There is something heroic about top-grade athletes training and rehearsing in masks, having to breathe
through a hot, itchy layer of cloth. Even in normal times dancers struggle for breath, trying to make sure their audience doesn't notice. Luckily San Francisco Ballet made
excellent use of "virtual ballet," offering a "digital season"-- canned highlights of the recent repertoire, plus a few modest new works performed and filmed sans mask, letting us believe there were still pockets of "normal" in the ballet world.
Helgi Tomasson, the departing artistic director of SF Ballet, composed a beautiful season with the accent on
storytelling ballets. The program was crowned by several masterpieces from his almost four decades at the helm of the company: recent works like Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer,
Cathy Marston's Snowblind, and classics like Tomasson's Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake.
I had already seen and reviewed most of them in these pages*, but the virtual reality platform of on
demand streaming opened up new avenues to these works. Watching a live performance, the eye has to catch so many details and follow so many moving targets that often the most
exciting moments – an extraordinary leap or a breathtaking balance on pointe – zip by almost unnoticed. You go, wait a minute: did I see this? Did this really just
happen? This time you could simply push Stop and Rewind to make sure you hadn't made it up. What an exciting new proposition for the viewer who was invited not just to consume and
enjoy, but to study.
The digital performances were not all equal in their technical presentation.
Some had the camera simply set up at the back of the orchestra, keeping the totality of the stage in view, renouncing the details and close-ups (but
giving the computer user the opportunity to zoom in to some degree). A certain flatness was the unavoidable result of this static view from the back,
and full company ballets like Balanchine's Jewels suffered. It's notoriously difficult to breathe life into Balanchine, and missing the third dimension,
the spatial architecture, doesn't help. Only Mathilde Froustey in the segment "Rubies," broke through the flat screen and sent sparks of playful charm into the camera.
Given this rudimentary camera work, it was surprising how well a story-telling ballet like Swimmer came through in spite of all. The audiovisual
elements of Possokhov's piece –like the gigantic splashes of water each time the swimmer dives into a pool—demand a wide-angle view to be
effective. The funny, cartoon elements of the illustrative scrims got lost to some degree but this vagueness made one focus more intensely on the
swimmer himself. This time, the role was danced by Joseph Walsh, who delivered a stellar performance, as smooth, cool and fluid as water itself.
With the focus on him the emotional punch of the piece came through with particular strength (as it does in John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer
."). At the end, when the whole stage is like the surface of the ocean and the tiny body of the dancer, undeterred, still splashes onward, we know the
swimmer will never come home; there is no home in his existential journey.
British choreographer Cathy Marston was supposed to create a new story
ballet this season, but because of Covid the plan was shelved until 2022. Instead, Marston's Snowblind from last year exerted its uncanny power
again. The cast was the same: Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer as the unhappy couple of Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome, and Mathilde
Froustey as their young maid. The piece fares well on digital camera as most of the choreographies focus is on the explosive triangle center-stage.
The superb dancing and acting of all three protagonists, caught in their unbreakable, prison-like intimacy, didn't lose any of its haunting intensity in medium close-up.
Faced with Covid restrictions, Australian dancer and choreographer
Danielle Rowe, went all-digital with a new piece, Wooden Dimes. She designed the piece for film. The "Wooden Dimes" of her story represent the
naïve belief in fame. A 1920's vaudeville showgirl gets a big role but the success spoils her marriage to a simple man, one of her original fans. It's
the familiar "star is born and hubby is lost." By contrast with Marston, Rowe doesn't mange to create characters through her choreography, and
she miscast her heroine. Sarah van Patten, this time poorly directed, seems too mature and cold for the part. Any of the other girls, who preen and flirt
in sexy déshabillés in front of their dressing room mirrors, has more life and sex appeal than the "star." These dressing room scenes are the
highlight of the piece; they have spunk and comedy charm. The show numbers are helped by overhead camera shots à la Busby Berkley, but the
moment van Patten engages with her man (Luke Ingham as a cardboard office clerk), the choreography veers into conventional ballet pas de deux
without a whiff of showgirl pizazz. These scenes made me wonder: would anyone care about this "nice" and boring relationship? Perhaps the still
rather inexperienced choreographer aimed too high and ended up holding a "wooden dime."
Romeo and Juliet
Tomasson's Romeo and Juliet with Maria Kochetkova and Davit
Karapetyan got the best digital treatment in a performance at the Lincoln Center, in 2016: great camera work zooming in on the dancers and
revealing what was a surprise to me: Maria Kochetkova, the tiniest of the SF ballerinas, delivered a Juliet utterly convincing in her innocent joy, her
passion and her Pic 7 anxiety and terror.
Karapetyan, her handsome Romeo, matched her with his beautiful lines
and emotionality. Chalk it up to Tomasson, I thought. In his long directorship he has shown himself to be an impressive choreographer and a formidable stage director.
Tomassons's Swan Lake, famously set at the foot of a majestic black rock,
featured two of his long-time top stars, Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets and closed the season in a well-filmed production from 2016. It was a treat
to be able to rewind a scene and replay it by focusing, for example, on nothing but the dancers' feet. In the case of Tan, the owner of the longest
and most eloquent feet, one could be tempted to evoke extravagant metaphors -- like melted butter pouring over the stage; feet like velvet
draped between sky and earth; and so forth.
On another rewind I concentrated on the prima ballerina's arms: after the
first shock of their excessive thinness, these spindly arms created a feathery, fluttery magic with an edge of bony fragility that I had not detected in her
earlier performances of the role. In addition to this spicy mix of buttery feet and exquisite, breakable arms, Tan's White Swan was a touching portrait of
doomed love, all bittersweet longing and renunciation. Her prince, Tiit Helimets, seemed to envelop her with tenderness, and in his solos he
charmed with picture-book noble pirouettes.
Tan's Black Swan pushed the sly, malicious, raptor-like duplicity with a
bravura that brought the house down. I remember a few ferocious Black Swans (Lorena Feijoo for example) but I've never seen such seductive power of evil.
This peak performance – the sum of the ballerina's refining her art for
twenty-some years – was a worthy closing night for Tomasson's final season. The choreographer/director leaves a powerful legacy, and his way of
planning and managing a virtual season in Covid times was another master stroke. The final curtain call left me with the wish that even in normal
times the audience could repeatedly enjoy and study peak performances in digital form.
Photos by Erik Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet
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