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SALOME JOINS HIGH SOCIETY

SALOME JOINS HIGH SOCIETY

The modern-day Salome arrives formally attired in red in a luxury limousine, and departs the same way, carting the severed head of John in the back seat. And along the way, she drinks controlled substances and staggers stupefied throughout.

The is not reality TV, but rather the S.F. Ballet at the Opera House playing Arthur Pita’s sexually overcharged world premiere “Salome,” more than a century removed from the scandalous stage versions by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss. Even though she avoids any Dance of the Seven Veils, the head-as-souvenir (passionately kissed, of course) was so repulsive, I’d match this version next to the Wilde-Strauss oldie. which you recall had been vehemently denounced all over Europe and the US.

In the title part we had the latest role by the fast-rising Dores André, playing the sullen, spoiled daughter of Herod (Val Caniparoli)—now no longer a Biblical ruler, but rather an oligarch-millionaire. His wife Herodias is a grande dame of café society, lacking only the long white gloves of some Hollywood diva.

The imaginative reworked scenario has the earthy Salome selecting her partner John (Aaron Robison) from a bedraggled group of eight half-naked male prisoners, as if running a slave trade, forming the nonet of dancers in this story ballet. Salome and John enter into a modern pas de deux till he drops exhausted, and Herod orders his execution. The codicil, with the mesmerized Salome dancing about the severed head, ripping off the coverlet, putting it over her and kissing it, and waltzing off with the trophy, adds up to a lurid ballet destined to be hugely controversial wherever it is performed, whether at the Opera House or elsewhere later on.

Despite some confinement by a floor-length dress, André still impressed in the spotlight, and Robison reflected sinewy power, even when shoved about like a kewpie doll by guards. There were no fireworks this night, just confetti cannons sending up showers, perhaps conveying sexual arousal. The brooding music by Frank Moon fit the dark moods to a T. As for the theme: as much a critique of absolute power (Herod et al) as it is reminiscence of the tragic old John-the-Baptist Biblical saga. Any resemblance to the new D.C. administration is purely coincidental.

The two other works (seen March 11) were clean-cut high-energy pieces, both featuring the habile principals Frances Chung and, in her final season, the Cuban Lorena Feijoo. Yuri Possokhov’s “Fusion” (2008) was an astute concept contrasting Middle-Eastern dervish dancers with Western ballet—then having each group converted to the other culture in a classic Kiplingesque cross-over. Along the way, a scenelet reenacts suppression of women in the East. Possokhov’s adroit work embodies social and political messages again and again.

“Fearful Symmetries” by Liam Scarlett, one of the hottest current choreographers out of England, is a half hour of swirling, spinning bodies moving to frenetic rhythms by John Adams. The wailing soprano sax heard in “Fusion” returns here to give a unique sonic color. Feijoo here was menacing, like a black widow spider about to devour her mate. This very modern piece, devoid of toe shoes, offers a lot of intensity, pelvic wiggles and arm swings, beneath a pattern of rectilinear pencil-like neon lights. On this night, Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno added a fine pas de deux.

BALLET NOTES—You could spot two of the SFB’s prominent choreographers in this program: Possokhov via his “Fusion,” and Myles Thatcher, in person, as one of Salome’s eight prisoners. When not creating new ballets, Thatcher is in the large (and largely anonymous) SFB corps de ballet….SFB casts rotate nightly.

San Francisco Ballet Program 5, seen March 11 at the Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

TERROR IN THE ELEGANT ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ BALLET

TERROR IN THE ELEGANT ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ BALLET

You know there won’t be a happy ending if, in the very opening of a 10-scene ballet, the couple falls in love via a pas de deux. But still, there’s little clue to just how violent and tragic “Frankenstein” becomes during the three-hour span.

This American premiere of “Frankenstein” brings to the S.F. Ballet an unusually lavish and elegant piece set in an English manor, with opulent 18th-century dress, and a bulging cast of some 41. The decline and fall is brought about by the nameless monster (Creature) straight out of Mary Shelley’s two-century-old eponymous opus, the very first horror novel,.

