elements but didn’t quite rise to meet the comedic demands of the roles, with Andre more of a natural

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fit than the understated Zahorian. Garen Scribner danced the role of Benjamin (the Prince’s friend) in his last performance with the SF Ballet, with his usual elegant carriage that may have been more fitting as the prince rather than a valet’s son. His dancing will be sorely missed by SF audiences, and it is our loss that the company is losing an amazing and unique dancer.

Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella. © Erik Tomasson

In a single production, Cinderella manages to delight its audience with a modern retelling of a classic fairytale that highlights Wheeldon’s sparkling choreography. The production is especially arresting on a company like SF Ballet that is so used to the speed and style of Wheeldon’s choreography, and will no doubt be a staple in the company’s repertoire for years to come.

San Francisco Ballet’s website

Review: 2013 Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Mondavi Center

Alicia Graf Mack of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. © Andrew Eccles

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater cranked up the temperature on the Mondavi Center stage this past week with a smashing program of their usual American hits as well as exploration into new worlds, for this company at least. The highlight of the program for me was Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort, a choreographic gem I’ve had the pleasure of seeing before on other companies. With spare costumes that highlight the physicality of bare bodies and quirky use of props, it was a perfect vehicle to highlight the athleticism of their dancers as well as their silky sensuality. Set to silence as well as the steely clarity of Mozart’s piano concerto, tension constantly simmers underneath in a riveting display. On a minor note, a few fumbles and the slightest hint of caution suggested that perhaps this realm of neo-modernism isn’t a comfortable fit for this company yet. The company emphasized the softness of rippling arms rather than the laser-sharp intensity of pinpoint urgency in the choreography. The halts and pauses in the choreography and music weren’t necessarily as heart-stopping as it could have been. Still, the effect was mesmerizing and it will be interesting to see how this piece grows on this company as it will become more instinctual with time.

Alvin Ailey’s Night Creature was a more natural fit for the company, and it’s like watching them do what they do best. Set to the music of Duke Ellington, the dancers become communal

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animals that play in the night. Led by the magnificent Alicia Graf Mack, she makes you believe in her sensual, swiveling hips and incredible extensions at her glorious height of 5′ 8″. She personifies elegance and a technical finesse and stage presence that makes her a standout. She makes you wonder why there aren’t more tall dancers onstage. She is partnered by the amazing Vernard Gilmore who gives Mack a run for her money with his elegant port de bras and power. It’s a fun piece, with a myriad of influences from classical ballet to jazz, a nice representation of this company as the quintessential American dance company.

Strange Humors is a piece by Alvin Ailey’s artistic director Robert Battle, highlighting a duet of two men with bare chests and bright orange pants (costumes by Missoni). Dramatic, powerful, and athletic, this piece highlights the strength of its dancers, Jermaine Terry and Yannick Lebrun. The statement this piece is making is unclear however, but it was a visually pleasing presentation that is too brief.

And of course, the program ends with Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a piece that the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company performs at every performance. It’s a wonder and a blessing that they perform it with gusto and spirit, and you could never tell they perform it so often. The liveliness is genuine, and the spirituals that accompanies the piece is rousing. Deeply spiritual but also fun and uplifting, the words of the songs speak of so much more than what is seen onstage. The company looked amazing on tour, particularly the men with their refined and fierce arms – is there something in the lighting the emphasizes their musculature in such a flattering light?? – and long, tapered legs that extend to the skies with such distinction and nobility. It was an amazing

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evening of American dance, and rocka my soul indeed.


http://vimeo.com/54314491

Mondavi Center

Review: 2013 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5: Onegin

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin. © Erik Tomasson

I think it’s fair to say that San Francisco Ballet’s Onegin was a certifiable hit from their 2012 season. This year, the ballet in three acts returned again, looking as fresh and as new as ever. The epic melodrama graced the stage looking just as ravishing as it did last year, with gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto and lighting design by James F. Ingalls.

