Heather Desaulniers

San Francisco Ballet – British Icons
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Cal Performances presents The Joffrey Ballet
Anna Karenina
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

February 10th, 2024 (matinee) – If there is one word that can describe San Francisco Ballet’s current British Icons program, it is most definitely ‘cinematic.’ Onstage at the War Memorial Opera House until February 15th, the double bill brings the work of two legendary British choreographers in two SFB premieres, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. There was much to take in throughout the afternoon, and based on the reception each ballet received, SFB patrons were delighted with the grandeur transpiring before them. Though if one had to choose a highlight of the afternoon, my choice would be 1963’s Marguerite and Armand. Not only did Ashton provide an epic love saga, but he also showed audiences that you don’t necessarily need three acts and three hours to get a story across. His narrative was more than successful in a tight forty-five minutes.

Marguerite and Armand is a quintessential soap opera, in a really great way. With a score by Franz Liszt, there was everything that a soap opera coupling might have – love at first sight, love forbidden by outside forces, desperate pleas from an ill woman, jealousy and ultimately, death. It was romantic, tragic, turbulent and sweepingly dramatic. At the same time, there is something quite sophisticated about it. Cecil Beaton’s décor was full of billowy curtains and draped bunting; the gilded statues and chandelier felt inspired by 1920s art deco. Jasmine Jimison and Wei Wang in the title roles were stunning and sublime. Every pas de deux they danced felt like a love letter to each other. And the cleanliness of the technique, particularly Wang in his opening solo variation, was a thing of beauty.

San Francisco Ballet in MacMillan’s Song of the Earth
© Reneff-Olson Productions

In contrast, technical cohesiveness was a bit elusive in 1965’s Song of the Earth, at least durin Saturday’s matinee. There was certainly refinement over the one-act’s six sections, but the first group sequence had issues with both unison and Ashton’s choreographic phrases. Having said that, the composition itself is quite a tour de force. A conceptual suite that contemplates life and death, togetherness and lone-ness, Song of the Earth blends contemporary ballet with avant garde sensibilities. The movement and shapes were striking yet delicate and subtle. A grand plié in sixth position, fluttery parallel assemblés, flexed feet and hands, upper body contractions and sharp directional changes. Set to a song cycle by Gustav Mahler, with live operatic vocals by Nikola Printz and Thomas Kinch, each chapter had its own unique quality – somber and serious sections were followed by fun and whimsical moments. The third song was almost courtly, with the men of the company supporting Carmela Mayo through a series of split cartwheels. Sweeping arms and complex gestural hand phrases imbued the equally light fourth episode. 

Song of the Earth has decidedly neo-classical moments peppered throughout. The accent of various musical motifs with choreographic steps. The use of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. The super quick footwork. And when it comes to the neo-classical genre, SFB is well-versed. The company’s repertory is full of Balanchine ballets, as well as multiple choreographers who are often considered part of the Balanchine lineage. I’m excited for the artistic staff and the dancers to spend more time with other choreographic voices in this neo-classical realm and experience how they interpret movement and physicality. 

Song of the Earth was lengthy, clocking in at one hour. And while I loved the live vocal presence, when the orchestra was at full volume, it was difficult to hear the superb soloists. 

March 12, 2024 – I think a number of Bay Area dance goers have déjà vu right now. I certainly do. In the first week of March four years ago, I was scheduled to take in two shows – The Joffrey Ballet at Cal Performances and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at San Francisco Ballet. I was super excited for both performances. Midsummer, in particular, for two reasons. In 2020, I had had the lovely opportunity to interview Sandra Jennings, who had staged the work on the company, and in addition, this was going to be the first time SFB would dance the narrative in over thirty years. But the universe had other plans, and COVID shut down everything. SFB did give one performance of the ballet (and a filmed version of Midsummer was included in SFB’s 2021 digital season), as I sat in the audience at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Most of us never did see Midsummer live, that is until this past Tuesday night. What a treat to finally witness George Balanchine’s 1962 sojourn into Shakespeare’s comical story, made all the more dazzling by Christian Lacroix’s updated and rich Scenic and Costume Design. It was fun. It was joyful. And while titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there couldn’t be a ballet more suited for spring, with the florals, the forest, the winged beings and all the sparkling colors. 

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust
Photo © Lindsay Thomas

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s source material know that the play opens with the promise of an ultimate celebration, the soon-to-be wedding between Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and Theseus, Duke of Athens (Nikisha Fogo and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira on opening night). Five acts of hilarious romps and entertaining shenanigans follow. There’s humor, crossed connections, romance, confusion, impatience, mischief and spells. Very Noises Off. Balanchine envisioned a shorter, compressed adaptation for the ballet audience. His Midsummer unfolds over two acts, with an expanded wedding (for three couples) taking place in the final thirty minutes and the bulk of the action playing out in the first seventy-five (truth be told, Act I does come off as a bit lengthy). So, when the viewer is thrust into this mystical fairyland of wonder and amazement, it really feels like one is entering a living storybook, where we encounter all the various characters, see how they relate to each other and learn of their wants and desires. The romantic and lovelorn. The confidently regal. The prankish personalities. 

