Heather Desaulniers

San Francisco Ballet – Program 5 – Contemporary Voices
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Cal Performances presents Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

San Francisco Ballet – Program 4 – “Must See Balanchine”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

March 11th – Pioneering design, provocative narratives, penetrating choreography – this creative triangle is everywhere in San Francisco Ballet’s Contemporary Voices, the fifth program of the 2017 repertory season. Perhaps one of the best curated triple bills in recent SFB history, Contemporary Voices joins the return of Choreographer-In-Residence Yuri Possokhov’s 2008 work Fusion and an encore of last year’s Fearful Symmetries by Liam Scarlett with the premiere of Arthur Pita’s Salome.

As its title suggests, Possokhov’s Fusion invites its viewers to experience a bond, a connection, a true layering of realities. And through its physically demanding choreography, thoughtful thematic thread, and perhaps even a little whimsy, Fusion more than delivers on that invitation. The ballet opens with a quartet of men in flowing white (costume design by Sandra Woodall), which as the program notes reveal, draw inspiration from Whirling Dervishes. In this first choreographic statement, these four cycle through a meditative movement practice – isolating torsos, soaring jumps, arms swirling through the space. Four women then enter the scene from upstage, accompanied by four more men, all eight clothed in contrasting, contemporary costuming. Pas de deux evolve between these newer cast members, replete with punctuated movements, shifting directions and innovative counterbalances. Throughout the piece, the first male quartet and the second male quartet seem to tag each other in and out of the action, connecting through a shared physical vocabulary of angular elbows, jazz shoulders, complex accents and percussive footwork. It is through these common choreographic fibers that the two distinct worlds are able to meet, converse and dialogue in this single theatrical container. Running in parallel with this connection was an equally deep sense of forward motion – going somewhere different, embarking on a new path. A suspended running and leaping motif reflected this intention, particularly pronounced in Fusion’s central duet, danced at this performance by Sarah Van Patten and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira. And in the final moments of the piece, the idea of convergence echoed with telling intensity, yet quiet restraint. Each of the men from the two quartets paired with their counterpart, pressing against each other in the upper torso, or perhaps more accurately, meeting at the heart.

Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries returned for its second engagement at the War Memorial Opera stage, delivering yet another hearty helping of pulsating physicality. Again, the juxtaposition of primitive and futuristic was evident from the very start, as soloist Jennifer Stahl began a series of preying, crawling motions, framed by David Finn’s neon light mosaic. Joined quickly by an ensemble of dancers emerging from the upstage darkness, Fearful Symmetries was off, going non-stop until the curtain went down after the final pas de deux. Esteban Hernandez delivered a phenomenal solo early in the ballet; strong, charismatic and mischievous all at the same time. Primal power continued with the men’s unison sequence, as did the haunting excitement when the cast slowly walked forward repeating a stylistic passé pattern. Joseph Walsh and Lauren Strongin’s lengthy duet mid-way through Fearful Symmetries exuded passion, desire and of course, gorgeous technique. And the final duet (WanTing Zhao and Hansuke Yamamoto) offered a complete contrast in scope and feel – ethereal and graceful; calm and tranquil.

The entire ballet featured an exhilarating attack of all Scarlett’s phrase material, though the intensity was definitely different this time around. 2017’s showing (at least this particular matinee performance) brought a more measured crescendo, certainly intense, but growing, building and layering as the piece continued.

Fusion and Fearful Symmetries are two compelling ballets, to be sure. But all of the buzz on Saturday afternoon was centered around the premiere on the Contemporary Voices program, Pita’s Salome. A stretch limo drove onto a smoky stage. Four men dressed in black suits got out and surveyed the landscape. Once they were satisfied with the surroundings, the main characters emerged from the car – Herod (Ricardo Bustamante), Herodias (Katita Waldo) and last, Salome (WanTing Zhao). A birthday is being marked – a cake is presented to Salome, brightly colored confetti is shot from cannons, and she is also given a drink. After consuming it, Salome seems transfixed and transformed, morphing into some other state of being. She solos amidst the confetti-strewn stage, the visuals conjuring Pina Bausch’s dance theater masterpiece, Carnations. A group of male prisoners is brought to her and she dances with them, always retaining her control, orchestrating their every move. Salome was a force and Zhao’s interpretation of the title character was beautifully eerie.