The ballet reads like a novel, with a storyline that is mercifully easy to follow. All the theatrical elements merge to serve the over arching story, including choreography by John Cranko, who pulls the audience on a dramatic love story told through gesture and emotion. Literary metaphors are sprinkled throughout, which pleases the thinker in me. In the final pivotal pas de deux between Tatiana and Onegin as Tatiana is torn between her emotions and her morality, Onegin is draped across her back as she tries hard to walk forward. Through this small bit of choreography, the audience sees what a burden Onegin was to Tatiana, and how difficult it was for her to move forward in life after her heartbreak. He pulls her back as she tries to move forward, another powerful gestural metaphor. Cranko is a a master craftsman at his finest, sweeping up the audience in the story.

The melodramatic choreography also allows a number of San Francisco Ballet dancers to shine and to stretch their artistic muscles. Yuan Yuan Tan, as Tatiana, is absolutely luminous. She flies through the dream sequence in her bedroom when she is dreaming about falling in love with her ideal man, as light as a feather and in complete control. She matures and grows as the character grows, both through Tatiana’s heartbreak and anguish and ultimately, acceptance.

Onegin was danced by guest artist Cory Stearns from the American Ballet Theater, in a richly psychological portrayal of a cruel and arrogant but conflicted character. Stearns’ rendition of Onegin was a deeply satisfying one; through his cruelty and arrogance, we see how Tatiana’s heartbreak was so deep and why it took her so long to get over him. Despite the arrogance, you also see flashes of his compassion and empathy, as he reaches out to Lensky to plead for forgiveness, or through his sudden tears after a fatal moment of anger. Through his chiseled face, perfectly proportioned body and tapered legs, the audience also understands why she fell in love with him in the first place. His portrayal is not a particularly demonstrative one, but it works in this case, as a dark and mysterious Onegin with an extraordinary temper. The character’s motivations have never been clearer as it had with Stearns’ portrayal of Onegin. Jaime Garcia Castilla and Dores Andre danced as Lensky and Olga.

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Castilla danced with a pure lyricism, with beautiful positions in the air. Dores Andre was a strong

and flirtatious Olga, and was really fun to watch. Damian Smith made a brief appearance as Prince Gremin, an epitome of strength and solidarity and grace.

The corps were also very strong as well, particularly the corps of men. Much has been written about the men in the San Francisco Ballet, and their corps is strong evidence of this fact. They are each very strong jumpers and very unique; they embody both an elegant grace and a charismatic masculinity.

In all, San Francisco Ballet’s Onegin remains a hit, and is sure to please ballet lovers and newcomers alike.

San Francisco Ballet’s website

Review: 2013 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1

Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo in McGregor's Borderlands. © Erik Tomasson

Program 1 of SF Ballet’s 80th anniversary year featured a world premiere by Wayne McGregor “Borderlands”, probably the most anticipated piece of the night. I attended the Wednesday evening performance on January 30, 2013, which was the second performance of the run.

I had read almost nothing about “Borderlands” before seeing the show, which I find myself doing more these days. The reading almost never helps anyways, and more often than not sets up expectations that the actual performance may or may not meet. The piece started a bit self-consciously, with four dancers on the extreme corners of a stark white stage with three white walls and a geometric square in center upstage, which later elevates to reveal two more dancers behind it. Immediately, the piece appeared to be the same as a lot of other modern ballets that we have seen on the War Memorial Opera House

stage – with stark extreme lighting, pulsing music with themes of technology (with music by composers Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney), and a movement vocabulary screaming with themes of alien machine-like movements pushing the boundaries of physicality. In the mind-numbing freneticism of superfast choreography, McGregor appeared to be announcing loudly, “I AM WAYNE MCGREGOR”, and yes, as an audience, we get it – we also get that when you place dancers in the extreme corners of the stage, you’re announcing that you are going to use the entire stage space. It’s also nothing new.

San Francisco Ballet in McGregor's Borderlands. © Erik Tomasson

But then, something happens. I can’t pinpoint exactly the moment it happens, but it was when I stopped noticing the dramatic lighting, the loud music, and the choreography itself. I think it happened around the time of the pas de deux with Maria Kochetkova and Lonnie Weeks. Up until this point, the dancers appeared inhumane and non-relational, robotic and soulless. But Kochetkova and Weeks don’t appear to directly relate to each other in the usual cliches (lovers or friends), but dance in powerful emotions that are universal and so human. The choreography becomes less like a showcase somehow, but flows as natural as the tide across the stage, pulling your heart with them. Kochetkova and Weeks danced as if they were dancing within an inch of their lives, with every moment filled with urgency and poignancy. Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo follow, and their physicality is astounding. Both are formidable figures, Mazzeo equally matching Sylve’s big stage presence and agility, and both fully embody a fiery elegance, grace, Â and explosive power. They are jaw-droppingly good. McGregor’s “Borderlands” is definitely a must-see and a wonder to watch.

