Tag Archives: Frances Chung

San Francisco Ballet waltzes into 2018

 

Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” is still looping through my mind, even as the curtain closed for the last time on San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker last weekend. I’m crazy about this production; I’ve raved about it HERE and HERE. You can see my Bachtrack review of this year’s opening night performance HERE. I like to attend the production a second time, later in the run, which gives me the opportunity to see different casts. The Dec 27th matinee performance was fantastic, as fresh as opening night, due in part to a sublime rendition by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West conducting. Standouts included Angelo Greco’s Nutcracker Prince, Nathaniel Remez’s King of the Mice, Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz as Queen and King of the Snow, Mathilde Froustey’s Sugar Plum Fairy, all of Spanish Dance (Lauren Parrott, Natasha Sheehan, Davide Occhipinti, Mingxuan Wang, Adrian Zeisel – who, WOW, might still be a student with the ballet school). I could go on and on. In fact, I will; scroll down to the bottom of this blog for more mentions.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

But the performance I found particularly unforgettable was Ana Sophia Scheller with Angelo Greco in the Grand Pas de Deux, which produced a visceral reaction of wow, this is a dazzler in me. Beautiful adage, fabulous solos, great onstage chemistry between the two dancers. Just before the adage ends, when the music turns tender, almost sorrowful, the way the two of them connected, with eye contact and something more elusive, gave me prickles. It made me feel like I was watching something extraordinary. Certainly they both have extraordinary talents. She is new, a principal, and he was promoted to principal last season. Thrilling, to watch a new partnership take hold. It’s a very exciting time for the San Francisco Ballet, with so many promotions announced in 2017 (and, regrettably, departures of favored dancers). In fact, before we get on to what the company will be delivering through their repertory season, let’s talk about its 2017-18 company roster. It incorporates ten promotions, eight new company members, and six apprentices. Here’s the SFB’s announcement:

“Soloist Jennifer Stahl has been promoted to principal dancer, and Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Esteban Hernandez, and Steven Morse have been promoted to soloist. In addition, SF Ballet Apprentices Alexandre Cagnat, Shené Lazarus, Davide Occhipinti, Nathaniel Remez, and Isabella Walsh have been promoted to the corps de ballet. Ulrik Birkkjaer and Ana Sophia Scheller join the Company as principal dancers and Solomon Golding, Gabriela Gonzalez, Blake Johnston, Madison Keesler, Wona Park, and Joseph Warton have joined SF Ballet as corps de ballet members. Ethan Chudnow, Anatalia Hordov, Carmela Mayo, Swane Messaoudi, Larisa Nugent, and Benjamin Pearson of San Francisco Ballet School have been promoted to the rank of apprentice.”

A bit about the new principals. Copenhagen-born Ulrik Birkkjaer, is coming from The Royal Danish Ballet, where he’d been a principal dancer. Ana Sophia Scheller, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is coming from the New York City Ballet, where she’d been a principal dancer. While I haven’t had the chance yet to see Birkkjaer perform, I can happily confirm that Scheller is marvelous.

And now on to what the 2017–18 season looks like. Following a Jan 18th gala, it begins on Jan 23rd with The Sleeping Beauty, and is followed by five programs (more details HERE) and finally, “Unbound: A Festival of New Works,” for which a dozen international choreographers are creating inventive, daring works for the dancers. San Francisco Ballet says, “We’re celebrating the San Francisco spirit of curiosity, experimentation, and invention with Unbound—a festival of 12 world premieres spanning 4 programs over 17 days.”

In short, it’s going to be a very exciting year for the San Francisco Ballet. But don’t take my word for it – check out their website HERE.

PS: those other dancers from Wed 12/27 matinee performance that deserve mention? Here you go. Elizabeth Mateer in Arabian Dance, supported by Sean Orza and Henry Sidford. Act I Dancing Dolls Mingxuan Wang and Natasha Sheehan. Angela Watson as the adolescent Clara. Chinese dancer Steven Morse. French dancers Anatalia Hordov (kudos to her – she is an apprentice this year and fit right in), Blake Johnston, Isabella Walsh. Russian dancers Benjamin Fremantle, Sean Bennett, Alexander Reneff-Olson. The way they burst through those paper, life-sized Faberge eggs in perfect unison, the millisecond the music commences? Too much fun.

Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

SFB’s 2016 Program 6 and 7

Breaking news on May 23, 2016: Promotions announced! See addendum (and my own personal promotion wish list) below!

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How quickly the time flies, over at the San Francisco Ballet, at least when you’re sitting in the audience, savoring the programs as they roll onto the War Memorial Opera House stage, entertain, enlighten, and roll right off, in anticipation of the next one. And now, the season is waning. This past weekend I had the luxury of taking in not just one program but two. In reverse order, which felt bewildering but fun, with a Saturday night performance of Program 7 and a Sunday matinee follow up of Program 6. It was a hell of a great weekend.

Saturday night’s opener, Balanchine’s “Themes and Variations,” is pure delight. Set to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G, it pays homage to Imperial Russian classicism. Twin chandeliers dangle before an elegant blue backdrop. Women are clad in white tutus with blue satin bodices, the men in white tights and elegant, Imperial style teal jackets. When that stage fills with the ensemble–at one point there are twenty-four dancers moving about–it’s a glorious sight to behold. Balanchine is a genius at arranging dancers, moving them on and off fast, making the most of both ensemble and pas de deux parts. Demi-soloists Norika Matsuyama, Koto Ishihara, Lauren Strongin and Isabella DeVivo had a loveliness and precision that reminded me of music box ballerinas. Lead couple Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin excelled as well. She makes the simplest step, here an opening tendu, seem elaborate, and the most elaborate, taxing sequence seem effortless. Nedvigin, who will be leaving the company at the end of the season to head the Atlanta Ballet as its artistic director, gave us with high jumps and double tours, impressive beats, pirouettes and cat-like soft landings.

Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (© Erik Tomasson)

I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Wheeldon’s 2002 minimalist “Continuum©,” set to a often-thorny keyboard score by György Ligeti, in spite of stellar performances from all of its eight dancers (corps dancer Steven Morse joining a cast of seven principals with impressive results), and pianists Mungunchimeg Buriad and Natal’ya Feygina. At 41 minutes, the ballet felt overlong, too austere, even grating. I have nice things to say about Sunday’s dose of Wheeldon, however, so let’s just jump on ahead to Justin Peck’s highly anticipated “In the Countenance of Kings.”

Justin Peck is certainly Someone to Watch in the ballet world. At 28, a soloist with the New York City Ballet, he has already amassed 30 commissioned works, and in 2014, was named the company’s choreographer-in-residence. “In the Countenance of Kings” is propulsive, packed with high octane movement, sound, swirling, running, leaping, that left me exhausted by the end. Here’s a fun video-meets-short film that excerpts the ballet. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this will cover me way beyond that.


Great dancing abounded. Joseph Walsh, in particularly, really produced the “wow!” factor for me that I’ve been waiting to see in him. As The Protagonist, he made great use of his solo time onstage. He tackles contemporary ballet with an appealing classicism that doesn’t restrain him from spells of exuberant abandon, flinging body, arms, head back in a way that’s clean, energetic and fun to watch. He shared the lead with Taras Domitro in Possokhov’s splendid “Swimmer” (my review HERE) last month, and now I can appreciate how up to the task he was. Dores André, too, shines in this ballet. It’s enjoyable to watch her assume a distinct identity in this, her first season as a principal. All the leads gave great performances. In the playbill, they are assigned names, which pose more questions than they answer (such as: am I supposed to glean a reference to something or someone? Quantus? Botanica? The Foil? Was there a story happening that I missed?) Regardless, Luke Ingham and Jennifer Stahl paired splendidly; Frances Chung was in her power-packed element, sharing a charming duet with André and another one with Nedvigin.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s In The Countenance Of Kings. (© Erik Tomasson)

Music came from indie artist/composer Sufjan Stevens’ “The BQE” (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway), orchestrated by classical horn player Michael P. Atkinson. The music is boisterous, fast moving and very Broadway in scope. Really, at times I felt like I was watching a Broadway show, particularly when stage lights, as part of the backdrop, flashed on, facing the audience. Coupled with a whole lot of horns, snares and drums, it felt like too much. I loved the energy of this ballet and the phenomenal dancing from the well-rehearsed ensemble cast. I’m just not sure I loved the whole, over-caffeinated shebang. I will get to find out next season, when the ballet returns (at which time I’ll be sure and skip my own post-dinner dose of caffeine just prior).

