Bright Fast Cool Blue
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Serenade. (Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson)

Bright Fast Cool Blue

San Francisco Ballet, Program Two 2018

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, Calif.
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Feb. 13-24, 2018 Reviewed: Feb. 13
Sfballet.org

It is hard to name a work that creates otherworldliness all of one piece as does George Balanchine’s sky blue “Serenade.” To do justice to the Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky score, dancers must arrive floaty, swift, and punctual, contradictory though those qualities may seem. Assurances that this will happen just keep on coming, whether in the persons of the women principals, Mathilde Froustey, Jennifer Stahl, and Yuan Yuan Tan, or the soloists and corps de ballet. The membrane separating ranks here is ennobling in its permeability. You feel you’re privy to some heavenly version of spring cleaning, as arms and legs scissor expertly to cut a swath of lightness and legerdemain. When Stahl is beamed up by squires Carlo Di Lanno and Luke Ingham, a divine rite of passage takes place in her ownership of the moment. The women are driving. They chauffeur us to vistas where we can scrutinize Balanchine’s influence on the triplets Martha Graham made famous, and the specificity that shaped the port de bras in a waltz segment, as complex rhythms flower garland-like around simple steps.

Arguments have collected over the years about whether an underlying story hides in the constellations of dancers moving seemingly purely in response to the music. Certainly one of the more persuasive of them could take the form of the Luke Ingham-Yuan Yuan Tan couple, especially as he abandons her to a “Judas goat” exit, the better to hasten a new-found partnership with Stahl.

Benjamin Millepied’s “The Chairman Dances-Quartet for Two” bears an arithmetically indecipherable title. While there are two dancers in the opening segment, the work, which premiered in January 2017, was amended for this season to include four more, distributed across two subset couples. Also, though the title primes you to expect a chairman to dance, no chairman materializes, let alone dances. Awareness of these eccentricities might make it easier, upon a second viewing, to locate some measure of art in this Flubbery-textured work, maybe.

The John Adams score which goes Glass-lite in its tediousness, is not a good vehicle for Maria Kochetkova and Carlo Di Lanno, and they don’t look enthusiastic about dancing it. It involves a lot of running upstage and down, and owing to the “Flubber” factor, as a Vaganova school strict constructionist, you might be tempted to balk when it comes time to bounce. Dressed in blue-gray unitards with broad red stripes running across them (Millepied’s design), the proletarian corps labors through road warrior steps that eclipse otherwise more imaginatively balletic combinations danced by soloists. Had these combinations been elucidated more globally as the core argument for this work, it could have launched on a better axis. The program notes say that Adams wrote the score while writing his opera “Nixon in China.” Accordingly, the audience is supposed to imagine Chairman Mao dancing with the zeal of a Little Red Book-waving Cultural Revolution cadre, partnering the ex-movie star Jiang Jing, who became his Madam Mao. I could be convinced of the Jiang Jing allusion for one or two reasons, most importantly that it was she who singlehandedly rescued ballet, deemed “bourgeois decadence” from the trash heap of Chinese history. However, for the life of me, I cannot picture the stolid ex-librarian Mao Zedong running upstage and down at warp speed, except perhaps on a Cultural Revolution version of the 1950s TV show “Beat the Clock.” The added couples, whose forced collectivization is adduced to rehabilitate this leaderless piece, are Yuan Yuan Tan, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Jennifer Stahl and Benjamin Freemantle. I would have preferred to have seen them commit their efforts to a production of the “Red Detachment of Women,” a laudable ballet that emerged from China itself. Curiously, the costumes for Red Detachment are of exactly the same grey-blue hue bearing broad red stripes as those credited to Mr. Millepied for this work.

The Premiere of Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” invites binary cognitive dissonance. First, there is the inherited kind that comes with the legacy of the Aaron Copland score. The music sets a pensive mood in its lingering melodies, but the action is mostly all about the bass, which signals the second onset: the male dancers’ pyrotechnics are nearly Olympian in contrast with the more contemplative theme. The competitive energy all but growls behind bright-lit smiles and the amazing stamina of lead soloist Esteban Hernandez. He nails all his tours and jumps, and then returns to the stage with an appetite newly whetted by the taste of blood. The choice of athletic wear-style costumes favors the pyrotechnic mood rather than the pensive one, and weights the piece in the direction of full-out, go-for-broke wilding. This advances a notch further when Dores André arrives bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to pair with Ulrik Birkkjaer. Unlike the American Cowgirl in the Agnes de Mille version, André is more the frisky sex kitten, thrilled and titillated by her entourage of gymnastic swains than she is the dust-kicking, androgynous tomboy. The audience doesn’t object. Au contraire!

The absence of a set and the gray-tone aerodynamic costumes have the strangely salutary effect of making the aerobics even more incandescent, as dancers soar to the top of each crescendo and plant downward accents with a dropped head that seals a trombone slide. Graham has the copyright on “Acrobats of God,” but by God, with the contrasting legato breaching earlier break-neck moments, suddenly a sacred mood prevails. Trumpets sound, and the languid duet danced by André and Birkkjaer, shapes a dancer-etched set, where Hernandez can hitch his tours to a trombone, and all that matters is that Copland, hand in hand with Justin Peck, gives life to the broadest possible spectrum of Ballet Americana.

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.