Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – Dos Mujeres
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Smuin Contemporary Ballet – Dance Series 2
    Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco
  • Diablo Ballet
    Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek

April 12th – It’s hard to believe that in less than a month, San Francisco Ballet’s home season will be over. The final two programs, currently running in tandem, close in the next few days. And after weeklong encores of Mere Mortals and Swan Lake, the company exits the War Memorial Opera House to embark on their summer engagements. It has been a stunning season filled with upending surprises and comforting classics. And upon entering the lobby and theater on Friday night, it was clear that something equally special was in the offing with Program 6. 

Kudos to the SFB artistic team for making the whole environment feel alive and immersive. Rich, jewel-toned florals made ordinary surfaces smile. Art installations peeked out from every corner. And Maria Guzmán Capron’s breathtaking multi-fabric curtain, commissioned specially by SFB, adorned the proscenium arch. Program 6’s title spoke on two levels. First, it shares its name with a Frida Kahlo painting from 1928 or 1929 (sources differ on the year it was created). Kahlo was the inspiration for the second work on this double bill. Second, Dos Mujeres translates to ‘two women,’ and the evening featured work from two high-octane Latina choreographers – Arielle Smith and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Both pieces were premieres; Smith’s Carmen, a world premiere, and Ochoa’s Broken Wings (2016), an SFB premiere. While there were was much to comment on in each, it was the visuals and dance drama of these twenty-first century story ballets that captivated. The drama was heavy and intense; the dance, a little less so.   

San Francisco Ballet in Smith’s Carmen
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions

Smith’s Carmen has been described in many different outlets as a ‘re-imagining’ of Bizet’s opera. And that word was chosen because it is truly apt. The main characters are present as are themes of jealousy, resentment, passion, duty and rage. But the setting, premise, relationships, gender and definitely, the ending, are different. I quite enjoyed this new take. I also loved that it was edited from the typical four-acts to just one. Having said that, with only forty-ish minutes, Smith had a lot of story to tell in fairly short order. Carmen’s pace was brisk. On the one hand, that fast-moving tempo was energetic and dynamic. It demanded its audience’s attention and engagement from one instant to the next. At the same time, the pace meant that the viewer wasn’t able to sit with the various plotpoints or characters for very long. This made some twists and turns hard to envision and digest.  

Riccardo Hernández’ set design and Gabriela Hearst’s costumes were arrestingly on the nose, though Jim French’s lighting didn’t always work for me. I get what they were trying to accomplish with darker light patterns highlighting the dilapidated environment. But it was too dark on occasion. Dance-wise, it was wonderful to see a pas de deux between two women – Sasha De Sola’s Carmen and Jennifer Stahl’s Escamillo – which I would argue is still somewhat of a rarity in ballet. And the circular phrase for when Joseph Walsh’s Jose was spinning out of control was Carmen’s standout choreographic and technical moment. But it was the drama that was the focus here as opposed to the dancing.

Like Carmen, Broken Wings sought to convey a formidable narrative – the life and work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. For fifty minutes, Ochoa invited us to be part of Kahlo’s personal and creative existence, with all its pain, uncertainty, whimsy, volatility and love. A tall order, to be sure. And a very successful result.

San Francisco Ballet in Ochoa’s Broken Wings
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions

Ochoa’s pacing of that journey felt reasonable, perhaps even a little slow in the middle. But the vibrant visual feast more than made up for any lulls. Color leapt from the stage – in fabrics, in headpieces and in the choreography, which was also a little more present. Imaginative creatures and beings that spanned the natural and physical worlds were introduced. Gender constructs were disrupted. A mammoth set box skated on the stage’s surface leading to penetrating questions. Was the box a metaphor for Kahlo’s imagination or a frame for her art? Was it somewhere she went to think, to hide or to escape?

Choreographically, Ochoa suggested Kahlo’s carefree joy with light, crisp batterie (entre chat quatre and briseé). In contrast, she also injected twitching and tremoring motions into much of the phrase material, mirroring the physical ailments and chronic pain that Kahlo endured for much of her life. As one might expect, Broken Wings is a vehicle for the dancer that is cast in the titular role. Isabella DeVivo was a consummate Kahlo, commanding the stage with grace, clarity and depth. I liked the piece, though I will admit that it didn’t knock my socks off, but based on the reception on Friday, many in the audience clearly adored it.