Liam Scarlett’s three-hour dance piece short-circuits many of Shelley’s details, including the climactic confrontation of Creature and hero on the large glacier Mer de Glace, a tourist attraction which you can visit on the flanks of Mont Blanc to this day. (Scarlett also evoked more and better cast miming from the SFB crew than asked for in any modern work.) Scarlett does his most memorable choreography with the principals. The corps de ballet, whether male or female, is downright boring, popping up on stage with stock turns and arabesques whenever there’s a lull.

But the essence is there: Victor’s lab-constructed monster, here quasi-naked, a mentally deficient creation who, when unable to attract reciprocal love from any one, turns to sociopathic bloody violence. He wants to emulate Victor, even aping his steps when dancing with the beloved Elizabeth, though with a menacing style.

This ambitious large-scale work may be repugnant to some, particularly the realistic staging of a public-hanging scene close to the audience, and homicidal forays. But Scarlett has caught the essence of monster and maker quite well, with meticulous reshaping of med-school instrumentation plausible for that era. If you can’t stomach it, the English choreographer appears to say, perhaps best to stay away from the Shelley novel as well. The message appears to be, even the tamest, most bucolic existences can be disrupted when protagonists play with life-death matters in cavalier fashion.

The neoromantic score by Lowell Liebermann is perfectly suited, like a comfortable pair of shoes—no surprises, but highly appropriate, boldly inflected by a sumptuous sound, four French horns, sonic climaxes and generous tone- and mood-painting.

Most novel of all is the huge drop preceding each act, with movable images of skull and skeleton, calling on sophisticated designer John Macfarlane. What looks like acrylic or oil painting is actually an astute projection of a video.

On this night (Feb. 21), the strong triple-casting of this ballet featured the tall and snake-like Taras Domitro as the monster, and, as the lovers, Lauren Strongin and Max Cauthorn. In a rare move, Cauthorn was plucked from the corps de ballet to play the lead, and he played Victor as an enigmatic stoic displaying taciturn conviction, lifting finesse and high mobility. Strongin, a SFB soloist, was ethereal and light-footed, another talent clearly on the way up.

Domitro’s Creature was doubly menacing as he slithered about the floor with agility. Standing, he towered over every one, and managed forceful dancing and dominance as his temper surged out of control. If he could throw the heroine about the scene harder and farther than any one, credit his height and weight advantage,

Julia Rowe played the attractive Justine, condemned in a gross miscarriage of justice. Though a lesser role, Rowe showed some of the cast’s best miming ability as she cowered before her accusers. It’s a testament to the depth of the SFB that 2nd and third casts can meet the need and deliver with impact.

The ballet is a co-production with the Royal Ballet, which had unveiled it in London last May. It is very opulent, with large scenic pieces requiring several railcars or containers, as you might expect from any Covent Garden staging.

BALLET NOTES—The run was triple cast for the principals. Some 41 dancers were needed each night…This is Scarlett’s third ballet for the S.F.B.

Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein” ballet, at the S.F. Ballet through Feb. 25. Three hours, two intermissions. For SFB season info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

1917 RUSSIAN REVOLT: IN BALLET

1917 RUSSIAN REVOLT: IN BALLET

The San Francisco Ballet world premiere “Optimistic Tragedy” is a story ballet, but it can’t decide if it will tell a story or just put on a stunning exhibition of male dancers. Yuri Possokhov created a large-scale half-hour work with silent film (much of it from Eisenstein’s “Potemkin”) and videos of crashing surf to portray, not just the launch of the 1917 Russian Revolution in Odessa, but also revolutions in general. To achieve this, line after line of restive Russian sailors wheel and leap about the stage, doing scissors jumps of great elevation, reminding you of the style of the athletic, muscular Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

The drama is played out between the ambivalent ship captain and the alluring lady commissar (Yuan Yuan Tan), who alternate between conflict and a simmering love affair. A little character development would have been appropriate here. Immense signal lamps and banners play out the bigger-than-life conflict in which, by the final curtain, the number of cadavers strewn about rivals some old English revenge play. By then you’ve almost forgotten that the unfortunate commissar had been sexually and savagely assaulted by the sailors in the chaos, and you may conclude revolutions to be far more repulsive than heroic.

