Heather Desaulniers

San Francisco Ballet – Frankenstein
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Stranger Lover Dreamer – 3, 4, 5, 6, 1
Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet – Program 5
Robbins: Ballet & Broadway
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

March 11th – The day had begun with a search for more light, the clocks having sprung ahead as everyone slept. At the War Memorial Opera House, however, the mood was still mysterious, eerie and dark, as the scrim rose on the closing performance of Frankenstein at San Francisco Ballet. Choreographed by Liam Scarlett (a co-production between SFB and The Royal Ballet), the three-act ballet follows the narrative of Mary Shelley’s 1818 literary masterpiece, as opposed to the more sensationalized versions oft seen in popular culture. SFB introduced the work to audiences last year and opted (I’m sure in part to its enthusiastic reception) to bring it back as part of their 85th repertory season.

Frankenstein posits many questions, though perhaps none more penetrating than “Where does our humanness reside?” Is it in our cerebral functions, in emotions, anatomy, corporeality? Or is it in the need for community and kinship? Maybe somewhere else entirely? Just like in Shelley’s novel, the ballet doesn’t provide answers, only a container where the viewer can consider and contemplate these huge puzzles.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett's Frankenstein Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Last year I saw principal dancers in the five main roles, but 2018’s final performance was all about the soloist tier – Max Cauthorn as Victor Frankenstein, Lauren Strongin as Elizabeth, Wei Wang as The Creature, Jahna Frantziskonis as Justine and Esteban Hernandez as Henry. While there were some glitches here and there, the soloists all had a stellar afternoon, navigating any tricky moments with impeccable grace.

At this viewing, I decided to take a wider narrative lens than I did at the SFB premiere in 2017, and in doing so, noticed that much of the action in Frankenstein is driven by the ballet’s duets. In fact, there’s a distinct celebration-tragedy arc that relates to many, though not all, of the pas de deux.

It starts with Victor and Elizabeth’s Act I duet, wherein they profess their love for one other. At first, the pairing is shy and careful. But as their mutual affection becomes clear, the variation appropriately transitions into free, joyful motions – swirling spins that glide across the floor, buoyant jumps as they are literally swept off their feet by each other. As the pas de deux comes to a close, Victor proposes and Elizabeth accepts. The pending union sets off a party in the household, but during the festivities, Victor’s pregnant mother Caroline (Jennifer Stahl) crumples to the ground. The baby survives, but she does not make it. Victor and Elizabeth’s pas de deux sparked a celebration, which ultimately brought tragedy. And it is this first tragedy that seems the catalyst for Victor creating The Creature – a way for him to exert control over the ultimate uncontrollable, life.

Act II gives another example of the pas de deux arc, this time, a duet between The Creature and William (Max Behrman-Rosenberg), Victor’s younger brother. On the occasion of his birthday, William is playing a game of “cat and mouse” with his guests. Blindfolded, he is trying to capture as many of them as he can, but they all run and hide. He is left alone on stage with The Creature, and they continue having fun playing the game. The Creature seems overjoyed to be accepted and included. But once his blindfold is removed, William is terrified to come face to face with The Creature. William is killed, and tragedy has once again struck the Frankenstein family. And on a significant date – Caroline died the day William was born, and William died years later on his birthday.         

Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding pas de deux in Act III is also filled with complex thematics. Broad movements and sustained promenades definitely speak to the elegance and maturity of long-term commitment. Yet, Victor is clearly distracted and even detached at times, haunted by the events of the past decade. He is also wary and on guard at the celebratory event, having seen The Creature merging in and out of the ballroom. And as has been seen in each act, the end of the pas de deux ushers in disaster, horror and further loss.

Of course, there were many other noteworthy moments in addition to these three duets. Like in any narrative ballet, there were several full cast episodes filled with winning choreography and performances – the Frankenstein household staff, the students in the University operating theater and the tavern sequence. The opening of Act III (the ballroom waltz) was the only outlier. The men looked solid in their movement phrases, but the women appeared to be struggling, specifically with the port de bras on Sunday afternoon. It actually looked a little messy, which is something I rarely say with respect to SFB.

Strongin was marvelous throughout the whole of Frankenstein, but in her final dance with Wang as The Creature, she transcended to a whole other plane. The terror was not just in her face, she embodied it with every cell of her being. Palms splayed, arms flailed, legs flew into the air in fear, silent screams pierced the space. It was chilling. Scarlett’s choreography for The Creature still reads a little too stylized, lyrical and balletic, though Wang’s interpretation felt successful. He injected an abandoned, contemporary quality to the arms and legs, which matched better with the character. It didn’t feel so much like you were watching The Creature act one way and then dance in a completely different fashion. And Cauthorn’s Victor was so narratively deep – searching for connection, tormented by reality, in love with Elizabeth, plagued by loss and desperate for solace. Cauthorn is proving to be as phenomenal an actor as he is a dancer.  

March 17th – I’ve seen Stranger Lover Dreamer, the choreographic collective of Andrew Merrell, Elizebeth Randall Rains and Shaunna Vella, twice before. Once, as part of an ever popular San Francisco dance salon and once, presenting their own evening-length, mobile, site-specific work at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. This past weekend, the dancemaking trio returned with another theatrical experience, this time, a shared quintuple bill of marvelous contemporary performance. The first and last pieces were co-choreographed, while the middle three gave the audience a chance to experience each individual artistic voice.