Maria Kochetkova and Lonnie Weeks in McGregor's Borderlands. © Erik Tomasson

Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc is an odd piece, and without reading the program notes, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what era this ballet was made, mostly because of its random influences. Neoclassical in style and dressed in classic white tutus and ballet costumes, there are influences from across multiple centuries, from Marie Taglioni to folk dancing to modern dance with feet turned in parallel. But for me it made sense when I learned of Lifar’s long time connection with the Ballets Russes, which makes sense in the fact that Suite en Blanc is very showy and grandiose, much like something I imagine the Ballets Russes would have danced (even though this ballet was specifically created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943).

Sarah Van Patten in Lifar's Suite en Blanc. © Erik Tomasson

The curtain opens to a large cast of dancers frozen in time, like a painting that slowly comes to life. The music by Edouardo Lalo bathes the dancers in sweet romanticism. Lifar isn’t the best at the placement and utilizing his dancers in space – in the pas de trois with Sasha DeSola, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Vitor Luiz, he has a pair dancing together with a lone dancer placed so far away  that it is virtually impossible to watch all three dancers at once onstage. Lifar also underutilizes large groups of dancers upstage from a soloist or central couple in the front, as mostly these dancers just pose. The effect is a little stilting, but despite all this, the overall effect is grand and regal. For me, it made me feel like a less cynical person in that I could still be transported by the splendor of the showmanship and performance in Suite en Blanc, despite its quirks.

Vanessa Zahorian and Rubén Martín Cintas in Robbins' In The Night. © Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins’ In the Night rounded out the program. I had seen it in the past and remembered it being unimpressive, but on second glance, there is definitely more to it than meets the eye. Robbins’ musicality is so subtle and something I appreciate more when I see more of his choreography, and perfectly mirrors the solo piano (played sensitively by Roy Bogas) in the nocturnes by Chopin. The piece features three couples dressed in glittering ballgowns, representing three different types of relationships. The first couple, danced by Sasha DeSola and Steven Morse, had almost no chemistry between them although ironically they represented a couple falling in love – but the choreography weaved in and out of the undulating phrases of Chopin’s nocturne in c sharp minor, highlighting the delicate climaxes and resolutions in the music, quietly and beautifully. Tiit Helimets and Jennifer Stahl danced the couple in the stable love of a long term relationship, and Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham burned up the stage in a relationship filled with drama, highlighted by Van Patten’s black and red dress.

In all, Program 1 is a program filled with love and passion, all wrapped in the perfect ballet romanticism. It was a wonderful evening and a great beginning to SF Ballet’s 80th anniversary season.

San

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Francisco Ballet

Review: 2012 Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake

Photo courtesy of Gene Schiavone, used with permission.


It was such a treat when the Mariinsky Ballet breezed through northern California at Berkeley’s Cal Performances a few weeks ago. There were many pleasures to be had in their brief stay, and adjectives such as “traditional” and “old world”

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come to mind with the feeling that perhaps this is a little closer to what the original Swan Lake was intended to be like. But who knows, right? More than that, this production made me realize how “stylized” my ballet-watching eyes were, and how it had been shaped by the flashy (perhaps Balanchinean?) styles of American dance companies in modern ballet companies today.

One big difference – American dance companies appear to favor soloists over the corps. Say what you will about possible political influences of American individualism and freedom vs. Russian communism, but there is more flash and individuality in the dancers I’m used to seeing on the North American stage, with big personalities. In the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake, the corps were impeccable and beautiful, the heart of the show. They didn’t dance to announce, “see, we can dance together”, but the corps breathed together in a collective and powerful tour de force. The corps dancing was more instinctive, rather than intentional, with incredible awareness of the placement of the other dancers. The effect was in short, breathtaking.

On the flip side however, there were a few characters who could use a bigger personality. The role of the jester was rather lackluster, without humor or joyful buoyancy, appearing to merely perform the steps. I could think of more than a few dancers who could have danced that role better for laughs and in general be more “jester-like”.