The new music here is by repeat Possokhov collaborator Ilya Demutsky, a piece that is restless and boldly symphonic, heavy on brass and percussion. If the whole work is a mite overplayed, attribute it to Possokhov’s vision of a revolution that changed the world, a moment that many a Russian today would still call the greatest in their long history.

The increasingly disheveled captain was played (at least on Feb. 1) by Aaron Robison, encircled by power upstarts like Jaime Garcia Castilla, Angelo Greco and James Sofranko.

The indestructible veteran Sofranko, now in his 17th year here, also provided the electric moment in William Forsythe’s 21-part “Pas/Parts 2016.” This grabbag collection of solos, duets, trios had the showstopper in midstream with a dazzling Sofranko solo. All the tidy ballet steps that went before paled with his wild, savage, and almost crazed solo veering about the Opera House stage—short, but mesmerizing, breaking up the predictability, as if to say, wake up every one, there’s a yet more dynamic tour-de-force figure roaming the stage, threatening all decorum, and prompting the neighborhood to lock all the doors, fast.

Similar surprises stirred up muddy waters in the white piano ballet, Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” That one set out even more predictably with tame and staid ballet steps until Lorena Feijoo took center stage as the inwardly tortured woman of great vulnerability, driven to even greater desperation when her Adonis-like swain (Tiit Helimets) turns away and watches the piano (!) rendering Scarlatti transcriptions with fascination.

Not even the playful, sunny verve of Vanessa Zahorian in the finale could wipe away the impact of actress Feijoo.

BALLET NOTES—Zahorian and Feijoo will both be retiring from the company at the end of the season, come May.

San Francisco Ballet, Program 2, through Feb. 5. Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

A PRICELESS SEGMENT AMIDST A NIGHT OF BALLET

A PRICELESS SEGMENT AMIDST A NIGHT OF BALLET

A jewel of a ballet segment emerged in the middle of a premiere, within the middle of a San Francisco Ballet program (No. 1).

The new work is by the Czech choreographer Jiri Bubenicek, ”Fragile Vessels,” using the beloved Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto music. The slow movement I could see becoming a popular excerpt on its own, with just three dancers emerging from a tangle on the floor. The leading lady (the fast-rising principal Dores André) dances with one, then the other man and makes pregnant pauses, as if reflecting on existence, life and choices. André has that theatrical quality of a potential lead in some time-tested story ballet, above and beyond the expected athleticism. The choreography speeds up, slows down, producing a touching and rather intimate segment led by her persona. Supporting the piece were the contrasting men Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh (on Jan. 29). For once, a human triangle was cohesive, not disruptive.

The outer movements of “Vessels” were vigorous and modern, with figures in skin-tight outfits doing lifts and spins—nine couples producing swirls of motion in giddy accelerations.

Justin Peck’s ambitious “In the Countenance of Kings” (2016) gives specific titles to the six principals but fails to differentiate between them in appearance or role. I suppose you might identify Joseph Walsh as the Protagonist, given the muscular he-man solo carried off at the very beginning. As for Quantus (a male name, given to a thoroughly female dancer), Electress, Botanica, etc., there was not a clue, not even a literary work preceding. And it’s all inspired by the jangling music of Sufjan Stevens, which in turn was inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (!). The dances’ high velocity suggests that at least this was not the expressway in rush hour!

This is a nimble work of skillfully shifting patterns, with some quirky leaps and occasional piles of bodies. It’s also very New York—Peck’s home base—with black tights and white socks that became a hallmark cliché of the late George Balanchine’s preferred on-stage attire. The finale is frisky, jazzy and quite amusing.

The night opened with Helgi Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony,” with coronets and tutus—palace glitz recalling Oulde Czarist Russia of a century ago, though it was not premiered until 1991 on this very Opera House stage. The very classical maria Kochetkova was partnered by the stunningly athletic Italian newcomer, Angelo Greco, whose leaps could draw gasps any time.

Martin West’s orchestra was up to its usual high standard, and the SFB was as nimble and disciplined as ever.

San Francisco Ballet, Program 1, through Feb. 4. Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

SMUIN’S DANCES LIVE ON

SMUIN’S DANCES LIVE ON

His ‘Stabat Mater’ Eloquently Marks the 9/11 Anniversary

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Sept. 25-Oct. 2 , 2016
Vol. 19, No. 4

WALNUT CREEK, CA—It never fails–election year brings out inconsistencies galore.