Program 6 and Sunday’s matinee performance seemed to give me what Saturday’s seemed lacking. A bit of an irony since I’d thought it might prove a little underwhelming after Program 7. Nope, it was great. For a video clip (too small to embed here), check out THIS.

Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Tomasson’s Prism. (© Erik Tomasson)

Just a few summarized thoughts on Program 6, since I’ve sort of gone over my word count for a review, but then again, I figure, there’s the exit door, you can use it any time, bye bye, and meanwhile, maybe some of you who attended this performance, as well, or danced in it, would like to hear my thoughts on it. What a great program. Lovely music, costumes, dancing. Nothing grating or pushing or making me worry that I’ve become an old fuddy-duddy with too-conservative tastes. Just neoclassicism at its finest. Opening the program was artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Prism,” initially a 2000 New York City Ballet commission. It’s set to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C Major (played with great finesse by Roy Bogas alongside the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra) and was beautiful to behold. Standouts included Mathilde Froustey in a tender pas de trois with Henry Sidford and Carlo Di Lanno, and a second movement pas de deux from Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets, as an ensemble shadowed them quietly from behind. Great costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and dreamy lighting design (Mark Stanley). The big ensemble passages worked well, showcasing Tomasson’s ability to beautifully fill a stage and its space with the perfect amount of dancers and stimulus, reminding us that he trained under Balanchine. In the third movement, corps dancer Francisco Mungamba was given the role of the solo man,. While still a young technician, Mungamba seems to have that crucial ability to fill a stage with his personality and theatrical presentation. It was an exciting performance to watch.*

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” in its San Francisco Ballet premiere, was another satisfying ballet, set to the piano music of Domenico Scarlatti (performed by Mungunchimeg Buriad). I found its neoclassical elegance to be so appealing, with the dancing both controlled and joyous.  Like the previous night’s “Continuum,” this ballet retains a small cast and delivers as much a dialogue between the six dancers, as it does a performance for the audience. It’s intimate, packed with fine, articulate dancing by Lorena Feijoo, Carlos Quenedit, Dores André, Vitor Luiz, Sofiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Rush. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Rush. (© Erik Tomasson)

I found “Rush©”, the weekend’s other Wheeldon piece, to be so much more enjoyable than the previous day’s. The choreography seemed more interesting to me, more varied, and the music, Bohuslav Martinů’s “Sinfonietta La Jolla for Chamber Orchestra and Piano,” was simply lovely, as were Jon Morrell’s costumes. Standouts included Sasha de Sola, partnered with great sensitivity by Luke Ingham, as well as Lauren Strongin with Francisco Mungamba, and Koto Ishihara with Wei Wang. All of “Rush” worked for me, from beginning to end. All of Program 6 did.

Program 6 runs to April 16 and Program 7 runs to the 17th. In Program 8, John Cranko’s acclaimed Onegin will complete the company’s season. I’ll be reviewing the April 30th opening night performance for Bachtrack; come back here for the link after that time. (And on May 3rd, HERE IT IS).

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My own personal promotion wish list…
* One last aside. I’ve really been enjoying the way Tomasson’s using corps dancers in soloist and lead roles, and over this weekend alone, I thoroughly enjoyed a half dozen such performances. Francisco Mungamba, Wei Wang, Steven Morse – I’m hoping to see at least one of these guys get a promotion to soloist some time soon. On the females’ side, my promotion wish list would include Norika Matsuyama, Isabella DeVivo. WanTing Zhao. And, okay, Julia Rowe and Jahna Frantziskonis. And I’ve got my eye on Max Cauthorn. And okay, Henry Sidford. And Lonnie Weeks. And it goes without saying that soloist Carlo Di Lanno is ready for promotion to principal. And here’s wishing all the best to the company’s three retiring principal dancers: Joan Boada, Pascal Molat and Gennadi Nedvigin. Well done, gents. Your contributions have been enormous and unforgettable. Thank you.

