Heather Desaulniers

San Francisco Ballet – Cinderella©
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Cal Performances presents Scottish Ballet – A Streetcar Named Desire
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion – Dearest Home
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco

Smuin – Dance Series 02
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, San Francisco

May 4th – And just like that, San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 repertory season has reached its last leg. A varied and compelling selection of programs have graced the War Memorial Opera stage this year, and the trend continues with the return of Christopher Wheeldon’s whimsical flight, Cinderella©. Just like when the ballet had its US premiere at SFB in 2013, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson opted to make it the final offering, a perfectly harmonized cadence to conclude a glorious season.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella© Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella©
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon’s Cinderella© is a fairy-tale ballet for the ages, told through a Prologue and three Acts. The Prologue and Act I are all about the narrative, which means that the cast must have both the acting and dancing chops to successfully communicate and interpret the story. Thursday night’s ensemble certainly delivered, aptly conveying a wide range of human emotion – drama, humor, loss, jealousy and hope. In the prologue, we meet the title characters as children, (danced by students from the San Francisco Ballet School). Quickly the cast ages, and we experience the next chapter of their individual journeys – Cinderella’s father remarries; Prince Guillaume is called to responsibility and duty. Fast forward to Cinderella’s home, where her Stepsisters’ vanity and nastiness as well as her Stepmother’s cruelty reign supreme, especially when Cinderella invites a stranger inside to escape the cold, everyone unaware that this person is actually the Prince in disguise. His friend Benjamin, masquerading as the Prince, arrives on the scene and invites the family to the Royal Ball, Cinderella’s Stepsisters and Stepmother doing everything in their power to impress him. Four Fates, who are tasked with watching over Cinderella, frame all of this early storytelling. More than anything else in the ballet (including I think, the central tree structure), it is they who embody the important role of Cinderella’s supernatural guardian.

Moments of lovely dancing were peppered throughout. Sarah Van Patten was a luminous and breathtaking Cinderella, enrapturing the audience with technique and theatricality from her very first solo at her mother’s gravesite. Replete with beautifully intricate choreography, buoyant jumps in sixth position transitioned effortlessly into long and longing extensions. Such subtle inflections in Van Patten’s movements and demeanor informed her performance from beginning to end, and gave the titular character a dynamic layeredness. Sasha De Sola and Ellen Rose Hummel as Stepsisters Edwina and Clementine were hilarious in their constant attempts to woo the Prince. And every time the four Fates were in the mix, one couldn’t help but notice that their choreography was some of the most physically intense – a combination of driving ballet steps, athleticism and martial-arts influences.

At the end of Act I, Cinderella is suddenly transported to a mystical forest, where she encounters representatives from each season along with a host of unusual characters. The seasons dance individual divertissements: a sparkling Spring of petit allegro and batterie, a sweeping Summer of deep pliés and gooey port de bras and a delicate winter of wispy ballonés and whirling piqué turns. But the standout here was by far the Autumn variation, led by Angelo Greco – a dramatic expressive quintet fueled by directional shifts, blazing extensions and multiple pirouettes. And of course, the image of Cinderella in her carriage on the way to the ball at the end of the Act is a moment of pure enchantment.

If Act I is mostly about the narrative, Act II (the ballroom scene) is indeed all about the dancing. From the guests’ grand waltz to the wave that reveals Cinderella’s entrance to the numerous pas de deux, Wheeldon’s eclectic mix of classical ballet, contemporary vocabulary, wit and physical theater was a thing of brilliance. Just like how neo-classical dance can reveal nuances in the score, so does Wheeldon’s choreography similarly elevate this classic narrative tale. Cinderella and Prince Guillaume’s (Tiit Helimets) first pas de deux was appropriately gentle and restrained, with both lower extensions and lower lifts. This expanded over the course of the duet to include full and lush movements, a reflection of their growing relationship. Myles Thatcher’s Benjamin was so much fun to watch and his dance with Hummel (a sweet secondary romance plotline in the ballet) was a sheer delight, full of graceful temps de cuisse. Alone in the space after the guests from the ball are ushered outside to look at the stars, Van Patten and Helimets soared through their second pas de deux, each stunning lift surprising with an unconventional, unexpected approach. But perhaps the most significant achievement in this Act is that Wheeldon keeps it moving. Like village scenes, the ballroom setting is fairly typical in story ballets, and they can lag. Not in this Cinderella©. Aside from the corps de ballet having occasional spatial challenges and resulting collisions, it was picture perfect.

