Program 2 of the new season was indeed a kaleidoscope of neo-classical and successively modernist pieces by Balanchine, Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck.
It began with Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” from 1956, set to Mozart’s eponymous concerto.
Balanchine has used music by Mozart only twice in his long career because doing justice to Mozart seemed almost impossible to him. The one piece he kept in the repertory was “Divertimento No. 15” and his choreography ranks it among his most sophisticated and difficult pieces.
Originally created for the crème de la crème of his New York City Ballet, 5 ballerinas and 3 male soloists plus a group, former NY Times ballet critic Alastair Macauley remembered what it was like at the time of its creation: “This ballet, with the most sublime choreography ever made to music by Mozart, creates an ideal realm in which courtesy, chivalry, brilliance, serenity and expansiveness coexist and give off light. In those performances, Balanchine’s style was at a peak of refinement: resplendent in line, dazzling in speed, calm in phrasing, tingling in musical precision. The huge box of stage space around the dancers was animated by their ardent three-dimensional physicality and their dynamics.”
We only wish.
I have seen the company perform the piece over the years, doing it as well as any other top company in the world, and obviously the challenge has to be undertaken frequently in order to educate the younger members of the company. To start a matinee with the hardest technical challenge of modern classical ballet and with an experimental cast of majorly corps members, was a triple challenge. With Mozart being played poorly, heavy on the beat, “Divertimento No. 15” was a brave affair at best, serving the young dancers more than the audience. These days, however, almost any performance of San Francisco Ballet shows off the smashing male dancers in the company.
I happened to see the piece the day after Harald Lander’s “Etudes” from 1958 (Program 3, reviewed in these pages*), and savored the chance of comparing what ought not to be comparable. It’s a heretic proposition, but the two pieces seemed related, not just by their time period. While Landers piles up a bouquet of steps with increasing virtuosity and verve, Balanchine serves the classical canon with the same insistence as Landers does, but he turns every step into artistic sophistication through his late phrasing, surprising inward turns of thighs, sliding steps and sexy épaulements (shoulder turns), off-balances, charming, whimsical non-classical arm movements and even “normal” gestures (two girls holding hands, a woman touching a man’s shoulder)—all inspired by a playful, utterly Mozartian humor.
In this matinee performance, the steps were executed correctly, but both the humor and the pizzazz of Balanchine were missing. The piece could have been called “Etude No. 15,” especially as here again, principal dancer Sasha de Sola did her solo turns (ahead of the music as if having to pull a stubborn mule), and the vastly better choreography did not win out against the company’s lively and humorous Harald Landers romp.
(You will have to go to Balanchine’s greatest muse, Susan Farrell, and her own company to see that there can still be an artistic and erotic thrill in a “Divertimento No. 15” performance.)
The solemn whirlpool of passion in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23, “Appassionata” served for Benjamin Millepied’s choreography of the same name. It was Benjamin Millepied’s first appearance (not in person) at San Francisco Ballet. The piece was created in 2012 for the Paris Opera Ballet under the title “La Nuit s’achève” (At the End of Night). Another step toward more modern, looser body work, the piece was all Sturm und Drang, a flood of fast movement, but neither particularly romantic nor dark. The ex-director of the Paris Opera Ballet (husband of actress Nathalie Portman, famously called “The American in Paris with a French name” —a name that translates as “Thousand-Foot”) used to be a dancer at New York City Ballet and has more than once been criticized
for “imitating” Jerome Robbins, the successor of Balanchine. I have seen just as much imitation in Millepied’s work, or shall we say inspiration, from Matthew Bourne or Martha Graham and other modern dance greats, but here he managed to meld a diversity of styles into a fluid whole. The constant flux and expanse of movement in the first part, danced in point shoes, was impressive in its speed and clean architecture. His cast of three couples, in red, blue and violet, cavorted in and out of three geometrical gates at the back and was exciting to watch (Mathilde Froustey, Jennifer Stahl, Madison Keesler, Henry Sidford, Aaron Robison, Steven Morse). Something, however, was wanting. Millepied’s ideas did not fill the emotional space and demands of the music. The dark, often violent passion of Beethoven’s first movement was not met or matched by the frequent partner changes that seemed to be random and lack meaning.
Then one of the couples, now in white, succeeded in the adagio movement, with lovely slides and low swing-lifts, danced with tenderness by Mathilde Froustey and Henry Sidford, and ending in a kiss. If only the costume designer had given the ballerina a better outfit than the blousy baby-doll that resembled a nightgown and hid most of her lithe body from view. All three couples then returned, now in white, grey and black and in ballet slippers. Again, there were cascades of fluid movement. The in and out of bodies rushing from the shadows of the three gates proved effective. Again, the women were distorted by their blousy nightgown outfits, but now their long-flowing hair enhanced the fast, sweeping ice-skating moves, flying jetés and runs with beautiful ralentis (slow-downs) and stops.
The last piece of the bill, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” by Justin Peck brought a burst of youth to the old Memorial Opera House. Justin Peck is one the popular choreographic hopefuls on the international stage (like Liam Scarlatt or Christopher Wheeldon) who mix all styles with ease and excel in mostly abstract dance pieces for groups. A dancer himself, and also chorographer-in-residence at the New York City Ballet, Peck used an electronic pop album titled “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” by the group M83 for this piece which he created for last year’s Unbound Festival of New Choreography. The songs all sounded dreamy and yet had a very inviting beat that Peck made the most of. He put the whole group of 14 dancers, principals and corps, into sneakers (the women, too, although their sneakers had the super-light quality and
effect of “ballet-slipper sneakers”) in order to give the dancers a looser look and achieve what he is after: “a mixture of the artistic and the athletic.” No wonder San Francisco Ballet is his “favorite company.” Thanks to the many guest choreographers director Tomasson has been inviting over the years, these dancers have no trouble loosening up and melting into any modern style.
Artistic and athletic, of course, isn’t new and doesn’t say anything specific. Almost any new choreography noweadays could fit that bill. Do the sneakers help? What seduces about “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” is its circular movement, the group swirling in and out and sometimes bunching up into a pile of bodies. The circles and spirals are intercut by playful tangentials of straight-forward walk-outs and walk-abouts (very much Jerome Robbins), with short-phrase duets and mini solo turns that never lose the connection to the group. The costumes, metallic tights, crop-tops and disco shorts flatter both women and men. No theme is detectable in this popular merry-go-round, except the joy of moving, being part of some central cohesion. The essence is the playful camaraderie of being young and beautiful—dancers at their best.