Addendum on May 24th – promotions announced! Always exciting news. Congratulations to all the wonderful dancers – even the ones not promoted (yet…) 

Promotions/Level

Carlo Di Lanno                    Principal Dancer
Francisco Mungamba        Soloist
Julia Rowe                           Soloist
Wei Wang                            Soloist
WanTing Zhao                    Soloist

Blake Kessler                     Corps de Ballet

New Company Members/Level

Ludmila Bizalion                Corps de Ballet
Angelo Greco                      Soloist
Elizabeth Mateer                Corps de Ballet
Aaron Robison                    Principal Dancer
Natasha Sheehan              Corps de Ballet

New Apprentices/Training

Alexandre Cagnat             SF Ballet School
Shené Lazarus                   SF Ballet School
Davide Occhipinti             SF Ballet School
Nathaniel Remez               SF Ballet School
Isabella Walsh                    SF Ballet School

San Francisco Ballet heads into 2016

 

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So, I got to attend a second performance of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker this past week, which confirms my hunch that, literally, I can’t get enough of this company and this production. Opening night or weekday matinee, it doesn’t matter. It was all brilliant. And watching a second performance is great fun because you get to enjoy things from a second perspective, both spatially and mentally. Different casting allowed me the opportunity to observe more new faces in new places. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson likes to distribute solo opportunities more broadly, likely as a test drive for casting choices he might make during the 2016 season. What’s more, since the company doesn’t perform locally during the fall months, this is our first glimpse of the roster of company dancers announced back in July. Exciting times.

But before I go into 2016 and the new faces you might see on the War Memorial Opera House stage, allow me to recap some of my Nutcracker musings.

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

I’ve raved about this production before, HERE  and HERE, and you can see my Bachtrack review of this year’s opening night HERE. I won’t duplicate my words, nor my efforts. Really, review writing can be quite exhausting. To say as much as possible, using detail and not feeling-laden description, all squeezed into 800 words – whew, hard for me. Far easier to produce 80K words, particularly if I’m allowed feeling-laden description, which is why I write ballet novels as well, and thank goodness there’s a place for both in this world. A quick shout-out here to worthy opening night performers I mentioned in my Bachtrack review: Val Caniparoli, Sienna Clark, Gaetano Amico, Francisco Mungamba, Lauren Parrott, Davit Karapetyan, Jennifer Stahl, Luke Ingham, Vanessa Zahorian, WanTing Zhao, Ellen Rose Hummel, Jahna Frantziskonis, Ami Yuki, Maggie Weirich, Rebecca Rhodes, Diego Cruz, Lonnie Weeks, Frances Chung. You all rocked.

And the Dec 28th Monday matinee was equally full of noteworthy dancing. Benjamin Freemantle and Emma Rubinowitz as the dancing dolls were a hit; these always are. It’s our first view of dancing in Act I, which is not to say Act 1 is in any way dull. The party scene, with its sumptuous period costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and opulent set (Michael Yeargan) are magically effective. As I myself enjoy it, as an adult, I can’t help but imagine how wowed out the little kids in the audience must be. I never saw Nutcracker as a little kid (although I knew every note of the score by heart; cultural exposure in our household amounted to listening to records on the stereo versus attending live performances, which makes more financial sense when you are a family of ten) but I can appreciate how freakin’ magical the whole thing must be to them. Especially the SFB’s superior production, like when the Christmas tree grows tenfold amid climactic music and in a matter of seconds, the furniture and wrapped presents get whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized counterparts, thus completing the living room’s transformation into a fantastical dream world. Spine-tingling, every time I see it. It must have blown the little kids’ minds.