Wheeldon’s ballet closes with a short Act III – a clever chair sequence, Cinderella’s quintet with the Fates as she recalls the prior evening’s events, the reunion between her and the Prince, their wedding and finally, happily ever after.

May 10th – A single amber-hued light bulb hung in the middle of the stage. Up center was a backdrop of an old Southern estate. A steel, deconstructed frame forged an inner proscenium arch. Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois embarked on a solo, contained within a small square of light. A prelude of sorts, the variation ebbed and flowed with sinewy movements and a recurring motif – as Mutso’s hand approached the light, it trembled and shook.

And so began the West Coast premiere of Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the final dance offering of Cal Performances’ current season. And what a production to end with! Directed by Nancy Meckler, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, score by Peter Salem, design by Niki Turner and lighting by Tim Mitchell, the Scottish Ballet has proffered a new container in which to experience Tennessee Williams’ 1947 literary masterpiece. A tale of volatile relationships, charged dynamics, reality versus pretense, aggression and emotional fracturing.  

In Act I of the ballet, the viewer gets to experience the early parts of Blanche’s story, the events that are referred to in other versions but are rarely seen. Of course, with no text scenes during the ballet, it makes absolute sense that this would be the starting point as opposed Blanche’s arrival in New Orleans. It is the backstory, providing necessary context for understanding what happens later. In these early segments, we meet a different Blanche, one with a lightness and joy. This is apparent in her early pas de deux with Alan (Victor Zarallo), whom she marries. A lovely, courtly waltz follows their wedding, and motifs from it return again and again during the ballet, serving as reminders of a happier time and state of being.

Blanche’s bliss is certainly short-lived and the wedding waltz takes a turn when the groom is enticed by another man (Constant Vigier). This leads to a stunning pas de deux for the two men, with tender embraces and sharp jumps in second position. Blanche discovers them and the duet becomes a trio, injected with the wedding motifs. A time of loss follows – her rejection of Alan, his violent death, and that of her family, told through a striking set of family photo vignettes. Finally there is the collapse, literal and figurative, of her familial home, Belle Reve, into a pile of rubble.

Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire Photo Andy Ross

Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo Andy Ross

A grid of bare lights descend and the pre-story travels briefly to New Orleans, for Stella (Sophie Laplane) and Stanley’s (Christopher Harrison) first meeting. Different arrangements of these lights would recur throughout the ballet, speaking to the theme of illumination – the revealing of the various circumstances and situations. Before Blanche arrives in New Orleans, we see her at the Flamingo Hotel and her pas de deuxs with different men at this establishment. Again, some motifs from the wedding waltz are present, Blanche trying to distance herself from her current reality. She is then shunned by her hometown, choreographically expressed through a wall of dancers cycling through militaristic, robotic isolations. She arrives in New Orleans.

There is still more action to come in Act I, yet it doesn’t feel long at all. A Streetcar Named Desire is a very dance-filled narrative ballet, not plagued with long stretches of gestural acting. The choreography keeps things moving, and moving at a wonderful pace.

The bowling alley scene has a very West Side Story feel, colorful and engaging, yet simultaneously speaking of darker undertones – violence, instability and quick escalation. Stella and Blanche have some telling moments, both Laplane and Mutso perfectly embodying these complicated women through their dancing and their theatrical interpretations. Mutso’s portrayal of Blanche’s deteriorating mental state was appropriately chilling, especially when she begins to see her dead husband. And the Act closes with Stanley’s vicious attack on Stella, his subsequent solo and then their explosive duet. Though well danced, this particular pas de deux was too long, perhaps the one spot in the ballet that could be edited down.

Act II is a whirlwind, to be sure. It opens with a group ensemble statement; a set of couples mirroring the extremes of Stella and Stanley’s instability. Then the ballet pivots to a brief courtship between Blanche and Mitch (Luke Schaufuss), including a clever imagining of a movie theater date. Time shifts in the second half as well, because the next time we see Stella, she is far along in her pregnancy. And while the score percolates with gossiping voices, Blanche is confronted by everyone, including Mitch, with the narrative themes from the beginning of the ballet. Blanche’s downward spiral continues and she retreats into the past. Amidst all the chaos and impending danger, there is actually a very touching, yet brief, exchange in this part of the ballet, one between Blanche’s present self and her younger self. A moment of caring, of comfort and of unconditionality. But that too, soon ends. Stanley savagely rapes her and, days later; she is led away by a doctor, presumably to an institution.

