San Francisco Ballet Program Seven, 2017: Julia Rowe, Esteban Hernandez, and Myles Thatcher on the Rise

This review appeared in the Winter 2017–2018 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted by permission.

Sasha De Sola in Myles Thatcher’s Ghost in the Machine. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

At SFB, there seems to be a young talent for every flavor of virtuosity you might crave these days. Here is who you should know: Julia Rowe, a spring-loaded petite allegro wonder with the finest sense of rubato I’ve seen at SFB since the days of Tina LeBlanc; Esteban Hernandez, a cherub-faced swashbuckler with great freedom in his jumps and greater control in his pirouettes; and Francisco Mungamba, a slinky, sly changeling who excels in Forsythe and any work that calls for liquid hips. Crowning this rising generation are Dores Andre and Sasha De Sola — the brunette Andre a Vogue-worthy dramatist, the blonde De Sola a perfectionist princess technician — both cultivated from the corps, both recently made principal.

De Sola was the center of the evening’s headline offering, Ghost in the Machine, but Rowe was its breakout fascination. This premiere was the second for SFB by Myles Thatcher, a corps member whose forays into choreography for the San Francisco Ballet School were so promising that the Rolex Mentor and Protégé program picked in 2014 to be partnered with Alexei Ratmansky. Right now, Thatcher’s facility for kaleidoscopically swirling ensembles around the stage remains dominant, while his influences remain a mélange. Set to the saxophone-driven minimalist music of Michael Nyman, Ghost in the Machine dressed its ensemble of twelve in long-sleeved tops and bare-legged bikini bottoms (sleekly designed by Susan Roemer), evoking the pelvis and inner-thigh fixated aesthetic of Wayne McGregor without going for his level of dystopian disjointedness.

Rather, there’s a touch of Justin Peck’s qualities in the youthful exuberance of the gestures and the constant motion around all the stage space, framed, in this ballet, by scenic designer Alexander V. Nichols’ overhead sculpture of swooping vectors. Both Peck and Thatcher clearly absorbed their share of Jerome Robbins: In the middle of Ghost in the Machine comes a passage of the dancers determinedly striding across the stage like city commuters, a la Robbins’ Glass Pieces. Then, too, there’s possibly something of Ratmansky’s influence in the non-hierarchical, community-oriented way dancers enter and exit the stage.

The most exciting part of the ballet was the first third. Rowe stalked on to face down Jaime Garcia Castilla; then they shoved each other. The duet that followed was like a gang fight, with Rowe doing more of the pushing than Castilla, outbursts of resentment followed by passages of twisty, twining lifts. When the full ensemble came on, you might have thought you were witnessing the rumble from “West Side Story.” A kind of swimming-arm motif caught the snaky groove of the music, with the orchestra producing a big, deep sound. It was all most engaging.

Unfortunately, Thatcher built the ballet on an emotional arc he wasn’t able to complete without getting corny. De Sola entered this mess of embattled humanity looking up to the sky, searching worriedly, and often bringing her hand to her cheek as though about to crack up. She did this with total sincerity, and a nuanced progression from warring mobs to community cooperation — passing Hernandez down a line of dancers, for instance — carried the ballet’s middle.

At the end, however, when a motif of the dancers caressing themselves evolved, pointedly, into the dancers hugging each other — and the dancers very earnestly passing this hug one to another down a line — the “Up with People” messaging became too on the nose for comfort. De Sola stood at the center of the climatic group hug with commendable innocence, though. And I haven’t even mentioned elegant Carlo di Lanno, dancing throughout with eyes mostly downcast, a moody shapeshifter who initiated the hug-fest by embracing Hernandez with unfeigned tenderness.

The evening began with artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Trio, to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence string septet, again with De Sola at the center, dancing the first movement with velvety musicality opposite Vitor Luiz. The second movement of this mostly unmemorable ballet is rather clever: A twist on the “Dark Angel” passage of Balanchine’s Serenade. Rather than another woman coming on stage to lead the man away, a shadow man breezes in and out during the sneaky between-melody stirrings: tempestuous Aaron Robinson calling Andre away from adoring Tiit Helimets. This passage was perfectly cast, and surprisingly touching.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Christopher Wheeldon’s In the Golden Hour. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

I’m being unfair, I think, lumping Christopher Wheeldon’s The Golden Hour in with ballets that succeed more as vehicles for dancers than as artistic statements. Moving gently between music by Ezio Bosso and Vivaldi, this is one of Wheeldon’s loveliest, perhaps too easily discounted merely because it celebrates quiet dignity. For dependable gorgeousness, there was wide-eyed Sarah Van Patten and manly Luke Ingham in the intimate, horizon-gazing duet set to string phrases that sound like bagpipes. De Sola featured again, in the pizzicato waltz duet, paired with Myles Thatcher, who projects less personality as a dancer than a dancemaker.

Mungamba and Steven Morse danced the male duet like twin droplets of mercury, and drew the greatest applause. And for yet more next-generation revelations, there was soloist Daniel Deivison-Oliveira paired — surprisingly — with the consummately gracious principal Frances Chung. Deivison-Oliveira doesn’t seem, at first glance, a leading man: he is stocky. I’d mostly seen him doing double tours and such in little bravura solos like the Swan Lake first act pas de trois. To watch him dancing adagio, and partnering, opened my eyes. What lines he has, he offered without apology — more as outpouring than demonstration. But his soft handling of Chung is what really choked me up. He danced like he wanted to lay down his life for her.

At the end of this April evening, seventeen-year-veteran Lorena Feijoo had been scheduled to dance a special farewell pas de deux. Instead, for unexplained reasons, she cancelled the pas de deux that morning, and only took a final bow. International audience members may know the National Ballet of Cuba-trained Feijoo as a bravura technician and outstanding Kitri, but SFB audiences loved her, too, in dramatic roles like blustery middle duet of Robbins’s In the Night. Those performances featured in the video tribute screened just before her last appearance, interspersed with interviews ofmany young corps members thanking Feijoo for all she’s taught them.

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