May 3rd – Last Friday night brought the opening of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s Dance Series 2 – a captivating feast that serves as the conclusion to the company’s current season. And this is one for the record books. Not only does Smuin mark an epic three decades, but also a change in Artistic leadership. Soon Associate Artistic Director Amy Seiwert will take the helm as Smuin’s new A.D., as Celia Fushille moves on from a post she has held for seventeen years. Fushille and Seiwert have come together to craft next season, an exciting collection of past and present work which was just recently announced. But first, the 30th year must come to an end, and the Dance Series 2 program was a dynamic and entertaining finale, indeed. A quadruple bill of Founder Michael Smuin’s Starshadows, Brennan Wall’s Untwine, Seiwert’s Broken Open and the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoas’s Tupelo Tornado.

Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander in
Wall’s Untwine
Photo Chris Hardy

The first two pieces certainly had a throughline; and it was the notion of pairs, of couples. A lyrical waltz set to a Maurice Ravel composition, Michael Smuin’s wistful Starshadows (1997) had romance to spare. Three couples entered and exited the starry backdropped stage with dreamy, romantic abandon. Splits were imagined on and off the floor as the dancers created a woven tapestry of sublime ease. Calming and flowy, Starshadows was not just an ideal introduction into the performative space; it was a perfect counter for what would unfold next. Untwine, choreographed in 2022 by Smuin company artist Brennan Wall, shared a penchant for pas de deux. But unlike Starshadows, it began with a burst of dramatic charge. Danced by Cassidy Isaacson and Brandon Alexander, the first duet featured a plethora of moving lifts. The pair spinning, interlacing, and defying centrifugal forces at every turn. Then suddenly the mood shifted. Three additional couples joined the scene, and the atmosphere changed to one of quiet restraint. Classical ballet lines peppered the phrase material; subdued body postures grounded the composition. Then, the two sensibilities merged, showing the exciting play that can exist between quiet restraint and dramatic charge. It is important to note that all seven pairings in these first two pieces were heteronormative – I wonder if the current casting decisions could be different. 

Another mix of modalities was in store after the first intermission with Seiwert’s Broken Open (2015). A dazzling mélange of contemporary and traditional ballet, Broken Open invites its viewers to experience a multi-chapter physical novel. And it truly is quite an emotional ride, journeying from a serious, somber tone at the onset to a happier and brighter reality at the end.

The idea of ‘breaking open’ was everywhere in this full ensemble suite. Second position was abundant – in plié, in developpé, in attitude. Group vignettes were never stagnant. Rather, they were in constant motion, evolving and creating new landscapes and vistas. Legs and arms flicked into the air, seemingly ridding themselves of constraint. Pirouettes unfolded with high arms, opening up the front of the body. There was even a ‘breaking open’ of the stage area as Seiwert employed the wings as an active place, a place to onboard movement phrases. The dancers were tremendous throughout, with a stand-out, passionate pas de trois from Mengjung Chen, Dominic Barret and Yuri Rogers. And there was an extra infusion of energy on opening night as composer Julia Kent provided live cello accompaniment. The only thing that felt somewhat out of place for me were the costumes. 

Brandon Alexander in Ochoa’s Tupelo Tornado
Photo Chris Hardy

Many theatrical devices were present in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tupelo Tornado, a world premiere ensemble work that took a deep dive into Elvis-Presley-land. There were blue (suede?) gloves. A television set headpiece. A neon on-air radio sign and accompanying static. Masks, crowns, fringe. Music. And of course, much choreography, including a genius Fosse-style dance line. It was entertaining, engaging, and the differing elements all worked in concert to bring the audience and Elvis into a shared environment. 

But Tupelo was not all bell bottoms and screaming fans. It was a dance drama, a piece of dance theater. Dance theater with a narrative message and theme. Tupelo investigated the birthing of image. The machine that may be behind the building of a persona. The created self and the loss of self. Fame, yes, but also costs, realities, consequences and appropriation. It was deep, nuanced and layered, and in the titular role, Alexander was transcendent.

