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San Francisco Ballet

'The Four Temperaments,' 'Joyride,' 'Within the Golden Hour'

by Carmel Morgan

November 25, 2008 -- John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC

In celebration of its 75th anniversary, America’s oldest professional ballet company, the San Francisco Ballet, embarked on a U.S. tour.  Washington, DC was lucky to be included as one of the company’s destinations.  During the first two evenings of the company’s DC visit, they performed a mixed repertoire program featuring Balanchine’s classic “The Four Temperaments” along with two recently commissioned works – Mark Morris’s “Joyride” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour.”  Led by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who hails from Iceland, the San Francisco Ballet has heaps of quality dancers from around the globe.  In fact, there are no American-born male dancers among the company’s principals.  As undeniably lovely and talented as the dancers are, their DC performance as a whole was a little bit bland.

The performance opened with Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” a masterpiece full of delightful surprises.  It bursts with intriguing shapes and playful musicality.  The San Francisco Ballet’s dancers were technically precise and clean, with striking extensions, sky high jumps, and perfectly arched feet.  However, they performed their roles rather matter-of-factly, without bending to the work’s inherent lightness.  Despite Paul Hindemith’s blithe piano music and the relaxed ballet class attire, the dancing seemed oddly uptight. 

Only Sofiane Sylve, in the Choleric variation, engaged the audience with a powerful sense of wonder and assurance.  She held our gaze with a knowing stare and appeared to direct the rest of the dancers, who popped up in leaps like bubbles erupting from a boiling pot.  Cuban-born Taras Domitro, who joined the San Francisco Ballet this year as a principal dancer, stood out in the Melancholic variation, but that was due to his side-show flexibility.  Domitro’s body appeared broken in half.  He threw his head backwards and bent his back to such a degree that his fingertips brushed the floor, his arms trailing like ribbons from underneath his awkwardly arched chest, which stuck out like a camel’s hump.                     

“The Four Temperaments,” which premiered in 1946, looks contemporary, even ageless.  Certainly it inspired both Morris and Wheeldon, who are known for their choreography of similarly movement-driven works that closely integrate dancing with music.  As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, the San Francisco Ballet premiered ten new works during its April 2008 New Works Festival, including “Joyride” by Morris and “Within the Golden Hour” by Wheeldon.  These two new works chase the brilliance of Balanchine, but they do not reach it. 

“Joyride,” in particular, brought no joy.  It began with a couple of dancers flat on the stage.  Single legs extended upward rippling the surface like rocks in a Zen garden.  The costumes, by Isaac Mizrahi, consisted of unitards in shiny silver and gold with arms and legs cut at varying lengths.  In addition, tiny LED screens on the dancers’ chests flickered with an apparently random sequence of numbers in glowing electric blue.  The music, John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony,” irritatingly banged.     

The dancers reminded one of particles of molten metal participating in some sort of chemical reaction or of the mysterious operations of a computer’s innards.  They speedily pirouetted around, they skipped with arms flinging, and they pummeled the space with flex-footed karate kicks. Men spun with one arm extended parallel to the ground, the other crossing the neck to nearly choke them as they grabbed the alternate shoulder.  The changing formations, especially the duets, frustrated, as they went nowhere, and the repetitive movement didn’t bring much interest, either.  Notwithstanding the shiny costumes, the piece did not illuminate, and regardless of the numerical displays, “Joyride” just didn’t add up.

In contrast to “Joyride,” the new Wheeldon work, “Within the Golden Hour,” had joy, but like “Joyride” it lacked some cohesiveness.  And maybe that’s ok.  Overall, the piece brought to mind a poem, with a series of diverse groupings acting as stanzas. 

Wheeldon chose music by contemporary Italian composer Ezio Bosso and beloved but long-gone Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi.  This unusual mix of old and new music completely succeeded.  The lighting design, by James F. Ingalls, alternated from blue to red, passing through the purple that lies in between.  The costumes and set design, both by Martin Pakledinaz, honored simplicity.  Three long thin rectangular panels that looked like wood carvings with light filtering through the cut-away pieces floated over the stage.  The panels dropped to different heights and changed in number, serving to mark the different sections of the work.  The costumes consisted of simple lines and head-to-toe color – either a rich shade of green, blue, or yellow-brown. 

“Within the Golden Hour” started with a male duet.  The men moved forward on their knees in stretched crouches.  They bowed with their heads to the floor and their arms to their sides, mirroring with their upper bodies the sliding splits of the ladies who joined the group.  The women were lifted, bouncing to an almost horizontal position.  Their arms and legs retreated for a second before reaching outward like a sideways astronaut suspended in zero gravity.       

Wheeldon is well known for the intricate partnering he achieves, and “Within the Golden Hour” shows off his skill.  Limbs entwined like puzzle pieces, legs draped over backs, dancers wrapped and unwrapped in complex tosses and turns.  A female dancer held in a fetal curl unfurled herself fluidly over the male’s shoulders.  A couple navigated to the beautiful moaning of strings, maintaining an absorbing tension.  The female leaned away from the male at deep angles.  Her body bowed out like the figurehead of a ship as he clasped one of the feet that trailed behind her.  At one point, she squatted atop his thighs, her hands tucked under her chin.  

Of the three works, the quiet airiness of “Within the Golden Hour” suited the company’s dancers best.  It alone begged to be watched again.

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