If I had to pick one number out of the whole production that consistently wows, it would have to be Land of Snow. The choreography, the lighting, the costumes, the two tons (no exaggeration) of falling snow, the music—it all works so wonderfully, and every time I see it, I marvel anew. On Monday afternoon, Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were the Queen and King of Snow. I saw them opening night, as well. Normally I’d prefer to see all new dancers in the roles so that I can run a comparison, but this served to confirm that this couple looks very, very good. It’s great to see the way Stahl keeps upping her game. Wow, the way her back leg rises so high in partnered leaps and sisonne lifts. (For you non-dance readers, be aware that anyone can get that front leg high. It’s getting—and keeping—the back one high that elevates it to an art form.)

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Jennifer Stahl © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve was a last minute casting change as the Sugar Plum Fairy, which disappointed me at first, because I’d been looking forward to seeing Mathilde Froustey in the role. But these things happen during a thirty-performance run, particularly toward the end, when bodies are running down and are prone to injury. Sylve is a technically flawless, nuanced dancer who maintains a certain sense of mystery and distance in her dancing, which at first I felt detracted from the role. (I mean, the name “Sugar Plum Fairy” describes it all: sweetness and bubbles and pastels and accessible smiles and darling fairy-ness.) But what seemed a bit spare in Sylve’s first solo became the perfect touch later, during Waltz of the Flowers (Tomasson’s production uses the Sugar Plum Fairy as the soloist here, and saves the Grand Pas de Deux for another lead dancer.) Sylve’s dancing reminds me of a good Bordeaux wine, that seems beautifully constructed but a little spare at first, even austere. You don’t think the end result is going to be wow enough but then it warms, opens and releases what makes it extraordinary, so that by the end you are thinking yes, yes, that understated interpretation works really, really well.

I said I wasn’t going to write another review, but here I am, writing another review. And yet, before I cease writing another review, I have to mention the thrill of watching a perfectly executed Russian dance on Monday afternoon. It’s such a crowd-pleaser, the way the three dancers burst out Faberge-esque eggs at precisely the same instant, and surely that’s no easy feat. I visualize the three of them, in their respective little egg capsules, mentally counting, praying their timing is in synch. Opening night it was the tiniest hair short of perfect synchronicity. How often, I wonder, do they get it perfect? Anyway. On Monday, they did. Another fun thing: soloist James Sofranko, I recognized, but not the other two dancers, David Preciado and Victor Prigent. Riffling through the company roster pages afterward brought no answers either. It turns out they are students at the San Francisco Ballet school. To which I can only say WOW. Well done, gents! The trio of you were spot-on, technically impressive, and looked great.

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Thumbs’ up, as well, for Grand Pas de Deux couple Koto Ishihara and Gennadi Nedvigin’s performance. This was a big role for Ishihara, promoted from corps to soloist last season. I sense I wasn’t the only one holding my breath as she worked her way through the “harder than it looks” opening adagio, a little wobbly on a first set of partnered pirouettes but admirably rebounding with the support of her Nutcracker Prince partner, veteran principal Nedvigin. He has never before seemed like such a prince, in every sense of the word. High leaps and tours, solid landings in perfect positions, a noble stage presence, strong, unobtrusive support to Ishihara. There was this perfect moment, toward the end of the adagio, when Ishihara, in an arabesque en pointe, having just completed a partnered promenade, released Nedvigin’s hand, and thus his support (very much like Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” arabesque in Sleeping Beauty) and held the balancing pose, and held it, and raised that back leg even higher, and stretched everything out, and wow, it was so impressive, so rewarding to watch. You just know it had to have been an exhilarating moment for her, sort of an, okay, I was nervous before and my foot didn’t go all the way up to passé for those first pirouettes but I will nail this balance, I will. And she did. And the audience just loved her for it. We loved her before; we all like to watch and support new dancers in new roles. But from that moment on, everything seemed to go that much better. It was a delight to watch. Brava, Koto.