And then the ending. Brilliant. Blanche begins to see her dead husband again and while trying to engage with him, she ends up in that square of light from the beginning, reaches her hand up towards the bulb, and it trembles. With that powerful image bookending A Streetcar Named Desire, the space between beginnings and endings became deliciously porous. Perhaps the beginning and the ending of the ballet were actually the same moment, and what transpired in the middle was a remembrance…

May 16th – Building a new work requires a choreographer to wear so many different hats. Securing funding, crafting movement, rehearsing, championing the interdisciplinary collaborations, even booking, publicity and photography might be part of the picture. And then there is a whole other entity to consider, the audience. Is the dance going to have a traditional viewer/artist relationship or does the work speak to a unique kind of audience engagement? Maybe one where the viewer has a more participatory role in the artistic process?

Kyle Abraham’s Dearest Home, which saw its premiere last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, took an innovative and bold approach to audience engagement. As the crowd entered the space, every person was given their own headset, and in the introductory remarks, Abraham shared that the dance was designed to be experienced either in silence or with Jerome Begin’s original score streamed through the headphones. The choice was ours. I chose the latter.

The audience was arranged around the perimeter of the stage space with four entrances at each corner. To open the work, Abraham.In.Motion’s company artists entered from these various corners, each with a different dynamic. Slow and methodical met with nonchalant pedestrianism; stylized precision with abandoned frenzy. But no matter the intention, the clarity of the movement was overwhelmingly satisfying, be it a glance, a sustained relevé long in second position or a twisted sculptural pose.

Matthew Baker and Connie Shiau in Dearest Home Photo courtesy of Time Barden

Matthew Baker and Connie Shiau in Dearest Home
Photo courtesy of Time Barden

Over the next hour, an array of storylines was layered together in the space, told through solos, duets and trios. Many, though not all, of these distinct narratives unfolded on the diagonal (especially in the first half of Dearest Home), sending a powerful message. A straight pathway on which complex ideas would develop; the juxtaposition and collision of the two was striking.

Duets would morph in and out of unison suggesting a shared understanding that was constantly fracturing and healing, over and over again. One solo, featuring a lush super passé, felt caught in old patterns; attempting to move forward but still stuck in what was. Tender embraces spoke of comfort, though they too sometimes shifted to the other extreme, revealing trembling and fear. Another solo, lit by shin busters, seemed tortured and pulled in two disparate directions – panicked staccato movements falling into sustained living postures. And a lengthy duet for two women was packed with motifs that conjured images of swimming, including a moment where the two looked like they were shaking water off their limbs. Perhaps a metaphor for shaking off a particular situation, or the past in general.

Clothing served as an important throughline in Dearest Home, with the ensemble buttoning and unbuttoning, tucking and untucking shirts and carefully folding clothes that they had taken off. Fixing and organizing, as well as saying farewell to their outer shell, sang through these various gestures and tasks.

Another throughline in Dearest Home was that it felt through-danced. While there were clearly different stories at play, different sections and different lines of thought, the continual flow of the work meant that there was not even an inkling of the stops and starts that could have crept in. Speaking of the dancing, the movement quality in Abraham’s choreography was something to behold as was the dance artists’ profound communication of the phrase material — such wonderful attention to the specificity of the foot, whether in passé, in coupé, or just in transition from one step to another. And I was also struck by the dancers’ phenomenal sense of timing. For me, listening through the headphones, the score and the movement were so connected; it was easy to forget that the cast wasn’t hearing a thing.

At sixty-five minutes, Dearest Home did seem too long, though, the fact that opening night got off to a very delayed start (between twenty and twenty-five minutes late) may have been a contributing factor to that feeling.