May 18th (matinee) – This past weekend at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Diablo Ballet concluded its historic thirtieth season. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Diablo Ballet live and in person, and Saturday’s matinee was a lovely way to get reacquainted. The performance was delightful, a triple bill marrying a work from the 1980s, a 2016 composition and a world premiere. The company roster has changed quite a bit over the last few years and this current cohort is looking very strong indeed. 

The program’s first half was all about tone and mood, beginning with the pas de deux from Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain, a striking work made for Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in 1981. As one watches the duet, danced on Saturday afternoon by Lizzie Devanney and Luis Gonzalez, adjectives flood the mind. Sensual, hypnotizing, ferocious, intimate. Not surprisingly, it is absolutely packed with extreme movements, extensions and shapes. Ninety-degree flexion of the hands. Splits. Pencheé. A back layout with accompanying kicks. Torso contractions. And of course, the final flying pose. In this partnered sequence, as well as other sections of the larger ballet, it has always struck me how long the female lead stays on pointe without a break. It’s astonishing and quite a feat. I so look forward to the day when the entire Light Rain is in Diablo’s repertoire. If their treatment of its pas de deux is any indication, it will be great!

4 in the Morning (An Entertainment) is Val Caniparoli choreography at its best. Created for Amy Seiwert’s Imagery back in 2016, the whimsical, multi-episodic romp charts a four-hour course of time (understandably sped up). Each short chapter opens with a digital clock reading high on the curtain’s corner, indicating where we find ourselves on the journey between midnight and four am. As the sections unfolded, it was anyone’s guess as to where the movement might reside. The scene might be stuffy and courtly. Phrase material could be mischievous and bold. Or cheeky, quick and unapologetic. My favorite was a humorous Celtic solo where a kilt costume piece transformed into a participant in the dance. The entire chamber ensemble (eight dancers) could be onstage, or it might be a duo, trio or quartet. 4 in the Morning was not only cleverly unpredictable, but totally entertaining (as the title aptly relays) and by far, the highlight of Saturday’s triple bill. 

Diablo Ballet in Caniparoli’s 4 in the Morning (An Entertainment)
Photo Tue Nam Tom

The score, Façade by William Walton, was an ideal match because, like the capricious choreography, it too was full of surprises. At times, a sea shanty sang through the air; next , a British pub song in 6/8 time; then, undeniably, musical theater. But it was Susan Roemer’s costume design that really sealed the deal. The women were clad in slinky, ivory slip dresses while the men wore boxers, tank tops and socks, complete with old-fashioned sock garters. It felt very European in look, like we could have been watching Tanztheater Wuppertal, Nederlands Dans Theater or Cabaret. Funnily enough a production of Cabaret goes up at the Lesher Center in a week. With this nighttime attire and the timeframe of the piece, I wondered, were we watching a dream or reality? 

If the first part of the program was all atmospheric feels, the second half was certainly all narrative. Enter choreographer Brian Enos’ new take on the mysterious Firebird. A one-act story, The Firebird has all the right elements. Royalty, a forest setting, mythical birds, an evil orchestrator, a benevolent matriarch and a love story. There’s fantasy, intrigue, forgiveness and super-hero, save-the-day moments. Props were symbolic and functional. Dramatically charged plot points were revealed. What more could one want from a narrative ballet? I’m not usually a fan of reading synopses or program notes, but here it was super smart to have a brief overview of a ‘not quite as well-known’ tale. 

Enos’ choreography for the Firebird character (danced by Jackie McConnell) was terrific. Fast, sparkling, fluttering footwork – boureés, emboîté turns and much more. The finale unison sequence was also very well done with full out dancing from every member of the cast (all eighteen!). And partnering variations were solid, save some awkward transitions. One act narratives are tough – they just are. Trying to tell so much story in a short time is a challenge and then adding the real estate of a smaller stage presents another obstacle. But Enos and the Diablo Ballet artists faced those challenges head on. I think The Firebird is going to percolate well in the company’s rep over the next little while.