David Koch Theater, New York, NY; October 16, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Sarah Van Patten and Frances Chung in "Borderlands" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Frances Chung in “Borderlands”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

After a five year absence, San Francisco Ballet opened its two-week 2013 New York season last night at the David H. Koch Theater. I have mixed reaction to the three ballets presented, but having the opportunity to see SFB’s youthful, engaging, and talented group of dancers was worth the wait.

The initial program, all New York premieres, featured Artistic Director Helgi Tommason’s “Trio,” “Ghosts,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wayne McGregor’s “Borderlands”. These dances provided a single-evening opportunity to see a broad range of dances and styles, from an up-beat, lyrical, lovely opening piece, to a quirky, interesting concept dance, to an abstract contemporary dance that has no meaning, but that stretches the limits of the dancers’ athletic abilities.

These three pieces also appear to have been selected to demonstrate the breadth of SFB’s talented dancers. That they do. Instead of beginning its tour with the highly anticipated New York premiere of Mr. Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” which will comprise SFB’s second week of performances but which necessarily has limited lead performance opportunities, beginning its tour with this and other repertory programs provides an opportunity to see, in one sitting, an extensive array of SFB dancers and a treasure trove of SFB principal ballerinas, including Maria Kochetkova, Sarah Van Patten, and Yuan Yuan Tan. With her frequent appearances on the ‘gala’ circuit and as a guest artist, Ms. Kochetkova is not a stranger to New York ballet audiences, but she looks particularly comfortable with her home company. Since I had never seen her dance previously, Ms. Van Patten was a delightful surprise: she dances with a singular purity. I have seen Ms. Tan dance previously – on television in SFB’s performance of John Neumeier’s “The Little Mermaid” – but seeing her live, in “Ghosts,” was a revelation. She has a unique and stunning stage presence, and the opportunity to see her perform live should not to be missed.

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

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

I saw Mr. Tomasson dance with New York City Ballet many times during his performing career, and his stellar reputation as a dancer is well-earned, and beyond dispute. Any opportunity to see him perform was a treat. But I confess to being unfamiliar with his choreography. If “Trio” is representative, Mr. Tomasson is as fine a choreographer as he was a dancer.

“Trio,” which premiered in San Francisco in 2011, is an abstract ballet in three movements. Choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” the ballet has a richness to its appearance, but a richness that’s simple and classic rather than opulent or overly ornate. The rear backdrop consists of squares of swirling color and visual texture (the specific base color varies with the three segments of the ballet, presumably arising from different colored light streams) that give the appearance of high-quality mosaic tiles. Florentine mosaic tiles. The costumes – light, flowing, satin-like dresses for the women – complement the set, with one primary color for each movement (e.g., muted burgundy; sienna brown). [Scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols; Lighting Design by Christopher Dennis; Costume Design by Mark Zappone.]

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in "Trio" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in “Trio”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

Mr. Tomasson’s choreography is equally ravishing, with swirls of color and motion. It’s an abstract ballet, but its central segment has a compelling emotional component. The 1st Movement, led with verve by Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz, is virtually non-stop motion, broken into components of corps dancers (5/5), couples, the lead couple, Ms. Zaharian solo, and various permutations. It’s a wonderfully lyrical presentation. The closing 3rd Movement, featuring Ms. Kochetkova, Gennadi Nedvigin and another 5/5 corps, has a celebratory air. But the centerpiece of the ballet is its 2nd Movement, an enigmatic pas de trois with Ms. Van Patten, Tiit Helimets, and Anthony Spaulding. A woman is in love with a man, but a second man appears who has some prior relationship with, and dominance over, the woman. Who this second man is is intentionally unclear. A former lover? Husband? Father? It doesn’t matter. The beauty of the pas de trois is in the deceptively simple choreography, in its restrained passion, and in the wonderfully controlled execution by Mr. Helimets (the first man), Mr. Spaulding (the enigmatic second man), and Ms. Van Patten. All were excellent – Mr. Helimets in his exquisite partnering (his duet with Ms. Van Patten comprises the bulk of the pas de trois), Mr. Spaulding with his air of mystery, and particularly Ms. Van Patten, with her extraordinary clarity, extension, line, and overall polish. The piece has a Jerome Robbins look to it, a sense of humanity that matches its complexity. Mr. Tomasson learned his lessons well.

Sofiane Sylve in "Ghosts" Photo © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve in “Ghosts”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

It’s tempting to say that Mr. Wheeldon’s “Ghosts” gave me the Willis (there, I succumbed to it), but, other than being about spirits of the night, it has no relationship to “Giselle.” Mr. Wheeldon here has created a ballet (to a composition titled “Ghosts,” by C.F. Kip Winger) which visualizes a night at the cemetery where the ghosts of the dead arise at night and do whatever it is that ghosts do. In Mr. Wheeldon’s vision, it’s a utopian Zombieland, filled with romantic and beautiful spirits arising from the ground, and interacting with each other in a disembodied way. There’s no emotion on the ghosts’ faces, because there’s no ‘person’ to show emotion, but there is an abundance of feeling generated by the ethereal, will o’ the wisp movement quality. [Willis….will o’ the wisp….]

