The San Francisco Ballet is back – with a vengeance! The first program of their 2022 season ends with arguably the happiest 35 minutes of dance ever created, George Balanchineneoclassical masterpiece Symphony in C. On Bizet’s sparkling First Symphony, composed when he was just 17, the entire ballet is a delight, but it peaks in the final movement as dozens and dozens of dancers fill the stage. , their austere white and black costumes standing in relief. on sky blue background. As the dancers immerse themselves in the stimulating choreography with enthusiasm, it seems as if the stage erupts in an explosion of fireworks. Yes, this is exactly what we’ve been missing for two years, that feeling of ecstatic joy that just can’t be conveyed through a video screen.
Program 1 opens with Trio, an engaging ballet by SFB’s soon-to-retire Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, and it’s what I would call Tomasson’s patent piece – decent choreography to beautiful music with plenty of great dancing possibilities. It’s not the kind of ballet that’s going to set the world on fire, or that you’ll probably remember a year from now, but it’s very enjoyable to watch in the moment and shows the depth of talent of this remarkable company. In this case, Tomasson chose the magnificent Souvenir from Florence, which surprisingly wanders from Italy to Russia in its four movements, the last two combined into one (thus giving the ballet its name). A mischievous pas de deux opens the piece before giving way to a melancholic trio with hints of intrigue where death conquers love, and the ballet ends with a folk dance. Tomasson’s movement is constantly alert to changes in the music, even as it draws inspiration from Balanchine along the way. But as they say – if you’re going to steal, steal the best.
The opening night cast was terrific from top to bottom. Sasha De Sola and Max Cauthorn danced beautifully together in the first movement. She amazed with her spitfire turns and languid balances, and he seemed perpetually in the air. Doris André, Luke Ingham and Daniel Deivison-Olivera form a nicely understated trio in the sad second movement, letting the choreography speak for itself without piling on the pathos. Angelo Greco and Misa Kuranaga infused the finale with a spritz of playful energy that brought the ballet to an enthusiastic close. And the corps de ballet of 10 dancers provided lovely support to the principal dancers throughout, including the duo Estéban Cuadrado and Mingxuan Wang, two dancers of different physique and temperament who somehow met in the middle through elegance and the perfectly matched lightness of their dancing.
The centerpiece of the program was the highly anticipated world premiere of Cathy Marston Mrs Robinsonbased on the source novel of the famous film The graduation. Marston’s new idea is to tell the well-known story from the perspective of the middle-aged main character. It sounded fascinating in concept, but not so much in execution. Work closely with the playwright Edward Kemp and composer terry davies, Marston knows how to tell a story through dance – it’s not one of those narrative ballets that leave the audience confused as to what they’ve just seen – but she doesn’t have the sense to conceive of a distinctive movement that illuminates the character. Yes, there are some weird sparks along the way, like the way Benjamin’s signature gesture of running his hand upwards across his face speaks to his discomfiture in the world, but those moments are far too few and far between. Instead, we get several sequences of women in aprons mimicking chores and falling to the ground. It’s a choreographic notion about the mind-numbing life of a housewife, but it’s not a novel or an interesting story, so it’s not going anywhere, even though it’s repeated over and over for the 45 minutes of the ballet too long. Of course we understand the concept, but we don’t to feel this.
The central dates between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin also lack imagination and, more problematically, real passion. There are a few easy visual jokes about his clumsiness, unfortunately including broad allusions to his erection, but we never feel the couple’s true connection. This ultimately robs Mrs. Robinson’s emotional journey of any real impact. When she meets her unhappy end, it is mystifyingly brutal and vaguely reminiscent The Women of Stepford. What we really need is a climactic solo for Ms. Robinson that delineates through movement her emotional state. Instead, we get a never-ending ending that leaves audiences perplexed.
Marston is not helped by her creative team. Patrick Kinmonth’s costumes seem oddly stuck in the 1950s rather than the 1960s and his sets look cheap and poorly constructed, rather than stripped down and stylized as I guess was intended. The lighting design by the generally terrific Jim French draws attention only to these shortcomings. I even started to wonder if it was on purpose, that the purpose was to highlight the poor quality of the society it portrays. On the plus side, the dancers from the huge cast of 36 danced evenly with commitment and style. I felt bad for Sarah Van Patten and Joseph Walch in leading roles. They are two of SFB’s most accomplished dance actors and they complement each other wonderfully. Even with its alluring opacity and emotional transparency, though they tried, they just couldn’t get their characters to register for the public. Oh how I would love to see them both dance a much better version of that same story!
After the discreet perplexity of Mrs RobinsonSFB came roaring back with the endless glories of Symphony in C. With a huge cast of 52, including no less than four lead couples, there are simply too many moving parts for a ballet company to deliver a perfect performance of Symphony in C, but SFB give it their best. The women of the body were incredibly light and crisp in the opening allegro movement, with a remarkable Julia Rowe in a semi-solo role. Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison, playful but regal, astonishing in the height of their jumps, led their ranks with momentum and panache. The achingly beautiful second adagio movement showed all that Sarah Van Patten can do with a role worthy of her talents, as she alternated swooning melancholy in her pas de deux with Ulrik Birkkjaer with changes of direction clean, mid-jump, in his solo. Dores André and Max Cauthorn brought playful good humor to the third movement before Henry Sidford and Jennifer Stahl began the final section with a lively command.
This last movement becomes a sort of ballet relay race as the tempo picks up and teams of dancers from each of the following movements rush onto the stage, performing brief flashes of complex movements before handing the stage over to the next team. And it’s delightful moments of dancing in unison for the star ballerinas and then the star men, giving us the pleasure of seeing these performers dance in sync with each other while expressing their individuality. When the ballet ends with a festive whoosh from the 52 dancers filling the stage from tutu to tutu in a kaleidoscope of geometry, leaping and twirling with joy, it’s a distillation of pure joy.
[All photos by Erik Tomasson]
Live performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1 continue through Saturday, February 12 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA. The duration is approximately 2h40, 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.