For instance, the Smuin Ballet, a Bay Area staple for more than 20 years, has now renamed itself the Smuin Contemporary American Ballet. And the first work on its fall season is choreographed by——an Australian, Stanton Welch. Tilt!

No matter. Whatever the name, the 16 dancers of the Smuin Co. carried off an animated quality program in which the American works  were predominant.  Of these, the most lasting impression was left by the work of the late founder Michael Smuin, “Stabat Mater,” created in commemoration of 9/11’s tragic attacks of 15 years ago. Smuin led off with the ladies fainting one after the other, deftly caught by the partners. The piece is a moving testament of consolation, as played out by the lead couple Erica Chipp and Robert Kretz. Gliding across the stage with easy grace, Kretz consoled the grieving Chipp and succeeded through dances that flowed as they have rarely flowed since Smuin’s own demise. The work is inspired vintage Smuin, a masterful memorial set to the  deep romantic choral-orchestral score by Dvorak. The lighting by Slocum and Oesch, with costumes of Ann Beck, showed iridescent colors that clung to memory.

In contrast, for a madcap comic finale there was Garrett Ammon’s world premiere piece  “Madness, Rack and Honey,”  seen in its 2nd performance Sept. 24. Adroitly selecting a music that many might call staid and formal (Mozart’s “Violin-Viola Sinfonia Concertante”), Ammon sets it afire, with frisky, cheeky partying couples  flying about the stage, stealing each others’ hats, and often falling atop one another in a somewhat suggestive manner. No holds were barred in this racy escapade of total fun-loving abandon, with Erica Felsch leading off in an ebullient  dancing-doll solo, reminiscent of the angular Meissen  porcellain figurines cast by Kaendler.  Adding to the quality mix was the indestructible Erin Yarborough-Powell, 13 years now dancing with the Smuin co. after a career almost as long with the Oakland Ballet.

The program opened in lackluster fashion with Welch’s “Indigo,” a highly angular, even jerky enterprise for ladies dressed as if in a harem, lifted and carried about by Smuin’s powerful males.

Overall, the 16 Smuin dancers showed off their versatility in dances both serious and frivolous, both profound and commercial.  If the players looked dreadfully uncomfortable in “Indigo,” they amply made up for it in the remainder. Prerecorded music was used throughout at the appealing Lesher Center site.

Smuin Contemporary  American  Ballet, Celia Fushille artistic director, Sept. 23-24. For Smuin info: (415) 912-1899, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

SMUIN BALLET: PREDICTABLY ATTRACTIVE

SMUIN BALLET: PREDICTABLY ATTRACTIVE

But Are These Modern Ballets Mired In the Past?

By Karl Toepfer
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area dance
Weeks starting May 15, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 71

The San Francisco Ballet is such a powerful cultural presence in the Bay Area and in the world that other local ballet companies must struggle mightily to achieve a sustaining level of recognition from audiences, donors, and arts councils. Local companies must show what ballet can do with much more modest resources than are available to the SF Ballet. The Smuin Ballet, founded in 1994, is less closely identified with San Francisco than it once was. Most of its performances take place elsewhere in the Bay Area, and it therefore seems that annual performances are like “visits” to the city that was originally its home and perhaps remains so for the members of the company.

At any rate, the Smuin Ballet was at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the weekend of May 12-15, presenting its “Dance Series Two,” a program of three pieces, including a premiere. The corps de ballet consists of fifteen dancers, of whom nine are women. All the dancers appear equally beautiful and talented, and the program was designed to make that point.

But stylistically, the program presented looks as though it could have been created 40 years ago.

The first piece was “Tutto eccetto il lavandino” (Everything but the Kitchen Sink), with choreography by Val Caniparoli and music by Vivaldi; it had its premiere in 2014. The piece involves eleven brief scenes in which the entire ensemble alternates with duets and trios of dancers. For different performances, different dancers perform the duets and trios, so a purpose of the piece is to display the talents of the company dancers. Scenery is non-existent; lighting is minimal; and costumes are somewhat drab, greenish-grey uniforms of tights, T-shirts, and swim suits. This is a conventional postmodern work: a dance about dance. No drama, no story, hardly any theater.

