Tag Archives: Tiit Helimets

SFB’s Unbound: a Festival of New Works

Looking for The Classical Girl’s review of Program B? Here you go! www.bachtrack.com

Prepare yourself, dance world. San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound, a festival featuring twelve new works, is about to land in San Francisco. And it’s going to be big. An unprecedented, mind-expanding, creatively explosive extravaganza that includes the following:

  • Twelve internationally acclaimed choreographers
  • Four programs running through seventeen days
  • Twelve world premieres
  • Glorious, fresh, neoclassical ballet
  • Boldly inventive experimental ballet
  • Music that runs the gamut from classical to electronica
  • An affiliated symposium open to the public
  • Choreographer interviews and rehearsals archived to watch at your convenience

Curious about programs, dates, a sneak peek? You came to the right place! First the sneak peek…

Now onto the programs…

Program A
Sculpted space. Digital dependency. Classicism in sneakers. Three unique voices offer three distinct takes on where ballet’s headed. 

  • THE COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT – Choreographer: Alonzo King; Composer: Jason Moran
  • BOUND TO© – Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon; Composer: Keaton Henson
  • HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING Choreographer: Justin Peck; Composers: Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Laner, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen

Dates: Fri Apr 20, 8pm; Sun Apr 22, 2pm; Sat Apr 28, 8pm; Thu May 3, 7:30pm; Sun May 6, 2pm

Program B
Groupthink. Tragic passion. Opposing energy. Three innovative thinkers examine the ties that bind and the differences that distinguish.

  • OTHERNESS – Choreographer: Myles Thatcher; Composer: John Adams
  • SNOWBLIND – Choreographer: Cathy Marston; Composers: Amy Beach, Philip Feeney, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt. Music Arranger: Philip Feeney
  • ANIMA ANIMUS – Choreographer: David Dawson; Composer: Ezio Bosso

Dates: Sat, Apr 21, 8pm; Wed, Apr 25, 7:30pm; Sun, Apr 29, 2pm; Fri, May 4, 8pm

Program C
The ephemeral in the eternal. Family heritage. Savage beauty. Three artists move forward while drawing from the past.

  • BESPOKE – Choreographer: Stanton Welch; Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
  • YOUR FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM – Choreographer: Trey McIntyre; Composer: Chris Garneau
  • GUERNICA – Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; Composers: Joe Andrews, Michel Banabila, Tom Halstead, and Charles Valentin-Alkan

Dates: Tue, Apr 24, 7:30pm; Fri, Apr 27, 8pm; Wed, May 2, 7:30pm; Sat, May 5, 2pm

Program D
The space between life and death. Passionate connectivity. The music of Björk. Three dancemakers evoke the spiritual connections that span life and death, the beauty and pain in relationships, and a surrealist dream ballet. 

  • THE INFINITE OCEAN – Choreographer: Edwaard Liang; Composer: Oliver Davis
  • LET’S BEGIN AT THE END – Choreographer: Dwight Rhoden; Composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Philip Glass, and Michael Nyman
  • BJÖRK BALLET – Choreographer: Arthur Pita; Composers: Björk Gudmundsdottir and Sjón

Dates: Thu, Apr 26, 7:30pm; Sat, Apr 28, 2pm; Tue, May 1, 7:30pm; Sat, May 5, 8pm

Boundless: A Symposium on Ballet’s Future
Bringing together noted artists, scholars, and critics, this event provides an opportunity for discussion, debate, and collaboration about ballet in the 21st century.

Dates: April 27-29th. Details and times can be found HERE.

Unbound Live Highlights
Clips from past live stream productions that give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Unbound ballets being rehearsed, featuring interviews and excerpts of choreography.

Dates: Anytime, right HERE

Now. Ready to see some gorgeous dance films? Each one was inspired by a new work from Unbound. All are original short films that bear the name of their world premiere ballet.