San Francisco Ballet in Pita's Salome Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Pita’s Salome
Photo © Erik Tomasson

But the real orchestrator in this scene is Herodias, who up until this point in the ballet had been seated downstage right with Herod, watching with a steely and wicked gaze. She arises and walks around the group of men, selecting a victim for sacrifice. Waldo portrayed this character with amazing precision and depth, thoroughly frightening in every instant. It is John the Baptist (danced by Luke Ingham) whom she dooms, and he proceeds to dance one last solo. Long extensions in arabesque, mammoth pas de chevals and desperate leaps fill the space. You wonder – is he is trying to convince Salome to spare him or is he resigned to his fate and offering one last expression of freedom? Salome joins him in a striking pas de deux, clinging to him, wanting him to stay. Unfortunately for the couple, Pita keeps true to the ancient story. John meets a grisly, gruesome end and Salome proceeds with a dance of mourning. While there were some truly ghastly moments as the ballet concluded, Zhao had captivated and mesmerized the entire opera house. Everyone was totally silent, on the edge of their seats, completely hypnotized by her brilliant performance.

March 14th – While it isn’t yet officially spring, the over 70° weather in the Bay Area earlier this week might suggest otherwise. Trees and flowers are blooming everywhere, Memorial Glade has been packed with revelers and folks are opting to take their meals al fresco. Another fiber in this fresh scene is happening right now at Zellerbach Hall – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly weeklong artistic residency at Cal Performances. Springtime on the campus of UC Berkeley would not be complete without a visit from this legendary dance institution, led by Artistic Director Robert Battle. And as with each year’s engagement, the company once again crafted a program that was so well balanced – a combination of past lineage and forward motion, all speaking from an array of choreographic perspectives.

Linda Celeste Sims and Yannick Lebrun Photo Andrew Eccles

Linda Celeste Sims and Yannick Lebrun
Photo Andrew Eccles

Opening night and Program A began with Mauro Bigonzetti’s Deep, a 2016 work, and the first of three Bay Area premieres on the bill. Deep is choreographed in a suite form, a series of continual vignettes that combine together to create an artistic whole. Whether solo, duet, trio or an ensemble sequence, each compositional piece is distinct, yet they are all fused together by a common throughline, which in this particular case was two-fold. A conceptual (non-linear) narrative of passion and strength rang through each chapter of the work, as did Bigonzetti’s memorable, stylistic choreography, extreme intention and specificity informing every movement. Three women opened the dance, breathing through the space, their arms expanding, almost mirroring the lungs. These meditative motions quickly gave way to full body sculptural poses and positions, including a stunning promenade in parallel attitude to the back. The trio grew to a potent pas de six, and then to include the entire company in some alluring and beautiful ensemble choreographic statements. This group phrase material was gorgeous in its own right while concurrently providing a luscious frame for some featured duets and solos. Jamar Roberts’ mechanized isolations were of particular note, as was Jacquelin Harris’ brave, soaring leap at the end of their pas de deux. While a few of the middle sections did lag a little bit, Deep offered a solid and compelling start to the evening’s performance.

Next up was Johan Inger’s Walking Mad (2001), a highly physical dance theater piece that was all about the unexpected, the unanticipated and changing perspectives. A scene equal parts curious and comic marked the work’s beginning – wearing a long coat and bowler-style hat, Renaldo Maurice walked onto the stage’s apron and signaled the curtain to rise. On the stage, Danica Paulos was picking up clothes that were strewn about the space. Behind them was a long wooden fence. It was this structure (also designed by Inger) that provided the catalyst for surprise.

