Friday, May 02, 2008
San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival A
I have just seen ten shiny new ballets in the last three evenings at the San Francisco Ballet's 75th Anniversary New Works Festival, and it was one of the most pleasurable and invigorating cultural events I've ever attended in San Francisco. Plus, the dancers were simply sensational.
The only thing that comes close was Michael Tilson Thomas' "American Mavericks" Festival back in the early 1990s when you could go to three overloaded concerts in a row, and when a musical piece wasn't particularly interesting or likeable it didn't really matter, because something great was just around the corner.
That's basically how The New Works Festival felt. Even the misfires were interesting, and the thrill of seeing great new dances being tried out, in some cases to newly commissioned scores, was a rare treat. Plus, the audiences were knowledgeable and excited, with the most interesting conversations being about those pieces which were either love-them or hate-them, of which the Festival had more than its share.
The first ballet, "Fusion," choreographed by former principal dancer Yuri Possokhov, was definitely in the love it or hate it category.
The piece mixes four male Whirling Dervishes with four traditionally paired couples, and mixes up the music between a Bollywood song by Rahul Dev Burman that the Kronos Quartet recorded with music written by the UK composer Graham Fitkin which sounded rather like subpar Steve Reich.
Neither the choreography nor the musical mix fused together all that well, although the attempt was ambitious and it was visually very beautiful, as were most of the simple sets and the totally elegant lighting by James F. Ingalls throughout the festival.
My only real complaint is that the music was amplified for some reason when it really didn't need to be. The musicians were too good and so are the acoustics in the opera house to go through a shrill sound mix.
The second ballet, "Within the Golden Hour," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon made the entire evening worthwhile. The light music for strings is by a contemporary Italian composer, Ezio Bosso, who writes for stage and films. In the program notes, Wheeldon explains "he wanted to use music that he thought would be different from the other choreographer's choices. I knew, looking at the roster of choreographers, there would be a lot of complicated contemporary music chosen for these pieces [he was right]. I wanted to do something that was fun musically and that the dancers would enjoy."
It's hard to explain how certain choreographers can take the same conventions as everyone else is using and fashion them into something so fascinating and singularly their own. Nothing much happens in this conventional looking ballet, with its mostly classic motions, and the music isn't all that interesting, and yet as it goes along the dance becomes more interesting with every gesture while giving absolutely no indication of where the piece is going. It's a beautiful ballet and Wheeldon is in his prime.
The single real stinker of the entire festival was "Changes," modern dance pioneer Paul Taylor's sad rehash of Twyla Tharp's "Hair" choreography set to five downer Mamas and Papas songs blaring out of the speakers.
The New Works Festival was encouraging choreographers to stretch themselves and if possible, commission new music from living composers to be played by a full, live orchestra, but Mr. Taylor settled for a suggestion from the costume designer Santo Loquasto that the Mamas and Papas would make a good score for a California dance festival.
I adore Mamas and Papas songs and I even like the Paul Taylor dances I've seen over the years, but this piece was stupid, lazy and insulting and I walked out halfway.