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San Francisco Ballet

'Pacific,' 'Fifth Season' and 'Fancy Free'

by Toba Singer

March 20, 2007 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Program Five, San Francisco Ballet, , March 20, 2007


By Toba Singer 

The words “Mixed Bill” couldn’t be more apt to describe the enticing sampler San Francisco Ballet presents in Program Five. There is something for everyone, and all of it is danced superbly.  Mark Morris’ “Pacific” premiered in 1995 at the United We Dance international festival on this same stage.  Its title holds out hope for a regional world without national borders, but also implies a wish for peace if  “pacific” is also an adjective.

Roy Bogas on piano, Roy Malan on violin, and David Kadarauch on cello, play an evocative, if counterintuitive score by Lou Harrison.  Against a blue-lit backdrop, three men in blue-to-white watercolor explore the space between and around them with stylized port de bras and tight jumps. Three women, then a fourth enter in green-to-white skirted costumes and execute a quiet advance downstage. They proceed to uncover the workings of a dynamic contrary to the men’s, describing lateral movements on three levels, after which they assume sculptural poses just before each breaks out into lunges that squish to a halt as the piano dips deeper into the bass range.

A man and a woman in red-to-white watercolor take their measure of the space to violin accompaniment, and we see a simple, yet richly rewarding adagio—a push-pull taffy confection that turns from sweet to poignant as the dancers arch out in opposite directions to form a parentheses.  Her own weight gives in to gravity as Elana Altman drops to the floor, and the music changes again to support a Rondo, as the blue-to-white and green-to-white dancers rush in.  Altman, the red-to-white woman, has shown us a range of movement choices and tops it off with a jaunty jig-like dance.  Couples rally to her tempo in arabesque to fouetté reversés and piqué arabesques. The piece comes to its conclusion as dancers in all hues join together to reprise the theme they brought to the stage to begin with and then circle in a swirl of color and movement, finally breaking out into a horizontal line where intertwined arms weave the dancers and their colors into a continuous bough of colors. 

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Carousel (a Dance)” is a précis of the Broadway musical “Carousel.” It opens to a backdrop that at first glance looks like a batik orange slice, and then as strung colored lights reveal themselves, we see that it is suggestive of a Ferris wheel—not quite a carousel, but its kissing cousin. Strings of dancers in striking knee-length contemporary dresses paneled in deep-toned complementary colors for the women with men in jeans and dark blue shirts striped with colors corresponding to the women’s panels parallel the loose-hung drape of the lights. They fall to the floor, clump up in clusters, showing us—depending on whether your orientation is urban or rural—a fairground or an amusement park.  Both venues can be scarily deliberate in their determination to amuse, and Wheeldon has captured that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in Purgatory duality. 

For me it called up my father’s instruction when I was 14, forbidding me to go off on an adventure with my friends to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. I disobeyed and found myself in that “forbidden garden” that Sarah Van Patten finds herself in.  Her partner here is Pierre-François Vilanoba, and it must be said that he is perfectly suited to her.  For the most part, her self-consciousness melts away in his expert arms, and she lets herself find her depth. The “If I Loved You” pas de deux is not quite “If I Did It,” per O.J. Simpson, but does nonetheless bare its edge. Van Patten shows us the conundrum of the 14-to-16-year-old with larceny in her loins and terror in her heart. In the denouement of her pas de deux with Vilanoba, she totally loses her reluctance, and it could be taken as a metaphor for her career so far at San Francisco Ballet. The dancers are classical ballet dancers and so some balances are held a little long for this application (if only they could have been held as long in “Sleeping Beauty” two weeks ago!), and instead of smiles that should have come from the entire body one saw the stock pasted-on ballet ones that say, “I can’t believe that we’re doing Broadway.”  Still, the dancing was full-out marvelous and the audience loved it—not because the company dropped its artistic level to accommodate a lower-on-the-food-chain genre of “entertainment,” but because it showed us jazz ballet without cheapening a single step. 

Helgi Tomasson’s “Fifth Season” is a brilliant piece of choreography that meshes flawlessly with Sandra Woodall’s temperate, but museum quality sets and costumes, made dazzling by Michael Mazzola’s inventive lighting. Karl Jenkins’ soulful score that includes String Quartet No. 2 and Largo from “Palladio,” along with Tomasson’s choreography pushes “Fifth Season” into the fourth dimension.  We are looking through a beige cut-out modernist wall/window interior onto a steel and concrete urban landscape, where grey commercial buildings are smudged either by pollution, myopia or because of something that prevents us from seeing them as distinct entities in a culture that belches them out like so much sooty smoke.

The first movement, “The Fifth Season,” presents Katita Waldo and Gonzalo García in a divinely jovial partnership. They emerge out of darkness into light also in grey—a clean steely grey, made steelier because of sparkles in the detail of their costumes. They gad about in grand jeté, refreshing the stage with “hi def” candor and frolic, a kind of playful rebuke to the darkly serious musical accompaniment.  Couples offer a prelude to the entrance of Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets, the first of the two “Waltz” couples.  Helimets folds Tan into him and she then steps into high pas de cheval, and they show us impeccable delicacy framed by perfect timing. Ruben Martín squires Rachel Viselli as the second “Waltz” couple. Their dynamic is so big that it seems to frighten them off of acknowledgment by letting their eyes meet—too powerful to punctuate. In “Romance,” Waldo and Garcia return to finish each other’s sentences, or phrasing, her left arm cradling his head, imprinting an unforgettable image. He folds her around his neck, her arms rising cupola like on either side.  Viselli waxes languorous in “Tango” in a brief solo after which she is joined by three men. Helimets does a succession of jumps across a diagonal downstage, García gives us his signature off-balance passés, and Martín offers poses that are toreador-tight.

Tan and Helimets return in “Largo,” Tan making a slow entrance downstage until she is joined by Helimets in an adagio which bounds from stretch lift to stretch drag and then a lift where she is carried for eight or so counts across the stage.  Tan and Helimets open and close their bodies like valve tappets. Her épaulement predicts her movements; her head might as well be the violin’s bow.  It all adds up to poignancy for which there is no remedy except its counterpoint: athleticism, and it comes in the form of an interlude of corps dancers dressed in blue slate costumes who perform calisthenics-like jumps to accelerated rhythms.  Katita and Gonzalo enter in a teasing duet of rounds of fast footwork.  Rachel and Ruben, flush in their reprise, enjoy a scamper across the stage followed by Tiit and Yuan Yuan breezing back into view as this urban legend danced by a seasoned, virtuosic comes to a close.

Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” to music by Leonard Bernstein danced on a set designed by Oliver Smith unrolls the tale of three sailors on leave who compete with each other for the attentions of two women.  It is a nice closer because it gives three of the company’s male dancers, Rory Hohenstein, Ruben Martin and Benjamin Stewart, a chance to show off some high-toned jazz dancing, and rhythm work.  Jerome Robbins’ choreographic humor is always a pleasure to take in and antic delivery by the men as well as Courtney Elizabeth and Sarah Van Patten makes for a light treat on the heels of “Fifth Season.”  We see high stepping double saut de basques, hornpipe jigs, double tours that end in splits to the floor and an entire repertoire of stage jousting that might be the only combat these poseurs actually see.

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