Vivaldi’s music creates a cheerful mood to support the theme of dance creating a happy community in which all bodies are equally beautiful and exuberant and all dancers seem interchangeable and even indistinguishable. All of the duets seem like the same duet performed by different dancers. Conflict is utterly absent within the ensemble and within the duets and trios. So the point of the whole piece is to show that dance levels off differences between people and creates a “democratic” community of equals, especially when it doesn’t pretend to represent anything other than itself.

This way of thinking about dance is hardly innovative, as was evident from the second piece, “Return to a Strange Land,” with choreography by Jiri Kylian (b. 1947). This piece premiered at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1975, and it has been in the Smuin repertoire since 2013. Kylian composed the ballet as a memorial to the choreographer John Cranko, who died suddenly in 1973. An elegiac tone pervades the work, which uses piano music by Leos Janacek to move the dancers. One can see how Kylian is a model for Caniparoli, for again we see dance unfold without any context other than the stage, although the lighting has a vaguely autumnal feel. Here the men are bare-chested and indeed they have spectacular abs, whose movements are fascinating to watch even when the men are just breathing. The four scenes consist of alternating duets and trios, but the choreography is somewhat more complex and glamorous than in the Caniparoli piece.

Again: no conflict or drama emerges, as if Kylian and the dancers are trying to offer up a series of beautiful images to honor one of their own who has fallen. The two trios are interesting, although again, for different performances different dancers perform them. In each of the trios, two men dance with a woman. The relation between the three in each dance is ambiguous. Are the two men sharing or exchanging the woman? Or does the woman require more than one man to establish her beauty? The piece concludes with a beautiful tableau of two men on their knees balancing a woman on her back gazing up into the “sky.”

The final piece was the world premiere of “Oasis,” with choreography by Helen Pickett, a former student of Smuin, and music composed for the ballet by Jeff Beal. This was the most theatrical piece on the program: Emma Kingsbury was responsible for the costumes, décor, and video projection, and Nicholas Rayment did the lighting. Smuin established a reputation for introducing elements of popular culture into ballet, and Pickett seems to have absorbed a bit of his pop spirit in her ballet, although her piece is not nearly as emphatic in developing this spirit as Smuin himself. Silvery, thread-like veils suspended above the stage combined with vaguely aquatic video projections behind them evoke the atmosphere of a nightclub.

The choreography is sleek and athletic. The ensemble keeps moving in and out of one configuration after another, for the piece is ostensibly a “celebration” of water inspired by Jessica Yu’s documentary film, Last Call at the Oasis (2011). Thus much of the choreography creates “eddies” or “currents” of movement, with perhaps some movements “inspired by” rather than actually representing “drops” or “waves” or “foam.” The storm scene finally brings something stirring to the evening, although it is by no means scary or in any way an image of raw power in nature. The piece also contains a charming ensemble waltz, for which Beal has written a strong, haunting melody. “Oasis” is a pleasant, pretty piece excellently performed. But it is like so many other postmodern dance pieces that wish to “celebrate” or “honor” nature, persons, or dance itself: it focuses on movement tropes that can be distributed equally across all members of the ensemble to make everyone beautifully indistinguishable. When presented in conjunction with Kylian’s piece, it feels as if Pickett’s ballet, like Caniparoli’s, might have been done forty years ago.

Smuin Ballet will present Dance Series Two May 27-28, 2016 • Lesher Center for the Arts (Walnut Creek); June 3-4, 2016 • San Mateo Performing Arts Center (San Mateo); June 10-11, 2016 • Sunset Center (Carmel). For info: (415) 556-5000, or go online.

© Karl Toepfer 2016

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Karl Toepfer is a dance reviewer for artssf.com.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region) as well.

OLD-RUSSIAN TRAGEDY AT S.F. BALLET

OLD-RUSSIAN TRAGEDY AT S.F. BALLET

‘Onegin’ in Dazzling Return Trip

By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of May 1-8, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 66

The brilliant evening-length “Onegin” is back at the S.F. Ballet, chockful of elevated drama, dancing, and the elegant old-Russian milieu. You can nod toward Pushkin for the plot, and to Tchaikovsky for the (unfamiliar) music, but ultimately it comes down to the genius of the choreography by the late John Cranko created in the 1960s.