Ekaterina Kondaurova. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.

Ekaterina Kondaurova. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.


Not to say that there weren’t amazing soloists. Ekaterina Kondaurova showed us how much fun it is to be Odile, with a look that could kill and a fierce sexuality. She tore up the stage as Odile, and it was obvious that she loving every minute of it. Her Odette was characterized by sensual

back bends that arched forever, a strong portrayal filled more with tragedy rather than fragility. She imbued cool elegance and glamour in her long extensions, but I couldn’t help but to feel that there was a detached cold quality to her dancing particularly in her Odette. Systematic yet ultimately still it was lovely – it was a quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She was partnered by Danila Koruntsev, who danced the role of Prince Siegfried. He was a deft partner, but unfortunately this role is not a good showcase of his skills as a soloist, but he performed ably and nobly. Another standout dancer was Xander Parish in the male lead in the peasant trio, looking anything but peasant-like. His long extensions were noble and graceful, with a regal elegance that really stood out.

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He is definitely a dancer to watch, with an arresting stage presence and perfect body proportions for ballet.

Xander Parish. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.

Photo by Gene Schiavone. Used with permission.


Another huge asset to this production was the Mariinsky Orchestra. Not only is live music becoming more rare these days, but the emotive power of this famous orchestra surged and propelled the story in its wake. Unfortunately the music surged towards the tragic ending, but the Mariinsky chose a happy ending where Von Rothbart is killed in a semi-ridiculous and half hearted dance-fight and Prince Siegfried and Odette are united in love forever. The most discordant part about this happy ending was the music sustained tragedy in gorgeous phrases, but a short and quickened happy ending was an unexpected twist that I hadn’t been expecting.

Overall, it was a glimpse of old world charm on a classic, Swan Lake. This production is the reason why this production still stands today, and the Mariinsky Ballet breathed life into this production with an emphasis on all the right things. We can quibble about details, but most likely this is secondary to my taste – I could not get used to the bows after every movement of the pas de deux, and I think my jaw dropped when the music actually stopped and Kondaurova took a bow after her fouettes in the Odile variation – but this really is the reason why this ballet has stayed so long in our repertoire as well as our hearts.

Many thanks to Gene Schiavone for letting me use his gorgeous photos. Check out his Facebook page for many more photos of this production as well as others.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s performance at Stern Grove

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Scotch Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

The long-awaited performance of San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove happened last week. To be fair, this program is always difficult to review in the strict “objective” sense, as it is a rare summer performance for the ballet to its home town, and the surroundings are so gorgeous. For me, it also happened to fall on the weekend after a particularly grueling month on the pediatrics ward, and the emotional and physical toll of taking care of sick kids in the wards really got me and I was ready for a break. So in all, it was a lovely weekend in the gorgeous setting of Stern Grove, and what could go wrong when viewing my favorite company perform in such lush surroundings?

Let’s talk about the setting. It is set in the lush and green Stern Grove on an outdoor stage with a simple wood backdrop. The orchestra is placed in front, and both dancers and musicians are often subject to the ubiquitous fog and humidity that the area is known for. This year however, the fog wasn’t too bad although it was still pretty chilly. This concert is free, as are all the programs at Stern Grove, and this year, the audience numbered to over 10,000 people in one place. The crowd is unavadoidable, and yet pivotal to the whole Stern Grove experience. It is because of this crowd and the vast space that people are in, that makes some programs work and others don’t. Pieces that have worked in the past include Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, usually big rousing pieces with

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lots of dancers that can grab your attention, or pieces like Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux, where the emotive power of the piece extends to the very last row of audience members sitting amongst the trees on the hillside. Â This year, the program closed with Wheeldon’s Number Nine, which worked very well for this setting. The high energy whirlwind of bright neon colors popped off the stage, and it was also a great opportunity to see some of SF Ballet principals on stage, for most of the audience probably for the very first time.

Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

My favorite piece for the afternoon was Hans van Manen’s Solo. It features three men performing solos, one after the other, in a sort of monologue soliloquies. Colored by modern touches such as side to side head jerks and speaking in the modern ballet vocabulary, it was a lovely showcase of three very different men, featuring their three very different personalities. Hansuke Yamamoto’s quirky grace, James Sofranko’s youthful fire, and Gennadi Nedvigin’s easy charm.

