SF Ballet-Prism, Seven Sonata, Yuan Yan Tan | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine - June 2016

Renate Stendhal

Looking back at the San Francisico Ballet season, an outstanding moment of programming and casting stayed in my mind. Ballet director and choreographer Helgi Tomasson likes to place one of his own choreographies next to works from the younger generations of choreographers. In Program 6, he paired his ballet “Prism” (2000), with Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” (2009) and a world premiere by Christopher Wheeldon, “Rush.”

“Seven Sonatas,” set to keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti, was Ratmansky’s first “western” (i.e. non-Russian) creation after leaving the Bolshoi. The piece seems directly inspired by Jerome Robbins’ classic “Dances at a Gathering” (programmed earlier in the season) although with a much smaller set of dancers. Scarlatti instead of Chopin, the piano again onstage, and three couples engaging in easy, tender exchanges that evoke youth, friendship, flirtation without deep feelings or excitement. A more romantic pas de deux danced by Lorena Feijoo and Carlos Quenedit added a secret note of fire, but “Seven Sonatas” didn’t allow anyone to really stand out and shine. Group unison seemed to be what mattered, and this cohesion was impeccably rendered. Beautifully costumed in radiant white, all three couples (Sofiane Sylve with Carlo Di Lanno and Dores Andre with Vitor Luiz) danced with impeccable technique and an understated refinement that brought out how conventionally well-mannered this excercice de style really is.

2-Seven-Sonatas-cr Seven Sonatas-Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh

Tomasson’s “Prism,” set to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto # 1, features a playful trio  in the first allegro movement, a languid pas de deux for the Adagio, each set backed up by groups, and a male solo for the last bravura movement that brings the whole that brings the whole cast onto the stage. In its structure, clarity and precision, “Prism” is as strictly post-Balanchine as Ratmansky’s neoclassic piece. Equally formal, showing off a well -bred nobility in its solos, duos, trios etc., it is also equally conventional, but the piece suddenly turned into a sensation because of the way it was performed.

1-Prism-pas-de-deux-crmPrism - pas-de deux - Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiits Helimet

The transformation was already announced by the exceptional dancing of the first trio (Mathilde Froustey, Carlo Di Lanno and corps member Henry Sidford), and then fully achieved by Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in the central adagio. Their pas de deux brought the house down, and for good reason. Tan engages with Beethoven’s music with such subtle ardor and soulful expression, such lightness and beauty, and she is so sensitively partnered by Helimets that a choreographic masterpiece is conjured onstage. Perhaps Tomasson created “Prism” with Tan in mind, expecting something sublime, but could he have foreseen that “Prism” would wipe out in one stroke the rest of the evening?

When an artistic and emotional high point is reached right at the start of a program, an abstract ballet that follows tends to be at a disadvantage. Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” would stand a better chance to impress if it is programmed as an opening piece, or set against a stark contrast—a ballet by Forsythe, for example. (The third part of the night was London start-up Christopher Wheeldon’s new creation “Rush,” a piece that unfortunately drowned its youthful energy in messy group movements and frantic arm gesticulations.)


Yuan Yuan Tan has been SFB’s prima ballerina assoluta for many years. She is the lyrical, delicate type of dancer that seems predestined for the ethereal roles of the repertoire. But Tan brings so much more to the stage than weightless grace. She doesn’t seem divided in torso, head and limbs, but is all of one piece, informed by a central lyrical spark that makes her every movement flow past its limb-limitations. When she raises her a leg in a développé, her signature high extension is a thrill each time, but whereas a développé usually ends with the full stretch of the leg, with Tan it still evolves, goes into arc of her foot as if charged with a sensual energy, then carries forth through her toes and seemingly beyond. It reminds me of  the way great male dancers leap up and seem suspended in the air for a thrilling second. The descent then lands her foot on the floor like a cotton paw.

Yuan Yuan Tan - extension

Few dancers seem to know their feet to this degree; their feet are well-serving appendixes without an artistic mission. French ballerina Sylvie Guillem comes to mind, her feet and leg extensions tending more toward the extreme. In an art form that produces a unified body ideal and makes ballet dancers look alike like pretty carousel horses, any feature that defies the ordinary can be an asset. Tan  makes the most of it. With her reed-like slenderness, her overlong feet often give her the charm of a young colt.

6-Onegin-ballroom-cr Onegin ballroom

Luckily for San Francisco audiences, the artistic direction seems to fully appreciate what Tan brings to the company. She is regularly cast in story-telling roles of young girls in flower – a privilege that the other phenomenal technician and actress in the company, Cuban ballerina Lorena Feijoo, who is also in her forties, doesn’t share. Tan was cast in the season-ending reprisal of John Cranko’s Onegin, the evening-length version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, one of the best storytelling ballets of the last 50 years (* reviewed in these pages). She reprised her role as Tatyana, the unloved girl who marries up in society and becomes the object of passionate desire by the man who once spurned her. Tan seems to become ever younger in her portrayal of Tatyana’s shy innocence, ever more tender and pliant in her marital pas de deux (with Tiit Helimets) and more despairing in the torments of passion caused by the return of Onegin (a rather pale Luke Ingham who was far out-danced by Joseph Walsh as Lensky).

7-Onegin-Ruben-Martin-Cintr Onegin with Ruben Martín Cintas

If art prevailed, both Tan and Feijoo would be cast as Tatyana, Juliet (Ulanova danced Juliet until she retired at age 50), Odette/Odile of Swan Lake, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and any other roles that require outstanding skill to raise them above clichés. “She is really too old to dance Juliet,” is the usual refrain you hear in the hallways of ballet—a notion that sorely misses the point. Artists of the caliber of Tan and Feijoo are able to transpose a mature impression of youth that youth cannot have until it matures. The nostalgia for youth gives their dance a haunting ephemeral beauty that is the essence of youth itself.

Tan as Juliet


Can others learn this art?

There was a moment in “Prism” that allowed a study in comparisons. In the final, bravura movement of the piece, when everyone is onstage and the two principal ballerinas perform identical movements around the male soloist (Francisco Mugamba), one could see the difference between Tan and the lovely, highly accomplished Mathilde Froustey from Paris. Tan’s every gesture filled out more time of the musical phrase than Froustey’s, extending itself into space. I began to wonder how come Froustey or other excellent dancers in the company don’t seem to emulate this pull toward the extraordinary? How come we don’t see a whole troupe of would-be Tans and little Tan -copies on this stage? Is it that the other dancers don’t notice the difference, don’t see what her dancing is made of? Is it that they are satisfied with their own achievements of perfect grace and exactitude? Or is it useless to try? Perhaps the gap is unbridgeable between ordinary and extraordinary skill. Perhaps it’s the gap between perfection and artistic genius.


* Review of Onegin -2012/0312/renatestendhal0312.html

Cover Photo - Prism -Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiits Helimet
All Photos - Erik Tomasson

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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and
writing coach based in San Francisco
and Pt. Reyes, and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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