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As I mentioned above, Tomasson likes giving his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos. Here are castings that I wish I could have seen as well. (Not all dancers are new and/or new to big roles, but you get the idea…)

Sugar Plum Fairy:

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Julia Rowe

Queen and King of the Snow:

  • Lauren Strongin, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • WanTing Zhao, Carlo Di Lanno
  • Koto Ishihara, Max Cauthorn

And since this blog was intended to be a glimpse of what to expect and who to see in 2016, here’s a list of new company members:

  • Lauren Strongin, joining as a soloist this season (from Houston Ballet)

Corps de ballet, new to the company

  • Kamryn Baldwin
  • Kristine Butler
  • Jahna Frantziskonis (From Pacific Northwest Ballet, mentioned in Dance Magazine as “On The Rise”)

Corps de ballet, promoted up from apprentice

  • Thamires Chuvas
  • Benjamin Freemantle
  • John-Paul Simoens
  • Maggie Weirich
  • Ami Yuki
  • Samantha Bristow

Apprentices

  • Grace Choi
  • Blake Kessler
  • Anastasia Kubanda
  • Chisako Oga
  • Francisco Sebastião

A congratulations to Dores André, who has been promoted to principal from soloist. And a “great to see you dancing again” to Sasha de Sola who was out much of last season with an injury. I missed her in this round of performances; hoping I’ll get to see her soon!

A final “well done” to the other dancers I wasn’t able to mention in my review-but-not, above. Well done, Spanish dancers Kimberly Braylock-Olivier, Jillian Harvey, Sean Bennett, Steven Morse, Alexander Reneff-Olson; Arabian dancers Grace Shibley, Benjamin Freemantle, John-Paul Simoens; Chinese dancer Max Cauthorn; French dancers Kristine Butler, Maggie Weirich, WanTing Zhao, and all the lovely, lovely ensemble dancers in Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers. The success of any Nutcracker is a collaborative effort, and Helgi Tomasson is fortunate indeed to have such a wealth of talented dancers to choose from. (And one last additional, final-and-this-time-I-mean-it “brava!” to WanTing Zhao for her opening night performance in Arabian. My words of praise surpassed my 800 word maximum word count on my Bachtrack review and, alas, I had to cut them. You were gorgeous!)

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In closing, here’s a summary of what you’ll see from the San Francisco Ballet in their 2016 season (in their own words). The season commences on January 24th and continues through to May 8th. I will be attending and reviewing Program 1’s opening performance; check back here for a link to my review. ((And on January 27th, here’s that review!))

Highlights include world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck; three full-length story ballets: Swan Lake, Coppélia, Onegin; the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts; and the SF Ballet debut of Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. The season also includes the return of last season’s hit Swimmer by Yuri Possokhov, as well as audience favorites by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.

San Francisco Ballet and Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”

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The San Francisco Symphony is right across the street from the San Francisco Ballet. I attend both. I sharpen my skills as a dance reviewer while watching the ballet, so it would stand to reason that I learn more and more about composers and their music while at the symphony.

Except when it comes to Shostakovich.

Soviet Russian history, the era’s political climate and its effect on an artist, music that alternates between melodic, tender and fiercely brash—all this unfolded with Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. As the name suggests, it’s a trio of contemporary ballets set to the music of Shostakovich.

I was a little intimidated, in truth, thinking about how it might all play out. Over the past few years, across the street at the San Francisco Symphony, I’ve seen performances of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2. It’s… challenging listening at times. A performance of his Violin Concerto was easier on the ears—lovely, actually—but now this, a night at the ballet with only Shostakovich. Contemporary ballet, at that. Would it be wholly enjoyable, the way all the other San Francisco Ballet performances have been for me?

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I needn’t have worried. Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy was mesmerizing, remarkable, meriting all the praise directed its way since its premiere with American Ballet Theatre in 2013 (it was a co-commissioned between the ABT and the San Francisco Ballet). Ratmansky, Russian-born and Bolshoi trained, forms his work around a strongly classical base, and for Trilogy he hunted down the perfect music. The whole project draws from his longtime appreciation and reverence for Shostakovich, who struggled considerably under the oppressive, censorious Soviet regime. Like I said, it was like watching an era of history unfold there on the stage. Astonishing how much could be said without a word. And we’re not talking any pantomime, either. It was intelligent, clever, beautiful-to-watch choreography that achieved it.

