Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy.  Photo Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy.
Photo Erik Tomasson

Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 6
    (Shostakovich Trilogy)
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Carmina Burana – UC Alumni Chorus and Smuin Ballet
    Berkeley Community Theater, Berkeley
  • Liss Fain Dance – A Space Divided
    Z Space, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet – Program 7
    (Caprice, The Four Temperaments, Swimmer)
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Paul Taylor Dance Company
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

April 11. Bay Area ballet lovers have been waiting all year for San Francisco Ballet’s sixth program, the return of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy.

Shostakovich Trilogy enjoyed its West Coast premiere at the War Memorial Opera House last season and to say that the reaction was positive is an understatement. A tribute to the work of twentieth century composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Ratmansky’s three-act ballet weaves music and movement together like no other.

While Shostakovich Trilogy is certainly not a story ballet, saying it is completely abstract isn’t quite right either. In fact, each of the three acts communicates a wide variety of emotions, ideas and concepts.

Symphony #9 kicks off with a men’s quintet, led by Pascal Molat, who are quickly joined by five women, with Dores André in the lead. Ratmansky’s first choreographic statement is a love song to all types of movement – contemporary ballet, traditional vocabulary, folksy character, even social dance. From delicate hops on pointe to grand pas de poisson jumps, the entire first variation is both playful and whimsical. Narratively, the mood shifts as Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham begin their haunting duet. What had been light and lively suddenly morphs into ominous anticipation. In the last third of the ballet, Francisco Mungamba entered the scene with commanding regality. His gorgeous, controlled extensions were breathtaking, and as he directed the corps to join him, a sense of dramatic authority swept the stage.

San Francisco Ballet in Shostakovich Trilogy.  Photo Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Shostakovich Trilogy.
Photo Erik Tomasson

Act II brings Chamber Symphony – the most emotionally and narratively charged section of the trilogy. The ballet centers around a protagonist, danced with phenomenal abandon by Rubén Martín Cintas, who is caught in a tumultuous internal struggle. Pulled in multiple directions, chaos and torment unfold around him. Three women appear, feeding right into this theme; their presence ranging from flirtatious teasing to coy modesty to heartfelt affection. Of the three, soloist Dana Genshaft must be singled out. Genshaft is such a striking dancer. She has an uncanny ability to transmit everything (big or small) out into space and transitions between each step with such care and attention.

The final act of Shostakovich Trilogy is the vibrant Piano Concerto #1. While the scenic design, backdrop and costumes have a 1980s feel to them, the work is anything but dated. From start to finish, Piano Concerto #1 is completely unexpected. Lifts where the point of contact is the hipbone, Sofiane Sylve’s toe emerging from the wings, an inverted split balance, a throw in attitude, flat-footed swivel turns. After the main pas de quatre, all the dancers exit except Joan Boada, who welcomes the corps back to the stage and then does a backwards somersault into the wings. My favorite moment of surprise comes at the very end of the dance, when the two lead couples perform supported pirouettes downstage. This time, it is the men who are turning and the women who are in the driver’s seat.

April 11. Live musical accompaniment makes such a difference in dance performance. And if there was one choreographic work that was made for live music, it is Carmina burana. While it isn’t always possible, live music ups the ante of this dramatic ballet and infuses the movement with electricity. New dimensions of power and vibrancy abound, ones that just cannot be achieved or replicated with a recorded score.

This past Saturday, in a special one-night engagement, audiences could experience this phenomenon. Smuin Ballet performed Michael Smuin’s version of Carmina Burana (he capitalizes the ‘b’) in Berkeley with a huge musical aggregate: the UC Alumni Chorus, UC Men’s and Women’s Chorales, the Santa Barbara Choral Society, the San Francisco State University Percussion Ensemble, an instrumental chamber group, two pianists and three solo vocalists. As conductor Dr. Mark Sumner shared at the beginning of the performance, this was a special evening of artistic collaboration.

Smuin’s Carmina Burana is divided into multiple sub-sections that mirror the various musical chapters of the piece. Because of all the starts and stops, at times, the ballet can feel disjointed. But the live music solves that, and while they were still present (and some chapters had no dance at all), there was an overarching flow and fluidity to the work.

As the layered choral harmony hung in the air, Susan Roemer’s first solo viscerally haunted. Everything had an extra level of drama – her hands, her piqué turns, her balances on demi-pointe in second position demi-plié. Joshua Reynolds, Robert Moore and Jo-Ann Sundermeier’s pas de trois was a statement of simple elegance with its unison low attitude turns, supported developpés and extended arabesques. Another highlight was Nicole Haskins’ solo towards the end of the ballet. Haskins danced the variation with style, technique and aplomb, and while there are some beautiful choreographic phrases, the vignette does come across as a little too busy.