The tale of the surfeited, Weltmuede Eugene Onegin is well known. Bored with life, he keeps reaching for the forbidden fruit and loses both his girl (twice) and his best friend Lensky. But Cranko went a few steps beyond: There are no fillers extraneous to the plot; there’s a show-stopping series of jetees by eight ladies in a line from stage right to stage left, as if becoming airborne; and, also in act one, in the night the restless Tatiana has her dreamboat Onegin emerge from a full-length mirror, a transformed vision dancing with greater joy and passion than he ever does in his real life.

Much like Onegin, the heroine Tatiana has a dual personality shifting from ingénue to mature married woman, also very much like Juliet in that other great full-length 20th-century opus “Romeo and Juliet.” You know that she will spurn the returning (and suddenly fascinated) Onegin at the end. But the way their long dance is played out, with her nearly seduced by the intruder, is a masterpiece of characterization.

As expected on opening night, the tall Brazilian actor-dancer Vitor Luiz and petite Maria Kochetkova were back in their roles of 3-4 years ago, with Luiz a particularly crass, arrogant aristocrat portraying the decadence of the privileged class. Two male leads who had already had their retirement parties two weeks earlier, Gennadi Nedvigin (Lensky) and Joan Boada (Gremin, Tatiana’s eventual husband), returned with distinction. Luiz and Nedvigin are both gifted actors, playing out the nuances of these complex characters.

And as Olga, Lensky’s girlfriend, Laura Strongin projected such a bubbly personality, and weightless movement, you felt she was ready to step in as Tatiana any day now.

The lavish Santo Loquasto production from the National Ballet of Canada is stunning and efficient, from the palatial ballrooms to the forests of birches, with lickety-split scene changes through the three acts, helped by a scrim curtain allowing three depths of action.

Martin West’s orchestra was 1st class.

The music is all Tchaikovsky, but none of it from his opera “Eugene Onegin,” much of it smaller pieces orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stolze. It rarely sounds like real Tchaikovsky—but when did you ever hear a composer successfully aping any dead master’s style in orchestration??? Not this listener, ever.

While Nedvigin and Boada get good roles and good looks this week, fans will not encounter the other treasured SFB retiree, Pascal Molat. Adieu, Pascal!

Casts rotate. The second cast the next day, with Luke Ingam and Yuan Yuan Tan in the leads, gave up nothing in quality.

Cranko’s ballet “Onegin,” music of Tchaikovsky, by S.F. Ballet. Closes with season’s end May 8. For info: (415) 865-2000 or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

INNOVATIONS AT OAKLAND BALLET

INNOVATIONS AT OAKLAND BALLET

But Where Did They Forget the Toe Shoes?

HAYWARD—-Give the plucky Oakland Ballet an A for innovation, and something lower for execution.

In years of ballet-going, you are very unlikely to witness what this chamber-ballet troupe did on its most recent program: Dance a whole evening to live vocal music. No rhythm section, no beat, no percussion, no instrumentalists at all.

You are also unlikely to see a non-balletic ballet evening like Oakland’s: A whole evening without a single dancer on pointe. No pointe, no toe-shoes anywhere, as if we brushed aside the past 200 years of ballet development upward. Is this to be modern dance, or folk dance, or some other genre? It all left this observer, well, flat-footed. Like some of those on stage.

Within those limitations, there were some pluses. Four of the 12 dancers meriting instant superlatives. Company Director Graham Lustig’s “Stone of Hope” featured a gospel group that blended ecstatically with the dancers in rousing spirituals that brought down the house April 23. And a marvelously fluid new dance piece “Divining” by the co-choreographers Garrett and Moulton was poetry in motion.

The fluidity of the Garrett-Moulton movement is very gratifying. These are master choreographers who can make bodies undulate like the Pacific swell, ever changing. The most arresting moment came when six dancers lay down side by side facing the audience, moving and gesticulating in unison in mesmerizing fashion. Garrett-Moulton know about poetics, and know how to realize them in kinesthetics.