Elizebeth Randall Rains, Andrew Merrell & Shaunna Vella Photo Matthew Kertesz

Elizebeth Randall Rains, Andrew Merrell & Shaunna Vella
Photo Matthew Kertesz

Opening the evening was #3 Modern Dance Things, which couldn’t have had a better title. The work mined the breadth of the contemporary genre, from its pure physical syntax to choreographic devices to the conventions and norms of the studio, both those that exist for safety as well as those that actually propagate harm. With the entire company on stage (I didn’t count, but looked to be around twenty), Merrell, Rains and Vella began working through a single movement phrase. Rather than being pulled to exact replication, they experienced it in their distinct bodies, and on their own time. Quickly they took the phrase into the space, all the dancers joining in the dialogue. Adding more steps, they played with accumulation; the movement growing in scope. They played with time – experimenting with unison as well as staggering the choreography with a canon/wave effect. The result was a broad physical opera – bodies punctuating the stage in glorious energy; jumps and buoyant arms flying through the space with abandon. As striking as that was, #3 Modern Dance Things riveted most in its nods to class. You could see the dancers toggling between turn out and parallel, stretching, warming up, trying to feel and sense what their body needed in order to be prepared and ready for the tasks ahead. There were sequences plucked straight out of the studio – spotting practice, a grand battement series front, side and back. Anyone who has ever taken contemporary or jazz dance would immediately recognize that exercise. And there was a brief but powerful statement on gender — how even contemporary dance, with its forward thinking, inclusive spirit, still has a long history of embedded gender binary within the studio space.

Rains stood in a circle with seven dancers for the beginning of her #4 Remembering, Becoming. Together the group cycled through a tactile body percussion phrase, and as that concluded, the circle unfolded leaving Rains in front of the ensemble. She started a new set of arm, head and upper body motions – a gestural essay with ideas of swimming, sleeping and pointing. A few at a time, the cast would appropriate her movements. Eventually Rains exited the space, and the dancers continued with these initial cues, expanding them into full body choreography. They were not necessarily trying to accomplish the same gesture but instead, take Rains’ information and adjust it to their own reality, keeping what was helpful and discarding what didn’t speak to them. I had read that #4 Remembering Becoming had a strong connection to the idea of being a parent, more specifically, to being a mother. But I think that the incisiveness of the work is that there was an egalitarianism to its notion of sharing experiences, sharing wisdom as well as sharing frustration, hopes and fears. Those who aren’t parents (like myself) could certainly connect with these themes of passing down, of lineage, of community.

For a long time, I tried to discern the intent of any Dance Theater piece that I saw. But with the genre’s combination of movement, deconstructed non-linear narrative, repetition, multiple disciplines, purposeful absurdity and sometimes dark humor, more often than not, I left the theater totally confused. But then I shifted my strategy. Instead of attempting to figure out what the piece was about, instead I decided to simply notice what themes resonated with me. Maybe they lined up with the composition’s intent, maybe not, and I think that’s just fine.

Merrell’s #5 Kiss Me While I Sleep was all Dance Theater. Performed by Sarah Chenoweth, Tara McArthur, Danny Nguyen and Mechelle Tunstall, the work deliciously oscillated realms. From a hot pink bedroom furniture scene where how people share space was microscopically and hilariously distilled to full velocity choreographic segments to gender-bending enchainements to a range of props (bubble guns, lollipops, squirt bottles), #5 Kiss Me While I Sleep was a theatrical feast to be sure. And it ended with Rosemary Clooney’s cabaret scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, the 1954 classic White Christmas. Through a hot-pink frame, Tunstall lip-synced “Love – You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” while Chenoweth, McArthur and Nguyen recreated mid-century modern choreography from the film, complete with its angular arms and geometric shapes. So what was my takeaway from this creative wonderland? One strong narrative throughline for me was Merrell’s exploration around perception and reality, not just their oft-oppositional nature, but also the porous space between the two.

Next up was Vella’s #6 Living Swans, an ensemble dance for six. A tree placed upstage right immediate gave a natural/holistic vibe to the space. Simple arm movements and complex full body phrases filled the room, the dancers engaging with each other from beginning to end. And I use that word “engage” purposely. As one dancer would complete a step, they would gently tag another individual, like they were passing the physicality amongst the group. But as the work continued, it was clear that the tagging wasn’t a way of saying “Take over my movement,” but a way of asking, “How would you interpret this idea?” #6 Living Swans was a comment on process, the continuation of process and how one individual’s process might affect and contribute to another’s journey.   

3, 4, 5, 6, 1 closed with #1 Wishbone Home, The Remix (2014), a quartet by Rogelio Lopez, Merrell, Rains and Vella. An earlier version of this piece is what I had seen back in the summer of 2013 at RAWdance’s fourteenth CONCEPT Series. I took a look back at my thoughts, and at that time, had noted a sense of ritual and vastness. But I didn’t mention any humor or comedy, which is definitely what transpired on Saturday night. Pairing full Baroque silken skirts with vintage concert T-shirts, the four treated the audience to a campy send up on all things courtly and edgy. It was a joy to witness contemporary performance residing in a place of fun and farce, something that feels pretty rare these days.

