San Francisco Ballet dancers love Christopher Wheeldon's choreography—they dance with sensual pleasure and enthusiasm and delight in presenting each new work to their audience. Though based at New York City Ballet as their choreographer-in-residence, Wheeldon recently created his fifth work for San Francisco Ballet, "Ghosts." (Question: Is there any truth to the rumor that Christopher Wheeldon is being courted to replace Helgi Tomasson as San Francisco's Artistic Director?)
Like Mark Morris, Wheeldon has a great gift for using the entire stage in interesting and often asymmetrical ways. Unlike Morris, Wheeldon sticks with a dance vocabulary that looks familiar because he doesn't stray far from classical line and form. When he does bring movement from outside the ballet norm, the vocabulary is easy on the eyes such as his variation of a yoga sun salutation in "Ghosts." Lying face down on the floor, the dancers arched then flexed their lithe backs from one extreme to the other, balancing on their hands as they pulled their pointed feet underneath them and rose to full height. The dancers appear to revel in these movements as they luxuriate through them.
Sofiane Sylve, the French dancer who first appeared with San Francisco Ballet as a guest artist in 2008 and now appears to be here to stay, brought her trademark silky smooth insouciance to her role as lead principal. Partnered by Tiit Helimts and the up and coming corps dancer Brett Bauer, they morphed into a single being, all arms and legs, then rolled around each other and on the floor to create sculpture in motion.
Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, celebrating his twenty-fifth year with the company, receives regular praise for his work to create and sustain a corps of dancers who are each commanding in their presence and remarkably cohesive as a group. During Balanchine's reign at New York City Ballet, when Tomasson served as a principal dancer, it used to be said that a New York City Ballet corps dancer was the equivalent in skill and artistry of a principal dancer anywhere else in the United States. Even Alastair Macaulay, reviewing San Francisco Ballet's opening two weeks for the New York Times, seemed to concede that this can now be said of the hard working and always improving corps de ballet. When the principals leave the stage there is no apparent decrease in intensity. These dancers treat every performance like an audition. Granted, the ensemble cleverly included the daring and always appealing Frances Chung, who has just been promoted to principal, as well as soloist James Sofranko whose physical strength is matched by his charisma on stage.
An enormous grey mobile, created by Laura Jellinek, hung over the stage, downstage right. Its loosely woven metallic-looking parts moved together and separately at various intervals. The sculpture created interesting spatial relationships with the 17 dancers and invoked a sci-fi iconography as they responded to it with their heads tilted back in apparent reverence. Kip Winger's orchestrated pop music enhanced the levity on stage and Mark Sappone's sheer pajama-like costume contributed to the ethereal feel.
The ghost of George Balanchine was respectfully summoned to the War Memorial Opera House for an evening-length mixed program featuring works from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1970s. "Serenade" was famously created to a re-ordered version of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" in the early 1930s as an exercise for students at Balanchine's newly created School of American Ballet. He wanted them to "learn to dance, not just do steps." Remarkably, the piece stands up as a beautifully constructed drama after over 75 years.
The 20 ensemble and principal women are all costumed in three-quarter length pale blue tutus and the stage is lit in cool blue. As the choreography moves them from clear lines to momentary chaos the stage becomes awash in watery motion. The piece progresses from a series of purely abstract sections danced mainly by the large ensemble, with occasional appearances from the principals who weave their way across the stage and then disappear again, to starker sections in which the principals are partnered by men in dark blue long-sleeved body suits.
The climax occurs at the end of a highly physical section danced by the lead principal couple downstage of the larger ensemble. The principal woman tears her hair from its tight chignon, letting it fly loosely around her shoulders, as everyone exits and she falls to the floor. From this moment the choreography becomes freighted with more gesture and dramatic action. What begins as an abstract study changes into a somber ritual. One of the principal men walks across the stage on the diagonal, carrying another principal woman on his back as she blindfolds him with her hand. When they reach the fallen dancer he gestures as if to inspire her to rise and the three perform a solemn pas de trois. The motif of a single raised arm, introduced at the very beginning and re-introduced throughout, morphs into both arms raised to the heavens, chest and head inclined backward. The piece ends with the men carrying the dancer upstage, through a passage created by two diagonal lines of ensemble dancers, where she raises her arms one final time.