Some dramatic flair and narrative interpretation found its way into the featured vocal solos. In a purely choral concert, I can see how this works well, but with the dancers on stage at the same time, it was out of place. And on occasion, establishing the right tempo proved challenging. The dancers and musicians definitely settled into the tempo they both wanted, but it didn’t always start out that way.

(l-r) Katharine Hawthorne, Carson Stein (downstage) and Shannon Kurashige in Liss Fain Dance's A Space Divided.  Photo Benjamin Hersh

(l-r) Katharine Hawthorne, Carson Stein (downstage) and Shannon Kurashige in Liss Fain Dance’s A Space Divided.
Photo Benjamin Hersh

April 12. For Liss Fain Dance’s newest performance installation, Z Space was transformed. A house-like steel skeleton had been constructed on the stage with clear cellophane streamers acting as walls. Dedicated large grey squares were to be the dance areas. Benches were placed around the perimeter and there were black corridors between the various ‘stages’. Matthew Antaky’s scenic design spoke of a theme: partitioned but porous.

For the world premiere project, A Space Divided, Artistic Director Liss Fain and guest choreographers Christian Burns and Amy Seiwert each composed a choreographic response to Antaky’s set. The three dances were then woven together, one after the other, to create the hour-long work. And while A Space Divided is definitely an experiment in choreographic vision and interpretation, it is equally an exercise in viewership.

As with any artistic installation, the audience was encouraged to move around during the performance; to take in the work at different angles and from various perspectives. This turned the audience into active decision makers. Whether you chose to stay in one place or move, you had to not only make that choice, but also choose what scene or which dancers you were going to watch at any given moment.

Because A Space Divided had the work of three different choreographers, there were three sections within the dance. Yet even with lighting cues, music changes and shifts in the movement style, where one chapter stopped and the next one began wasn’t obvious. Which followed the original theme that had been established: partitioned but porous. A Space Divided was like a fluid stream of consciousness and investigation. I did try and figure out the breakdown, though. And in doing so, had some observations about each choreographic response.

Part one, choreographed by Christian Burns, varied in both movement and mood. Near the beginning, there was a sequence were unison phrases were thrown from performer to performer, like a game of catch. One dancer would begin the phrase in one room, would be joined by another dancer in a different space, then the first dancer would stop, a new dancer would join and the game continued on. The open doorways in Antaky’s set also had significance. Rather than solely facilitating a pathway between dance squares, Burns suggested through his choreography that these doors were a kind of invisible barrier. This segment concluded with a sense of community. The five-member ensemble gathered together in various configurations and performed cluster balances.

A wide-ranging trumpet underscored Amy Seiwert’s contribution. From dense chromatic scales to sweet harmonies to avant-garde non-note sounds, it set the scene perfectly for work that had similar breadth. Balletic steps were interspersed into the otherwise contemporary physicality, and the sculptural movement frequently dismantled in surprising ways.

In the final episode, Liss Fain took the choreographic helm. With a text-based score, this last section of the dance featured a real shift between parallel and turned out realities. Dancers Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige swiveled back and forth in plié from parallel attitude to turned out attitude. Positions of the feet also came into play – fifth moved to non-specific parallel, open fourth to sixth position. Again this took us back to the original theme of pliability and change. Fain also explored the doorways of Antaky’s set by placing dancers within these open structures. Feet straddled the line between rooms; arms on one side, body on the other. It was a strong statement of being and existing ‘in between’.

Liss Fain Dance’s company dancers must be applauded for their performance in A Space Divided. While there were moments of stillness and brief periods of being off-stage, all five were ‘on’ and active pretty much for the whole hour. But speaking of that sixty minutes, while the concept for A Space Divided was both successful and thought provoking, the piece was really too long.

Caprice (dancers here: Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan) .  Photo Eric Tomasson

Caprice (dancers here: Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan) .
Photo Eric Tomasson

April 16. Mixed repertory nights are sometimes constructed around a theme – maybe works by the same choreographer, of the same era, to the same composer or of a particular genre. And just as often, there is no unifying motif; the program is simply a combination of different dances. But there is also a third category. One where a common through line exists but is less obvious. San Francisco Ballet’s seventh program is a perfect example of this. The theme of the night was design, with each piece speaking equally of vast visual scope and intimate visual intricacies.

The triple bill opened with a reprise of 2014’s Caprice, by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and set to a diverse Saint-Saëns score. As exquisite columns of light adjust and shift to frame each of the ballet’s five movements, Tomasson’s ballet is all about elegance.

In the first sequence, Mathilde Froustey and Vitor Luiz’s series of arabesque lifts floated through space with regal splendor. Chapter two brought some stunning but telling double cabrioles by Sarah Van Patten and featured the most lovely stage exit. As Tiit Helimets carried Van Patten into the second wing stage left, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Sean Orza knelt down, arms outstretched, faces lifted upwards. Van Patten and Helimets returned in the third movement with an unexpected duet full of split lifts and upper body curves. While Caprice really shone in these featured duets, the corps struggled with unison on Thursday evening. The elegance of Caprice requires clarity and because the unison was off, that clarity was compromised.

