David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 18, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Artists of the San Francisco Ballet in "Beaux" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Artists of the San Francisco Ballet in “Beaux”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet continued its initial week of repertory programs on Friday with four more New York premieres: “From Foreign Lands,” a new ballet by Alexei Ratmansky; Mark Morris’s 2012 piece, “Beaux,” Yuri Possokhov’s “Classical Symphony,” and “Symphonic Dances,” choreographed in 2012 by Edward Liang. It was another well-chosen program showcasing the breadth and quality of the SFB dancers, marred only by what to me was the excessively self-indulgent piece by Mr. Morris.

In “Namouna, A Grand Divertissement,” which is currently in New York City Ballet’s repertory, Mr. Ratmansky crafted an extravagant, standalone ballet that is a series of reimagined dances that could have been a divertissement from a lost classical ballet (“Namouna”). As brilliantly crafted as Mr. Ratmansky’s ballets always are, this one missed the mark because each dance looked unfocused, and with no clear connection to each other or to a whole. On the other hand, “From Foreign Lands” is a suite of standalone dances with considerable individual merit, that are connected to each other by an overall theme, but which collectively impress as a divertissement that would look more complete within some unknown larger context.

Artists of the San Francisco Ballet in "From Foreign Lands" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Artists of the San Francisco Ballet in “From Foreign Lands”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Each dance, choreographed to the orchestral arrangement of Moritz Moszkowski’s suite, “From Foreign Lands” (Opus 23), is an exploration of a particular national style: Russian, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian. They’re an intermediate step between the divertissements of classical ballets such as “Swan Lake,” and the deeper exploration of national character that Mr. Ratmansky accomplished with “Russian Seasons” for NYCB, eliminating the stereotyping and caricature of the former, but without the depth of the latter. In each, Mr. Ratmansky integrates folk idioms with ballet, adds a considerable dose of his notorious dry wit, and creates a mood.

Except for ‘German’ (which has a more moderated, brooding pace), each of the dances is choreographed at varying degrees of up-beat sparkle, and was executed with panache by the SFB dancers. Of the twelve-member cast that is spread in varying combinations across the six dances, Sasha De Sola and Davit Karapetyan (a particularly engaging pair in the ‘Russian’ dance), Maria Kochetkova and Sarah Van Patten (in ‘Spanish’), Pascal Molat (in ‘Italian’), and Simone Messmer (in ‘German’), merit individual praise. Ms. Messmer, making her New York debut with SFB, was magnificent as the woman courted by three danseurs. Somewhat pensive throughout (not inconsistent with the role), she allowed herself to smile toward its end, when she knew she’d nailed it. It was a flawless, triumphant return to the New York stage following her departure in July from American Ballet Theatre.

One additional observation: Ms. De Sola and Ms. Kochetkova, when they were dancing in sync in ‘Russian’, executed Mr. Ratmansky’s steps somewhat differently. For example, Ms. Kochetkova completed her arabesques/attitudes at 90 degrees, and split jumps at 180 degrees, while Ms. De Sola’s legs were noticeably and consistently held higher. Ms. De Sola’s execution was more consistent with the spirited style of the dance, making her appear considerably more engaged and exciting to watch.

I understand that Mr. Morris created “Beaux” as an alternative view of masculinity from its usual portrayal in classical dance and/or ‘macho’ male dancing in contemporary dance: that is, more lyrical than powerful. But to me, his cure is as bad as the disease. Clothed in skin-tight unitards that match the flowing pastel colors of a rectangular mass centered across the stage’s back scrim (set and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi), the piece opens to the male dancers spanned horizontally across the stage, nearly all with their backs to the audience, providing a detailed view of these dancers’ rears. The movement that follows has a noticeable effeminate gloss, made even more obvious when the chorus line of barefoot male dancers resembles a female corps in Romantic ballets. At various times, one of the male dancers is lifted and carried by other male dancers, or promenades en arabesque, looking like a ballerina. Or the group adoringly watches a single male dancer dancing to them, or for them. A couple sits, reclining, as if watching sunset on a beach.