Hansuke Yamamoto in van Manen's Solo. © Erik Tomasson

This program also featured their own corps member Myles Thatcher’s original choreography, featuring SF Ballet’s school trainees and company apprentices. It was a very modern work based on work from Dream House and Ethel, filled with sharp geometry and pliable torsoes. I think it’s the challenge of every young choreographer to find a distinct voice of their own, particularly in dancer choreographers who have been exposed to so many of the great modern choreographers – Balanchine, Wheeldon, McGregor, and even Possohkov. Thatcher isn’t quite there in terms of finding his own, yet clearly still very talented with an eye for lines and angles and also knowing the strengths of his very young dancers and capitalizing on their youth and flexible backs. It will be exciting to see where his future will take him.

SF Ballet Appretices Emma Rubinowitz and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Thatcher's Spinae.© Erik Tomasson

The program also featured Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, which was my first viewing of this piece. It comes off as a storybook ballet, with a vague storyline, and I’m reminded of Balanchine’s famous quote that his ballets are “storyless” (he insists that his ballets are “very concrete, though ‘storyless’”). However, it is this ballet and the ending of Serenade which make it difficult to believe his words. The flavor of the ballet is Scottish, with men in kilts and regional headress. A woman with red shoes

dances a jaunty dance (Nicole Ciapponi), encouraging everyone else to dance around her. The choreography is spirited, set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Â The central portion of the ballet features a duet between Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan; it’s unclear

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if she is a dream, a wili or a sylph maybe? But she clearly enjoys to run away from him at the end of their duets, leaving him alone, and a group of men who bar him from following her. The story doesn’t really make sense, but the highlight for me was Tan’s dancing. She was luminous, with a softness in her port de bras that was really lovely here, with her usual fluidity and remarkable control. It fit her part of the elusive but quintessential love interest here.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Scotch Symphony. © Erik Tomasson

In all, it was a really nice afternoon in Stern Grove. When else could you sip beer while watching one

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of the best companies in the world?

For more of Stern Grove’s performances this year, click here for their website.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s vibrant production of Don Quixote has many delights, and this full-length production closes the season with a reminder of what we will dearly miss until the 2013 season. Two seemingly very different elements of this production – slapstick humor and high-flying virtuosity – are blended together seamlessly in this wonderful production. It is to the audience’s delight that SF Ballet places equal emphasis on both elements, and the result is just so much fun. Humor is difficult to do well, particularly in ballet, but the company pulled it off with perfect comedic timing and creativity. The colorful costumes and beautiful sets by Martin Pakledinaz pop off the stage and frames the spirited dancing within this production, and brings the familiar Cervantes novel to life. I saw the Sunday matinee performance on April 29, 2012.

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

One of the highlights of this performance was Frances Chung’s debut performance in the role of Kitri. In a word, her debut was astounding. Chung’s Kitri had a mischievous sense of humor and an unquenchable spontaneity. She exuded a cool confidence and appeared very well prepared to perform this role. She embodied clean lines in her poses and well-articulated feet; however, more than any technical details, Chung still maintains a quality that made her unique even as a dancer in the corps. From dancing Lubovitch to Wheeldon to classics such as Don Q, she always looks like she is having a great time. How many times have we as audience members seen dancers “check out”, with the equivalent

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of yawning or sighing on stage, or look as if they are nursing an injury, or look like they can’t wait to go home? (Yes, audiences can tell!) Years of dancing hasn’t taken away this quality from Chung, and it’s so thrilling and refreshing to watch. When dancing allegro, she really goes for it, with every molecule of her being. Her adagio is quiet and still as she takes her time to stretch her legs and arms with all the time in the world. Her pas de deux with Vitor Luiz as Basilio in Act 2 flowed effortlessly like a story unfolding, a story of falling in love, with a lovely cinematic quality to it.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

In fact, as a couple, Chung and Luiz were successfully more about heart than head in this performance. Technical details wavered a bit, with a wobble here, a failed attempt at a balance there, and a fall onto outstretched hands after a particularly forceful turning jump. However, these details were rare,

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and it was their spirit that soared; both Chung and Luiz went for it, and everyone was rooting for them. Give me that kind of gumption over textbook poses anyday.

