Scene4-International Magazine of Arts and Culture
In Space and Time: SF Ballet's New Season | Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine - March 2019

San Francisco Ballet’s New Season

Renate Stendhal

With the start of the new ballet season, San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson began fulfilling the promise made after last year’s Unbound Festival For New Choreography:  he would bring back some of the most successful pieces. All the new works were about half an hour long, making them easy to fit into the favored modus of three ballets per night or program.

I was eager to see pieces I had missed, and see certain pieces again, especially those that seemed to be small masterpieces, like Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind” which was performed between two abstract ballets as part of “In Space & Time” (Program 3).


“The Fifth Season”

First came “The Fifth Season,” a piece by Tomasson from 2006. In the well-known post-Balanchinian style of the choreographer, there were lovely moments, set to music by the post-classical composer Karl Jenkins. The slow pas de deux of Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo di Lanno in Jenkins’ Largo movement was elevated by Tan’s silky, pliant musicality and outstanding grace. Through her interpretation the recurring themes of yearning and surrender of “The Fifth Sesaon” are realized, whereas they are only sketched in the rest of the piece. With his prima ballerina assoluta, Tomasson simply cant go wrong. But on the whole, the piece showcases a weakness of the choreographer: he comes up with a good, even great idea and fails to use it or build on it. Instead, he seems to cast about for what to do next? The consequence is a disjointed monotony of movements until indeed, another good idea shows up. The evocative backdrop of shadowy cypress trees, framed by changing doorways, could have been a pretty obvious source of good ideas, but not once is it used for an entry, exit or interesting escapade. It is like most of the piece, just lovely decoration.



The contrast to Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind” then could not have been more radical. I reviewed the piece the British choreographer created for SF Ballet for last year’s Unbound Festival (*), where it took a top spot in emotional, psychological story telling, delivering a tight, no-moment-wasted version of Edith Wharton’s novella from 1911, Ethan Frome.  The story of adultery in the claustrophobic space of a modest hut is a cruel tale, and Wharton, who is notoriously unforgiving to women, has it all end tragically in a snow accident. Ethan’s lover, the maid Mattie, ends up the crippled prisoner of the unhappy couple. Marston is kinder and gives us an ambiguous ending in a pas de trois that seems both forgiving and punishing.


I saw almost the original cast this time around: Ulrik Birkkjaer as Ethan Frome and Mathilde Froustey as Mattie. Jennifer Stahl replaced Sarah van Patten as Frome’s sickly wife Zeena. Her portrayal missed the painfully sharp edges of van Patton’s more frozen, frigid and dangerous moods as Zeena.  For some reason the conflicted erotic triangle seemed less magical and less snowbound this time around. Some details got changed. When Mattie entered the drab house as a servant and immediately aroused suspicion in her red dress, van Patten threw an apron at her like a projectile of rage. Not any more. The apron is simply handed to her. The atmosphere of a snowy, mysterious and brooding darkness, where a group of vague figures was drifting past like a chorus of fleeting guilt or regret, seemed more literal this time, as if too much light had been switched on.


Nevertheless, the impact of the forbidden passion and the grim happy ending that ties the threesome together for better or worse, was deeply effecting. 

Marston is a master of adapting literature for dance. Here she compresses a long story into a form where every step, every gesture counts and the forward movement never stops. Like in the best thrillers, when the end comes one wants the story to start all over again.


 It was almost a comic relief, after Marston’s gut-wrenching piece, to see Harald Landers’ classic “Etudes” from 1948, a ballet about ballet.


The charming piece is like a school demonstration or a three-dimensional ballet lexicon. It starts with the basic positions, tendus and ronds de jambes at the barre, cleverly lit so all you see are three long rows of legs and feet moving like anonymous soldiers on parade. The formations of classical ballet are further demonstrated in full-bodied silhouettes in space and finally we see the fully lit group in black or white tutus, joined by male dancers in white tights, engaging in more and more complicated steps. The “lesson” culminates in the triumphant virtuosity of pirouettes, fouettés, battements and double tours en l’air.  The grand diagonals carried out by the whole flock criss-crossing the stage with grand jetés like swans racing through mid-air, always brings the house down.


The music is based on Carl Czerny, the Czech pianist who played for Beethoven, taught Franz Liszt and composed famous piano exercises (“The Art of Velocity”) — a music that happily and unapologetically stomps and trumpets the beat. In a good rendition like SF Ballet’s the clockwork precision of the execution creates the same wonder and joy as a child would experience watching a carousel  or the merrily spinning figurines on a music box. Sasha de Sola was the perfect little music box ballerina, so pretty, exact and fast in her déboulés that the audience laughed and clapped with delight. It did not matter that her prominent, front-stage grand plié at the start of the piece failed: a grand plié is notoriously tricky in point shoes. Without holding on to the barre, it’s a gamble, no matter what.


Her male companions were excellent, too, most outstanding Joseph Walsh with his prince-like charm and smooth precision.  The technical bravura presented with such seductive simplicity seemed to make not only the audience happy, but the buoyant dancers, too.


*Snowblind premiere see:

 All photos by Erik Tomasson

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Scene4 Magazine - Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal , Ph.D., is a writer and a Senior Writer
for Scene4. She is the author of Kiss Me Again, Paris.
For her other reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2019 Renate Stendhal
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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March 2019

Volume 19 Issue 10

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