a Next@90 Festival of nine world premieres in three programs. The format of commissioning new works from (mostly) young choreographers has been an exciting tradition at SF Ballet under artistic director Helgi Tomasson. Tomasson has just retired, but one hopes this tradition will endure. Exposing the dancers to vastly divergent styles of choreography year after year has made the company one of the best.
The Next@90 Festival lineup is Tomasson's creation and follows his successful formula: each guest choreographer gets three weeks of rehearsal time to create a 30-minute piece with music, costumes, lighting, and a stage-set.
Program A: Garland, Roberts, Rowe
Choreographer Robert Garland is one of only two senior participants.
The director of the Dance Theater of Harlem chose Mozart's Haffner
Serenade for his eponymous contribution. In an interview, the
choreographer evoked Balanchine who famously thought Mozart could
not be choreographed, and Mr. Garland set out to prove Mr. B wrong.
He adhered to a strictly "neo-classical" canon with nine courtly couples
cavorting in ice cream pinks and greens. I counted five incidents of
"neo" (or non-classical) moves in the whole half hour: one hip swing,
one horse-kick, one arm-dangling, one fisting and one stiffening of
hands. The way Mozart's serenade was played by the SF Ballet
Orchestra under Martin West had more of oom-pah-pah than filigree,
certainly posing no challenge to any choreographic effort. The leading
couple, Julia Rowe and Esteban Hernandez, were flawless (although
Ms Rowe seemed to feel the need to lighten up the heavy Mozart with
steady flirtatious smiles). I was puzzled by this ultra-conventional
ballet for a festival of new, hopefully forward-looking works. Did
choreographer Garland intend an homage to choreographer Helgi
Tomasson and his prevailing post-Balanchine style? A tricky
proposition, in that case: it gave me rather nostalgic memories of how
good some of Tomassons's short neo-classical pieces could be.
Ballet seemed to gain a future in Jamar Roberts' Resurrection. Roberts
comes from the Alvin Ailey tradition of modern dance; he is a
powerful, athletic dancer and "all-round" stage artist. By his own
admission, he is not into narrative ballet, but found himself drawn to a
few story elements for his new creation. The simple accessory of a fire
-red piece of cloth set a cavernous stage with twelve dancers afire. The
group seemed like a futuristic tribe of darkly glittering creatures
somewhere between snakes and dragonflies. To the dark, emotional
music of Gustav Mahler's Totenfeier, the movements were strongly
earthbound, rhythmic with deep pliés and beautifully down-curved
arms. They repeatedly launched into ritualistic formations with
prayerlike imploring, noiselessly clapping hands. Roberts achieved an
astonishing stylistic cohesion with this group.
On the black stage, the tribe seemed to arise from the steaming
grounds of the planet. Their leader was a woman (a fierce Dores
André) who destroyed and resurrected her warrior (Isaac Hernandez).
Males and females showed matching violence and engaged in
challenging athletic combat moves and off-balances. The
leader/sorcerer/creator wielded the magic of the red piece of fabric
that at some point unfolded into a vest. A sign of transmitted power or
a straightjacket, remained mysterious, fluctuating and exciting. The
audience was enthusiastic; I was surely not the only spectator wishing
to see more from Jamar Roberts.
Australian choreographer Danielle Rowe contributed a ballet film, Wooden Dimes, during the last Covid season. Wooden Dimes suffered
from a simplistic story of stardom dreams (reviewed in these pages).
This time she unnecessarily complicated a beautiful ensemble piece
about a run-down circus. Her central story element of the demise of a
clown by an unconvincing female zombie-banshee character (called
"The Oracle") threatened to drag the circus down into some existential
impasse. Rowe didn't help herself by also adding speech to the
dancers' tasks. The zombie "Oracle" (Jennifer Stahl) delivered a
madcap speech, which was distracting rather than amusing.
Madcap started with the clown (Tiit Helimets) in front of the curtain,
doing nothing, while the shrieking laughter of the dancers sounded
from backstage. The effect was like laughing at a joke before telling it,
and then not telling it: the clown had no jokes. Luckily in spite of him,
the circus group was having great fun throughout the piece. In the
group work Rowe proved her undeniable talent: it was a joy to behold
the childlike and burlesque antics of the archetypal characters. They
were romping to the playful, inventive circus music by Swedish
composer Pär Hagström. Two Pierrots (Davide Occhipinti and Henry
Sidford) performed a magical pas de deux while balancing a red ball
between them. The circus princess (Sasha de Sola) had nothing funny
to contribute, but was a glittering spark in the follies of the ensemble.
Program B : Caniparoli, Schreier, Oishi
Let's start with the highlight of the evening that closed Program B.
Yuka Oishi is a very young Japanese choreographer who had the guts
to take on Ravel's iconic Bolero and extend its running time from
fifteen minutes to thirty. She started the first part with a compelling
contemporary Bolero improvisation by Japanese sound designer
Shinya Kiyokawa. After this invitation to listen anew to the well-known
piece, she then followed up with the real thing, managing a continuous
build-up of energy and excitement.