May 20th – World premieres, contemporary ballet vocabulary, abstract choreography, historical references — all were present in Smuin’s Dance Series 02, the concluding program of the company’s twenty-third year. A triple bill of Nicole Haskins’ The Poetry of Being, Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open and Trey McIntyre’s Be Here Now, Dance Series 02 is currently in the middle of its San Francisco engagement at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — running through next weekend — and from there, the company will head to Carmel for this season’s last performances.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence score sang through the air as the curtain revealed Nicole Haskins’ premiere work The Poetry of Being. Eight dancers were costumed in blue, the women’s skirts having a lovely inner layer of contrasting teal, and a lead couple, Erica Felsch and Robert Kretz, in taupe. The visuals were not at all ostentatious, allowing Haskins’ vivacious choreography to eat up the space, unencumbered. Joyousness, buoyancy and forward motion pervaded the abstract work, with recurring upper body lifts and sliding circuits in open fourth position. And while The Poetry of Being seemed to be mostly about this movement in this place, there was a pull outward, with the cast gathering at the front of the stage multiple times and gazing out on the horizon.

The piece seemed to settle into its groove more in the second half, with the phrase material relaxing a bit, allowing room to luxuriate in the transitional spaces. Felsch and Kretz’s central pas de deux was a delight; a courtly duet abounding with intertwined arms and swiveling spins. With the stage bathed in a blue hue, their duet  was a gorgeous, elegant skate through space and time. Following that main pas de deux, the cast returned to the stage, now dressed in neutral shades. And then the entire ensemble joined forces for a unison expression of reverénce.

The Poetry of Being was a solid start to Dance Series 02, with just one curious element — the costume changes during the ballet. Felsch and Kretz appeared for a short time at the beginning in the taupe and then returned in the same blue as the rest of the cast. Then, they switched back to the taupe for the ballet’s main pas de deux. The cast joined them, in similar neutrals, and then Felsch and Kretz changed back to the blue again for the final tableau. With the mood of the ballet staying more or less in the same dynamic range, the costume changes were a bit puzzling.  

Another abstract work took the second place on the bill, the return of Choreographer-In-Residence Amy Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A good contrast to the other works on the Dance Series 02 program, Broken Open is communicated through suite form, and right from the start offers an eclectic approach to ballet vocabulary. Straight clock-like arms, flexed feet and parallel pliés in sixth position meet with strong turned out arabesques and classic pirouettes. As hinted at by the title, open postures unfold everywhere, particularly an abundance of second position in lifts, in plié, in jumps, in spins and in écarté extension. Two years after the premiere, some sections of Broken Open still seem elusive for the company, though there were certainly standout performances on Saturday afternoon. Lauren Pschirrer’s opening solo was all about defined specificity. And the men’s pas de trois (Mengjun Chen, Ben Needham-Wood and Jonathan Powell) brought an athletic, position-rich variation to the table. And then, in the final section of Broken Open, Rex Wheeler led the ensemble in a cluster formation – whimsical, light and refreshing. I think it would be interesting to view the work with different costumes.

Jonathan Powell in Trey McIntyre's Be Here Now Photo Keith Sutter

Jonathan Powell in Trey McIntyre’s Be Here Now
Photo Keith Sutter

The flagship of the Dance Series 02 program, Trey McIntyre’s new ballet Be Here Now is an homage to 1967’s Summer of Love, the iconic San Francisco event now fifty years in the past. An ensemble dance complete with an arresting video introduction, nostalgic soundtrack, crazy drug trip, giant ice cream cone backdrop and fracturing puppets, Be Here Now spoke of youth culture, community and being in the moment. Twelve dancers walked forward in slow motion, and then erupted into a physical concert; a collection of varying vignettes set to music from decades past. The emotionally charged choreographic sequences that followed expressed everything from frustration to protest, love to acceptance. The entire ensemble was all in from beginning to end, and their enthusiasm for the work was palpable. Erica Chipp, Erin Yarbrough-Powell and Needham-Wood particularly soared in their featured solos.

And there was something about the conversation between slow motion and fast movement in Be Here Now. These two states of being played against each other throughout the work, maybe a comment on the complex human condition people found themselves in at that time (and might still now). Feelings of being super present in an intentional space while surrounding forces seem out of control. The lengthy drug trip mid-point added escapism to the mix, a sense of risk-taking and unabashedly hurtling into the unknown.

A number of different props and theatrical elements made an appearance in Be Here Now, specifically in the middle of the dance, and it distracted a little from the choreography and the company’s performances. Both were so powerful and compelling and could stand on their own without the extras. But at the same time, the audience loved it, so perhaps it’s a matter of preference. In the final third of the piece, Be Here Now did get back to its earlier community aesthetic and emotion-filled dance, which made for a strong ending.