Distinctly SF Ballet
San Francisco Ballet in Thatcher's Ghost in the Machine. (© Erik Tomasson)

Distinctly SF Ballet

Program Three, 2018

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Auditorium
San Francisco, Calif.
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Feb. 15-25, 2018, Review: Feb. 15
Sfballet.org

All three works on this evening’s program are locally sourced archived ballets. Those who have seen them in other seasons can reflect on how they stand the test of time and a new call-up of dancers takes on the tasks levied by each, while first timers can gain a feel for current backyard repertoire. The critic who can wear both hats has my admiration. In two of the works, Helgi Tomasson’s “On a Theme of Paganini,” and Myles Thatcher’s “Ghost in the Machine,” both choreographers, with many years separating them, have allowed themselves to go with what they know. Tomasson works in the neo-classical style, which in years gone by he danced in intimate proximity to its eponymous exponent George Balanchine. Thatcher, who reached adulthood in the Millennium ushered in by Y2K, situates his work in the dystopian surroundings that he found in San Francisco. His dancers are captive to a dominant culture of obscene lucre and a pervasive subculture of rampant homelessness. Like oil and water, the wealth and the indigence slosh against each other, their irreconcilability casting a shadow of doom over a cluster of defended dancers. The third work, “Ibsen’s House” by Val Caniparoli, though coated in a protective splendor, is less risk averse than the other two. It probes the oppression of women, albeit wealthy ones, whose lives are circumscribed by a society that walls them off, until they are driven to break free.

Tomasson assigns himself a complicated project. His chosen music is “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43” by Sergei Rachmaninov. Its gemütlich theme is handily recognizable. The piece opens with neo-classical movement and then introduces a more contemporary style. Mixed messages can move the needle from a locked position, where one’s taste has been stuck for decades. In this case, however, the audience is asked to convert while listening to what its elder constituents might recognize as the theme from The Million Dollar Movie.

The two lead dancers, Sasha De Sola and Maria Kochetkova, wear sequined grey camisole tutus. The remainder of the cast looks comfortable in practice clothes up-styled as costumes. (Consider that this is a piece from 2008 when a stratum of youth began expressing environmental correctness by sourcing finery at the local thrift shop.) De Sola joins Max Cauthorn in a sensationally-danced pas de deux, where you swear that her feet are synched with conductor Martin West’s baton: the two dancers are that musically on cue throughout.

Kochetkova is swept off her landing strip by Vitor Luiz, and their chemistry is vapor-intense, spiriting them along swirling themes to eat the scant scenery. Then the spell is broken, and a new dance era is upon us as corps members swing legs in flic-flac arcs. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Kochetkova dispatches fleet, sparkling steps from every unit in the curriculum, to the point that you wish Luiz were given more counts to hold her in place for just a moment or two longer.

The opening of Thatcher’s “Ghost in the Machine” is arresting, in no small part because of the set by Alexander V. Nichols. It’s a clutch of long thin cables clasped at their summit. It mimics the design of the recently-completed eastern Bay Bridge span. As the piece progresses, the cables go from red to white, and make for a more modernist monument to local glory, than say, the Golden Gate. Weather-beaten by alienation, the populace of dancers finds cold comfort and interstitial shelter under the cabled art.

“It’s like when you have chemistry with someone who isn’t really good for you,” Thatcher is quoted as saying in the program notes. That conundrum is the inspiration for this work, built to also accommodate a ray of hope or two. Frances Chung and Jaime García Castilla lead off with a high energy duet that sets the voluminous tone for the work as a whole. The relentless crash- and-burn score by Michael Hyman is conducted heroically by Ming Luke. It’s the one element that may end up bearing a date stamp, considering the dystopic changes that have taken place over the past year with the toxic shock of “Me Too” and escalating numbers of massacres in public places. What was earlier a mere waft of melancholia that started with 9/11, now betrays a weather system rife with torment. How much longer before it is a luxury to dance agnostic about whether our screen-fed culture is killing us off spirit by spirt? Art will be expected to put its seal on the verifiable, not just a vibe that transmits a soupçon of dread.

Sasha De Sola is the anointed one. It is up to her to worry the cluster through its pain, the unspecified angst that she finds all the more unsupportable for its lack of a villain to own the villainy. She faces down the bad chemistry until she locates an open heart in a gentler duet with Steven Morse. Others who contribute to the lights and darks of this dynamic work are: Dores André, Carlo Di Lanno, and Isabella DeVivo, Esteban Hernández, Ellen Rose Hummel and Max Cauthorn.

“Ibsen’s House” is the other side of the “Me Too” coin. Here are the women Henrik Ibsen made iconic, even as he waxes ironic, liberating them just enough to make his argument against their objectification and suffocating subjugation. If literature and the stage rendered them stilted as they moved through their stories, Caniparoli has loosed them to report once more with feeling. This comes full throttle as the outside light streaming through an oversized lace-curtained window (Sandra Woodall, sets; James F. Ingalls, lighting) illuminates the dark places which they inhabit and likewise inhabit them. The five women are joined by their husbands or male counterparts, each gender with its own ferocious dance. In a series of committed pas de deux, the women accessorize or bear witness to their men’s preening vanity, lost hope, tilt toward madness, or take-charge compulsions.

With an almost entirely new roster, colleagues huddle in the aisles at intermission, earnestly respectful, to recall interpretations by casts of seasons past. How exciting to see sensual corps member Kimberly Marie Olivier as Ellida Wengel, paired with an elegant Luke Ingham as The Stranger; a lithesome Jennifer Stahl confident as Nora, with Myles Thatcher as her dashing Torvald Helmer; and the intrepid Ellen Rose Hummel as Rebecca West, partnered smartly by Sean Orza. As the piece reaches its final moments, each woman raises a brightly-colored umbrella, a riposte to the interior blackness, and a prophylactic against any natural elements that might impinge on her freedom once she slams the door shut on the grim furnishings of married life.

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.