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Dancing in Eden

San Francisco Ballet topped international dance news lately with the announcement that Tamara Rojo will take over as artistic director next year, succeeding New York City Ballet star Helgi Tomasson after his 37-year tenure. What has San Francisco Ballet, once a second-tier West Coast company, become under Tomasson’s leadership? Well, in institutional size SFB is now second only to New York City Ballet among US companies, with an annual budget of $52 million. In repertory, it counts ballets by most of the major international talents, many of these commissioned in massive new works festivals.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet Programs One and Two

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA. February 1, 3, 12, and 13, 2022

Words

Rachel Howard

Sarah Van Patten in Cathy Marston's “Mrs. Robinson.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

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As for the dancing, on the occasion of the company’s 75th anniversary (back in 2008), the New Yorker’s Joan Acocella put it this way: “The S.F.B. dancers are precise without being pedantic, happy without being sloppy. They seem to dance in Eden, where what was natural was also good.” I’ve watched the company for 22 of Tomasson’s 37 years, and I think that assessment is right. So, I think, would most of San Francisco Ballet’s subscribers if asked—and I say this after a great deal of eavesdropping, and leaving my orchestra press seats recently for the “nosebleed” balcony to converse with viewers who have attended SFB for 40 and 50 years. (No, really: their names were Brian and Richard.)

Ballet lovers here have been very happy with Tomasson and grateful for the dancing talents, both homegrown and imported, he has cultivated. His tenure has been pretty much controversy-free. As for Rojo, surprisingly given her high-profile success elevating the English National Ballet, she’s not well known in San Francisco. Some people (even Brian and Richard) are excited about having a woman leader. Just as quickly, though, gossip being what it is, people bring up the “scandal” of her marriage to dancer Isaac Hernandez, incidentally the older brother of SFB principal Esteban Hernandez. Some say they hope Rojo doesn’t take SF Ballet in the direction of revisionist classics (viewers here generally want the old warhorses to remain the old warhorses). Others worry about the fate of the Balanchine and Robbins repertory. Many look forward to more works by women choreographers, who have been scarce in SFB’s rep.

All of which is to say: Change at the top is exciting, scary, and hard.

In the meantime, San Francisco Ballet’s 89th annual season opened with a focus of paying tribute to Tomasson. The feeling in the house, which at more than half-full has been impressively populated for pandemic times, was warm and poignantly appreciative. The company packs its full season into just four months, often running two different mixed-rep bills concurrently, and there has been much excitement to behold in just the first two programs.

Madison Keesler and Joseph Walsh in Cathy Marston's “Mrs. Robinson.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

The marquee attraction of opening night was the pandemic-delayed premiere of “Mrs. Robinson” by Cathy Marston, the Royal Ballet-trained choreographer known for interpreting literature in ballet, and recently named the next director of Ballett Zürich. Marston has made one previous ballet for SFB, 2018’s “Snowblind,” dramatizing the dour story of Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome. I was not a fan. Nor, to be honest, did it strike me as a great idea to make her new ballet a re-telling of the 1967 movie The Graduate, with a feminist take on the famous seductress as the focal point.

But it turns out “Mrs. Robinson” is rather good. It has a clever commissioned score by Terry Davies, and equally clever sets and costumes by Patrick Kinmonth, with Mies van der Rohe-style house frames that slide on and off. It has a brilliant choreographic device for illuminating Mrs. Robinson’s inner landscape: a parade of busy, aproned housewives who traipse through her mind as she sits and smokes and stares out at the audience. The more desperate Mrs. Robinson becomes in her attempts to trap her young lover Benjamin, the more the imaginary housewives suddenly collapse to the floor, implying her disillusionment with 1960s womanhood. Add a scene of Mrs. Robinson having to fend off sex with her drunken husband, and you have a sympathetic portrait—and a strong showcase for SF Ballet’s actor-dancers.

Sarah Van Patten and Joseph Walsh in Cathy Marston's “Mrs. Robinson.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

I saw three casts, and left surprised. Sarah Van Patten was snake-like and superb as the complicated seductress, as everyone who has watched her 20-year career at SFB knew she would be. She also danced with the best Benjamin, Joseph Walsh, who has a big-eyed face like a Disney prince and can make you see his expressions from the back row. The irrepressibly flirty Mathilde Froustey is back after a very short maternity leave, and made a confident, slinky Mrs. Robinson in the second cast; her young lover was Benjamin Freemantle, who is much taller and brawnier than Walsh, and therefore came across as more powerful and less sympathetically awkward, even though he did a fine job with all the tics and gestures.

And then came third-cast Dores André. Principal since 2015, she is a small dancer with a glamorously angled face, a bright jump, and muscular legs. In abstract ballets, she tends to be pleasant but not distinctive—such was the case in the third movement of “Symphony in C,” which she also danced during this run. But give her the right dramatic assignment and watch out. As Mrs. Robinson, she was absolute ferocity, pushing Benjamin around like a streetfighter. I was scared of her—and I sympathized with her. The audience went mad with a standing ovation. Her Benjamin, soloist Lonnie Weeks, was terrific, too—more natural in his gestures than Freemantle, and with the benefit of dancing opposite the approachable, unmannered Julia Rowe as Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.

