Hot choreography at the ballet
by Paul Parish
San Francisco Ballet opened its winter season last week with two programs of mixed bills, each of which featured a world premiere by a hot choreographer. The new works got pride of place and closed each program; both were wildly successful, unrelentingly intense, and looked completely different from each other.
The whole orchestra floor stood up and cheered at the end of Fearful Symmetries, Liam Scarlett's new ballet, to the eponymous score by John Adams. Though it's not a great ballet, it is very easy to like: the movement is sumptuous, the look is glamorously noir, and the mood is "I want to be bad." The costumes are black hot pants that look like something a teenager could barely afford – I'm sure they're not pleather, but they look like it – with a variety of black lurex tops. And the whole thing takes place in the dark, as if at a rave, with a few fluorescent lights glaring in our eyes, so the dancers are lit from above and behind, and we can almost never tell who we're looking at. It's like abandoned club dancing, nonstop, sexy, with virtuoso passages rising out of nowhere pretty much the way they do when you're out clubbing and a song comes on you can really groove to.
Adams' music is almost a parody of Philip Glass. The phrases pulsate with mind-numbing symmetry, yet the accents are shrewdly placed – sometimes the tubas blat like a Bronx cheer, sometimes they sparkle or squeak, and sometimes a wave of sound builds to an astonishing power – which Scarlett exploits with lifts and tosses that catch the emphasis and give the music a visible white-cap, or even a breaking curl.
It was halfway into the piece before I realized the women were not wearing pointe shoes. Their feet in jumps and lifts were thrillingly pointed, but that's no problem when the foot is not weight-bearing – but the characteristic posture is to have the knee of the standing leg en fondu – which is ballet for melted, and in this case it was as scrumptious as any fondue I've eaten. The ability to bend your knees easily and deeply is proverbially the province of the young and athletic – and the prevailing use of fondu in the piece probably contributes more than anything else to creating an ethos of young people throwing their collective fate to the wind.
The silhouette of the ballet is low, and the heroic principal dancer Carlos Quenedit spent a great deal of time on his knees (his costume sported black kneepads, which seemed as cool as the black markings on football players' cheekbones), hoisting a woman I could never identify but who seemed to be extending herself in ecstasies.
After much aerobic expense of energy, the music rose into a calmer, more sparkling realm,, and a more refined pas de deux, almost an apotheosis, costumed in silver, closed the dance in a mood of luxe et volupte, all passion spent. Outstanding among the dancers were Joseph Walsh, Lonnie Weeks, Kimberly Braylock Olivier, Isabella De Vivo, and the final couple, Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan.
Fearful Symmetries was night-people, dark and low-down. William Forsythe's Pas/Parts 2016, a near-total remaking of a ballet he'd created on the Paris Opera Ballet decades ago, was brilliantly lit, tense, sharp, pulled-up, and so thoroughly based in classical ballet technique it could be called hyper-classical. PP2016 is a formidable piece, astringent where FS is juicy, shocking in its clarity and in the exactness of execution it requires, and it flashes past us so fast we don't know what hit us. The dancers meet themselves coming and going. They'll make a half-turn, take a step, and about-face again, maybe to a three-quarters view, always measuring precisely how much, and staying focused no matter how arbitrary the requirements seem. It's astonishing how interesting Forsythe can make these patterns, and equally hard to believe people can move so fast without colliding – much less a whole group of people. The pattern of it all resembles a painting by Jackson Pollock.
Like Scarlett, Forsythe created an ethnos – a world of creatures, like a school of fish or a flock of birds, who have a group mind and a way of moving all their own. Forsythe's folk flash like fish – when they turn they disappear, and when they're back they're clearly the same but different.
Forsythe always creates a whole look – costumes, set, lighting, and movement are all his. This piece looks like Agon, but with some color – the women's leotards are black in front, but tan (or blue, and I think I saw red) from the back, which makes them flash as they turn, and flattens out their images almost like playing cards. The men wore dark tights and looser tops; James Sofranko and Wei Wang, who often did the same steps in mirror image, wore loose long-sleeved green T-shirts, which created a kaleidoscopic effect when they flashed about in synch on opposite sides of the stage.
First among equals here was the brilliant Sofiane Sylve, a sphinx-like ballerina who can always make cryptic movement seem to have a thrilling subtext. Equally dazzling were Carlo di Lanno, Frances Chung, Dores Andre, Yuan Yuan Tan, Diego Cruz, Joseph Walsh, and Wei Wang.
The whole of Program 1 was wonderful; Helgi Tomasson's best work, Seven for Eight, was immaculately danced to Bach's keyboard music (excellent work by pianist Mungunchimeg Buriad). Yuri Possokhov's striking Magrittomania was extremely well-danced.
I'm told that opening night of Program 2 was better danced than the performance I saw, when Rubies didn't sparkle all the way, though Vanessa Zahorian brought wit and Broadway chutzpah to her role, which is steeped in Broadway style and needs it.
Mark Morris' Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes is an ideal work, more beautiful than it can be danced. It's a piano ballet, a suite of dances set to some of Virgil Thomson's perverse and wonderful etudes. The pianist Friday night did not understand that the melody for the last dance ("Tenor lead") lies in an inner voice. "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes" was once a well-known tune, like "Greensleeves," and it should sing out; but she buried the melody under the soprano line, an astonishing mistake. The dancers did more or less well enough; the men saved it, especially Pascal Molat (though he made it too "French"), Max Cauthorn and Myles Thatcher, and Wei Wang, who could not have been surpassed.