Glowing in beautiful light
by Paul Parish
After presenting the Hamburg Ballet as guest artists, San Francisco Ballet continued their season with a pair of mixed bills that opened last week and continues its run through March 2 this coming weekend. The company is dancing very well indeed; your reviewer caught Program 2 last Friday night at the Opera House, where all three ballets glowed in beautiful light, handsomely staged and costumed, and well-accompanied by the ballet's own orchestra. The ballets were Tears (Val Caniparoli), From Foreign Lands (Alexei Ratmansky), and Borderlands (Wayne McGregor).
The program was hit-and-miss. None of the ballets quite came together, although individual dancers provided staggering moments all across the evening: Miles Thatcher's visionary jumps in Tears, Daniel Deivison-Oleivera's Rock of Gibraltar stance in the same piece, Dores Andre's astounding splits on pointe in Borderlands. If her legs had been hands on a clock, they'd have pointed to 10 past six!
Applause was tepid but respectful for Caniparoli's world premiere. It's a noble failure. The audience knows and loves him and talks of him as "Val," since he's been dancing and choreographing here for decades and still dances Drosselmeyer, Juliet's father, the Prince's tutor in Swan Lake, and Cinderella. He's made a number of popular ballets, noticeably Lambarena, which is now danced by companies all over the world. This is his most experimental work yet, an abstraction about the interconnectedness of everybody and everything, apparently inspired by water, with ambitions to be a ballerina vehicle for our Cuban star Lorena Feijoo, set to Steve Reich's chirpy Variations for Winds and Keyboards. If the piece had not started in deep gloom to the sound of rain, I'd never have guessed it had anything to do with water in it.
The dancers have to fight the music, a barrage of bright points of sound with no rhythm. Counterculture dance-makers in the 60s used music like that for hypnotic whirling-dervish ballets, but Caniparoli's piece seems to have human urgencies (clasping at the throat, upthrust arms, intricate partnering) that ask to be taken emotionally, though the gestures are applied almost at random and tell no story. Vitor Luiz was Feijoo's reliable partner, and Ellen Rose Hummel was Deivison's. The four men, who sometimes rolled onto the stage under a railing stage right and did the most interesting things, were Gaetano Amico, Benjamin Stewart, Sean Orza, and Thatcher.
Most of these also appeared in the finale, Borderlands, an abstract piece with even more extreme distortions and dissociations of ballet logic by the Englishman Wayne McGregor, whose version of hyperballet involves infusing drastic pelvic, rib, and shoulder convulsions with the technique of classical ballet. All set to rhythmless, pounding piano-chords and caustic strobe-lights. Tiit Helimets had a solo in which he suddenly made all his moves precious. I took it as an act of defiance, and loved it. Henry Sidford, Luke Willis, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Jennifer Stahl all had outstanding moments in which they made this material their own.
The middle ballet, Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands, is a superb piece of light entertainment made in the style of character ballet. It's a suite of dances of the Eastern-European suppressed peoples in the Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian styles, folks who'd had their countries overrun by the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian empires. So these idioms all have politics to them, and the "cheerful local-color" aspect of them may be understood to be brightly phony.
We have only to look at the rioting in Kiev to remember that suppressed peoples are not as cheerfully submissive as the commissars in Moscow like to pretend. It's not irrelevant that Kiev is where Ratmansky had his big career as a dancer; his talent was maybe too ironic for Moscow in the 1980s. Ratmansky's work has potential for caustic edge. Though he does not bring out that edge in From Foreign Lands, there is a lot of subversiveness in the wit that plays throughout. The orchestra did not play it well, the dancers fudged too many steps, and our audience is not quite familiar with Ratmansky's idiom. In any case, the piece puzzled the audience, though they gave it healthy applause. The dancers I thought "got it" best on Friday were Hansuke Yamamoto, Luke Willis, Steven Morse, Simone Messmer, and the adorable Mathilde Froustey.
Ratmansky, born in Leningrad, trained at the Bolshoi, but had his career as a dancer in Kiev and Denmark before being welcomed back to the post-Communist, liberated Bolshoi as artistic director in the 1990s, where he made outrageous reconstructions of Soviet-era ballets, gave aid and comfort to the rebellious Georgian Ballet, commissioned new work and promoted brilliant young dancers like Osipova and Vasiliev before getting threatened enough to leave. He is perhaps the finest choreographer alive working within classical tradition, but he's doing it in the demi-caractere idiom, not the Soviet heroic idiom. So he's a little hard for us to take in. Ratmansky's Shostakovich trilogy, set to profound, harrowing symphonies by the composer Stalin persecuted his whole life, is upcoming on Program 5. It's been seen in New York and noted with wonder and awe. It also seems to use a lot of folk-idiom. We'll have to see how our dancers interpret it.
Meantime, go see Yuri Possokhov's fabulous restaging of the Diaghilev-era Firebird (Stravinsky's score) on SFB's Program 3, which alternates with #2 continuing through Sunday, and see how an expat Russian makes a version of this old Russian folk-tale that saves everything wonderful about it, and makes fantastic use of the same folk-dance materials that Ratmansky uses, to turn it into something any American kid could relate to. If our dancers don't quite get Ratmansky's idiom, they do understand Possokhov's, since he's lived and worked here with them for two decades, and they're going to tear it up.