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Everywhere and Ever

There was no shortage of drama and poetry this past week at San Francisco Ballet. On the dramatic side: the announcement of a $60 million dollar anonymous donation, the largest in the company’s history; the retirement of the company’s most famous and long-serving dancer, Yuan Yuan Tan; and the company premiere of that old Frederick Ashton vehicle for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, “Marguerite and Armand.” On the poetic side, we had Kenneth MacMillan’s “Song of the Earth.” Simultaneously stark and lush, pared and powerful, it balanced the ledger.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet: “Song of the Earth” / “Marguerite and Armand”

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA, February 9th and 14, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in Frederick Ashton's “Marguerite and Armand.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

We don’t see a lot of MacMillan in San Francisco—only “The Invitation” and “Elite Syncopations” are in SF Ballet’s rep—and many of the committed ballet-goers in the audience, including myself, had never seen MacMillan like this. It’s hard to believe MacMillan created “Song” as his next project after “Romeo and Juliet,” and easy to believe that the Royal Ballet turned down his proposal for it, since a starkly costumed ballet about death with music by Mahler, using the text of Chinese poems by Li Po sung in German, couldn’t have sounded like a sure-fire hit. But “Song of the Earth” was an immediate success when it premiered instead at Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. And for an hour-plus-long ballet that doesn’t offer easy pleasures, it was received with remarkable warmth (and standing ovations) at the two San Francisco performances I caught.

What an opportunity to hear Mahler’s song cycle—really, in structure and scope, a symphony—played so beautifully by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, with former Adler Fellows from the San Francisco Opera onstage singing. All four singers who took on the alto and tenor roles were magnificent, but Nikola Printz was especially heartbreaking on February 14th, the timbre of her voice perfectly poised between darkness and light as she sang the final lines (in German), All, everywhere and ever, ever/Shines the blue horizon,/ Ever . . . ever . . .

Artistic director Tamara Rojo, who danced “Song” at the Royal Ballet and brought it into the English National Ballet rep during her decade of leadership there, has said she felt “Song” was the best way for SF Ballet to wade deeper into MacMillan because of its affinities with the Balanchinean neoclassicism San Francisco’s dancers know so well. I think the stylistic overlap made it a fit not just for the dancers, but for the local audience, trained by decades of Balanchine-watching to appreciate the kind of fine formal construction that rewards repeat viewings.

Isaac Hernández, Wei Wang, and Wona Park in “Song of the Earth” by Kenneth MacMillan. Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

The arc of the ballet is simple: In MacMillan’s own description, “A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.” The costumes are white, black, and brown practice clothes. The steps are exposed in their unexpected ballet logic and have to be executed with utmost clarity: turning jumps for the men that land in fourth, pirouettes with a low side extension for the women that land in a deep second plié, arms reaching in overhead fifth. Développés push through with flexed feet at times, the sharpness in contrast to a lovely ports de bra with the elbows crossed and the hands draped like delicate flowers. In one passage, a large ensemble of women spins in crazy fast pencil turns, their lifted feet just skimming the ground. And at the highest point of feeling, when the Woman finally gives herself over to accepting the Man’s death, she scurries backward in a turned-in bourrée, with stunning speed. (Wona Park, a former Wunderkind who has been developing impressive depth, delivered this unforgettably.) What I’m trying to say is that every phrase has great formal complexity and interest, and the movement at this “sentence level,” if you will, builds to a bigger picture akin to a perfectly constructed gem of a novel.

Like any great novel, “Song of the Earth” has a strong and complex antagonist. The figure of Death here is far more nuanced than a cliché grim reaper. He wears a simple half-mask, and he’s a drunken frolicker right alongside the dancers as well as the Messenger who sometimes whispers, sometimes shouts in the woman’s ear, with the action frozen in the style of Asian theater. 