Lustig’s “Stone of Hope” tackled the chancy world of sacred dance, with dancers in white robes, playing out moments of intense prayer, devotion and ecstasy, in  unparalleled exuberance. The swaying 10-member gospel choir brought the whole stage to life, and the dancers intermingling with them in total interracial harmony made for the most animated dynamic of the evening when viewed April 23 at the Chabot College Theater. And the mid-performance recitation of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech by an inspired Nelvin Moss was the cherry atop the sundae.

Coral Martin, an eye-catching  willowy dancer (with a Harvard degree), paired with the tall Cuban Rudy Candia, was stellar. One hopes that suitable roles will be found here for the resourceful Ms. Martin, who seems tailor-made for the Ailey company, in the footsteps of the equally willowy Judith Jameson. Also noteworthy in the 12-member troupe were the Colombian Cristian Laverde Koenig and Berkeley-born Alysia Chang.

The program opened unobtrusively with Caniparoli’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” Both the latter and the Garrett-Moulton were world premieres.

The run of this “A Cappella” set ranged over three cities as the perennially resource-squeezed troupe sought its audience and support. Certainly the articulate Lustig has revitalized the company artistically in his seven years, following the company’s near-fatal collapse under predecessors. The Chabot College site only provided an estimated audience of 200 or so, but they were responsive, and the spacious facility, with almost infinite parking, had its unique advantages.

And so yes, there were positives to sing about. And for those of us still remembering the OB’s very first season, this renaissance has been wiped away much of the disillusionment of recent years, though the hard-strapped ballet is still far short of its potential to serve the East Bay.

Oakland Ballet’s “A Cappella” program under Company Director Graham Lustig, April 14-23, in its 51st season. For OB info: Go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

START WITH TIARAS, TUTUS

START WITH TIARAS, TUTUS

And the Ballet Crowd Will Go Wild

Two modern pieces, a world premiere that roused the crowd, and a throwback to the glories of St. Petersburg studded the S.F. Ballet’s latest program April 7 at the Opera House.

However you may relish the new pieces, I don’t think you can dismiss recalling old St. Petersburg and the 19th-century Mariinsky Theatre, though you had to be troubled here by immense waves of applause at the first up-curtain on merely viewing the dancers’ tiaras, “crystal” chandeliers and the tutus. (Note to struggling choreographers: start with tiaras and chandeliers, and people may forgive your tortured dances entirely.)

Coming out of the old USSR tradition, Maria Kochetkova and Genadi Nedvegin epitomized the Mariinsky style, with soft landings, supple glides, and the illusion that they might just float out into space at any moment—not easily done. This was the Balanchine “Theme and Variations” to Tchaikovsky, as classical as ballet can ever get. Superb. I’d love it even without the tiaras.

Justin Peck, 28, presented his world premiere of high-energy dancing, fast-pirouetting bodies, and movement frenzy. The idea was to get the ensemble of 18 to insert as many steps possible into a finite time, dancing to a loud, Broadway-ish, near-garish eclectic score drawn from Sufjan Stevens’ film score to the movie “BWE.” Here his piece “In the Countenance of Kings” had no scenario or plot, despite all the fanciful titles. Just a lot of 16 well-matched athletic dancers having an awful lot of fun, often content just to provide human borders or fences lining the stage. The three lead couples, in order of importance were Luke Ingham with Jennifer Stahl, Nedvegin with Frances Chung, and Joseph Walsh with Dores André. It was a real visceral blast, though probably to have less impact with the next year’s reprises.

The program opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” (2002), a taut and very angular exercise with bent knees and elbows, for four couples. It was more move-by-deliberate-move gymnastics than dance, set to a quirky piano four hands score by Ligeti.

Martin West led the orchestra in a refined performance of the Tchaikovsky. This season alas marks the finale for the Russian Nedvigin, completing 19 superlative years here.

“Continuum” substituted for Mark Morris’ “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” that had been schedule earlier.

S.F. Ballet, Program 7 at the Opera House, S.F. Through April 17. For info: (415) 865-6635 or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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S.F. BALLET’S ARCTIC ‘SWAN LAKE’

S.F. BALLET’S ARCTIC ‘SWAN LAKE’

If you’re looking for sheer technical perfection, you cannot excel or exceed the newly revamped version of the Helgi Tomasson “Swan Lake” that opened at the S.F. Ballet.