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

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

Mr. Wheeldon’s ghosts arise from the ground face down, with the back ends of their torsos rising from the ground first. It sounds strange and looks stranger, and very un-ghost like (one would think that the lightest body parts would float to the top first, but what do I know?), but after awhile you get used to it. Similarly, these ghosts flow through the air propelled by whirling arm gestures, as if they were mimicking the motion of a vertical spinning top as their hands grab pieces of air. These central images are repeated too much. But that having been said, there’s a strange beauty to this piece, and even though it’s a ‘concept,’ a snapshot in time of ghosts in their natural habitat (complete with dark lighting and a full moon), it works because Mr. Wheeldon is so skilled at creating and conveying a mood, and because of the ability of the SFB dancers to inhabit characters, even characters that have no corporeal existence.

The ballet is comprised of a six pair plebian ghost corps, and two sets of lead ghosts (Sofiane Sylve, Mr. Helimets, and Shane Wuerthner; and Ms. Tan and Damian Smith), and the action is skillfully interwoven between the leads and the corps. Ms. Sylve, whom I recall from her performances with NYCB, is a relatively tall, imposing-looking dancer, whose ghost is on a mission (though I’m not sure exactly what that mission is). She’s the only ghost I saw with a personality, albeit a ghostly one. She’s beautiful and dominating and scary – a ghost you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Ms. Sylve would make a fabulous Myrtha (and perhaps already has).

All the ghosts (at least the women) wore appropriately ghostly diaphanous white costumes. [Costumes by Mr. Zappone; lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger.] But Ms. Tan was a ghost of a different color. She had no personality. She was dead. But she was so alive. Diligently partnered by Mr. Smith, Ms. Tan also appears to be relatively tall, with a body that is one step removed from being nonexistent. There’s nothing to her. But what made Ms. Tan’s performance remarkable was not just her uncanny ability to look like an elongated breath of air, but the ghostly aura that she transmitted without in any way acting. She wouldn’t scare you away – on the contrary, hers was a ghost who’d draw you in, a ghost you wouldn’t mind meeting in a dark alley, or anywhere else. Considering that she did nothing other than move exquisitely and look blank, emoting only with her eyes, Ms. Tan’s performance was extraordinary. For me, it was the highlight of the evening.

Mr. McGregor has an extraordinary reputation in Europe. He crafts abstract ballets with a combination of angularity and fluidity that, to me, is unique. And his aren’t dances that are just bumps and grinds and contortions and angst. Based on what I’ve seen, his pieces are well crafted, with balance and intelligence. I appreciated the piece he created for NYCB in May, 2010, titled “Outliers.” Like that piece, “Borderlands,” which premiered earlier this year, is austere-looking, appears driven by energy forces outside the control of the dancers, and is virtually non-stop movement. Also like “Outliers,” “Borderlands” displays dancers interacting with other dancers, or not, sometimes in pairs, or not, with no seeming rhyme or reason. And the overall movement quality is the same – the dancers move angularly, but also like human ‘slinky’ toys, and appear to be pulled inward, as if by gravity. This may sound like a collection of incompatible movement qualities, but it works.

But the resemblance between “Outliers” and “Borderlands” stops there. “Borderlands” is all energy force and manipulation. That’s fine, but for me it’s insufficient. There is no sense of anything more than bodies moving in space to an electronic commissioned score (by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney). Based on the title, and that the title “Outliers” had some meaning within the context of that piece, I expected some sense of ‘borders’ being explored, but aside from taking place within an intriguing-looking box-like set (designed by Mr. McGregor and Lucy Carter), there was no such thematic overlay.

There is no question that Mr. McGregor pushes the envelope with respect to the limits of a body’s endurance and the different ways in which a body can be contorted and manipulated, but in this piece the dancers’ bodies were not only finely-tuned instruments – they were objects. The SFB dancers, however, were magnificent objects, and executed Mr. McGregor’s contortions with the dexterity and finesse of gymnasts. In addition to Ms. Kochetkova, Ms. Sylve, Ms. Van Patten, and Mr. Spaulding, they included Frances Chung, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Koto Ishihara, Pascal Molat, Francisco Mungamba, Elizabeth Powell Carlos Quenedit, and Lonnie Weeks.

The last time I had an opportunity to see San Francisco Ballet was on a visit to San Francisco in the mid-1990s. When I arrived, saw that SFB was in town, and that Tina LeBlanc would be dancing Giselle (I had previously seen Ms. LeBlanc dance with the Joffrey Ballet in New York), I knew it was a performance I could not miss. I still cherish the memory of her performance. I don’t remember much about the company as a whole from that one performance, except that the dancers appeared competent and youthful, and that I sensed that under Mr. Tomasson’s leadership the company was in transition. Slow forward to last night, and SFB’s transition period has ended. It is now a company of national and international renown. Based on last night’s program, and particularly on the quality of its dancers, its reputation is well-deserved.