Cathy Marston’s Snowblind

Snowblind “was inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella ‘Ethan Frome.'” Director: Mark Kohr; Choreographer: Cathy Marston; Producer: Jesus Peña; Music: 2 Piano Pieces, Op. 62, No. 2 Exaltation by Arthur Foote, Arranged by Philip Feeney; Director of Photography: Steve Condotti; Editor: Mark Kohr; Dancers: Mathilde Froustey, Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer

Dwight Rhoden’s LET’S BEGIN AT THE END

LET’S BEGIN AT THE END  Director: Matthew Mckee; Choreographer: Dwight Rhoden; Producers: Christine Busby & Steve Condotti; Music: Michael Nyman; Director of Photography: Joe Lindsay; Editor: Matthew Mckee; Dancers: Frances Chung, Sasha De Sola, Jennifer Stahl, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Benjamin Freemantle, Angelo Greco, Esteban Hernandez

Alonzo King’s The Collective Agreement

The Collective Agreement Director: Kate Duhamel; Producer: Jesus Peña; Choreographer: Alonzo King; Music: “The Collective Agreement,” written, published, and performed by Jason Moran; Director of Photography: Jesse Eisenhardt; Editor: Kate Duhamel; Visual Effects Artist: Brandon McFarland; Dancers: Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, Max Cauthorn, Jahna Frantziskonis, James Sofranko, Anna Sophia Scheller, Solomon Golding

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Guernica

Guernica “found inspiration in the art of Picasso.” Director: Kate Duhamel; Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa; Music: “Jump Cuts” written, published, and performed by Michel Banabila; Director of Photography: Heath Orchard; Editor: Kate Duhamel; Visual Effects Artist: Brandon McFarland; Dancers: Dores Andre, Solomon Golding, Julia Rowe, Myles Thatcher

Tickets are going fast for this amazing event, so don’t wait too long! To check dates, pricing and availability online, go HERE. (Choose the program and dates you’re considering, and click on “tickets” in lower right hand of screen.) Otherwise you can call the San Francisco Ballet ticket office at (415) 865 2000, Monday through Friday, between 10 am and 4 pm, Pacific Time. (On performance nights, the phone lines will remain open until showtime.)

Hope to see you there!

SFB from Nuts to 2017


Okay, so I’ve reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker before. Like, well, five times. It’s a little humbling when you pen a shiny new review, only to discover that you’ve unwittingly used much of the exact same wording in past reviews. Actually, it’s embarrassing, or would have been, if I hadn’t caught myself before submitting THIS REVIEW of Nut’s opening night to Bachtrack. And when it came to penning a few words here, for The Classical Girl, whaddya know, the same thing started happening.

So let’s do this instead of risking self-plagiarism, not to mention boring you. What changes annually in an established production is the casting and the dance performance. Costumes, lighting, scenic design, the musical score—no changes. You can find my “baseline” review HERE, complete with links to past reviews. Read first… or not.

And now, without further ado, here are 14 Really Great Things worth mentioning

1) The gorgeous set: an Edwardian house with a posh living room, circa 1915, that I really want to live in. Act 1 just flies, with pantomime and dances that are elegant and unfettered. It’s why I can watch this production over and over.

2) Grooving on the little kids in the audience, hushed and wide-eyed and totally absorbed in everything happening, especially Drosselmeyer’s magic. Their hushed intake of breath when the Nut doll turned life-sized in a clever shifting of boxes (or however they do it. Six times now, and I still don’t get some of the “magic” tricks. Isn’t that so cool? Bravo, SFB.)

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

3) Rubén Martín Cintas’ Uncle Drosselmeyer, particularly compelling as he rose from within the fog during Clara’s dream, at the commencement of The Best Music Ever, and where he made Very Psychedelic Things happen.

4) The Best Music Ever = as the Christmas tree keeps growing and growing, Drosselmeyer does his mysterious stuff, and the music reaches this thundering crescendo. In a lightning-fast set change, furniture and wrapped presents are whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized ones and in the blink of an eye we’ve all been shrunk to mouse size. Best. Moment. Ever. Kudos to the incomparable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and music director Martin West.