Lyricism is fine, and Mr. Morris creates beautiful lyrical movement on his male dancers, as well as female dancers, in other pieces. But “Beaux” is as extreme as the testosterone-infused portrayals that Mr. Morris apparently finds so objectionable. More critically, because it is so intentionally titter-provoking, “Beaux” may undermine Mr. Morris’s efforts to redirect an audience’s preconceptions. The nine SFB male dancers, led by Mr. Molat, performed Mr. Morris’s choreography superbly, but much of it looked silly, and it grew increasingly tedious as the piece went on…and on…and on. Audiences, even New York audiences, don’t always know what has artistic merit. But with its restrained, politically correct applause, Friday’s audience got it right.

Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto in "Classical Symphony" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Hansuke Yamamoto in “Classical Symphony”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Mr. Possokhov’s “Classical Symphony,” to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Symphony No. 1 in D Major,” is a deceptively simple piece that grows on you – and that it was presented immediately after “Beaux” probably made it look better than it is. It isn’t an unusually structured piece, but Mr. Possokhov, SFB’s choreographer in residence, does a fine job of building on the score’s increasing tempo, and has crafted visually interesting and at times thrilling dances on, or within, each compositional movement. Although basically classical in style, the piece expands the vocabulary somewhat with contemporary touches that sound jarring but work within the context of the piece (e.g., women being pulled across the stage floor by the men). It also utilizes more ‘contemporary’ costuming (disc tutus; black jackets and tights for the men).  [The costume design was by Sandra Woodall.] Particularly noteworthy is the corps work that Mr. Possokhov created for the men, including a series of men leaping circularly around the stage (which resembles, but amplifies, Kevin McKenzie’s staging of the opening moments of Act I of “Swan Lake” for ABT, and his segues (lines turning into circles, and interacting circles within circles) stoked visual interest.  That being said, however, I noted that the timing generally was a bit off the music, and that many of the men had to adjust their landings from jumps and turns, giving a somewhat sloppy appearance. The cast of fourteen was led by with appropriate exuberance by Vanessa Zahorian, Frances Chung, Clara Blanco, Gennadi Nedvigin, Carlos Quenedit, and Jaime Garcia Castilla.

Yuan Tuan Tan and Luke Ingham in "Symphonic Dances" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Tuan Tan and Luke Ingham in “Symphonic Dances”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The evening ended with a dramatic performance of Mr. Liang’s dramatic ballet to the equally dramatic “Symphonic Dances,” Op. 45, by Sergei Rachmaninov. Indeed, everything about it is dramatic – from the pacing and choreographic structure, to the striking burnt orange colored costumes for the corps, the women with long, flowing dance dresses with richly patterned diaphanous skirts (costumes designed by Mark Zappone), to a stage lit as if by the light of a full moon (lighting design by Jack Mehler), to the effusive conducting (by SFB’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Martin West) of the lush score. With all this drama, that that the piece avoids melodrama is to Mr. Liang’s credit.  There isn’t a great deal of choreographic variety from movement to movement, but it doesn’t matter.  Symphonic Dances” is a dynamic-looking ballet designed to be both visually powerful and entertaining, and it succeeds on both counts. That each dancer in the piece performed exquisitely was a bonus.

Sasha De Sola and James Sofranko in "Symphonic Dances" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sasha De Sola and James Sofranko in “Symphonic Dances”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

With respect to the featured principals, the choreography was particularly dramatic, to which the somewhat tortured partnering requirements added emphasis.  No excess emoting was required – the abundant emotional emphasis came from the movement alone.  Yuan Yuan Tan delivered another exceptional, searingly serene performance, partnered by Luke Ingham. The sight of Ms. Tan, effortlessly coiling her long, narrow body up and around and back down Mr. Ingham’s rock-solid arm, was alone worth the price of admission. Sofiane Sylve, with the able assistance of Tiit Helimets, displayed smoldering volatility beneath her intensely non-emotional surface demeanor. Ms. Kochetkova and Mr. Luiz completed the principals; Ms. De Sola, Dores Andre, James Sofranko, and Hansuke Yamamoto were the able soloists; and all were complemented by the corps of four women and four men.

Mr. Morris’s piece aside, this was another entertaining program creatively designed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to display his dancers at their best. SFB’s visit concludes this coming week with the New York premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” the only full-length ballet on this tour.