From that first ingratiating flow of 30 swans in an arrow-straight line (opening the so-called White Act) to the lovers ultimately hurling themselves lakeward in a Russian Liebestod, this is the most romantic story ballet of them all. In between, the lines of swans were as letter-perfect as the cadet drill teams at West Point on visitor’s day.

The revamped Jonathan Fensom production offered a whole new look to act one, now moved from the luxurious ballroom to the grounds in front of the wrought-iron palace gates, giving a more populist look, in tune with certain politicians’ mindset this year. The revelers there are dressed more like burgers than courtiers—an effective shift of emphasis, appropriate to 21st century America.

Yet on opening night, this was a flawed show, devoid of the passion, drama and heart-break inherent in this nonpareil fairy tale/tragedy. Has choreographer (and SFB chief) Helgi Tomasson lost all interest in the dramatic side of this beloved spectacle—the ardor, the tenderness, the fragility?

The tall blond hero Siegfried (Tiit Helimets) was content to be a boring golden-boy totem. As the white swan queen Odette, Yuan Yuan Tan was a superlative technician in every step, in every hovering moment she spent on pointe; yet in manner she was supremely ascetic, as if caught up in an Asperger’s Syndrome breakout among the swans. She has enviable slender floating arms, when pushed back suggesting feathered wings. But there was no fluttery fear of the stranger-hunter, nor quivering magnetism, nor visible love. And playing the (bad) black swan Odile, she left all the villainy to the swan enchanter-collector Rothbart, expertly played by a crafty, athletic Alexander Reneff-Olson, who was the theatrical highlight of the night. Having just joined the SFB corps de ballet less than two years ago, this local product was enjoying his biggest role ever.

But, give them credit: The audience went wild with a standing O. after the final curtain.

Various acts and two short intermissions brought the length down to two and a half hours. (The whole score runs over three hours of music, unperformable unless you pay costly overtime to 100+ performers.) The music of course is one of Tchaikovsky’s best, fortified by Riccardo Drigo’s brass-drum-cymbal splashiness in the Black Swan scene—orchestrations provided by Drigo for the 1895 posthumous revised score, and for almost all reprises since. The ballet’s composer, to be entirely accurate, is Tchaikovsky-Drigo, though Tchaikovsky did the lion’s share.

Martin West’s pit orchestra was sensitive, dynamic, impeccable.

National dances dominated the courtly scenes, with performers moving freely despite the elaborate regal costumes and head-dresses. Noteworthy in the “Peasant Pas de Trois” was Dores André, promoted to principal just last year. The best Queen Mother I have seen since ABT’s Lucia Chase, Anita Paciotti, carried off the pantomime all night long convincingly.The Oaklander joined the SFB in 1968, 48 years ago.

BALLET NOTES—The emotional cold spell of the opener may be isolated. Reliable reports from performances 2 and 3 were emotionally far more fulfilling….Scenic/costume designer Fensom, who was brilliant in this 2016 redo of the 2009 SFB “Swan,” had never designed for ballet before, only theater. The newcomer’s biggest challenge was not palaces, changing skylines, airborne flapping-swan silhouettes and wrought-iron gates, but rather offering elegant court costumes still allowing multi-flex dancers full mobility.

The nefarious Black Swan of Odile, providing a delicious contrasting part to the Odette ballerina as well as fatal deceit for the duped hero, has long reigned as one of the stirring highlights of “Swan Lake.” Yet the first well-documented appearance of the guile-fueled Black Swan is from 1941, nearly a half century after the 1895 production in Russia. Previously, the woman had merely been the daughter/accomplice of Rothbart, not that seeming identical twin of Odette.

Only snippets of the early St. Petersburg choreography by Petipa and Ivanov are still known. Tomasson neatly crafted most of the dances, with Petipa-Ivanov only retained for Act Two, and the Black Swan Pas de Deux, the latter with Odile’s famous rapid 32 fouetté spins that leave many a prima ballerina on the verge of exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. Tan managed it, but with very little to spare.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s “Swan Lake,” music of Tchaikovsky. Through Feb. 28. For info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

Week of Feb. 22-29, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 48