5) Opening night’s Mouse King’s (Alexander Reneff-Olson) antics. So entertaining, I kinda started rooting for him. Hilarious, too, was Dec 27th matinee’s Mouse King, Benjamin Freemantle, when he grabbed a big hunk of cheese and gnawed on it, dropping it in shock at the BOOM of the cannon the toy soldiers set off. Never noticed that detail before. Crack me up.

6) The snow. And more snow. And more. Opening night’s Snow Queen and King Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno were equally sublime, in this brilliantly staged Land of Snow.

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

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

7) Little scuttling ladybugs, in the Act II opener, so cute you could scream. Wonderful use of the kids from the SF Ballet school, whose dancing is genuinely enjoyable to watch.

8) Sofiane Sylve’s elegant, never-too-sugary Sugar Plum Fairy. Quietly perfect.

9) Seeing corps dancers Isabella DeVivo and Mingxuan Wang dance Snow Queen and King on Dec 27th matinee. Occasional unsteadiness, but otherwise a delight to watch them, the way they ended each passage and/or step with regal finesse. I’ve seen DeVivo in soloist roles before; she made my 2016 promotion wish list (http://wp.me/p3k7ov-Cn) but I’ve never seen Mingxuan Wang in a big role. Wow, he did great. Give him more!

10) In Spanish Dance, seeing former trainee and new corps member Natasha Sheehan living up to the buzz she’s generated.

11) WanTing Zhao in Arabian Dance on opening night. She owns this role. Sexy, sinuous, classical, mysterious, like something out of an opium-laced dream. And she arrives onstage inside an oil lamp carried onstage by her partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent. Way cool.

12) The pleasure of watching Max Cauthorn (also on my promotion wish list) continue to dance really well, particularly in Russian Dance on Dec 27th matinee. And speaking of Russian…

13) Finally learning when not to blink as the Russian Dance commences (a millisecond before the music) and the three dancers leap out from their respective papered Fabergé eggs. Gotta see it to appreciate it. An iconic holdover from a past staging, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak.

14) Hansuke Yamamoto dancing as Nut Prince on Dec 27th matinee. A longtime soloist, it was wonderful seeing him in this lead role. He might fall short of the powerhouse presence of some of the company’s male principals, but in its place he offers such graciousness, likeability, and clean technical work, with feather-soft landings to the jumps. Paired nicely with Koto Ishihara in the Grand Pas de Deux, whose performance was a solid notch up from last year, where she seemed a touch green, tentative in her pirouettes and presentation. Very rewarding to watch a dancer like this mature and develop artistically.

I love the way artistic director Helgi Tomasson gives his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos during the Nut run. Here are castings and pairings that I wish I could have seen as well (some of which didn’t actualize due to injuries):

Sugar Plum Fairy

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Elizabeth Mateer (new this year)
  • Isabella DeVivo

Queen and King of the Snow

  • Koto Ishihara, Francisco Mungamba
  • Elizabeth Mateer, Steven Morse
  • Norika Matsuyama, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • Isabella DeVivo, Max Cauthorn

Grand Pas de Deux

  • Lauren Strongin, Wei Wang
  • Julia Rowe, Angelo Greco (new this year)
  • WanTing Zhao, Tiit Helimets


The company’s 2017 repertory season begins on Jan 24th with Program 1, featuring Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony,” Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vesssels” and Justin Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings.” Program 2 follows right on its heels on Jan 26th and features Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” Possokhov’s “Optimistic Tragedy” and Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 (which I reviewed HERE.) Performances of these two programs are intertwined, date-wise, and will finish on Feb 4 and 5 respectively. And then, look out, because Frankenstein, a co-production with The Royal Ballet, opens on Feb 17th and you’re right in thinking this is going to be one unique, talked-about production. (Read my review of it HERE.) I’ll be leaving links for future program reviews here, as well. Look for those in mid-and-late March.

