In Space and Time

San Francisco Ballet

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Toba Singer
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A fair test of a company’s salience is how well it dances Harald Lander’s seminal work, “Etudes.” Some of the best companies don’t even make the attempt. San Francisco Ballet proved its mettle not only by mastering the challenge, but furnishing the academic tour de force, staged by Royal Danish Ballet’s entrusted Johnny Eliasen, with a commodious home away from home. The company’s large size made it possible for Eliasen to maximize the spectacle impact of Lander’s syncopated progressive barre exercises. It begins with dancers firing small muscles; then showing sequences of greater complexity. Before you know it, a studio class turns into an eponymous work of art.

Four barres, with three dancers each, are positioned on diagonals. Only lower bodies are lit; faces are in shadow (Lighting: Lander and Craig J. Miller). We focus on a flipbook of changing configurations among triads of dancers. They have us from the first plié to the final révérence. Steps move from á terre level to en l’air. The locus grows until grand batîments (high kicks) reign supreme over each dancer’s “box” of space and placement, silhouetted against a blue backdrop.

An ensemble in white, derivative of  “Suite en Blanc,” arranges itself in a tableau exuding Lifar-like correctness. At its center is Sasha De Sola, feet cast as if machined in a die shop. She angles through épaulement, flies into turns, then leaves the stage to Carlo Di Lanno, whose brisé is downright (and upright) stylish. Angelo Greco weighs in with a forceful stride and commanding presence. Then Joseph Walsh revels in the thrill of blinding footwork. Corps de ballet members variously designated “Ladies in White,” “Ladies in Black,” and “Gentlemen,” enter and exit in cannons, and a trio of “Sylphides” mitre the edges, to frame a worthy work.

“Snowblind” adapted by choreographer Cathy Marston from Edith Wharton’s classic, “Ethan Frome,” won audience acclaim last season. Ulrik Birkkjaer, as Ethan Frome, a farmer; Jennifer Stahl, as Zeena Frome, his sickly wife; and Mathilde Froustey, as Mattie Silver, their home help; pull us into the vortex of an ill-fated triangle. 

Patrick Kinmonth’s costumes and set, and James F. Ingalls’ (at times too dark) lighting, create the icy/hot climate. The grim double yoke of a pauperized couple, further hobbled by the wife’s illness and husband’s frustrations, wouldn’t seem the obvious choice for a dance interpretation, but Marston drills deep.  Her work spins a web of bonds seemingly more enduring than the ice wall scrim that rises and falls so softly and silently to reveal its complexities. Couples in brown white-edged costumes register the gloom and brume of the ice floes encapsulating the threesome. Impervious and nature-blind, they frolic in the snow, while the trio agonizes through its misalliance. Whether miming a short sewing/spinning sequence, or creeping around the edges of her husband’s dalliance, Stahl shows us the inner Zeena, and how she strategizes her rage. The two-level staging looks to have been reworked for this run; my preference is for last season’s, where the final moments come elevated, rather than at proscenium level.

For those living in San Francisco, the concept of a fifth season is not an alien one; by driving across town or climbing a steep hill, you can switch from fall to spring. Opening night of Helgi Tomasson’s “Fifth Season” coincides with a two-week deluge, welcomed on the heels of an apocalyptic fire to the north in late summer and early fall. Never has the idiosyncratic air du temps here more mimicked a fifth season.

Floating grey banners rise and fall over a grey stagescape and unremittingly grey costumes (Sandra Woodall.)  Dores André and Vitor Luiz usher in corps dancer gradient greys. Both music (Karl Jenkins) and lighting (Michael Mazzola) brighten suddenly, the prelude to a waltz movement interpreted by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, and Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. Tours and balances-to-lifts offer brief flights of enchantment, and then André and Luiz return for a movement called “Romance,” (timeline 1970s?) followed by a Tango segment, so-named more for its music than entrainments.

The choreography experiments with doll-like semi—sous-sous steps and en l’air rond, as the strings come up, and where slow descents and ascents keep us interested. The most satisfying moments arrive when Helimets and Tan partner tenderly, with a knowingness of each other’s bodies testifying to season upon season of seasoning. Tan’s preternaturally pliant arms pose themselves as the feathery strings accompanying her. The “Bits” movement that follows feels off-topic after an adagio of such persuasive reckoning.

Toba Singer

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