Symphony No. 9, the night’s first work in this triptych, had been a 1945 commission to celebrate Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany. Instead of the brooding triumphalism expected, however, Shostakovich stubbornly opted for lighter fare, the lightest of his fourteen symphonies. There are interesting theories as to why he did this. Great ambivalence toward Stalin and his repressive dictates? Nose-thumbing the regime, but doing it ever so carefully so that the music couldn’t be faulted? Although the audiences liked it, Stalin did indeed take offense, and the censorship board banned the symphony in 1948, citing its “ideological weakness.” In Ratmansky’s choreography, cheery melodies parody regimented obedience, while gentler passages hint at despair, unease, wariness. A relentlessly energetic corps moved on and off the stage, interspersing dance passages with brisk, purposeful strides.

Luke Ingham and Sarah Van Patten in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. (© Erik Tomasson)

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham were beguiling, vulnerable, as one of the two lead couples, their eyes uneasily sweeping the landscape before stepping into their next move. At the end of the pas de deux, Van Patten crumpled to a seated position in a tight, controlled fashion, sliding further down to one elbow, and finally to the floor, body still rigid, eyes wide open and wary. Wow. Ever so effective and well done.

For the second piece, Ratmansky used Chamber Symphony, an orchestral arrangement of Shostakovich’s well known String Quartet No. 8, composed in 1960. This was one of Shostakovich’s most personal works, and through Ratmansky’s choreography, we see it all: the man’s existential brooding, his troubled, eternally censored career, his marriages and loves, his quest to express his own art in spite of pressure to conform. Davit Karapetyan, as the lone man, was brilliant. Throughout, he commanded the stage, walking, striding, leaping, pressing his head into his hands, slumping in exhaustion, only to be swept back to his feet by the corps men, a mandate to “keep moving, never stop; you must keep up the dance.” Boy, did that say it all, in more ways than one.

Frances Chung and Joan Boada in Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy. (© Erik Tomasson)

Frances Chung and Joan Boada in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy.
(© Erik Tomasson)

The third work of the trilogy utilized Shostakovich’s 1933 Piano Concerto No. 1. It moves and moves and moves, against an intriguing backdrop of dangling vivid red shapes—stars, blocks, airplanes—suspended from above, against a bullet-grey background. Lead couples Frances Chung and Joan Boada, Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve, were on fire in their respective pas de deux passages, Chung and Boada’s power and technical brilliance pairing well with Sylve and Helimets’ silken elegance. The corps ensemble tore through the choreography with equal effectiveness. Toward the end of the concerto, the music speeds up even more, as do the dancers’ movements, almost a parody of forced Soviet cheer. It’s insane.

 

Great job, all you talented artists. A heartfelt thanks particularly to Alexei Ratmansky, for helping me to discover, really discover Shostakovich, the man and artist behind the famous Soviet composer.

A different version of this review first appeared at Bachtrack. Read it HERE

Hummingbirds and bargain seats at the San Francisco Ballet

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Buying a $25 ticket for the ballet can be a bit of a gamble. The cheapest seats tend to be the ones furthest back, in the nosebleed section, but you’ll also find them way up close, or way off to the side. (Or, one time, this miracle bargain: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/how-i-attended-the-san-francisco-ballet-for-14/). Last Saturday night, my $25 seat was row G, the last seat in the row. Up close, but a restricted view. I couldn’t see any dancer entrances from stage left, and a slim wedge of the action in the upstage left corner was invisible to me all evening. Was it worth it, for the chance to see Liam Scarlett’s 2014 Hummingbird again? Hell, yeah!

You see interesting people in the bargain section of the theater. People you might call “characters” — adults that still carry a bit of the idealistic [and dazed] college student in them. Their hair might be shaggy but their eyes burn with intensity. It might not have even crossed their minds to dress up for the performance. It’s not what matters for them. They care deeply about ballet and the performance and the dance company, referring to the dancers by first name and with familiarity, as if they know them deeply, personally (which, likely, in their mind, they do). They are very, very dedicated fans. They are the ones shouting out “bravo!” the instant the ballet finishes, and the first to leap from their seats to offer the dancers a standing ovation. They clap with twice the intensity. It’s very cool being around them, actually. Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious.