Sarah Van Patten and Joseph Walsh in Cathy Marston's “Mrs. Robinson.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Which brings us to some of “Mrs. Robinson’s” downsides. It works a lot better as a ballet if you already know the movie, so that you can follow the plot between Elaine and Benjamin. Then there’s the ending Marston and dramaturg Edward Kemp re-imagined: the busy housewives come together in solidarity and begin marching in lockstep, standing up for themselves, and the curtain falls on Mrs. Robinson thinking of joining them. I know from interviewing Marston the interpretation I’ve just reported was her intention; however, not everyone I spoke to about the ballet got it. And even if you did follow, the ending was strangely anti-climactic. I mean that in perhaps more senses than I should. Just as the movie is most memorable for its seduction scene, so this ballet is all about the sex scene: Benjamin’s leg shoots up, and Mrs. Robinson arches back, then coolly smokes her cigarette. The audience laughed, every time. But none of the scenes that followed were as interesting. When Mrs. Robinson sees Benjamin falling in love with Elaine, she doesn’t have much more to do than pace around.

Julia Rowe and Joseph Walsh in Forsythe's “Blake Works I.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

This was all quite a contrast with the marquee attraction of Program Two: the company premiere of William Forsythe’s hip, exuberant “Blake Works I.” I watched it twice, first from the orchestra, where I marveled at Forsythe’s way of presenting dancers as individuals, in part due to his ingenious dusky lighting. (As usual, he also designed the costumes, light blue practice tunics, with skirts for the women.) Then I viewed it from the upper balcony, where the dense layering of contrapuntal parts and the movement’s unflaggingly three-dimensional qualities were laid bare. Indeed, the dancers that most dazzled were the ones who could find a spiraling energetic logic in the twisted-to-extremes academic combinations, many of them involving fast jumps with batterie: Aaron Robinson, Wei Wang, Rowe. Esteban Hernandez strode out for the “Two Men Down” section (the songs include both pulsing big-group showcases and quieter ballads by British art-pop composer James Blake) and dropped into a big, spread plié in second that announced, “I am here to get it.”

Much has already been written elsewhere about the brilliance of “Blake Works I” since its premiere at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016. Dissertations will no doubt follow. In these first views, I especially appreciated what Forsythe made of the silences in several tender duets, the dancers alive with their own layers of rhythmic expression as slow chords died. San Francisco Ballet has worked with Forsythe since 1987, when Tomasson commissioned “New Sleep,” but local audiences are not always receptive to his ballets’ more aggressive aspects. “Blake Works I,” though, proved a thorough hit; you could hear people saying things like “I was surprised by the music, but I liked that” as they exited.

Another chic and exuberant offering, but dating from 1947: Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” as the closer of Program One. In a staging by Sandra Jennings, the corps were still finding their legs on opening night, but got the finale locked in for the last performance: 50 dancers on stage, legs flying, thrilling precision. At the heart of it all was Sarah Van Patten, dancing the second movement with strength, luxurious musicality, and personal style. This is, of course, the famous movement in which the ballerina must open up into a huge développé á la seconde, let go of her partner’s hand and balance on pointe while he transfers to her outside hand, and then plunge into her maximum arabesque penchée.

WanTing Zhao, dancing the role in a matinee, didn’t manage it and had to plié-relevé again before the penchée, but such slips on the gut-busting stuff can be forgiven; more mystifying was her stiffness throughout, her inability to find her own music in simpler steps like the walks on pointe with hands pushing forward, which Van Patten made into their own small drama. Julia Rowe and Joseph Walsh were especially wonderful in the relentlessly bounding third movement, perfectly matched side-by-side bundles of ballon.

Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets in Jerome Robbins' “In the Night.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

I’ve reported before but probably cannot say enough that Tomasson had a special relationship with Jerome Robbins—Robbins spotted him at 15 and arranged a scholarship at School of American Ballet—and that therefore the Robbins rep under Tomasson’s care at SFB has been a particularly beautiful thing. This proved true again on Program Two with 1970’s “In the Night” as coached by Anita Paciotti. The rising soloist Elizabeth Powell could be “read” all the way from the upper balcony as half of the innocent young-love couple, paired with Walsh. And Van Patten scored again, superb in the final duet, as the dramatic, breast-beating lover. Her partner Ulrik Brikkjaer, too, conveyed the understory of their relationship—she’s a woman who probably gets angry like this every other week, but they can’t let each other go, so he’s learned to ride it out. Yuan Yuan Tan also danced the role in this run, but she was weaker in her pushing and punching, more purely needy—and much less complex.

As much as SF Ballet regulars have loved Tomasson, there’s an unofficial tradition of complaining that the neoclassical ballets he’s choreographed are dull. Well, five of these are programmed for this season to celebrate his role as principal choreographer as well as artistic director. The first two on offer were 2011’s “Trio,” to Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” and 2014’s “Caprice,” to a smattering of symphonic Saint-Saëns. (Kudos to conductors Martin West and Ming Luke for leading gorgeous orchestra performances of each.) Neither ballet may not make the history books, but they were enjoyable and showed off a range of dancers well.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Helgi Tomasson's “Caprice.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

“Caprice” was all about Tan and her flexible spine—still extraordinary as she begins her 27th year with the company. For those scouting emerging talent, “Trio” was all about Cavan Conley, a Montana-raised dancer who joined SF Ballet from Tulsa Ballet in 2018 and became soloist the next year. I watched him dance the double-tour packed first movement from the balcony, with an aerial appreciation of that squeaky-clean technique, and then from the orchestra, where he beamed charisma and partnered like a dream. It probably won’t happen, but how fun it would be to see him dance Basilio in “Don Quixote” next month.

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.

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