And the comedy! Garen Scribner’s Gamache was an absolute scene-stealer every second he was onstage, even when he was sitting on the sides, fanning himself. James Sofranko’s Sancho Panza was earnest and energetic, bouncing off of Luke Willis’ regal yet absurd Don Quixote.

Vanessa Zahorian and Joan Boada in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. © Erik Tomasson

In spite of the comedy, the virtuosity in this ballet makes this ballet a classic, and this production showcases the strengths of the company beautifully. Chung flew through her fouettes and ended with a clean double, and Vitor Luiz drew gasps from the audience with his turning jumps that whips his legs around in the air, defying gravity. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba as the bad-ass matador and Elana Altman as his dramatic partner, Mercedes, mesmerized with their sensual power and intensity. The female corps looked pristine in the airy Dream scene, with soloists Sasha DeSola sailing through with a bright innocence, and Koto Ishihara, all leggy extensions, expertly covered up a wobbly

ending to her bird-like solo with a charming flurry of smiles. Pascal Molat and Courtney Elizabeth also added an element of passion as leaders of the gypsy camp, Molat with power and Elizabeth with melodrama.

Having never seen this ballet in its full-length version before, I really didn’t know what to expect. I know that full-length classics can

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have its slow moments; however, this production surprised and delighted. The virtuosity is thrilling and definitely worth seeing more than one cast, and the comedy is entertaining. It was a really fun way to end the 2012 season.

San Francisco Ballet’s website

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5

Sofiane Sylve and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Robbins' Glass Pieces. © Erik Tomasson

I may be late to the Robbins’ bandwagon, but previously I had always considered Robbins in the context of a Balanchine-centered world. However the more that I see his choreography, the more I am impressed with his ingenuity. In San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 of contemporary ballets, Robbin’s Glass Pieces was the shining pinnacle in an evening of contemporary ballet pieces. I attended Sunday’s performance on April 1, 2012. In this piece set to the hypnotic music  by Philip Glass, Robbins exemplifies musicality in a unique way. In the background of shimmering chaos, Robbins adds phrases and organizes the music with movement, with everyone walking on stage turning suddenly and changing directions, choreographically marking out measures and bars where none is heard. His musicality is subtle, not bold and flashy like Balanchine can be sometimes, but his is a more gentle musicality that imbues and even adds to the music. His musical ear transcends what we actually hear, but he gently points out the pauses and phrasing in Glass’ music that is not so obvious.

The famous first scene “Rubric” is breathtaking both in its mundane quality and simplicity. A large company of people walk across the stage, each with a different direction and intent, yet they all appear the same. Couples dance in and amongst the crowd, but in fleeting and shifting moments. Interactions are brief (perhaps meaningful?). Who are these people, and what are their relationships? The answer is unclear as they disappear into the crowds.

The second movement “Facades” features a corps de ballet with a fascinating yet repetitive linear movement motif that is repeated throughout the entire movement in the background. Meanwhile, a couple dance in the foreground, oblivious to their surroundings, in suspended and slow partnered dance. Victoria Ananyan and Ruben Martin Cintas inhabited these roles with long phrases, but despite Ananyan’s perfectly proportioned legs, she never quite appeared completely comfortable with a stiff upper body. The piece ended with a rousing movement “Akhnaten” driven by tribal beats and a driving momentum for a large group of dancers, colored by athleticism. The dancing was gorgeous, and the piece

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San Francisco Ballet in in Robbins' Glass Pieces. © Erik Tomasson

The program also included a world premiere by Edward Liang called Symphonic Dances. This was my first viewing of Liang’s choreography, and I could see glimpses of why his reputation as a choreographer is so stellar. He has an uncanny sense of ensemble patterns that captures the viewer’s interest. His use of space is great, as he places dancers from the highest lifts and also uses the floor as a a medium as well, giving his work a sense of broad and grandiose strokes. Liang’s musicality shines through set against the music of Rachmaninov; Frances Chung and Jaime Garcia Castilla’s duet has a quiet transparency set amongst the drama of the music. And the music! Romantic and opulent, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is packed with instruments not always heard at the ballet, including a seductive saxophone and a percussive piano. An especially strong male ensemble including Hansuke Yamamoto with firecracker reflexes and dancing in a refreshingly large space. Despite all these great qualities, the bottom line for me is that this piece didn’t keep my attention, and sections appeared overworked and felt like it could have said the same thing in a shorter period of time. There was enough there however, that made me curious to see more of Liang’s choreography.