A work of neo-classical brilliance, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments continued the design-based theme by exploring the physical possibilities within classical ballet vocabulary. From the opening themes to the final Choleric variation, Balanchine creates physical architecture in this masterwork. Examining the shapes that can be made, the images sculpted, the surprising steps (bent leg work on pointe, a vast presence of second position, flexed hands, hips and shoulders that are no longer square). Even today, almost seventy years after the work premiered, The Four Temperaments still pushes boundaries and seeks to understand what ballet can do and what ballet can look like.

San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's <i>Swimmer</i>.  Photo Eric Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer.
Photo Eric Tomasson

Onto the only world premiere and the most designed dance of the evening, Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer. A solo trumpet sings from the orchestra pit, a see through screen reveals a mid-century modern domestic scene and almost immediately, the scrim comes alive with video (by Kate Duhamel). From that moment on, the choreography and the interactive videography works in tandem to communicate a deep narrative – one character’s clash with circumstance and his journey through the reality of responsibility and the fantasy of youth.

There is much to love about Swimmer. Duhamel’s video design is used to connect the various segments, which give continuity. Choreographically, the quiet pas de deux (Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham) is a statement of gorgeous nostalgia. The powerful men’s variation towards the end of the ballet drew audible gasps from the audience, and of course, Vitor Luiz gave a transformative performance as the central character.

In modern dance, there is a lot of discussion about the genre of dance theater. It’s super trendy and happens everywhere in the contemporary scene. Possokhov’s Swimmer is not dance theater, but a wonderful model of
something even rarer – ballet theater.

April 18. Paul Taylor Dance Company was back in the Bay Area, presented by San Francisco Performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The last two days of their five-performance engagement brought Program C, a collection of four Taylor compositions dating from 1961 to 2006. It is always a privilege to see work from this iconic modern dance master, though this evening was a bit of a mixed bag.

A tree structure comprised of multi-colored net falls stage right. Two men appear wearing a futuristic combination of swimwear, fencing and wrestling attire. Two women join the strange scene clad completely in white, including white face paint and white bonnets. This is Taylor’s Fibers, a quartet that first premiered back in 1961. Choreographically, old-school modern dance dominates the action: defined arm positions, stag leaps, fourth position spirals, parallel sissones and assemblés. The choreographic clarity is wonderful to see but the piece’s bizarre visuals really take away from the movement’s physical power. Not everything choreographed in the 1960s looks dated, but Fibers does; and so, felt like an odd choice to open the program.

(l-r) Michael Novak, Eran Brugge, Michael Trusnovec, James Samson and Heather McGinley in Esplanade. Photo Paul B. Goode

(l-r) Michael Novak, Eran Brugge, Michael Trusnovec, James Samson and Heather McGinley in Esplanade.
Photo Paul B. Goode

After a brief pause, the company danced an abridged version of Taylor’s Troilus and Cressida from 2006. Here, a completely different mood took over; one of whimsy, humor and farce. Dancers trip, costumes fall off, and one character is sloppily drunk, all on purpose. The audience loved it, but it’s a little too over the top, full of obvious and pointed jokes.

Everything changed in the second act with 1997’s Eventide. Taylor’s ensemble work for ten dancers is absolutely lovely. Nostalgic grace flows as the couples sway back and forth, gently hold hands and traveled in circular pathways. As Eventide advances through each of its seven movements, this comforting presence holds true. With the cast spending most of their time arranged in couples, relationships take center stage. Yet there is still a variety of experience ranging from youthful exuberance to mature discernment. And on a complete side note, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has the best bows – speed combined with awareness and utmost professionalism.

Program C closed with Taylor’s 1975 dissertation on continuous movement, Esplanade. Each dancer had a vibrant spring in their gait, fueled by the pivot turns, ball changes, grapevines and contretemps that permeate the choreography. Esplanade harnesses a sense of innocent wonder and often looks like children playing: circle games, chase, tag and the famed leap frog sequence. The second movement provides contrast by inching into a darker space with images of rigidity and isolation. But this only lasts for a short time. Jumping, running, sliding, rolling and spinning return in the finale, with a complete celebration of abandon. There is just one curious presence in the dance, that of the ninth cast member who only appears briefly during the second chapter. And after the women of the company spent three dances wearing footless stark white tights, it was a pleasant change to see them in bright and airy pastel dresses.

Looking ahead: A few of the many performances in the San Francisco/Bay Area this May…

San Francisco Ballet, Romeo & Juliet, War Memorial Opera House (May 1-10)

Smuin Ballet, Unlaced, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (May 8-17)

Robert Moses’ Kin, SILT, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (May 14-17)

Oakland Ballet, 50th Anniversary, Paramount Theatre (May 23)

Hope Mohr Dance, ODC Theater (May 28-31)