Saturday evening’s program (No. 4) started with Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins’s appealing creation from 1969. Allan Ulrich, dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle loved it, and reviewed it well: http://www.sfgate.com/performance/article/Robbins-gem-great-dancing-in-top-notch-SF-6105628.php

I agreed with the first part of his review: great dancing, lovely Chopin piano music, no missteps among the ten supremely talented company members, which included soloists Dores André, Carlo di Lanno, and corps de ballet member Steven Morse (nice job!). If I had any complaint with the beautiful dancing, it was that, clocking in at over an hour, such pretty perfection grew, I dunno. Un-challenging. It wasn’t soul stirring fodder. And I really, really like to get my soul stirred while at the ballet.

San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson

Enter Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird. Specifically the second movement. Omigod. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham, reprising their roles from last year, once again offered one of the most riveting, soul-stirring pas de deux I’ve seen since… well, when they performed it last year. It was so satisfying and cathartic to watch. Some movements you just don’t want to end, and this was one of them.

What was so significant in my mind about last year’s performance, was the fact that Ingham was a soloist, being paired frequently with Tan through the season, in the face of Damian Smith’s imminent departure from the company. Smith and Tan had always danced so gorgeously together, partnered up so well, you knew Smith would be a tough partner to replace. (I still miss the hell out of him this season, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.) It wasn’t until I saw Ingham and Tan in Hummingbird that the “wow!” factor kicked in, in a big way. The electricity of their performance, the onstage chemistry, left me breathless, utterly mesmerized. I walked out of the War Memorial Opera House last year in a daze, understanding that Ingham had just earned something very big that night. And indeed, within the next few weeks (days?), he was promoted to principal.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. © Erik Tomasson

Here’s an excerpt from my Backtrack review from last year, which ended up sounding pretty much identical to the review I scratched out after this year’s performance, so hey, let’s recycle.

“Hummingbird is set to Philip Glass’ Tyrol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and features a striking backdrop – a grand, sky-high canvas, designed by John Macfarlane. The floor slopes up to meet canvas and from that juncture, out creep the dancers, in costumes of various grey hues.  Effective and intriguing were the use of silhouette and shadow periodically showcasing the three principal couples, two soloist couples, and corps ensemble. Frances Chung and Gennadi Nedvigin performed well in a physically demanding, quick-moving pas de deux laced with contention as well as intimacy. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham were standouts in a gorgeous, electric pas de deux. It was Tan’s second memorable pas de deux for the night, and it almost seemed planned that way, the first with the longtime, soon-to-be-former partner, Smith, the second with the challenger, and indeed, the pas de deux seemed to encompass both antagonism and longing, an upheaval of the old, a fight to establish the new. Ingham’s stage presence has never seemed more powerful, particularly as he longingly pressed up against Tan, after having flung her and spun her about. The accompanying adagio movement of the Tyrol Concerto is gorgeous and hypnotic.”

Speaking of reviews, here’s one I wrote for Program 3, which I’d seen earlier in the week. This program included Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” Hans van Manen’s “Variations for two couples” and Myles Thatcher’s world premier of Manifesto. Standout performers throughout the night included Sarah Van Patten, Carlos Quenedit, Frances Chung, Davit Karapetyan, Carlo di Lanno, Sofiane Sylve, Jennifer Stahl, Taras Domitro, corps de ballet dancers Norika Matsuyama, Steven Morse and Sean Orza. http://bachtrack.com/review-san-francisco-ballet-program-three-war-memorial-opera-house-san-francisco-february-2015

I’ll end with a suggestion for ballet bargain hunters: check your favorite dance company’s online reservation site from time to time. Or call them. That’s how I got my $14 ticket. (Did you click on the link above? Why not? It’s a funny story. Here’s another chance:  http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/how-i-attended-the-san-francisco-ballet-for-14/). Don’t be afraid to try the off-to-the-side and way-front seats. Yes, it’s a different experience, and, if money were no object, I’d always pick center, 10-15 rows from the front. But not when they want $175 for the seat. Oh, the saving grace, in the end, of those $25 ticket options. What a great San Francisco night of entertainment — and one that didn’t break the bank.

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