San Francisco Ballet – Connotations, The Waltz Project, Nanna’s Lied

San Francisco Ballet – Connotations, The Waltz Project, Nanna’s Lied

Things are looking better and better at San Francisco Ballet these days. On the heels of a resplendent Don Quixote, and as a prelude to Balanchine’s sparkling Jewels, Program Five mines a more contemporary, experimental vein – and comes up with gold.

Peter Martins’ "Waltz Project" is not to everyone’s taste. At intermission there were rumblings in the ranks of those who like their ballet purely classic. Nevertheless, it is an interesting piece that takes movement to a � beat to the limit, and then some. It may be more modern than balletic, utterly gymnastic at points, but it is a mighty showcase for the talents of four pairs of dancers. Made on Martins’ own New York City Ballet in 1988, it features a dozen brief waltzes, written by as many people – some as famous as John Cage, Philip Glass and Morton Gould and others less well known. Michael McGraw did the honors at the piano and he did each of the composers proud.

The piece takes its tone from Cage’s opening "49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs," a hip, New York-oriented ensemble during which the dancers do their own urban thing, sometimes connecting, sometimes ignoring one another, sometimes climbing over one another’s bodies as if on a child’s jungle gym. Other waltzes held a hint of Broadway, jazzed things up or were more romantic–in the latter instance, none more than Julie Diana and Benjamin Pierce’s melting pas de deux to Robert Moran’s "In Memoriam," an homage to Ravel.

Things took a definite turn toward the dramatic after intermission. Helgi Tomasson’s Nanna’s Lied, set to nine songs by Kurt Weill, is celebrating its tenth birthday with the San Francisco Ballet. The work has lost none of its power over a decade and, with Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role, may have gained some. A dark tale of the loss of innocence in the decadent Germany of the 1930s, a milieu that Weill and his frequent collaborator, Bertolt Brecht, well knew, it may be one of Tomasson’s best. Tan was wooed and cast aside by her perfect partner, Yuri Possokhov, and their anguished, angry duet to "Surabaya Johnny" is the centerpiece of the ballet. Pierce took the role of the mysterious, vaguely sinister, older gentleman who rescues Nanna from the unwanted attentions of some ruffians and then turns out not to be such a gentleman after all. Soprano Francine Lancaster gave the songs a nice Lotte Lenya touch.

Val Caniparoli’s 1989 Connotations is an abstract ballet for five couples, each dressed in a different color, set to music of Benjamin Britten. It is an exercise in music made visible, if such a thing is possible. Caniparoli also provides the viewer with a heightened sense of how bodies move in space. Nicole Starbuck and Damian Smith, the couple in blue, move passionately. Katita Waldo and Ruben Martin, clad in red, are quick and volatile. The rose couple (Elizabeth Miner and James Sofranko) is happy and lighthearted and there is intense physicality between Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, in gray. Megan Low and Joan Boada, in black, enter and briefly participate in each pas de deux like two dark punctuation marks, before closing the work with a duet of their own. The whole thing takes place, bathed in Sara Linnie Slocum’s wonderfully changing light, and powered by Britten’s score, featuring Roy Malan’s solo violin.

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Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”