Want to know about new dancers and promotions for the 2016-17 season? Here you go!


  • Carlo Di Lanno                 Principal
  • Sasha de Sola                   Principal (just promoted! Effective Jan 2017)
  • Francisco Mungamba       Soloist
  • Julia Rowe                           Soloist
  • Wei Wang                            Soloist
  • WanTing Zhao                    Soloist
  • Blake Kessler                     Corps de Ballet (from apprentice)

New Company Members/Level

  • Ludmila Bizalion                Corps de Ballet
  • Angelo Greco                      Hired as soloist, promoted Feb 2017 to principal (Yay! Congrats!)
  • Elizabeth Mateer                Corps de Ballet
  • Aaron Robison                    Principal Dancer
  • Natasha Sheehan              Corps de Ballet (from SFB trainee program)

New Apprentices

  • Alexandre Cagnat
  • Shené Lazarus
  • Davide Occhipinti
  • Nathaniel Remez
  • Isabella Walsh

Congratulations to all San Francisco Ballet dancers and trainees on another successful Nut run, and I look forward to seeing all of you dance in 2017!

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!


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).


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…) 


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 and Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy”

images-307 images-306

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?


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

Shades, Ghosts and Birds: San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3


My first glimpse of the magic that is “The Kingdom of the Shades” came when I was sixteen, via the opening sequences of the film The Turning Point. The music, the image of twenty-four women attired in white, descending a tiered ramp through silvery lighting, striking arabesques in perfect synchronicity, haunted me. Particularly once I got some backstory on La Bayadère. In Act II, Solor, a warrior, is grieving the death of his beloved Nikiya, a temple dancer, and this scene, in the Kingdom of the Shades, is merely an opium-induced hallucinogenic dream of Solor’s. It is, I quickly learned, one of the crowning glories of the corps de ballet repertoire.

On Saturday night I finally saw “The Kingdom of the Shades” live, performed by the San Francisco Ballet. It was an unforgettable image, the most compelling work on the night’s triple-bill performance. As I can’t very well show you what I saw live, here’s the Bolshoi’s rendition (with the Shades’ entrance beginning at roughly 3mn in. Check it out. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-4phC-CctQ)


Back to Saturday night’s performance at the War Memorial Opera House. The corps, descending the ramp to form six rows of four dancers, didn’t have quite the perfection of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers—arabesques weren’t at a uniform height 100 percent across the board, and a millisecond’s rush on coming out of the arabesques for some—but few companies in the world can outperform the Paris Opera Ballet here. And once San Francisco Ballet’s twenty-four Shades were in place, dancing with their slow, sustained développés and arabesques in unison, they shone. An unforgettable image, that mass of dancers in white tutus, moving as one. Soul-stirring.

Maria Kochetkova dancing as Nikiya did not disappoint—she never does, come to think of it. Guest artist Denis Matvienko, soloist with the Mariinsky, lent an exotic touch to the night’s casting, with a strong performance, but it seems the SFB men are so good to begin with, you can’t help but wonder why they pulled in an outsider. Give me Davit Karapetyan any time, thank you. Or Taras Domitro, Joan Boada. The three solo Shades, Frances Chung, Mathilde Froustey and Simone Messmer all had noteworthy performances. And, oh, my, the strength required to do the ultra-slow moves that Chung did so well. (A développé a la seconde, but en pointe, and holding the high extension while still en pointe.) I loved catching my first glimpse of both Froustey and Messmer in action. Gorgeous dancers, the both of them, and great additions to the company. (Read about this here: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/san-francisco-ballet-time/)

One regret is that the SFB chose to open the evening’s program with “Kingdom of the Shades” and not Ghosts. Commencing with the latter would have allowed audience members to appreciate the opener while savoring the anticipation of something more delicious to come. This way felt like eating dessert first, and made Ghosts seem a little like the vegetables.