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang's Symphonic Dances. © Erik Tomasson

The program also included Tomasson’s The Fifth Season. The music by Karl Jenkins was especially quirky and interesting, although the pieces included didn’t appear cohesive as a whole. But sculptural in nature, Tomasson does what he does best, which is to showcase his gorgeous dancers in the best way possible. Lighting by Michael Mazzola highlighted the atmosphere in stark and dramatic ways. Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets showed us a flirtier side to their dancing, and Sarah Van Patten and Pierre Francois Vilanoba danced with a free flying spirit. This piece especially featured a fresh corps with lots of new faces who were especially bright and crisp, capturing the spirit and style of the ballet with confidence.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson's The Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's The Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet’s Program 7 continues with an all-Balanchine program on April 12-18. Click here for more information.

Review: 2012 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2

McGregor’s Chroma
Morris’ world premiere Beaux
Wheeldon’s Number Nine©

Yuan Yuan Tan and Taras Domitro in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Program 2 burst onto the War Memorial Opera House stage with a repertory program of contemporary ballets from three very prominent modern choreographers. It was a great study of three very different styles, vaguely within the same genre. I got to watch this program for the matinee show on Sunday February 19.

The program opened with Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, a rollercoaster of angular twists and turns around every unexpected corner. With this piece, we as an audience get to experience the joys of having a modern dance choreographer bring his primary expertise to the world of ballet. The stage is set with a bright white background by Jack Pawson lit with different shades of white (with lighting design by Lucy Carter and costumes by Moritz Junge). Within this setting, McGregor places his dancers as superhuman athletes in an alien world. His choreography encompasses a wide range of movements, focusing on the extremes of physicality, from unending fast solos to slow duets where the woman orbits  slowly wrapped around her partner’s torso as if she was underwater. Propelled by music by composer Joby Talbot (including orchestral transpositions of Jack White III’s songs of the White Stripes), every image onstage is riveting and hypnotic. The dancers were spectacular. Vito Mazzeo shaped the space around him beautifully. Sarah Van Patten showed us a flair for contemporary choreography with clear and sharp punctuation in her movements. Sofiane Sylve was stunning, dancing with remarkable sculptural elegance. In a complex duet with Vito Mazzeo, she showed multiple facets of her

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artistry, from pure strength, to outright sex appeal, to moments of disarming delicacy – and always in command. She was breathtaking to watch. Lonnie Weeks was also another standout, dancing with a fierce intensity. He will definitely be one to watch.

Frances Chung and Pascal Molat in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova in McGregor's Chroma. © Erik Tomasson

Mark Morris’ world premiere Beaux was next. A dance set for nine men and set to the music of Martinu’s Concerto for Harpsichord and

Small Orchestra, Morris shows us a more intimate portraiture of male virtuosic dancing. The sets and costumes (both by Isaac Mizrahi) colorfully warn the audience that this might not be what we’re used to seeing, with bright pink unitards and a hot pink camouflage backdrop. Gestural motifs are peppered throughout, but nothing is too forced. The choreography flows like a casual conversation. Morris makes us sit up, pay attention, and look closely, to see that in the opening line of men standing in front of the stage, all but one is facing the same direction. There were references (intentional or not, most likely not) of Rodin’s sculptural figures that I used to bike by at the Stanford campus, standing and posturing with other statues around them. There was beauty in the simplicity of the movements with a communal spirit throughout, and the men danced with full hearts.

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' Beaux. © Erik Tomasson

With the program closing with Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine© (is that title really copyrighted?), it was like watching the company do what they do best. The brightly colored costumes by Holly Hynes lit up the stage in a blaze of pristine ensemble work by the excellent corps, and it was thrilling to watch some of the company’s best dancers take over the stage in a showcase of virtuosity. Gennadi Nedvigin made the audience gasp with his flying entrance with his delicate and nimble duet with Maria Kochetkova, and Frances Chung and Pascal Molat flew lightning-fast through the choreography with ease and limber musicality. Yuan Yuan Tan was fun, playful and flirty in her pas de deux with Carlos

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Quenedit, and Elana Altman and Anthony Spaulding were statuesque in spite of a brief fumble early on. With music by Michael Torke, it was thrilling to watch the dancers dance with such style and mastery over the music’s complex rhythms, and a proper end to a gorgeous evening of contemporary ballet.

