Heather Desaulniers

  • San Francisco Ballet – The Colors of Dance
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • San Francisco Ballet – Cinderella
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
  • Cal Performances presents
    Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
    Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

San Francisco Ballet in
Tomasson’s 7 For Eight
Photo Lindsay Thomas

March 18th, 2023 (matinee) – San Francisco Ballet’s 90th season has been epic thus far. First, an astonishing festival of new works; next, an injection of fresh energy into Giselle. Later this season, audiences can look forward to two more mammoth full-length classics: Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet. Sandwiched in the middle of all this deliciousness was Program 3, a mixed repertory collection dubbed The Colors of Dance. 

First up on this charming triple bill was 7 For Eight, a 2004 composition by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. 7 For Eight is the epitome of a neo-classical suite, very Balanchine-esque in both flavor and look. It emits soothing, pleasant tones, never asking too much of the audience (other than to bear witness to the lovely movement). Neo-classical tenets abound throughout the thirty-minute work. There is no linear story, though the ballet still had emotive tones of drama, playfulness and spirit. The choreography has speed, particularly prominent in the second episode’s pas de deux, danced on Saturday afternoon by Julia Rowe and Mingxuan Wang. Physicality converses deeply with J.S. Bach’s Baroque score, sometimes even matching a strong chord or a staccato accent. Delightful surprises peppered the choreographic language, like double attitude jumps, upper body contractions, partnered slides and sudden, sharp directional shifts. 

Esteban Hernández’ solo variation (the 5th chapter) was by far, the star of the piece. Crisp, clean and resolute, every motion, every step sparkled. Lofty briseés, elastic sissones, textbook batterie and jumping turns that seemed to defy gravity. As expected with a neo-classical work, the design elements were pared down, so as to not distract from the movement. Though at the same time, it was unexpected that this piece was chosen as the opening for The Colors of Dance program. Overall, 7 For Eight is missing much visual color, making that choice somewhat curious. 

San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher’s Colorforms
Photo Lindsay Thomas

In contrast, Myles Thatcher’s Colorforms was an explosion of vibrancy, particularly Jim French’s lighting design and Susan Roemer’s costumes. The film version of Colorforms (filmed in and around the SFMOMA) originally premiered as part of SFB’s 2021 virtual season and was adapted to the War Memorial stage for this program. French’s scenic design was phenomenal and accomplished two important goals. His large frame structures and movable viewing benches not only captured the sense of place (the art gallery), but also helped solidify the layered theme of the viewership lens. We, the audience, certainly had a lens into what was happening onstage, but his set also allowed the dancers to have their own unique experience as both performer and viewer. Like 7 For Eight, Colorforms doesn’t appear to be telling a story, though it does have several tonal throughlines that come across in the scenework and choreography. First and foremost was joy. Every moment was so full of delight. And, befitting the art gallery container, there was also a sense of noticing, of curiosity, of exploration. Several choreographic moments shone, like the picturesque vignettes that the cast had to create as a collective, and the stunning unison near the end. 

Nikisha Fogo and Joseph Walsh in
Forsythe’s Blake Works I
Photo Lindsay Thomas

William Forsythe’s Blake Works I (2016) held the final place in The Colors of Dance, the largest ensemble piece on the program. The suite of dances is set to a James Blake score, a recorded collection that oscillated between R&B, jazz, hip hop and electronic dance music. Against that changeable frame, Forsythe introduced classroom ballet exercises with a twist. While dancers (clad in beautiful light blue costumes) cycled through the positions of the body, a hip might swivel. The transfer of weight in temps lié investigated both external and internal rotation. Port de bras was embellished; one sequence even had a distinctively macarena feel to it. It was academic phrase material, re-imagined. Blake Works I was fun and dynamic, save for the number of internal stops and starts. And while there were leads and featured sequences, the ballet is definitely an ensemble piece, and so, not surprisingly, it was strongest and most captivating when most of the dancers were onstage.  

April 1st, 2023 (matinee) – When a ballet has been part of a company’s repertoire for quite some time, there is an upside of familiarity. Audiences know the story, the visuals, the choreography. The downside is that the work can start to feel stale after a while. But one full-length narrative that will never fall victim to time is Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. A co-production of SFB and Dutch National Ballet, this Cinderella has vibrancy to spare. Stunning landscapes, humor, a wild cast of characters, innovative design and the choreographic backbone that this familiar fairy tale needs. Cinderella saw its US premiere at SFB on May 3, 2013, and even though a decade has passed, the work’s ingenuity has rendered it ageless. 

Like many story ballets, Act I has much narrative exposition. We meet the main characters; come to understand their respective situations and learn what motivates them. In Wheeldon’s version, that begins with a prelude of sorts, where the viewer encounters the leads as children. We see Cinderella lose her mother, and the onset of her protection by the four Fates (the Fairy Godmother character reimagined). We meet her new family and witness how their jealousy dominates and decimates Cinderella’s life. We are transported to the palace where Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin are, as children, already battling notions and assumptions of duty and responsibility. And as the Act moves on, and the leads grow up, there’s mistaken identity. Invitations to a ball. A forest bubbling with color, energy and animation.

There were several special moments throughout this initial Act, especially from SFB soloist Isabella DeVivo, who debuted in the titular role on Saturday afternoon. Cinderella’s first solo at her mother’s grave is one of my favorite dance moments in the ballet, and DeVivo displayed such command and range. It feels like an intimate conversation between Cinderella and her mother – an opportunity to share about her life, her dreams, her fears. As such, the choreography is thematically and tonally nuanced. There’s joy, wistfulness, longing and grief and DeVivo delivered on all fronts. 