Wei Wang was tremendous in the marathon Messenger role, while Isaac Hernandez was painfully powerful in the final pas de deux, when the Man has to grip the Woman’s upper arms rather roughly, as though to force her to accept reality. Leading up to this, there are equally lighthearted passages that give other soloists star turns. The audience particularly loved Jasmine Jimison in the section when she got to romp with the group of men, turned upside down and then cartwheeled in the air over their shoulders. Katherine Barkman delivered some of the most exquisite dancing of the evening, so fast and precise with her feet, free in her shoulders, and soulful without pretense in her face. Former Royal Ballet repetiteur Grant Coyle set the ballet on the company, and former Royal Ballet star Edward Watson coached it. What a gift they gave to San Francisco.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in Frederick Ashton's “Marguerite and Armand.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

Next to these depths, Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand” was cotton candy. I get the sense that in Britain this ballet is revered not just as a showcase for Fonteyn and Nureyev, but as a Sir Fred masterwork in its own right; I enjoyed it but don’t feel quite so worshipful. Joseph Walsh was especially successful as Armand, combining speed, recklessness, precision, and the expressive power of those mile-long eyebrows. (He did struggle a little more than at the gala preview to keep his leg up nice and high for those tough attitude turns, if you wanted to get picky.) Misa Kuranaga made a promising first foray into Marguerite, particularly adept at eyelash-batting with a courtesan’s coolness. Perhaps the greatest star of the run was pianist Britton Day, who delivered the Liszt piano sonata with a rubato to make you swoon. 

And then, on Valentine’s Day, came the drama of Yuan Yuan Tan’s retirement.

Tan, who has danced with the company 29 years, may be an international star, but in San Francisco she is something more: the city’s own ballet goddess. This has actually been officially declared, with the county and city supervisors declaring Yuan Yuan Tan Day in San Francisco for a third time in honor of her last performance.

I understand that Tamara Rojo, now in her second year leading the company, needs to establish her own company traditions, and these may not include the kind of special program send-offs former artistic director Helgi Tomasson used to offer stars like Muriel Maffre and Sarah Van Patten. It’s understandable, too, that Rojo may have reasoned that she herself took final bows at the Royal Ballet in “Marguerite and Armand,” and so the role should be enough for Tan’s finale as well. 

Helgi Tomasson presenting a bouquet to Yuan Yuan Tan during her final bow at San Francisco Ballet. Photograph by Chris Hardy

But it was a diplomatic mistake and a missed opportunity not to give Tan an even bigger goodbye. A dancer with the symbolic power of Tan only comes along once in a generation. And San Francisco Ballet subscribers who are still feeling tentative about Rojo’s vision to transform the company for new audiences needed to feel that the new director cared about them and “their” dancer.

But there we all were: No special farewell program, and Tan had let it be known (including in a San Francisco Chronicle interview penned by this writer) that she had wanted one. The opera house was full—it had sold out almost as soon as the company announced Tan’s last date. Her Marguerite was a daring feat of artistic possession, true to Ashton stylistically in the early scenes and passionately acted; signature Yuan Yuan Tan in the final death scene as her Armand, Aaron Robison, tossed about that famously long, fluid willow of a body.

The curtain call went on some twenty minutes. Hundred of red roses were thrown. Tan rose on pointe and then jumped one last time, as though to give San Francisco a goodbye kiss. I’ve seen a lot of retirement bows at SF Ballet, but none like this: The crowd cried out “Nooooo!” as the final curtain fell. 

Then the next day “Marguerite and Armand” had one more performance, with Jasmine Jimison and Isaac Hernandez in the roles. I wish I could have gone back to see it; at 21 years old, Jimison is everything you want in a ballerina—technically strong, lyrical, musical, a capable actress (her “Giselle” debut last year was terrific, her “Romeo and Juliet” a highlight of the season). Not long after she delivered her Marguerite, the company posted videos capturing that curtain call drama: Rojo walking on stage to announce that she was promoting Jimison to principal.

Ah, the optics. Should we read much into them? Personally, I try not to. But I do know from being in the peculiar position of sounding board for longtime fans who write to me that it’s complicated and delicate to see Tan’s retirement and Jimison’s promotion back-to-back. A little more attention to the mass need to grieve might have smoothed the matter. 

Rojo is consistently making the statement that this is her new era, her company. Which is right and well. People who love the company and understand the unavoidable fraught conflicts of leadership change are pulling for her. What they ask for as she navigates the transformation is a balance of confidence and humility, and a premium on kindness. Even with a new $60 million donation in the bank.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

comments

Jay

I think it’s pretty disrespectful that Yuan Yuan wasn’t given her own farewell gala if that’s what she wanted. Who meant more to the company over the past quarter century? She was such a workhorse in her heyday. I always wondered “how does she do it?”—it seems like one retrospective gala at season’s end would had been the right thing to do. What is the message being sent by denying her this?

Burl Willes

Thank you for this excellent, heartfelt and balanced review of Yuan
Yuan’s farewell.

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