Monday, March 17, 2008

Modernism at the San Francisco Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet's Program 5 is featuring two dances by the new wunderkind choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, along with a world premiere by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson to Rachmaninov's "On a Theme of Paganini," and finishes with the return of last year's sensation, "Eden/Eden" set to a Steve Reich "video opera" about cloning.

First up on Saturday evening was a twenty-minute "distillation" by Wheeldon of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, "Carousel" that was everything Program 4's "West Side Story Suite" was not. In other words, it transformed the material into both a concrete story and a total abstraction about young and heedless love, and it didn't have the dancers aping Broadway hoofers like "West Side Story."

Plus, we didn't have to go into all the wife-beating and miserable behavior that makes the musical something of a trial, but concentrated on the yearning essence. The choreography and dancing by Dores Andrea, Joan Boada and a huge company portraying everything from carnival crowds to the carousel itself was splendid.

This was followed by another Wheeldon piece, a short Pas de Deux set to a minimalist 1978 piano-violin duet by the Estonian mystic Arvo Part. The playing by violinist Roy Malan and pianist Michael McGraw, along with the dancing by Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, were beyond exquisite.

Though I'm sure it was just fine, I skipped out on the Tomasson premiere to go home for dinner, partly because I'd read between the lines in Rachel Howard's review at SFGate and also Jolene's account at "Saturday Matinee" (click here to get to her smart theater/dance/music blog where she's currently worrying about the future of "classical" ballet).

I wrote last year about Scottish choreographer Wayne McGregor's "Eden/Eden," where he used a Steve Reich piece written for chamber orchestra, five singers, and prerecorded tape loops of scientists talking about ethical issues around cloning and artificial intelligence. I'm impressed McGregor was able to get the rights to the music without using the video that was created by Reich's video artist wife, Beryl Korot, but am happy that it was possible because the ballet, complete with its own video projections by Ravi Deepres, is some kind of masterpiece of its own.

The dancers and musicians put their all into it, and the back seats of the orchestra section were crammed with young ballet students who had snuck in to see the piece for the nth time. Quite a few audience members hated the ballet, which is understandable because much of it is so fast and so brutal, but the style fits the material, and the entire thing is mesmerizing. You've got one more chance to check it out, Tuesday evening, the 18th, at 8PM. And how can one not like a ballet whose costume designer's name is listed as "Ursula Bombshell"?


Jennifer said...

if Tomasson's piece had Yuan Yuan Tan & Tiit Helmets cast then perhaps you should have stayed...the piece itself is bland, but there was a moment when Tiit threw Yuan Yuan Tan up into the air, and grabbed her at the last minute, to seamlessly go into a very fast was literally breathtaking, the whole audience gasped.

Those two are a very special partnership, one of the best I've ever seen.

Civic Center said...

Dear Jennifer: Can there be better names than Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helmets? Other than Ursula Bombshell, of course.

I was in a wonderful spell after the two Wheeldon ballets, plus I was hungry and my totally cool domestic partner was making dinner for me across the street, so it wasn't a hard decision to leave. I'll check it out next year. And thanks for commenting.

jolene said...

Sarah Van Patten looks beautiful. It's funny how lots of people didn't like Eden/Eden, it polarized the audience. I noticed a general trend as the lines were drawn across generation gaps.