March 23rd – It is common at San Francisco Ballet to see Jerome Robbins choreography on the season slate. But this year is special. The prolific choreographer was born one hundred years ago, and ballet companies everywhere are commemorating the occasion. SFB opted to pay homage with an entire Robbins evening – a rare quadruple bill of work created between 1944 and 1979. Much of the Robbins’ material that SFB regularly performs has that quintessential Robbins youth culture and community spirit. This collection was indeed different. While there was one youthful piece and one that literally screamed community, it was the gender dynamics in the program that really spoke.

Individual perseverance and inner strength were at the heart of 1979’s Opus 19/The Dreamer, a work for two principals and a corps of twelve. As the lights rose, Wei Wang cast his gaze towards the stage’s surface. In preparation for his first movement, he sank into a deep demi-plié in fifth position. From there, he took off, executing sumptuous parallel turns and punctuating the space with flexed hands, the choreography initiating from the core and spine. Mathilde Froustey joined the scene in a circuit of long strides, each one slicing through the air with abandon and purpose. The stage glistened with power and fortitude as technically demanding promenades peppered the choreography. And there was a particularly telling pas de deux. Froustey and Wang spent one section mirroring each other’s movement, he, in his enviable demi-plié, she on pointe. They were totally connected throughout the duet, but didn’t actually touch. Again a moment where the strength and resolve of each individual was undeniable.

Set against an ombré blue background, Opus 19/The Dreamer felt emotive to be sure, but was it narrative? I can’t decide. But what did read very clearly was the influence of the modern masters in the choreography – Graham, Limón, de Mille. In fact, structurally, the ballet looks like a tribute to the movement of those artists. Graham’s torso contractions and spirals, Limón’s arched arms and upper body curves; flexed feet poses that looked as though they could have been plucked from Oklahoma’s dream ballet. A fantastic start to the night.

The Cage (1951) was definitely about a community. A pulsating web of twelve female spidery creatures, a newly birthed addition (Maria Kochetkova as The Novice), all led by their queen (Sofiane Sylve). Two men who wander into the scene don’t fare well. Lonnie Weeks meets a quick, violent demise whereas Steven Morse has a different journey. He and Kotchekova enjoy a pas de deux that is actually quite trusting and tender, including a phenomenal seated lift where she appears to fly. But in the end, the pack descends and his fate is sealed.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Cage Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ The Cage
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Much discourse has been proffered over the years about The Cage’s narrative arc, and that dialogue is both important and necessary – commentary that ranges from pack mentality to aggression to self-determination to female power. But on Friday evening, I was more struck by the SFB artists’ performance of the material. The women’s corps had such mesmerizing feet, articulating through each joint, exactly like a spider might (they were also able to translate that precision to the arms and spine). Sylve commanded the group in several unison sections, their timing appropriately delayed from her potent lead. Kochetkova nailed her characters’ transitory “learning” space. After her birth, she learns how to navigate the space, learns how to walk, and learns where the axis of her body is, all while learning her power and strength. It happens quickly (after all, the piece is only fifteen minutes in length), but that necessary transition is acutely present. And the several instances where the cast opened their mouths in a silent roar were unequivocal statements.

Time-wise, the pause between The Cage and Other Dances was brief, but the artistic space between the two is cavernous. 1976’s Other Dances is a youthful, playful pas de deux infused with a distinctly folk quality, danced at this performance by Frances Chung and Angelo Greco. Swirling lifts and turns, forward reaching port de bras, and confident suspension/falls all feed into the work’s ebullient tone, while the character sections, with the palm of the hand placed behind the head, the cabrioles to the side contribute the fun. Greco and Chung were a delight – he with incomparable turns that always ended with the accent up, she, buoyant in every balancé and rond versé. Other Dances also has a fantastic egalitarianism. Throughout the ballet, the pair take turns in the spotlight, almost like they are playing a fun game of ‘pass the baton’ during the many solo variations. Theirs was an energetic interpretation of Chopin’s score, though it was strange that they made little to no connection with the pianist onstage with them.

San Francisco Ballet’s Robbins evening closed with the oldest ballet on the bill, 1944’s Fancy Free, where we meet three sailors exploring New York City. Fancy Free tends to be a crowd favorite, maybe because of the retro costumes, scenery and Leonard Bernstein’s score. But I actually find the narrative message to be very disturbing – unrelenting pursuit of the opposite sex, bullying, women being flung around the circle and being pulled into dancing when they clearly aren’t interested. And the disturbing part is not just seeing that behavior; it’s that the ballet seems to almost celebrate and then dismiss it as no big deal. There are a few moments where the dynamic between the women and the men seems genuine and consensual, but these glimpses are brief to be sure. This was in no way anything to do with the cast. It’s just impossible to experience Fancy Free without a 2018 lens, and for this reviewer, with that lens, the ballet is not just dated, it’s inappropriate.