When Maria Kotchetkova danced the principal female role she interpreted this gesture by thrusting her ribs forward and throwing her head back in a deep gymnastic backbend. Lorena Feijoo, performing the same role, gave this gesture more subtle meaning by raising her electrified arms as in prayer or spiritual submission.
Given its world premiere at the Stravinsky Festival in June, 1972, Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" demonstrates the choreographer's great respect and admiration for the composer. The mythology has it that Balanchine would call rehearsals of this work, whether the dancers needed the practice or not, just to hear the music. Conducted by Martin West and featuring the violin soloist Franklyn D'Antonio, the composition's neo-classicism was a stirring and lively contrast to the Tchaikovsky pieces that preceded and followed it.
Gone are the tutus and the solemn faces of "Serenade," the dancers are now wearing black and white rehearsal clothes and their faces are just as relaxed. The movement is jazzy and cool, angular and playful. Of the four principal women I saw on two different nights, Sofiane Sylve, Vanessa Zahorian and Sarah Van Patten all clicked with the choreography and its quick, playful quality. Yuan Yuan Tan, by contrast, seemed uncomfortable, out of her element, awkward and distant. Perhaps this is in part because she was not with her usual partner, Damian Smith, but instead with soloist Anthony Spaulding.
This was particularly true about the final section where Balanchine goes back to his Georgian roots to infuse some folk dance into the vocabulary. While the others found a way to make light of these up-tempo sections, Yuan Yuan's shoulders tightened and her jaws gripped as if straining to simply get through it.
"Theme and Variations" is Balanchine's ode to Imperial Russia. Set to Tchaikovsky, who at times parodies the characteristics of their homeland's bygone era, the choreography is unrelentingly difficult. When I interviewed Lorena Feijoo in 2005, I asked her how she felt about dancing it:
"I loved it but it's such a hard ballet. It's the only ballet that I have thought I don't know if I want to do it again if it comes back [into the repertoire]. I heard this story about how it was created. Balanchine went to American Ballet Theatre just to set this ballet. He was used to working with these tall, long-legged dancers, but they gave him Alicia [Alonso, then a principal at ABT, now Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Cuba under whom Lorena trained until her defection in the early 1990s] who was a pretty much average woman without these long legs. He created the piece as a dare. He said, 'I'm going to give you every single, impossible step to do to see if you can do it.' It was like he was saying: they say you are so good—let's see if you're that good!
"Good Lord," Lorena continued, "it has a lot of pirouettes from fifth position which is the most naked, hardest step to do on stage. Usually the pas de deux comes first, then the guy does his variation, and then you do yours. But in this piece first you have that variation with the girls where you développé [front, side and back, balancing the entire time on one supporting leg while holding the hands of each of two girls on either side who are balancing in fifth position, executing a long section of bourée while holding their upper body still enough to support the principal—devilishly difficult!]. Then you go straight into your solo and from your solo you go into the long adagio, that beautiful adagio. By the end of it you don't even feel your legs. You don't even know if you're going en pointe or not.
"I love it but the anticipation of knowing that you are going to be so tired keeps you from completely enjoying what you are going to do. I'm being totally honest with you. It's the only ballet that I would consider not doing again. Just because of struggle. You don't feel your legs. You don't feel your feet. If your partner takes you off your leg, even just a little bit, you feel like you're completely off your leg and you don't know if you will ever have time to get back on your leg in time.
"I just let the music drive me through. The music of the adagio is so beautiful and the Polonaise at the end is so grand. You have no choice. But I'm telling you it is one of the hardest things I have ever done. If not the hardest."
And yet "Theme and Variation" did return to the repertoire and Lorena did dance it. She floated through it all with the elegance and grace of the great ballerina that she is. Her arms and shoulders glided above her precise footwork, her neck lengthened, her spine spiraling in perfect balance through each pirouette. Her upper body lilts delicately as her feet quiver furiously in endless bourées.
Balanchine packs the music with steps yet because of her unsurpassed musicality she somehow creates the appearance of more time and never appears rushed. She dances with the quiet serenity of truly knowing the music and the choreography, knowing where she can expand the moment, and having complete confidence in the imaginary world she creates around her.
All Photos Erik Tomasson
Courtesy San Francisco Ballet