One might presume that the fence was a solid entity, but early on in Walking Mad, Inger dispelled that assumption. Doors appeared inviting new characters in and out of the space; parts of the wall decoupled from other sections; even the whole structure was laid down at times to be parallel with the stage. A comment on what is seen and what is not seen; on what we assume and what is reality. In keeping with the dance theater genre, Inger offered a significant dose of humor and purposeful oddity within the dance – at one point, dancers emerged from behind the fence wearing party hats. Their choreography reinforced Walking Mad’s changeable nature, moving effortlessly from pedestrian gestures to highly technical batterie to parkour-inspired movements.

Then, all of a sudden, the mood again abruptly shifted – the whimsy was gone and the wall folded into a triangular shape, encapsulating Harris within a new scope. First alone, she experienced the space’s constraint, and then shared that truth with three men from the cast. And in yet another transfer of atmosphere and character, next, the ensemble donned wardrobe inspired from the beginning of the work. In hats and coats modeled after Maurice’s first costume, they danced a glorious and energizing unison sequence.

A lengthy duet by Paulos and Maurice closed the piece. While emotionally charged and impeccably danced, it felt like Walking Mad should have concluded with the previous unison sequence. Though, with a piece that was clearly subverting expectations throughout and successfully doing so, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the very point. I had anticipated one thing and something very different had transpired!

Battle’s Ella (2008) followed, a delightful, rompy five-minute duet, set to music by Ella Fitzgerald, and danced on Tuesday by Harris and Megan Jakel. Such a fun addition to opening night’s program, Harris and Jakel cycled through Battle’s sprightly mix of jazz, soft shoe tap, contemporary dance and acrobatics, even occasionally lip syncing along with Fitzgerald’s improvisational scat singing. And not only was the technique superb in this brief offering, both dancers looked like they were having so much fun. Keeping with tradition and custom, Program A (as will Program C) closed with Ailey’s 1960 masterwork Revelations. From its first iconic image – the cast center stage, their eyes agaze at the heavens – to the thrilling movements from “Fix Me, Jesus” – the promenade in écarté, the supported dips/falls and the rare pencheé to the front – to the pleadings and cupped hands in “I Wanna Be Ready”, Revelations continues to truly thrill at every viewing.

March 18th – Patrons at Saturday afternoon’s San Francisco Ballet performance were in for far more than the typical mixed repertory bill. In fact, the fourth program of the 2017 season, “Must See Balanchine”, is really a visual dance history seminar, dedicated to the choreography of seminal dancemaker George Balanchine. For a little under two and a half hours, students, fans and enthusiasts could truly immerse themselves in Balanchine’s choreography, seeing the work unfold live, performed by expert practitioners. And with ballets from Stravinsky Violin Concerto to Prodigal Son to Diamonds, this animated lecture more than succeeded at highlighting the choreographer’s extensive range and breadth.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust
Photo © Erik Tomasson

A deconstructed, neo-classical work, 1972’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto opened the program – cast in practice clothes (one of Balanchine’s famed black and white ballets), no set, minimal lighting, nothing cluttering the artistry. Unencumbered, dance and music filled the space with full articulation and abandon, and the cast of twenty embarked on a neo-classical sojourn. First, they sought a conversation with Igor Stravinsky’s cascading score – not dancing choreography set to the music but instead, sparking an active engagement and vulnerable dialogue between the two disciplines. In addition, they communicated the diverse physical combinations that are synonymous with neo-classical choreographic form. A flurry of unexpected steps met traditional ballet vocabulary: long jazz runs and triple pirouettes; temps leveés and turned in piques à terre; flexed feet and huge jetés. And while Stravinsky Violin Concerto certainly speaks to these common neo-classical tenets (the relationship between movement/sound and innovative technical vocabulary), there is nothing common about this ballet. It is put together in a way that only a true master of the neo-classical style can imagine and achieve.

