San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove
Sasha De Sola and Benjamin Freemantle in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove

San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

Stern Grove

San Francisco, Cal.

July 28, 2019

The pieces chosen for the opener and closer of this year’s Stern Grove San Francisco Ballet program proved the best fit for the venerable if quirky raked stage with brown panel backdrop, like you’ve seen on TV in the “Better Call Saul” office. George Balanchine’s 1952 work, “Scotch Symphony,” hints at a storyline issuing from Scotland’s battle for independence from the British Crown. The Karinska-inspired costumes in high dudgeon plaids or contrasting black and white period flounces, incur no insult from the brown paneling. The piece opens smartly with the sociable corps stepping lively. Their high-spirited Mendelsohn-triggered musicality is met with the outstanding now-gossamer, now incendiary partnership of Joseph Walsh with Mathilde Froustey, larded with dollops of generous allegro.

Froustey’s penché and the Walsh lunge are symmetrical complements, stretching across the hills and dales of violin passages. It’s not every day that a synchronous pas de deux can coach your ear to hear the music in the transitions, but theirs does, topped off by Froustey, spooling away silkily from spool master Walsh.

Women in black and white come coolly but liltingly, a contrast to the bounding masculinity of the men in plaid circling their charge. If Balanchine is famous for having said, “Ballet is woman,” he couldn’t have had this work in mind, where soaring testosterone levels could make the case for ballet being man.

Another more scant Balanchine offering was the “Pas de Deux from RUBIES,” with newly-promoted principal Esteban Hernández and newly-acquired principal Misa Kuranaga.  While it’s all up, up, up, restrained adroitly by stop-gap tend de flêche, it’s also a jewel of a piece that can get lost outside of its setting. Here, dun-colored paneling in lieu of chandeliers lighting a glittering corps, works against framing the principals so as to present them in their best light. It brings to mind Fernando Alonso’s counsel that the soloist revere and show gratitude to the corps de ballet. “The corps,” he said, “is a beautiful frame that makes the solo artist stand out. If you mount a beautiful painting in a cheap frame, you detract from the painting’s beauty.”

Sasha De Sola danced with newly-promoted principal Benjamin Freemantle in the “Pas de Deux from THE SLEEPING BEAUTY.” This too was a jewel box mounting minus the palatial setting. It would be one thing if it were danced in a small space with a supporting corps of the kind Alonso favored, but despite or perhaps because of the ample natural beauty of Stern Grove, it falls to the dancers to not only dance but to recreate the artificial grandeur, a big ask. Still, Freemantle swings and slices through his cabriole with princely charm and elegant composure, and in the men’s variation you could almost hear the clickety-clack of the syncopated pas de cheval.  The pas de deux had the crisp plant-and-seed placement detail that De Sola unfailing delivers, harvesting the big moments at the finish. Time with a passionate coach will see details come, such as sustaining a fish dive longer, to add a dash more of the regal pyrotechnic.

The “Excerpt from DIVING INTO THE LILACS,” Yuri Possokhov’s 2009 stunner, was saved from losing every color trace of the original version’s lush sets by Benjamin Pierce, thanks to a passionate interpretation by Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno.  Tan in profile is not only statuesque but dynamically sculptural. In his solo, Di Lanno creates a slow-burn intensity bearing sketches of Spain. Approaching Tan for the pas de deux, he rolls up his metaphorical sleeves, and applies himself like a good mechanic, sizing up options for best practices.

Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” brings the tribe corresponding to the interesting times in which we live. The stage is hospitable again, demonstrating that the work’s outsized lighting can be dispensed with and no harm done. Walsh and André have been stepping off into this one for two and a half seasons, and the risk-taking thrill shows no signs of fading into a retro patina. They keep on finishing each other’s phrases, and ignite fine partnering by the ever-ready Luke Ingham and Elizabeth Powell. Powell’s broad-band legato invites all eyes. Hansuke Yamamoto, soloist MVP, squires the spring-loaded Norika Matsuyama with a flush of enthusiasm sourced from a cached fountain of youth. When nature hosts her interpreters at Stern Grove, dancers find that they’ll never step into the same micro-climate twice.

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.