San Francisco Ballet
Frances Chung, Jennifer Stahl, Dores André, and Joseph Walsh in Peck's In The Countenance Of Kings. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet

Program Seven

Continuum© Wheeldon
In the Countenance of Kings Peck
Theme and Variations Balanchine
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
War Memorial Auditorium
Apr. 7-Apr. 17, 2016
Reviewed on Opening Night, Apr. 7, 2016

Coney Island’s Cyclone was the scariest ride in Kings County (the jurisdiction more popularly known as Brooklyn), until 1960, when New York City fathers built something scarier: the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (the BQE). In the 1953 film “The Little Fugitive, we meet Joey, a seven-year-old boy who goes to Coney Island with his big brother, and the brother’s friends. They trick Joey into running away, so that he finds himself lost, and on his own, in a demi-monde of cacophonous squealing subway brakes below ground, and amusement park rides shrieking above Steeplechase Park. With such a primal and frightening story, special effects are not necessary to evoke the terror of this Everyman’s unhappy place.

New York City Ballet choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck, has engineered a kitchen sink of a work with the title “In the Countenance of Kings.” Its San Francisco Ballet premiere was set to the soundtrack of “BQE,” Sufjan Stevens’ symphonic and cinematic 2007 composition,

It opens with the lone figure of The Protagonist, danced, ironically, by Joseph Walsh. This Joe is also going to be abandoned, by five dancers who run away from him. This Joe looks lost, too—amid amusements of a different kind and in a different era—today’s. Profiled in a manic clutch, the dancers wear costumes by Ellen Warren. The camisole leotards feature bold, straight lines in primary colors, on a white background that might make you think of subway maps. The dancers gang up with a rush-hour urgency that contrasts with the ruminant Protagonist’s slight confusion. He is soon lifted out of his disorientation by three Apollonian muses, Dores André as Quantus, Frances Chung as Electress, and Jennifer Stahl as Botanica.

A force field pulls Walsh backward, and as he is sucked upstage, his movements become more decisive. It’s as if he means to propel himself into the centrifugal traffic swirl of the BQE, swelling into a mash-up of New York-launched discography and choreography. With Broadway blare and jazz riffs, Peck lays out the American Century’s musical carrion, and the last mad dash for it.

With Balanchine feet, heels do not so much as graze the floor’s surface. Jerome Robbins’ jazzy street-scene abandon slides by. Women in a line do arm gestures perpendicular to upstage strobe lights. It’s a moment ripped wholesale from William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite.” Repetitions of inventive enchaînements raise the specter of Michael Smuin as this opera house’s phantom.

Yet, as the 28-year-old Peck channels past masters, he just as fluently ignores bodies of work that went before him, texting a new vocabulary tailored to fit the GenX-treme bodies before us. The compositional plot thickens as the music accelerates, leaving us with a slammin’ finale. André, Chung, and Stahl make vivid solo and duo contributions, mirroring each other, or in slow rotations with Walsh and others. They inflect grandeur into lifts that meet the challenge of a lushly orchestrated score, or contrarily, limn mannered drops, by degree, to the floor. Gennadi Nedvigin as The Foil, and Luke Ingham as The Hero, complete a triad with Walsh’s Protagonist. The three give out eye-popping men’s bravura, tempered with the stylishness that has become this company’s brand.

A line of dancers prostrates itself at the edge of the stage, heads raised to make eye contact with audience members, baptizing the proscenium with the most direct challenge in ballet history to the fourth wall. As dancers rise, the lights that earlier were in strobe mode, are now more akin to the gentle glowing strands that, of a warm summer’s night, once lit Steeplechase Park. Now they illuminate an evening devoted to the wistfulness of Walsh and André, the sparkle of Stahl, and the virtuosic camaraderie of Walsh, Nedvigin, and Ingham, in a Coney Island of the Found.

Christopher Wheeldon made his work “Continuum” on San Francisco Ballet in 2002. It was a year after 9/11, whose events cast a long shadow on a nation that, with the exception of Pearl Harbor, had never before incurred an attack by a foreign enemy. “Continuum” opens with dancers lit in silhouette (by Natasha Katz.) They enter in lines from opposite wings, their rotating helicopter arms indicating something aeronautical. Unlike in Wheeldon’s subsequent works, which favor circles, initial movement here goes up and down, side to side, with partners falling into place positioned in profile arabesques, arrayed like planes on an airfield. To a drear score by György Ligeti, where accents come faster and faster like single words, or accelerating labor pains, the piece is born from darkness into light. Shadowed boîte pas de deux become cameos for four couples. They look caught unawares in a private space. The audience could be peering into a stranger’s window, spying on a twosome’s somber or thrilling process. Luke Ingham manages Vanessa Zahorian’s slow promenade, as if pegging a locus, to establish a sense of place for the couples that will follow. Zahorian probes the air with bent-knee, flexed-foot extensions. She is suspended in a cartwheel lift echoed by Ingham’s slow cartwheel on the floor. Atonal keyboard phrases suggest the turning over of soil, the plowing and seeding of a new harrow. Zahorian’s penchées point the focus downward, and surely enough, the couple lay into the floor, as if it were the earth.

Frances Chung introduces a sprightly change in mood, pushing out rapid échapés in a petite sauté that ends in entrechat quatres after which she jets off into the wings. Dores André, partnered by Steven Morse, is squired into slow poses that go stately as they deepen and open more fully en face. She rises from the floor for a solo, opening chest and spine, and miming alternating open squared hands, to indicate a closed window.

Sofiane Sylve is given a creeping game to play with Tiit Helimets who tilt-a-whirls her through a window of space opened from a lowered curtain. The continuum pulls us into its trajectory, as we find ourselves absorbed by the quartet of couples that moves into a circle of poses. In this Thunderdome world, they manage to recast themselves as Matisse’s dancers.

The work occasionally defaults to cliché, as in rocking horse, or ring-around-the-rosy movements, but Walsh and Chung lift it out of any momentary subsidence. With jazzy arm sweeps, swift advances and strategic retreats, they push it back on track.

George Balanchine’s haute classic, “Theme and Variations,” originally set on Alicia Alonso, is here executed by Maria Kochetkova, partnered by Gennadi Nedvigin. Pytor Tchaikovsky toyed with the idea that, based on three, notes you could introduce 12 variations that would offer the palette for a richly embroidered tapestry of ballet technique. In this staging, the signature chandeliers hang from above, but the lush sets with their silken drapes gathered into folds, and other courtly embellishments of yesteryear, go missing. Technically demanding, there could not be two more adept dancers to faithfully deliver the refinement found in the lifts or the punctiliousness of the quick-change footwork, where Nedvigin, in particular, keeps it right on spec. Kochetkova offers certitude, with the seal of a master technician that attests to years of hard work. Going missing is the joy felt by partners moving about a ballroom, normally caught and signaled via eye contact, a flash of “entre nous” intimacy which technique exists to frame. Happily, there is joy to spare, alongside spotless technique, in supportive (and superlative) dancing by Lauren Strongin, Isabella De Vivo, Norika Matsuyama, Lonnie Weeks, Wei Wang, Diego Cruz, and Francisco Mungamba, and the corps de ballet overall.

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.