San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's COLORFORMS // Photo: © Lindsay Thomas

Colors of Dance

San Francisco Ballert

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Fortunately (with apologies to Remy Charlip)

Unfortunately, when we exited the Opera House after the program ended, we saw that the car in which we had come had been stolen. Fortunately, just moments earlier, so had our hearts.

Unfortunately, the first time I saw an excerpt from William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I,” in its gala-abbreviated maqueta, it disappointed me. Fortunately, seeing it in its entirety in tonight’s program changed my mind completely. As the piece blossomed before us like a life-sized Amaryllis, questions that had arisen during the first movement found answers in succeeding ones. Listening to the first part of the James Blake soundtrack, I had wondered why Forsythe would use barely audible vocals that could be great if done á Capella, but drowned out by electronic music, they made for sub-par dance accompaniment. Fortunately, despite the confounding opening, midway through, I found myself fully embracing this brilliantly conceived work as the definitive riposte to those who insist that the current generation of contemporary choreographers has nothing to contribute to the art form. Also fortunately, Forsythe (a contemporary of Jiri Kylian’s who for many years headed Ballet Frankfurt), remains a member in good standing of the genus, and what he contributes here is an indispensable bridge, the dancethropological missing link from classical to contemporary ballet.

Blake Works 1 opens with dancers in slate blue dancewear, arrayed écarté in studio lines formation. As they work through academic enchainment, a pattern asserts itself. Piqué, piqué, piqué, STOP. Brisé, brisé STOP, Saut de chat, saut de chat STOP. Why the STOP? This is the artist who likes to slam fire curtains down onto the stage floor to change the game (cf Artifact Suite.) Here, he starts what at first seems like a lesser mayhem: hips that are supposed to be squared, suddenly jut forward. A turn that has a dancer high on her standing leg is insouciantly repeated, but this time that leg is in plié, to effect a pleasing hint of oomph. As canons of dancers take the stage, imperiously or riotously by turns, nervy upsets of classical forms push out shapes that titillate. The audience wants more. Joseph Walsh, who has been dubbed by some as “this generation’s Gene Kelly” delivers a killer solo. Nikisha Fogo brooks no obstacle to showing her full-out facility in this genre.

Everyone is in top form, but a few names deserve special mention: Sasha De Sola, Esteban Hernández, Max Cauthorn, Isaac Hernández, Lucas Erni, and Isabella DeVivo.
Helgi Tomasson’s neoclassical “7 for Eight” is set to four harpsichord concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is a partnering essay launched from the black elegance of Sandra Woodall-designed costumes, a tight lid that when lifted by the movement, sets free a brume of complex pas de deux, from metronomic to filagree to tender-hearted. It begins with Aaron Robison reverently placing Yuan Yuan Tan in poses separated by second-position glides that become a logo for the piece. From the safe harbor he creates, she dispatches power-packed port de bras that bend the upper body forward, down and up, finding floor level with the same spirit as when reaching for the heights. Norika Matsuyama and Cavan Conley open the allegro movement with a vitality that impels grace note-like jumps. Conley’s wingspread-held arms and generous elevation draw the audience deeper inside this piece. Ellen Rose Hummel’s presence is riveting, as she, Lucas Erni and Carmela Mayo dance a Third Movement pas de trois. They leverage the work from its state of grace to a beatitude.

The Fourth Movement opens with Cavan Conley and Luca Ferro standing two feet apart. One faces the audience; the other, upstage. Gentle tour jeté follow, low to the floor, embracing the moving air rather than resisting it.

Erni gives us a formidable solo in the Fifth Movement, and in the Sixth, Aaron Robison is a jubilant returnee with a serene yet joyful Tan. They prepare us for the lush ensemble finale.

What about this company has changed? Are the dancers offered more rehearsal time? Are company classes trending more surgical–or more theatrically compelling—or have they become a scrupulously-titrated concentrate of the two?Sandwiched between these two standout performances is Myles Thatcher’s experiment in mixed media, COLORFORMS, the love child of the pandemic and its Thermidor. During its indeterminate sentence, dancers gave themselves barre grabbing at their kitchen counters.

Some companies shut down; some dancers withdrew or aged out, while others adopted a wait and see approach. Punishing as the period may have been, one thing is for sure: no dancers slept for what felt like 100 years and awoke to a kissing prince. Instead, they awoke to a woke culture drubbed into line by a dissing prince. Would the next season’s contemporary pieces tell this story? During COVID, Thatcher saw an opportunity. As with many dancers over the past two centuries, the sculptor Alexander Calder’s mobiles struck a chord with him. During the 2021 digital season, in discussions with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he arranged for a filming of what would become the prototype for COLORFORMS. The stage version features scenic and lighting designs by Jim French, built on nested rectangular frames and drops that pick up violet, sky blue or sunny yellow light. The lighting lends an idyllic caste to abundantly sanguine choreography, forecasting a COVID-free future. Snippets of the 2021 film version are mirrored via the frames. The result is a delightful Through the Looking Glass probe by soloist Jasmine Jimison. At first, she reaches for a book, but discards it in favor of finding a coterie of playful co-explorers, led by the bounding duo of Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison. Misa Kuranaga allies herself in a hot pink raincoat (just in case!) Veteran fun seekers Cavan Conley, Esteban Hernández, Isabella DeVivo, Steven Morse, Maggie Weirich, and Davide Occhipinto join them. They run and leap but stop long enough to form a Calder work tableau vivant, its kinetic energy wiring its way across the configuration. The object of Jamison’s curiosity is a paper airplane made from reflective mirror paper. It has a shiny surface that resists holding its shape. It helps to be familiar with Calder’s Flying Color series to appreciate the paper airplane’s significance. For those not in the know and some who are, the hardly visible prop loads a superfluous note of preciousness onto an otherwise wide open and inclusive work.“Fortunately, the car was stolen, so no towing fees,” says my friend, ending a phone call home as we wait for an East Bay-bound BART train.
I recall a quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha that captures the essence of the evening:“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

Toba Singer

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