3/Dance Innovations
Lander's Etudes. Photo: Erik Tomasson

3/Dance Innovations

San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
War Memorial Opera House
Feb. 13-23, 2020
Reviewed Feb. 13, 2020
Sfballet.org

We are inclined to follow Johnny Eliasen anywhere. In his staging of this special delivery rendering of “Études,” our devotee sentiments are richly rewarded. Yes, there are moments that could have done with a preemptive spring cleaning, but overall, Harald Lander’s academic standard bearer, reminds us that Jennifer Homans was wrong eleven years ago when she put forward the prognosis that classical ballet was about to suffer its death agony. From the opening plié to the closing allegro and every brisé in between, the company treats an audience accustomed to breadth-by-spreadsheet to a veritable smorgasbord of a prime-time ballet class.

Seventy-two years after its debut in Copenhagen, Harold Lander’s Études re-establishes itself as ballet’s technical trial by fire. With its aptly chosen title that means “Studies” in French, the work is a reconstruction, based on the vocabulary and structural progression of ballet technique class. This may seem like an obvious and simplistic inspiration, but combined with Knudåge Riisager’s orchestration of the Carl Czerny’s music, Lander’s stagecraft and choreographic nuance, turns this Danish creation into a rousing, balletic gauntlet that has you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. 

Thursday evening’s performance opens with the Ladies in Black. Hand on barre, adorned in black tutus, the corps de ballet women work their way through the rudiments of ballet class. They weave through tendu, frappé and for the finale, in quasi unison, arrive at a crescendo of ronde de jambe en l’air.  Exquisite Ladies in White and Gentleman of the corps de ballet deftly execute the center adage with an exemplary esprit de corps. Apparent throughout is the superior level of communication and dedicated work necessary to achieve such global mastery.

Whether “Etudes” propels itself to launch and soar depends on the three principal lead roles. There is a fourth principal role, danced by the Adonis-like Carlo Di Lanno, but as a stand-alone, has always seemed insignificant, an afterthought, its only purpose to frame the principal female. Joseph Walsh and Angelo Greco danced the male leads.  Walsh struggles a bit at the top of his pirouette section, but his superb command of technique and discipline allow him to quickly regain his footing and demonstrate why he is one of San Francisco Ballet’s go-to men. Angelo Greco follows Walsh. This is Greco’s domain.  His arresting elevation, turn aplomb and overall swagger, make him perfect for a most  difficult role.  Sasha de Sola danced her lead like a Lipizzaner in battle.  She was calm, determined, unfazed by the daunting technical requirements, and gorgeous!

Trey McIntyre broke new ground with his Raymond Chandler-esque World Premiere, “The Big Hunger.” Set in a corner, stage right, defined by a floor-to-cobwebs-sized gumby-like  “T” installation, the dancers could be arriving at the subway station that haunts your nightmares, or the after-hours neighborhood bar, where freshly painted carmine walls sheathed in shadow, can’t mask the stench of stale beer drenched in Fabuloso. The tiniest  ray of hope enlivened in the absinthe glow of a neon exit sign, is a focal point.

When McIntyre is good, he is very, very good, and in this instance, what makes The Big Hunger good is how it disposes of formula-driven expectations. One such predictable might have us counting on corps dancers to frame the pas de deux, principal, and solo variations. Here, the corps, quirky gangs of upstarts who canon in or out of the exit or wings, sport  pink wigs and pink briefs, all male—or are they? One can’t say for sure until wig and brief colors change to alter the mood and  perception of sex identity. By the time the wigs and briefs transition through a chromatic color scale resolving in black from head to toe, we see a clear, tantalizing streak of androgyny that snags the imagination without messaging passive aggressive insults to our sensibilities.

If you’ve seen a lot of sneaker ballets over the past decade, there’s another curdling expectation that McIntyre dispenses with: the random speed freak run across the stage that acts as filler, and can make you want to throw the nearest pair of sneakers over the handiest power line. Runs here are interesting, deliberate, stylized, syncopated, but never without intention. McIntyre’s commitment is to innovative, yet informed dance theater, as if a deft cat’s paw dips into a creative source and selects the best bits to display. The covenant stipulating that art is an act of selection is ever-present, without standing above or outside the work before our eyes. It results in exuberant dancing that becomes the ignition, then the fuel, and finally, the rapture, that  leaves in its wake a discernible ripple of audience acclamation. It’s what the public came for, this sacred surfeit that survives the choreographer’s rigorous interrogation.

The second wave of Edwaard Liang’s “Infinite Ocean”  advances as the evening opener. Its somewhat fussy choreography introduces beach inhabitants from the crustacean era. They insinuate themselves in interesting shapes, but whenever the long beach day under an unyielding sun leans into siesta time, pas de deux move the piece into the realm of the deluxe. For these loftier interludes, we owe thanks to the serpentine Sofiane Sylve, and Tiit Helimets, who plants her in the sand, Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno, who are simply elegant. There is as well, inspired teamwork by Sean Bennett, Max Cauthorn, Cavan Conley, and the Myles Thatcher, who gleams like a sunbeam.  Jahna Frantziskonis, Elizabeth Powell, and Natasha Sheehan are beachcombing marvels, but the eye keeps returning to Julia Rowe, a standout in this work, guarding it with her life.

Singer & Son
Toba Singer and James Gotesky

San Francisco ,
Singer & Son James Gotesky and Toba Singer announce the launching of Singer & Son, a joint arts writing venture. “Singer & Son” looks forward to covering arts events in the San Francisco Bay Area and arts venues around the globe. Using a “Siskel & Ebert” format, each writer will share his or her appreciation of a performance or event. Singer & Son will also conduct interviews and co-author feature articles. Toba Singer author of “First Position: a century of ballet artists” (Praeger, 2007) and “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida, 2013), was nominated for the LASA (Latin American Student Association) Award, the de la Torre Research and Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award. She has been Artist in Residence at Santa Fe College, and was the University of Florida Author Representative to the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. James Gotesky danced with Boston Ballet II, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and was a Soloist with Houston Ballet. He writes for The Advance, an online music magazine, and has taught at Houston Ballet Academy and Conservatorio de Danza de Mexico. In 2010 he was named Eligible Bachelor No. 13 in Forbes.com 100 Most Eligible Bachelors In the U.S. For more information: singerampersandson@gmail.com