Made for SF Ballet, Program 7
Tiit Helimets, Sarah Van Patten and Aaron Robison in Tomasson's Trio. (© Erik Tomasson)

Made for SF Ballet, Program 7

Helgi Tomasson “Trio”
Myles Thatcher “Ghost in the Machine”
Christopher Wheeldon “In the Golden Hour”

San Francisco Ballet
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
War Memorial Opera House
Apr. 5-18, 2017; Reviewed on Apr. 5 and 13
Sfballet.org

Helgi Tomasson created “Trio” in 2011. It proceeds from a sixth sense of what Tchaikovsky’s piece “Souvenir” proposed about the shape of a dance work. Tomasson abandoned the notion of a continuous motif in favor of three different ones. “Trio” captures an aesthetic that gained popularity over the course of his performing career during the 1960s Balanchine-Robbins era. Its sweep and generous swathe would seem to contradict its fastidious experimentation with tempo and style, but both cohabit genially in the work. Costumes by Mark Zappone are adroitly tailored to each movement’s distinctive mood.

The first movement opens with the bounding waltz steps of Sasha De Sola and Vitor Luiz and five women and five men, all costumed in a rich gentian with red trim, the women’s costumes adding a lovely luff to the festive mood. De Sola is supremely confident, and deservedly so. You see a surety in her port de bras issuing from the honesty of her work. She is musical, personable, and exhilaratingly clean. Luiz, with deft placement, looks jubilant partnering her, and even in a simple ballroom step such as balancé en tournant, they capture the Balanchine credo—let the dance say its name.

On opening night, Sarah Van Patten, Tiit Helimets and Aaron Robison team up for the second movement. Van Patten, in a pea green skimmer, and a playful Helimets, dare one another with little chases until they work larger stepover paces that slow to a heart-rending adagio. They open the locus larger and larger, until he lifts her so that her knees balance on his shoulders and she is his beacon. As if her light has signaled him, Robison arrives dressed in a shade of brown we associate with the Grim Reaper. He tests the waters around the couple’s perimeter, until he positions himself to tempt Van Patten to give him a tumble. In a tug of war struggle with both Robison and a temperate Helimets, Van Patten reaches out to protect Helimets from the force field that will carry her from him. On Thursday, April 13, Lauren Strongin danced Van Patten’s role, and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira that of Helimets. Where Van Patten tended to externalize her angst, supported by pyrotechnic backbends and extended lines, Strongin, through a gentle specificity, spun the story out soberly yet evocatively, dismissing any wisp of ambiguity about where it was headed. She met Deivison-Oliveira’s ministrations as less the driver and more the partner, so that as he scoops her up mid-spine, his passions play out fully on the same plane with hers, lending the resolution a resounding finality. On Thursday night, a more convinced and confident Robison wedges himself between captive and rival, guiding Strongin offstage with a possessive hand on her shoulder.

The third movement pairs Maria Kochetkova, all gossamer on Thursday night, with Angelo Greco, dressed in Sienna brown. Moving on bent knees and jumping with flexed feet, each preparation is distinctive in this Cossack-styled interlude that has Kochetkova dancing circles around herself, arms akimbo or opening brightly to her attentive partner. Both are happy with the music that has them dancing the piece to its now-frothy, now-earthy conclusion.

It’s been some eleven years since I first saw Myles Thatcher in class when he was Edward Ellison’s student in New York, and then eight years since observing him in a choreographic workshop at Canada’s National Ballet School, where he brought a work of his own to the 2009 Assemblée Internationale. It has been fascinating to watch his development as a choreographer. For the last three years he has been setting work on adult professional dancers in companies of the caliber of San Francisco, New York City, and Joffrey Ballets.

His “Ghost in the Machine” is set to a mashup score by Michael Nyman. The work is danced under an overhead sculpture by Alexander V. Nichols: two clutches of horizontal cables stretch upward, meeting asymmetrically at their summit, where they attach to a light tube. The design echoes that of the new San Francisco Bay Bridge. The curtain opens with the sculpture lit in red; then after a break in the music, it turns white, as Jim French’s lighting goes alabaster. Thatcher seizes upon a familiar theme—young people’s alienation confronted with a dystopia. Youth culture has been a temptation with each generation of choreographers since Jerome Robbins brought “Interplay” to the stage in sneakers. In the sixties, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino traded out sneakers for pointe shoes, when youth culture reached its theatrical apotheosis, egged on by flower power, happenings, and the sensationalized triad of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll.

At the crossroads of dance and youth is a lot of running, inviting an Alice-in-Wonderland-like query: Why does so much running yield such scant progress? In “Ghost in the Machine,” the runners arrive under the flag of clever inventions, with lifts that fold in and out like origami cranes, fueled by a transformative spirit that makes the soon-to-retire Vanessa Zahorian (opening night), spring through the work as if she’s at the starting not the finish line of her performing career. Julia Rowe on Thursday night owns the turf with the ease of the androgynous West Side Story character, Anybodys. The dancers ping back and forth through combinations as if steps were plucked out of the overhead cables. De Sola and Van Patten dance solos on opening night and Thursday night, respectively. They give vent to the exasperation of not being able to complete a single psychic sentence with their partners. Standoffs like those between Jets and Sharks in West Side Story signal that irritating frictions build to perilous rifts. The weather improves only when someone takes the initiative to step up to the high ground and coax the others along. On Thursday night, we see a comet-like pairing in Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham, who exhaust every fiber looking for what’s hard to find in each other: the pain beneath a mottled coating of urban grit.

Unlike more antique attempts to capture this theme in cloth, the costumes by Susan Roemer resist going garish. She gives us active wear in ash grey. Its virtue is that it doesn’t overpower the story’s intrinsic voltage. All the featured couples, Zahorian and Joseph Walsh, De Sola and Steven Morse, Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno, on opening night, Rowe and Jaime García Castilla, Van Patten and Henry Sidford, Stahl and Ingham, on Thursday night, are at the top of their game. It’s thrilling that this is just the right vehicle to showcase the talents of Isabella DeVivo, Esteban Hernandez, Emma Rubinowitz, Max Cauthorn, Diego Cruz, Thamires Chuvas, and Benjamin Freemantle, who too often have been consigned to hiding their splendid light under a bushel basket of auto-pilot casting.

The score that starts with three notes, and moves into 4/4, doesn’t begin to fully serve the steps until it is elaborated with more and jazzier orchestration. Choreographers, musicians, and writers are all tasked with learning the same lesson: the leaner the work, the more powerfully it punches up. Looking forward to future Thatcher musings on mature themes for mature dancers.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “In the Golden Hour” brings back desultory floor stretches, wing’ed lifts, and trance-like hypnotic repetitions, then wide box steps, and Kathak-style squared raised arms. It’s an ethnic eclecticism that was once “pretty” in the frippery of its lovely-hued costumes, but now takes on a patina that turns it beautiful. It’s a fine riposte to the specter of xenophobia that stalks our world, in our global neighbors’ streets, hospitals, and schools, during this time of gaseous horror, and the imposition of missile merchants’ murderous fusillades.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.