San Francisco Ballet’s Mixed Repertoire Program 6 is a wild ride of a show. Each time the curtain rises on his three ballets, we’re in such a different world that it’s almost hard to believe we’re watching the same company. The single line is the spectacular dance. In fact, I would venture to say that the company has never danced as well as it does right now.
The first is that of artistic director Helgi Tomasson Prism from 2000. It was performed at New York City Ballet where it danced before coming to SFB, and is very much in the neoclassical ballet fashion by its mentor there, the legendary George Balanchine. Movement is at the service of music, the sublime of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1. (One wonders if Tomasson is actually trying to top Balanchine, who made Beethoven’s “undanceable” music famous.) We get three varied movements of no-nonsense classical ballet, without even a hint of a narrative. The choreography is so in tune with the music that the dancers seem to almost skim and float above its surface. It really is a magician’s trick, as they make the most difficult moves appear effortless and in the moment.
Prism is not only one of Tomasson’s best pieces, but also one of the most Tomassonian (if that’s a word). The emphasis is on clean lines, crystal-clear technique and distinguished behavior on stage. At first glance, it might sound quite nice if a little underwhelming, but closer attention reveals all sorts of underlying structures and clever ornamentation that fit the music perfectly. As the music gets bigger and more robust in the final movement, the choreography literally leaps off the stage as the pyrotechnics are fast and furious. Ending with a whirlwind of 29 luminous dancers forming a jubilant kaleidoscope, it’s the kind of ballet that elicits tears of joy.
The opening night cast was so terrific from top to bottom that it’s almost rude to name just a few. But pay attention to the opening trio of Max Cauthorn, Sasha DeSola and Lonnie Weeks. The pair complement each other perfectly while each maintaining their own distinctive line, with Cauthorn’s vertical aerial stances and Weeks’ stunning extension. DeSola has a breakout season, and this is another role where she plays with tempos and rotations for days before stopping, seemingly forever, in an unsupported balance on one toe. Joshua Jack Price is surprisingly good in a repeated pattern where a trio of men in a peeling formation perform a kind of hopscotch move before launching into a double pirouette. Price stands out for the way he makes the sequence both muscular and refined. In the second movement, Tiit Helimets and YuanYuan Tan dance a long adagio which, unusually for Tomasson, is devoid of pathos or angst, and still manages to make it consistently compelling. Julian McKay, like the kind of icing on the sundae, truly bursts on stage. The extreme speed of his pirouettes, the altitude of his jumps, and the 180-degree shear of his legs unambiguously deliver the pyrotechnics for anyone who found the first two moves a bit too laid back.
The next step is Final Final, a world premiere by highly sought-after Christopher Wheeldon, in the continuity of his long and fruitful collaboration with the SFB. One of the hallmarks of Tomasson’s leadership has been his ability to attract the best choreographers to create new work for the company, and one of the hallmarks of Wheeldon’s ballets is his restless imagination. With brand new Wheeldon piece, you never know what’s coming your way. In this case, we get a Katzenjammer Kids cartoon-a-rama, as if said kids had taken a little too much Flintstones vitamins. On the jazzy medley of Darius Milhaud Beef on the roof from 1920, it’s fun, it’s playful, it’s bratty, sometimes sexy and completely unpredictable. Talk about your Looney Toons. The overall design of the piece resembles Paul Taylor in an antique mood and the exuberant movement is all over the map. Wait – did Benjamin Freemantle just do a rhumba hip pivot while gleefully holding Isabella Devivo astride his outstretched arms? Did Joseph Walsh really just pay a quick tribute to Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane? Yes indeed, all of this and more.
Is it a great ballet? Probably not, but it works well here as a sort of sherbet class to cleanse the palate between the more substantial ballets of the program. Costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s brightly colored outfits are fun, until they start to get a little too picky by adding swim caps and various ruffled accessories in the middle of the ballet. Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting looks great everywhere, keeping things bright and sparkling while still being quirky and interesting, and that’s a tall order. The seven actors tear up the play like they’re having a blast. For the record, on opening night they were Dores André, Cavan Conley, Isabella Devivo, Benjamin Freemantle, Esteban Hernandez, Elizabeth Powell and Joseph Walsh – terrific, all of them.
The last ballet is The promised land, another world premiere from another choreographer ace, Dwight Rhoden. He has much more serious stuff on his mind, which is all the bullshit we’ve been through between COVID, the ongoing fight for racial justice, and the January 6 insurgency. Lest the title and subject sound like a moralizing slog, I can assure you that the ballet is not. Rhoden is not interested in dragging us through the mud again or giving us a sense of well-being. Instead, he wants to capture this specific time we live in by reflecting the audience back to themselves as a community of dancers facing tough challenges and constant unknowns and surviving it all together. The ballet has a lot of darkness, but it is never dull.
The music is a contemporary classical mashup of Phillip Glass, Hans Zimmer and several other composers, played by an amplified orchestra that includes electronic instruments that we don’t often hear in ballet. It gives the work a dynamism and a sense of energy that propels tireless actors through the challenges Rhoden presents them. And how challenging they are, as he pushes them again and again to their limits in a way that suggests he’s more interested in exploring their struggle than getting perfectly polished performances. As much as the dancers tore up the previous Wheeldon, they seem even more engaged here, constantly pushing each other. There’s a lot to take in here, too much in fact to absorb in one viewing. This ballet seems so “ripped from the headlines” that it will likely take time and distance to fully appreciate.
The dancers bring such ardor at every moment and dance with such scenic amplitude that it is surprising to discover at the call of the curtain that they are only 17. Once again, there are too many superlative performances for the name them all, but I must mention WanTing Zhao who dances with a beautifully wild quality far removed from the pristine classicism she normally offers. Whirling dervish Esteban Hernandez provides the centrifugal force that holds the ballet together. Wei Wang pairs up beautifully with Sasha DeSola and nails every last quirky twist of choreography, once again proving he’s SFB’s utility player. Wang never draws excessive attention to himself and always nails the style of any ballet he finds himself in, making sure the choreography is the best.
I left the Opera with an immense feeling of gratitude, as if we had all just taken part in a common act of art offered by SFB. By simultaneously honoring the classical roots of their art form and striving to push its boundaries to make it relevant again, they revive our spirits and make us feel alive again. Schedule 6 runs in rotation with a very different, but equally wonderful Schedule 5, until mid-April only. So go there already!
[All photos by Erik Tomasson]
Live performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6 continue through Friday, April 15 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA. The duration is approximately 2h25, including two intermissions. Proof of full COVID vaccination and wearing of masks in the building is required. For tickets and additional information, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415) 865-2000, Mon.-Fri. from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.