Notable standouts included the men’s allegro sequence with its striking Russian pas de chats, and the tableaux imagery found in the ballet’s third movement, Aria II. After two featured duets, the ensemble returns to the stage in the Capriccio chapter, a joyful statement of connection and community, personified through stirring percussive phrase material. But the most compelling performance was found in Aria I, danced by Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham. With barely any lifts, Stahl and Ingham offered a true pas de deux, or ‘dance of two.’ From Stahl’s promenades in attitude to her series of backbends to the duo’s mime-inspired port de bras, their pairing in this ballet was one for the history books.

And then, a complete turn to Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s adaptation of the ancient, biblical story into a one-act ballet. Originally choreographed for the Ballets Russes almost ninety years ago, this narrative touches on many aspects of the human condition – defiance, rebelliousness, temptation, self-realization, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.

Assertions of independence and willful desire mark the beginning of the Prodigal Son’s journey. Portrayed with gusto, fire and heart by Vitor Luiz, the protagonist proclaims his headstrong independence in the ballet’s first scene; his intention to chase a different reality from that which he had been living. This fierce individualism comes through loud and clear, particularly pronounced in the iconic jumps and thrilling multiple turns that comprise the Prodigal’s early variations. Georges Rouault’s skillful scenery/costumes both elevated the ballet’s mystique and fittingly framed the action (and reminded me of Chagall). That is, with the exception of the servants’ costuming. Evoking children’s sailor suits, they seemed out of place with the rest of the design.

The Prodigal sets off with his servants and encounters a host of characters: nine rowdy ‘drinking companions’ (as the program calls them) and the tempting Siren, danced by WanTing Zhao. With serpentine turns, flexed palms and an acrobatic crab walk, Zhao exuded vigor and power. Open second positions were everywhere in her solo – sky high developpés and attitude turns. With every step and glance, she entranced the Prodigal, compelling him to join her in a highly sexualized pas de deux. On pointe and with the tall hat that completes the Siren’s costume, Zhao totally dominated the entire scene. For the second weekend in a row (after a brilliant Salome), she once again was a force to behold, capturing the elusive trifecta of technique, artistry and sublime characterization. Following his gluttonous experiences, the Prodigal is left literally and figuratively stripped of everything. Beaten down, broken and destitute, he begins another leg of his journey, and looks for a way back. Back to himself and back to his home. He is greeted by his father (Val Caniparoli), and after a lengthy, painful and dramatic crawl towards him, is accepted with joy and mercy, enveloped in his father’s arms.

For its final offering, Program 4 shifts forward in time, to 1967 and to Diamonds, the final section of Balanchine’s Jewels. Chandeliers and draped bunting encased this elegant dissertation that began with the corps women. Their graceful, billowy vignette brought a collection of balancés, chaissés, and boureés, all expressed through a variety of canon and unison. And the sparkly tableaux overflowed with luxurious épaulement. Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo Di Lanno took on Diamonds’ central pas de deux, approaching each other with stylized walks from opposite corners of the stage. This lengthy duet abounds with stately, regal balances (the subtle, yet powerful promenade in passé) and effortless soaring lifts that carve through the space.

In addition to the twelve corps de ballet couples, four featured pairings are also part of Diamonds’ huge cast. After the grand pas de deux, these four duos, Zahorian and Di Lanno engage in concerto-like exchange with multiple entrances and exits. First there is a lovely pas de quatre by Ludmila Bizalion, Thamires Chuvas, Elizabeth Powell and Ami Yuki, ripe with sprightly ballon and pas de chats. Next Di Lanno layers in giant assemblés and whirling turns. Then, a short, but musically complex variation for Zahorian, including some unpredictable and dynamic en dedans spins. And Diamonds closes with its grand procession and unison codetta, some of the choreography feeling very much like a class reverence. A farewell, yet not forever, only for this moment.