Robbins: Ballet & Broadway
San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' The Cage. (© Erik Tomasson)

Robbins: Ballet & Broadway

San Francisco Ballet, 2018

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Jerome Robbins, Choreographer
War Memorial Opera House
Mar. 20-25, 2018, reviewed Mar. 20

“There’s only one thing worse than being in a Robbins work, and that’s not being in one,” a veteran New York City Ballet dancer remarked recently. Circling ’round the New York ballet world in eighty minutes, this all-Robbins program offers a palette of repertoire starting with the harrowing dreamscape in “Opus 19/The Dreamer” to his preternatural considerations on natural selection in “The Cage,” then cleansing the palate with the coyly romantic “Other Dances,” only to sweep you off your jazz feet with the robust and antic “Fancy Free.”

The people in Opus 19/The Dreamer wear a shade of sapphire that’s just bright enough to rivet, yet dark enough to presage shadowy outcomes. Don’t let the men’s corps casual veneer flummox you; they’re the dreamland SWAT team. With Carlo Di Lanno as the Dreamer who summons these teasers, their female counterweights cluster to cover Sarah Van Patten’s entrance like a centipedal drone with turnout. Van Patten’s movements are stark and larger than traffic allows. So she can’t help but bump into our dreamer. The loose-jointed monkeying around is, again, no joke. The blue dreamfolk whirl arms in a high closed fifth position. They are like figures on a somnambulant foosball rack turned upright. The Prokofiev score is unhinging, perhaps more so than the choreography, and this proves the greater challenge to a successful partnership, whether Di Lanno and Van Patten are engaged in tugs-of-war, or working through weight-transfer draping. They are most successful when his hand wills her remotely to move as if levitated. Or if he had a sleeve, he’d also have a Ouija board up it.

The second movement offers comic relief as the corps cavorts and punctuates with wispy triplets, where it seems that only their toes carry them forward and back. A third movement has Di Lanno painting the air with his golden-mean torso. Corps couples mimic the lead dancers’ now-stylized movements. They top off the sequence with an adagio that recalls the certitude of a Marge and Gower Champion duet.
Propelled by a stun of wakeful consciousness, Di Lanno finally self-ejects from the circle. He rushes toward a wall not there, reaching for what won’t stop his misadventure. The blue people line up behind the principals like alter egos, the ones we see only in our dreams, but never recognize in ourselves.

“The Cage” gives us a Maria Kochetkova broken free of the classical chrysalis, in a kind of freaky-Friday-gamin look (Ruth Sobotka.) She is paired with Sofiane Sylve, who as Queen, reigns over a domain empowered by flexed-foot extreme extension, and hyperextension. It’s as if she’s Queen Mother entrusted with the Balanchine manse and its choreo-dwellers gone dark. If Robbins borrows from his contemporaries (notably Martha Graham’s contractions and Agnes DeMille’s portentious steps), they’re still a good fit on the new corps crop harvesting the resulting theatricality. Lonnie Weeks and Steven Morse marshal unflinching ripostes to Kochetkova’s menacing grape-mashing steps and Sylve’s surveillance of the struck-set expanse. They are like aerialists set free to find a place to do on high what others can only do on earth. Never more expressive than here, Kochetkova, whom we may have been led to believe is the PBS-educational TV Vaganova bot, has found her happy place in that vortex where Stravinsky’s string vibrato and Robbins’ death wish exchange phone numbers.

“Other Dances” places Angelo Greco onstage with Frances Chung in a sweetened recap of the original version set on Natalia Makaraova, who, in her day, turned up the flame from warm to sizzling. In this rendering, Chung dots all the I’s and crosses all the T’s, never losing her beguiling smile, while Greco convinces us that he’s the Russian this time, executing the character flourishes with the seal of a native muzhik.

Last on the program comes a rollicking rendition of “Fancy Free,” with its signature pyrotechnics softened by have-a-moment shares of tenderness. Benjamin Freemantle as the sexy rhumba guy, Esteban Hernández as the short fuse, and Lonnie Weeks as the stylin’ swabby, take us back to a time. It’s a period piece set in the days before drones and renditioning, when some might be convinced that the words “U.S. military” meant farm-boys turned callow sailors.

Three sheets to the wind, they overplay their hand with the ladies, more to impress each other and themselves, only to end up right back there where they started from. Sasha de Sola was every bit the minx, and Dores André stood her ground as the aloof cosmopolite. At least one dance writer leaves the theater whistling Leonard Bernstein’s jaunty Fancy Free theme, while savoring pleasant memories of past-life versions.

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.