San Francisco Ballet’s Program 4 achieved a triumphant success with its production of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969). To the admirable playing of 18 pieces of Chopin’s music (mazurkas, waltzes, etudes, a scherzo and a nocturne, performed by pianist Roy Bogas, alternating through the run with Natal’ya Feygina), an excellent cast achieved a joyous hour of real dancing, for men and women, combining folk elements, exuberant, expansive use of space and locomotion, and general delight among the participants. “The ballet stays and exists in the time of the music and its work,” wrote Robbins. “Nothing is out of it, I believe; all gestures and moods, steps, etc. are part of the fabric of the music’s time and its meaning to me.”
The dancers are identified by their understated costume colors as seen on an empty stage, backed by a blue scrim, dotted with clouds (lighting by Jennifer Tipton). Joseph Walsh (Brown), who only recently joined SFB as principal, leads off, an almost casual wonderer in the space. We are immediately drawn to him, his explosive leaps and turns, and particularly his expansive expressive upper body, which breathes and complements his other skills. He is followed by a duet, Carlo Di Lanno (Green) waltzing with Maria Kochetkova (Pink). Then Vanessa Zahorian (Mauve) joins Di Lanno. The work continues with a variety of partner exchanges, flirtations, rejections, gesture jokes and sheer delight in dancing. Robbins punctuates the mazurkas with Polish dance elements (hands behind head, partner twirls, flexed feet) and other attitudes well known to aficionados of folk dancing. Men wearing boots enhance the folk dance elements.
Soon Davit Karapetyan (Purple), Vitor Luiz (Brick), Mathilde Froustey (Yellow), Dores André (Blue) and Steven Morse (Blue) join the others. All are to be complimented for skill, splendid partnering and their ability to project the joy of this dancing “across the footlights.” Special kudos for Froustey, Lorena Feijóo (Green), and Zahorian for solo work and Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan (Purple) for duets, though all were superb. Costumes were by the late Joe Eula. Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Jenifer Ringer Fayette of the New York City Ballet staged the work. Go! See it!
About “Hummingbird,” choreographed by Liam Scarlett of The Royal Ballet to Phillip Glass’ “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” there is little that is praiseworthy. It is a great letdown after “Dances.” The first shock is the set design by John Macfarlane. A giant blue/grey roll dominates the upper areas of stage; a ramp fills the upstage floor. Dancers in gray (same designer) crawl and run up and down this ramp, while Yuan Yuan Tan, Luke Ingham, Frances Chung, Gennadi Nedvigin, Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada enact some kind of unrealized relationship. Tan and Ingham are involved with an endless series of acrobatic lifts and holds. The work has a shocking lack of clarity and appeal. Someone remarked that it might be called, “24 Shades of Gray.” Unkind, but it must be acknowledged that this was not the best programming to follow Robbins’ work.
Martin West, conductor, and Brenda Tom, pianist, made the Glass work as accessible to the ear as can be. Future choreographers could happily avoid Glass works.
Joanna G. Harris