Speaking of the different characters, there was an abundance, to be sure! Midsummer boasts a huge cast, and it truly is an ensemble ballet if ever there was one. There are the expected principal moments, but so many different roles are featured and highlighted throughout, including over twenty talented and well-rehearsed young students from the San Francisco Ballet School. Sasha De Sola and Esteban Hernández were the picture of royalty and elegance as Titania and Oberon, while Cavan Conley’s Puck orchestrated events like a gleefully wicked child. Hernández was the stand-out performer of the evening, with a flawless batterie variation in the first act. Oberon’s choreography seems impossibly difficult, yet Hernández more than delivers. All of the choreography was really quite magical. Flowy and lilty phrases abounded, as did some of Balanchine’s signature movements. The purposefully bent knee on relevé; the flexed palms. Flingy double attitude jumps; the exploration of demi-pointe in pointe shoes. We had been transported to another land that night, but it was definitely Balanchine’s land.

Act II’s wedding serves as a longer coda to the ballet, almost like a visual expression of the ‘happily ever after’ line at the end of classic fairytales. The dancing was celebratory and sweet, especially the pas de deux from Frances Chung and Isaac Hernández. But it was a shame that not everyone saw the splendor of the wedding scene. As Act I concluded, there was a full cast series of bows. Empty seats after intermission clearly indicated that some folks assumed that the ballet was over. And it did feel like the end. Did we really need the bows at the midway point?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs until March 23rd. 

March 15, 2024 – If you look on my bookshelf, you will indeed find a copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, procured at the beginning of the pandemic. It was going to be a homebound season, so what better time to tackle such an epic and mammoth novel. Well, four years later and it’s not yet finished. Someday. Thankfully, there are plenty of online resources to fill in the blanks – characters, plot points, overall themes. So, when attending any dance adaptations of the book, I can, for the most part, follow the narrative line. 

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani in
Possokhov’s Anna Karenina
Photo Cheryl Mann

This past weekend, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet brought their 2019 version to Cal Performances on the UC Berkeley campus, accompanied live by the Berkeley Symphony. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (well-known to local audiences as the longtime choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet), Anna Karenina takes the viewer on a wide-ranging emotional journey of duty, yearning, lust, hope and despair. Weaving classic movement with video projection by Finn Ross, song by Lindsay Metzger and stunning scenic design by Tom Pye, the two-act ballet was entirely engrossing. Possokhov had a lot of story to cover in a short time, and he did it. A multitude of scenes unpacked all the action, and each was cinematic, grand and fast-moving without feeling rushed. The motifs were all there: the trains, the idea of flying informing every pas de deux. And the theme of rebelling, resisting, and reacting to the era’s structural, cultural and societal norms was abundantly present all the way to the final blackout. This ballet gets many things right. From the undeniable passion to the compositional structure to the relation of a complicated narrative, if you get a chance to see it, go. 

Act I has a lot going on, but again the transition from one landscape to another was incredibly smooth and well done. Early in the act, we visit Kitty Shcherbatskaya’s (Yumi Kanazawa) home where Possokhov’s choreography really shines. The partnering and solos were clean, inventive and surprising without feeling fussy. It is here that the audience encounters Anna’s (Victoria Jaiani) infatuation and entanglement with Alexey Vronsky (Alberto Velazquez) despite the fact that she is already married with a family. And from then on, the thesis of the ballet is set – the chasm between satisfaction with what one has and the desire for the ‘other’. What follows are multiple large group sequences – ballrooms, train stations, a racecourse. Whether there were too many dancers or too large a set for the Zellerbach stage, the movement within these larger scenes got muddled and crowded from time to time. For me, the choreography was stronger (and quite mesmerizing) when there were fewer people present – smaller groups, solos or the many duets. 

Act II’s first scene was perhaps my favorite of the evening, a brilliant pas de trois between Anna, Vronsky and Anna’s husband (Dylan Gutierrez). What a moment Possokhov built showing the interconnectedness and shared reality of these three characters. Arising out of that trio was an equally moving pas de deux for the two men. Unison phrases indicated and acknowledged how their lives were following the same track – in love with Anna, wanting her, and wanting her to want them. While I found this part of the ballet particularly compelling, I must say that I was totally enthralled with all of Act II. I know this because I barely took any notes. I just wanted to be in the room, witnessing the wonder that Possokhov, his team and the company was birthing onstage. The only spot where Act II lost momentum was during the lengthy epilogue, where the ballet heads to the rural countryside. The urban/rural dichotomy certainly plays a role in the source material, but these were the final moments of the ballet. It felt rushed (and a bit of an afterthought) to introduce a new theme at this juncture.

The Berkeley Symphony, conducted by Scott Speck, impressively rose to the technical challenges and grand dynamics of Ilya Demutsky’s score. And Metzger’s vocals were equally sublime. Though as often happens when vocalists are paired with a full orchestra, the sound balance isn’t always ideal. When the orchestra was at full volume, it was sometimes difficult to hear the vocal line.