Ruben Martin Cintas and Sarah Van Patten in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Number Nine. © Erik Tomasson

Program 2 will end on February 25, 2012. Click here for more info. Program 3 is also playing at this time, and will play through February 26, 2012.

Review: 2012 Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo at the Mondavi Center

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo's Swan Lake

Balanchine famously said, ballet is woman. Not always so, as this all-male troupe demonstrated. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo is a pointe-shoe wearing all-male ballet troupe that breaks every ballet stereotype in the

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book. Anorexic ballerinas? No one could ever imagine such bulging biceps and healthy thighs peeking out from layers of tulle in their tutus. How about the age-old mantra that the female roles/dancers should always be shorter than their male counterparts in point? Not true – the Trocks demonstrate how arresting a 6+ foot dancer can be, majestic and powerful, and always with a touch of humor. In fact, I learned that it’s impossible to take your eyes off a dancer like that. (On this point, I guess the Trocks and Balanchine share their love for tall dancers and their resulting long lines).

It might be difficult to get past the tufts of hair peeking above sparkling white bodices and a flash of dark armpit hair under a gracefully waving arm. But try as you might, and if you can see past your tears of laughter, you will see that the Trocks aren’t just a comedic act. They have a style that is entirely their own, backed by incredible technique. In their famous Act II of Swan Lake (do the Trocks perform this at every performance?), they perform a slightly altered rendition of the notoriously difficult Dance of the Cygnets. I’m so used to seeing the original Dance with at least a little bit of trepidation on stage, which always makes me uneasy as a result. But not only did the Trocks nail it, they tossed off the choreography with humor and flair, complete with facial expressions in addition to the intricate choreography,

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like it was easy. The effect is hilarious and utterly triumphant.

In fact throughout the entire evening, there was not a whiff of caution onstage. The Trockaderos’ style is bold and exuberant. Their attack is strong and sure. Every step is full out at full speed, whether they go up on point in an arabesque, or whether they are tossing off fouettes with a rare confidence that many ballerinas dream of. Their balances are extraordinary. It’s for these reasons that I particularly enjoy the pieces that they perform without jokes around every corner. Their Go for Barocco choreographed by Peter Anastos is a brilliant spoof of Balanchine’s stark, sexy ballet style, parodying Balanchine’s geometric formations and ensemble work. But even if you had never seen Balanchine before, it’s a delightful musical sketch that holds interest through its lightning fast and repetitious footwork. It’s Balanchine with a wink and a smile.

The evening ended with Majisimas, a Spanish-inflected showcase of classical ballet technique. Danced mostly straight without too many stabs at humor, it was a refreshing showcase of what these men can really do. Through seductive hips, the dancers sailed through this showcase of classical ballet fireworks and technique. I was reminded of the Trockadero’s performance of Paquita that I saw two years earlier at the same venue, and this piece reminded me of the same joy and celebration that I still recall from that performance two years ago. (Their Paquita is a must-see, and something I’d love to see live again someday.) And Paul Ghiselin’s rendition of The Dying Swan is pitch perfect, down to every detail, and a personal favorite.

Hilarious, yes – their Swan Lake is both funny and creative, and kids and adults alike will love this show. But what makes this troupe “the real deal” is their artistry, with their hearts on their sleeve. It doesn’t hurt that names such as Jacques d’Aniels (come on, a ballet and alcohol reference all in one!) and my husband’s favorite, Stanislaus Kokitch is in the program (I had to say that last one out loud before I got it, to my husband’s chagrin). And the dancers! I’m sorry I don’t recognize a lot of the dancers yet, but the fabulous Robert Carter was a standout.

Go see it!!

For a particularly good piece on the Trockaderos, check out this great entry on You Dance Funny. And for an added bonus, you can read in

the comments my personal story of seeing the Trocks for the first time. :)

Click here for more information on the Mondavi Center.