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San Francisco Ballet

'Trio', 'Ghosts', 'Guide to Strange Places'

by Charlotte Kasner

September 15, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Opening the evening, artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Trio” was danced to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” string sextet, a much less well known work than “Serenade for Strings”, but just as suitable for ballet. Alexander Nichols’ design suggested a gilded Florentine interior and Mark Zappone’s costumes had a seasonal theme with a rich Renaissance palette of greens, reds, oranges and browns.

The first movement is fluid, with constant pairings flitting in and out of view, the men assisting the women to jump and turn in a restless panorama of relationships. The second begins as a duet which succumbs to fate as the pair are joined by a second man - death, mindful of a world where life, love and death are never far apart. The final movement echoes the energy of the first but with an autumnal mood as the Company converge in an ensemble section that draws out the score's themes. All in all a watchable, subtle work that is a feast for the eye and the ear.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Ghosts” is a curiously compelling piece with a backdrop that suggests a burning, relentless sun; an odd choice for disembodied souls. The Company demonstrated both ethereal lightness and a literal dead weight as the movement alternated between low figures and dragging, upright patterns. Kip Winger’s score is reminiscent of impressionistic works written a century ago, especially in the piano solos, while Wheeldon seems to have been influenced by Christopher Bruce, but without the political context. Who the ghosts are we are not privileged to know, nor why their past lives weigh so heavily upon them. Zaponne’s designs are not dissimilar in cut to those of “Trio” but with a ballet of greys, whites and greens, made the dancers look like giant lacewings, blending in with the backcloth.

The evening finished off with Ashley Page’s “Guide to Strange Places” to John Adams’ terrific eponymous score. There are moments that recall Adams’ Doctor Atomic, deep, blasting brass and insistent percussion in wonderfully complex rhythms. A recent academic study concluded that popular music has become increasingly bland over the decades, using a smaller and smaller repertoire of chords and rhythms. Not so serious contemporary music as Adams pulls in his familiar vocabulary of minimalism, dissonance and lush melody in a combination that is as lovely as Eton mess.

Jon Morrell’s designs are excellent: the backdrop suggesting a spider’s web with captured prey one minute and a bunch of firing neurones and synapses the next. Men and women are bare legged with brief black trunks and leotards and tops in various two-tone colours that delineate the pairings and groups. Page’s choreography struggles to keep pace with the past master of modern composers and all too frequently falls into the trap of being frenetic. He lacks the courage to let the score speak for itself and the piece is at times difficult to watch as it goes into choreographic overload. Moments of stillness and calm would be much more powerful than the futile attempt to illustrate every note with a step.

Finally, how good to welcome conductor Martin West back to these shores leading what must be one of the best scratch orchestras that we have heard in a long time.

All in all, an exciting evening that shows the Company at its best and whets the appetite for the next offering.

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