Ghosts is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, music by C.F. Kip Winger (who, interestingly, was a bassist for Alice Cooper in the 1980’s). Wheeldon is world-famous and much in demand, known for putting a contemporary twist on classical ballet steps, and vice-versa. In Ghosts, as principal Damian Smith phrased it in the program notes,  there’s “an intertwined, off balance partnership that never seems to unwind, a kind of thread that’s constantly knotted.” Great costumes, silvery, translucent and diaphanous like something out of a dream, by Mark Zappone. A Great Scary Thing abstract sculpture dangles high above downstage right. When it descends further, with a mechanical groan, the dozen(ish) dancers assembled glance up and over their right shoulders in unison, frozen in this tableau state for several seconds.

I found the dancing that followed to be beautiful, but curiously… un-engaging. There was nothing amiss, but nothing grabbed me by the heart and rocked my world. Not after Shades. I’d also been looking forward to seeing Damian Smith partnering Yuan Yuan Tan but, alas, those annoying eleventh-hour cast changes. I think this, too, tainted my appreciation. Lorena Feijoo seemed more power-house than nuanced, in an otherwise solid partnership with Gaetano Amico and Rubén Martin Cíntas. Yuan Yuan Tan was a standout with partner Vitor Luiz (although the fact that he wasn’t Damian Smith, who premiered this role with Tan in 2008, gave him an unmerited ding). Ensemble work was all solid and worthy—nods here to Dores André, Nicole Ciapponi and Shannon Rugani. Like I said, no complaints. But a plea to artistic direction: in the future, please don’t give us dessert first.


In the way I’d hoped to fall in love with Ghosts, but didn’t, I hadn’t planned to fall in love with Firebird, but did. With music by Stravinsky, choreography by Yuri Possokhov, it was definitely not vegetables. Nor was it main course. More like an eclectic side dish you’d never tried before and found you liked. The first Firebird premiered in 1910, choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes, and this is one of many renditions that followed. It reminds me in some ways of the famous Rite of Spring which just celebrated its centennial last year. And perhaps that’s no surprise: same composer here, Stravinsky, and same choreographer, Yuri Possokhov (for the SFB’s version). And watching Firebird in its opening scene where Kaschei, the evil despot, and his creepy looking reptilian henchmen whirl about, Kaschei (played wonderfully by Pascal Molat) clutching a giant egg, the prize of all prizes, I felt the same gleeful energy that I observed in last year’s Rite of Spring premiere.

Yuan Yuan Tan as The Firebird was delightful to behold, her fire color more saffron than red. The unitard costume, by Sandra Woodall, dazzled me, as did Tan, with long red-orange hair cascading down her back, and a matching tail. Her dancing was explosive, playful and articulated. Watching her with that swishing tail and long red hair brought to mind one of those “My Little Pony” dolls that little girls have. Tell me if you agree. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3G2kitXwSY


Drawn from Slavic folklore, the Firebird is a mythical creature that can bring good fortune, or bad, to those who capture it. In this ballet, the prince catches, and releases the Firebird, who aids him later in freeing the princess imprisoned by the evil Kaschei. Tiit Helimets as the prince was charming and likeable – I’ve considered him a rather aloof dancer in the past, albeit a highly competent one, as befits a longtime principal. Sasha de Sola was a delight as the princess, alternately sassy and girlish. Molat’s Kaschei managed to be both comical and menacing, and the prized giant egg, itself, almost seemed to be a character, one tossed back and forth between villain and hero. In one scene, the prince has the egg and is running, with Kaschei and his crew in furious pursuit. Of course they can’t run far; they are onstage. Possokhov cleverly inserts a slow-motion action that’s hilariously effective and makes you feel the speed and intensity of a chase scene. Great, memorable stuff.

Shades, Ghosts and Birds. You have until Sunday March 2nd to see the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 in action. Whatever order they put it in, the trio of tastings make for a satisfying, memorable night.