This review appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted by permission.
In this age when international companies collect hot choreographers like blue chip painters, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson does a shrewd job of keeping up with the Joneses. This year saw the company acquire a re-choreographed Forsythe and add premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck to its gallery of Ratmanskys and Wheeldons. But for all the high-buzz offerings, an un-trendy masterpiece marked the season’s pinnacle. The company danced Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” with such crystalline intensity that the atmosphere of the War Memorial Opera House felt cleansed at the sub-atomic level.
San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and Guennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.” Photo by Erik Tomasson.
In the cast I caught, Guennadi Nedvigin and Maria Kochetkova were the principals — Nedvigin filling out his final season in undiminished form (the 19-year SFB vet becomes artistic director of Atlanta Ballet in the fall), Kochetkova solidifying her MVP status. It was a luxury to witness Nedvigin’s feather-soft landings and un-effortful power, and a relief to see Kochetkova, who in past seasons has played up her perfectly proportioned pint-sized cuteness, deliver a casually dignified interpretation that, in its alternations of fleetness and slow-motion grandeur, reminded one of a miniaturized Merrill Ashley.
But the real thrill of this staging by Elyse Borne was the ensemble, led by Jahna Frantzisknokis and Lauren Strongin as the demi-soloists. All the women were beautifully turned-out, vibrating with energy, and right on the forward edge of the music. The late-surging men matched them with refined vigor. Indeed, this season seemed to be about the reinvigoration of the SFB corps, casting new sublimities of unified epaulement in Tomasson’s version of “Swan Lake,” achieving a precision of twisty plastique in Wheeldon’s frenetic “Rush” (a 2003 ballet that has aged surprisingly well), and providing the youthful fuel for Peck’s much-publicized premiere, “In the Countenance of Kings.”
San Francisco Ballet in Justin Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings.” Photo by Erik Tomasson.
I can see why the SFB subscriber base gave such enamored ovations for Peck’s first Bay Area commission. The ensemble clumps and swirls, the fist-pumping runs between jazzy bursts of busy turns and developpes: The ballet lets the dancers be themselves, which is to say, let them romp around like attractive, superhumanly athletic twenty-somethings. Emblematic is the moment, toward “Kings’s” end, when all 18 dancers roll to the floor at the lip of the stage and face us with their chins on their elbows. “Here we are, the real us, just kids!” they seem to say. I wanted so badly to be endeared. But I needed just a dollop of depth.
The score for “Kings” is an orchestrated version of alt-pop songwriter Sufjian Stevens’ looping and twittering “BQE.” It’s named after the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but in this rambling sonic environment (which sounds unnervingly ersatz in the pop-percussion heavy orchestration) the large ensemble looked not so much like city strivers as over-eager college freshmen. Joseph Walsh’s solos as “The Lyrical Seeker” — an allegorical designation as superfluous as it is pseudo-profound — are full of earnest arms-held-skyward chaine turns. The duets for Walsh and Dores Andre, and for Andre and Frances Chung, leave not one poetically suggestive gesture or phrase in the memory. At midpoint, the men began tossing the women left and right in little sauté arabesques, a contagious repetition that cleverly caught the syncopation of the music. More such obsessively precise formalism would have been welcome. But Peck does not (yet?) seem driven by an inner compulsion to investigate either the intricacies of his scores or the complex bittersweetness of human relations.
Like Jerome Robbins, Peck has a sense of community ethos, and like Robbins’ “Glass Pieces,” “Kings” simulates the rush of city life. But it offers no mystery beneath the frenzy — no private vulnerabilities beneath the social exuberance. Joan Acocella has written that Peck does not yet know how to choreograph a pas de deux, a pithy summation of the problem, but that’s a bit like saying an otherwise gifted novelist doesn’t know how to write an emotionally engaging scene. The art isn’t just missing the final touch that would elevate it; it’s missing a core of meaning. If Peck is going to continue being commissioned at such a rate, I hope he will first take some time off to develop a deeper vision of, well, “the human condition” — and its emotional paradoxes and dilemmas — that would give his fluent chains of busy movement something to say.
Among the surface-y offerings SFB put forth this season, I slightly preferred Scarlett’s “Fearful Symmetries,” to the oft-choreographed John Adams score, because it gave one the amusement of watching the audience get hot under the collar. Think of it as a dystopian, minimalist, Chippendales routine. Joseph Walsh slithered about in leatherette hot pants and a jacket snapped at the collar but cut away high above his pecs to encourage admiration of the washboard abs. (Costumes by Jon Morrell.) An ensemble of 12 in urban apocalyptic black rolled to the floor a lot; Lauren Strongin emerged as queen of the slinky shoulders and gyrating hips. A bizarre treatment of the coda brought Vanessa Zahorian and corps member John-Paul Simoens out in white for a sentimental finale.
Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Photo by Erik Tomasson.
Walsh and Strongin were the dancers to watch all season. He joined from Houston Ballet in 2015, and announced his astonishing charisma as the brown boy in “Dances at a Gathering.” Of medium height, with dare-devil eyes and Elvis-worthy hair, he can dance with weighted fluidity in the contemporary rep, and oozed a natural connection to his fellow cast members in two of this season’s most moving revivals, Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” and Mark Morris’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.” But Walsh also has the classical chops to make an outstanding Franz in Balanchine’s “Coppelia,” and he delivered perfect partnership timing with his Swanilda, Andre, making confident work of her first evening-length starring role.
Strongin, Walsh’s wife, followed him to San Francisco just this year, as a soloist. After catching her as the main ballerina in “Rubies,” I suspect she will join her spouse in the upper ranks soon. She is fine-boned, with delicately articulated legs, but she is strong, bounding, full of a wit that seems to be finding the little inside jokes within the steps, not super-imposing hamminess.
Plenty of other young dancers staked their claim to San Francisco Ballet’s future this season. Corps members Esteban Hernandez, Julia Rowe, and Frantziskonis made a powerhouse trio in the “Swan Lake” act 1 pas de trois. Rowe is fast and precise in petite allegro in a way SFB hasn’t seen since the retirement of the great Tina LeBlanc. Soloist Carlo di Lanno, trained at La Scala, made a tepid Siegfried with commanding Sofiane Sylve as his Odette, but his purity of movement and transparency of affect was alternately surprising and touching in Morris’s “Drink to Me” and Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts 2016.”
Among the dependable vets, Taras Domitro was a one-man, Zorro-like sensation in the finale of an otherwise sloppily danced revival of Tomasson’s “Prism.” Lorena Feijoo, technically in decline, brought moving maturity to “Seven Sonatas,” and Vitor Luiz carried the melodramatic weight of John Cranko’s “Onegin” with commendable commitment to its dramaturgical emptiness. I especially regret that I was not able to see Mathilde Froustey’s “Swan Lake,” and I’ve told you nothing of the romp Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan had in it during the final matinee of the six-cast run. There were ballets to wish you’d missed this past season — the less said of resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s “Swimmer” and “Magrittomania,” the better — but as for SFB’s dancers one could only lament not seeing them all.
San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 season runs January 19-May 7th at the War Memorial Opera House and includes encore presentations of Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts 2016,” Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings,” Scarlett’s “Fearful Symmetries,” and Tomasson’s staging of “Swan Lake.” Information at www.sfballet.org.
For more on Ballet Review, the international quarterly where this review first appeared, visit www.balletreview.com.