San Francisco Ballet
Photo: Eric Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet

Stern Grove Festival, 2017

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Jul. 30, 2017

Is classical ballet dead? A good way to test this patient’s viability is to stage Helgi Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony” in an outdoor setting, where living things abound in the lush splendor of orange poppy-fringed trees and meadows. See how it pales or thrives compared to the majesty of a summer’s day.

Headlined by two of the company’s bounding exemplars, Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco, and spurred by whatever’s clever in the interstices of the Mozart title score, Tomasson’s work rescues the patient from any and all morbid disquisitions. Supported by an upstanding corps de ballet, De Sola is regal, wearing her principal stripes modestly. In her distinguished pacing, she radiates a genuine warmth that is rare among her sister cohort. Greco not only reaches for the clouds, but seems to float above them for a heavenly moment before he resumes life on earth. De Sola also partners with soloist Hansuke Yamamoto. During a promenade, in each tilt of her head, she looks to be listening not only to the orchestra conducted by Martin West, but to sounds emanating from the dominion nature shares with her. Patter among my colleagues touched on concerns that the tutus—egg shell white and light green, trimmed in gold—wouldn’t read against the wood-panel backdrop on the festival stage, but for once, the unappealing, banner-draped backdrop didn’t matter. The dancing was enough!

In sharp contrast to the classical, comes George Balanchine’s neo-classical “Agon” pas de deux by danced by Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno. Not an audience favorite in the Balanchine oeuvre, it is a stylized leotard ballet, difficult to acquit, given the demanding particularity of the Balanchine vocabulary. It was intriguing to watch two European-trained dancers put their stamp on the work make it their own. Perhaps their outlier status offered the advantage of perspective, and certainly Sylve’s several years with New York City Ballet gave her a leg up. The audience embraced the result enthusiastically.

“Concerto Grosso” by Tomasson has become the company’s warhorse for showcasing virtuosity in soloist and principal-ranked male dancers. Of the five who danced, only Jaime Castilla Garcia was in the original cast, but the work has moved across several generations of dancers without losing its spiny joie de vivre. Esteban Hernández captured that joy in his ballon-rich solo; Wei Wang pushed out masterful footwork; a trio of men—Lonnie Weeks, Max Cauthorn and Diego Cruz—triumphed musically in contrapuntal grand and tour jetés.

The memory of Gennadi Nedviguin dancing Paul Taylor’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)” from Company B, makes it tough to accept any other pretender to that beloved if manically-paced solo. Its spit-and-polish Gene Kelly-ish musical precision is a big ask. Joseph Walsh took his turn with a combustible mix of what looked at first like doubt that instantly transformed into rocket-fuel determination. Determination dispelled all doubts as he discovered his own mastery. It was a pleasure to witness, as each new fusillade of steps brought increasing pride of ownership.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour” couldn’t have been a better choice for a closer, coinciding as it did with glints of late afternoon sunlight piercing through remnants of brume. In their greenery, the Martin Pakledinaz-designed costumes find hospitable quarter in this setting. The dancers bronze in the glow of this golden hour: Myles Thatcher squires the squirrely Mathilde Froustey with all the gallantry of a woodsman gone noble. Punctilious miniaturized music-box steps shape their partnership into a meditative exchange, shadowed by corps couples replicating the earlier large box step that opens and now closes their pas de deux. A wrestling match duet by Lonnie Weeks and Diego Cruz cleanses the pastoral palate; Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham reprise their sensual adagio to clarinet and strings. It has them folding in and out, custom-built for the pairing, with him lifting her up from the floor by her elbows and then helping sculpt rag doll shapes she makes á terre and intimate ones en l’air.

Human connection, gratitude, and dignity suffuse this oasis; it’s a world apart from the global dystopia of a different and opposite caste.

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.