Oishi used to be a soloist at the Hamburg Ballet, where John Neumeier
encouraged her choreographic talent and clearly was an excellent
teacher. Among her spectacular European ventures (see on YouTube)
she created a piece for the Béjart Ballet Lausanne, which brought her
to the cradle of Béjart's masterpiece. Béjart's Bolero was danced by a
single woman (or man) on a table top, surrounded by a large group of
lusting males. Oishi's version is her first step onto the American scene.
Using just a few essential quotes from Béjart and some sly winks at
Pina Bausch, she did her own thing and hit a winner.
Twelve dancers walk, run, stumble onto the naked stage while the
orchestra is tuning, and line up at the backdrop with their backs to the
audience. You can't tell if they are men or women: they all wear men's
suits that are split into a darker and lighter shade of grey. As if assuring
us this is not exactly Pina Bausch, they all go into a tremor that
corresponds to the scintillating (trembling) grey backdrop. Blackout –
they are gone. As the orchestra starts, they return in formations of one,
two, four, eight, twelve. A kind of cosmic geometry, according to the
choreographer, who underlines this point with huge video projections
of planetary bodies and round cellular shapes.
The essential Béjart inspiration Oishi uses is the rocking-dipping move
which she extends into a forward-backward step that anchors her piece
in Ravel's rhythmic pulse. The dips and turns, pliés and leaps evolving
out of this basic step are heightened by the jackets flying and flaring
with the dancers' movements. At times the group morphs into an
expressionist allusion with stylized gestures echoing The Green Table
by Kurt Joos (Pina Bausch's teacher), but contemporary edgy styles
always break fresh ground.
The second half, with the Ravel proper, has the dancers in unisex
leotards. They snake and spiral with the pulsing step in compelling
beauty. Sharp staccato shifts of formation or direction underscore the
music as the intensity mounts. In the growing chaos of spinning bodies
the eye fixes on two couples in the center, whose turns and whirls sur
place are perfect mirror images of each other. Seen from above, each
couple danced in a circle of light as though on Béjart's round table.
They looked like two fast-spinning fixed stars in a wildly rotating
universe. The effect was stunning and the precision of the four dancers
The video projections of pulsing planetary circles added to the
crescendo. Finally, arrow flashes of light raced from all directions
toward the center, announcing the culmination of the piece, the "big
bang" and crash of the music. The group sped to the center and raised
one dancer (Rona Park) into the flashing lights. It was an echo of
Béjart's orgasmic climax, a bit conventional perhaps, but effective.
SF Ballet's dancer and choreographer Val Caniparoli marked his
fiftieth year with the company. The second senior in the lineup, he
stepped in last minute for Benjamin Millepied and had less than two
weeks to come up with a new piece. His Emergence was set to a
languid composition by young Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova
. The theme of the ballet was to show the impact of Covid isolation and
pain. There was beautiful group cohesion by eight dancers
demonstrating the ease with which SF Ballet integrates any kind of
contemporary moves into their classical base. The highlight was a duo
of two men (Luccas Erni and Angelo Greco) affirming their tender
connection but also yearning to leave their (pandemic) dependency,
but the piece began to sag a bit at halftime and became repetitive.
Nevertheless, Caniparoli achieved a lot under extreme time pressure.
His promising sketch leaves one hopeful that Emergence will in time
The Queen's Daughter
American born dancer and choreographer Bridget Breiner started
dance making at the Stuttgart Ballet, where the psychological mastery
of John Cranko's story ballets inspired her work. Now artistic director
of the Karlsruhe Ballet, she is known for evening-length narrative
ballets and admitted that the short form was a challenge for her. Her
company's manager suggested Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto
from 1939, a haunting piece of music that somehow "had Salome in it."
She chose a different title to make the story more "archetypal," she
said in an interview and professed not to like the story nor the
characters in it. This did not bode well.
The intensely perverse power dynamics between the lecherous King
Herod, his vindictive wife Herodias, and her underage daughter
Salome seemed watered down to a generality. There was no Dance of
the Seven Veils and no head on a platter. The classical vocabulary
Breiner adopted didn't reveal enough and didn't rise to more than
stock characters: the haughty queen (Jennifer Stahl), the self
-congratulatory, strutting King (Tiit Helimets), and the vaguely
innocent girl (Sasha de Sola). A group of eight more dancers populated
the stage with no clearly identifiable purpose. John the Baptist, "The
Prophet" (Wei Wang) fared a little better with lyrical and yearning
movements, but nothing in Salome's dealings with him gave a clue why
this dreamy young man had to be exterminated.
The Queen's Daughter was a missed occasion of adding a woman's
interpretation of the tale that entered the western canon through men:
numerous paintings, Oscar Wilde's haunting play, and Richard
Strauss's shocking opera of the same name.
(photo - Eric Tomasson)
Only six years ago, Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita
demonstrated the explosive, timeless power of the biblical story in his Salome – also commissioned by Tomasson -- for SF Ballet's festival
"Contemporary Voices" (reviewed in these pages: https://www.scene4
All photos of the season: Lindsay Thomas