Elizabeth Mateer was fantastic as the severe, unforgiving (and in Act II, the drunk) stepmother, perhaps the best portrayal of that character since the ballet’s premiere. And Kamryn Baldwin and Jasmine Jimison were delightfully cringeworthy as Cinderella’s stepsisters. In the forest, before transforming for the ball, Cinderella happens upon a mélange of characters, led by the seasonal variations. Spring sparkles with buoyancy and spirit, while Summer’s circular, swinging choreography floats with vastness. Fiery and dramatic, Autumn’s footwork is all spice, and Winter closes things out with elegant coolness. Cinderella’s transport to the ball is a phenomenal visual effect, concluding an Act where much happens, and maybe a few too many characters appear in the final scene.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella
Photo Lindsay Thomas

Next, we arrive at the palace’s grand ballroom for more action, fun and romance. The churlish stepsisters desperately try to one up each other to impress the Prince (Joseph Walsh), the stepmother has her gloriously tipsy solo and sparks fly between Jimison’s Clementine and Hansuke Yamamoto’s Benjamin. But what makes Act II special are the duets and solos by DeVivo and Walsh. Innocence, grace and curiosity informed all their partnering. Relevés were confident and secure. Each phrase had an undeniable ‘swept off your feet’ tone – DeVivo skimming the stage with every lift, turn and gentle hop. Act II does drag a bit from time to time and the corps’ segments needed some attention. Their opening waltz sequence is another favorite dance moment of mine in this ballet, but on Saturday afternoon, coordination and timing was a bit elusive for the group. 

The final Act of Wheeldon’s Cinderella is all about finding the foot that fits the golden slipper left behind at the ball. After many humorous attempts, it is discovered that Cinderella is the owner of that shoe, and the love story is fully realized. Cinderella and the Prince’s final pas de deux celebrates that love, certainly. Though it also reveals another layer or level to their journey – freedom and choice. In the end, their triumph is that they have the freedom to choose each other; to live the life they want and to be happy on their own terms.

April 15th, 2023 (matinee) – Spring in the Bay Area has much to offer. Generally, the weather is pretty good. Flowers are blooming. The farmer’s markets are flush with new, exciting produce and longer days equal more time outside. It is also one of the best times of the year for the performing arts, especially dance. San Francisco Ballet is usually in the final programs of its season, Smuin Ballet is into its second dance series and there’s a plethora of contemporary work to take in. But by far, my favorite thing about Bay Area spring dance is the annual return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Cal Performances. Every year, their weeklong residency absolutely wows and delights the UC Berkeley community. And this year was no exception. As has come to be the custom, the company brought three unique programs to the Zellerbach stage. I was lucky enough to catch Program C, an epic, iconic quadruple bill of work by Founder Alvin Ailey and current Artistic Director Robert Battle.

Program C opened with Ailey’s Night Creature, a 1974 mini-suite set to Duke Ellington selections. The nocturnal atmosphere was undeniable – a constellation lighting effect projected across the back cyc framed sparkling costumes of layered purples, greens and blues. The movement followed that same sense of collage with different vocabulary coming together to form a complete whole. Over Night Creature’s continuous three movements, many styles and genres were mined. 70s jazz with its sultry hips, slinky step-ball-changes and layouts; modern contractions, spirals and Horton laterals. Soft shoe influences. Classical ballet petit allegro and pas de chat. And while very different physicality, everything worked together so well. From lights up to the final cluster pose, Night Creature both mesmerized and captivated. And the Ailey dancers more than delivered in this technically challenging work. The music could have been a little quieter at the beginning, but it seemed like the booth adjusted as the piece wore on. 

Battle’s 2021 For Four also had music front and center. A compact, effervescent quartet, danced at this performance by Alisha Rena Peek, Xavier Mack, Deidre Rogan and Hannah Alissa Richardson, For Four celebrates the musical genius of Wynton Marsalis. At first, I wondered if each of the dancers might be following the line of one particular instrument, but as the piece developed, it seemed that their choreography, entrances and exits were more tied to specific musical phrases. Like the score, motifs recurred. Pointed fingers, knee falls, chaîné turns with goalpost arms. And while there were duets and trios throughout, each dancer also had a chance to solo mirroring the keyboards, saxophones and brass sections in Marsalis’ composition. 

Pictured: Jacquelin Harris
Photo Dario Calmese

The iconic moments continued as Jacquelin Harris performed Ailey’s 1971 Cry, a haunting, potent solo made famous by the incomparable Judith Jamison. The program note for Cry shares this, “For all Black women everywhere-especially our mothers.” And the dance that Ailey crafted with that inspiration is both formidable and layered. Emotional tones varied – despair, hopelessness, realization and suffering met with resiliency, perseverance and at the end of the piece, joy. Harris reached along the diagonal before contracting inward; she strode forward in power before slowly curling down to the floor. Circular movements of the arms and upper torso took the focus towards the heavens. Cry communicates deep spiritual prayer and the brave act of remembering and on Saturday afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. 

Revelations (1960) closed the afternoon at Zellerbach Hall and it was no surprise that applause rang out before the curtain even went up. Like many AAADT fans, I’ve seen Revelations many times and have commented on multiple aspects of Ailey’s modern masterwork set to a collection of spirituals. Rather than repeat some of those thoughts, it seems fitting to revisit just a few of Revelations’ extraordinary, iconic moments. The opening wedge formation with its arm and palm choreography is simply thrilling. As are the gravity-defying back hinges that pepper much of Revelations’ first chapter. The écarté promenade and the final partnered pose are just two of the reasons why Fix Me, Jesus is so special. There’s the boat pose progression of I Wanna Be Ready; the double stag leaps of Sinner Man; and the bright yellow sun that ushers in that last scene. And truly, every instant of the finale, Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham transports the audience to an entirely joyous plane.