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Free Reign

San Francisco Ballet, the U.S.’s oldest professional ballet company and second largest, is entering its 90th season at a moment of profound transition. Helgi Tomasson, artistic director for 37 years, has just handed the reins to Tamara Rojo, who arrives triumphantly after a decade of success raising the profile of the English National Ballet. Aside from both prizing the work of William Forsythe, the two are markedly different in their repertory interests, but Rojo’s programming direction—will the company still dance Balanchine and Robbins?—won’t be known until she announces the 2024 season this April. In the meantime, the company is dancing a 2023 season curated entirely by Tomasson. It was wise of him to launch it with a bold, flashy festival titled next@90.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet next@90 festival: premieres by Nicolas Blanc, Bridget Breiner, Val Caniparoli, Robert Garland, Yuka Oishi, Yuri Possokhov, Jamar Roberts, Danielle Rowe, and Claudia Schreier

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA, January 20, 21, and 25, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

San Francisco Ballet in Breiner's “The Queen's Daughter.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

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Ambitious new works extravaganzas are a tried and true rejuvenation strategy for Tomasson, who was a principal at New York City Ballet when Balanchine held the mammoth Stravinsky Festival in 1972. SFB held a New Works festival with 10 world premieres in 2008, and the Unbound Festival, with 12 world premieres, in 2018. Next@90 has, thank goodness, proven different in one crucial respect. SFB’s earlier festivals featured only two women choreographers each, and only four choreographers of color in total. (SFB’s 2008 festival featured no choreographers of color.) Now, the voices calling out for more gender equity and racial diversity have finally been (partly) heeded. Unveiling nine world premieres in less than a week, next@90 has featured four choreographers who identify as women, three who identify as Black, and one who is Japanese. It was frankly a relief to see more Black dancemakers, costume designers, and choreographers’ assistants taking their bows on the War Memorial Opera House stage, though clearly SFB still has significantly more racial diversity work to do. What’s most striking, for the moment, is the immediate impact of the female point of view.

The most successful works of next@90, judging from opening night ovations and eavesdropping at intermission, were the ballets by women. Of these, my favorite was “The Queen’s Daughter,” by Bridget Breiner, an American who became a beloved principal at the Stuttgart Ballet, and now leads Badisches Staatsballett Karlsruhe, also in Germany.

Sasha De Sola in Breiner's “The Queen's Daughter.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Full disclosure: I first saw Breiner’s ballet at a studio run-through, along with five of the other new works, and had the strangest experience. I didn’t know, at that time, the title or the subject matter. And nevertheless I was enraptured by that studio run. In large part this was an effect of the music—Breiner chose to work with Benjamin Britten’s 1939 Violin Concerto, a relatively little known, deeply stirring score. But moreso I was moved by that run-through because of the main character and her relationships: a little girl (Breiner uses children to great effect at the ballet’s start and end) who grows into a young woman being raised by a mother in sexual thrall to a terrifyingly brutal man. I couldn’t quite figure out, at the time, who the otherworldly young man was that the girl fled to visit—a lover or a friend? But I could see that the girl yearned for some kind of innocent connection with him, in contrast to the molestation she experienced at the hands of her mother’s husband.

When, after that studio run-through, I learned that Breiner was telling the story of Salome, the Biblical “Queen’s Daughter” who performs the dance of the seven veils for the king and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, it all made perfect sense. In fact, it made much more sense than the versions of Salome I knew by male artists, particularly Arthur Pita’s deliberately sensationalizing “Salome” made for SF Ballet in 2017—versions that portray Salome as teasing, haughty, spoiled, and sadistic. Instead, Breiner understood Salome from a sympathetic woman’s point of view—one might even say a motherly point of view. She saw Salome as trapped, coerced, and yearning for her stolen innocence.

Jennifer Stahl and Sasha De Sola in Breiner's “The Queen's Daughter.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

The question was whether Breiner’s choreography of big, clear gestures for the main players, aided by a Greek chorus ensemble, would resonate in the vast opera house at curtain up. It did. Breiner had a cast of ideal interpreters. Sasha De Sola as Salome was wide-eyed, earthy rather than pretty, and fiercely defiant as she ripped the veils from her body in the famous dance for the King—it was clear she had no choice but to strip, and doing so in imitation of her mother’s seductiveness was a way to reclaim some small shred of power. Tiit Helimets as the King was all muscled smarminess. (Helimets is without doubt the company’s most valuable male dancer, and will be missed immensely after he gives his final career performance on February 11.) Jennifer Stahl has always had a motherly quality on stage, and as the Queen she combined it with viper-like sensuality—absolutely devastating. And Wei Wang, who moves like liquid through the air, made for an ethereal John the Baptist.

I was glad to see that costume and scenic designer Jürgen Franz Kirner and lighting designer Jim French kept the visuals simple. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and violinist Cordula Merks gave a lush, confident performance of the score, and the opening night applause was warm.

San Francisco Ballet in Oishi's “Bolero.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

The other clear hit of the festival was Yuka Oishi’s “Bolero,” set to the famous Ravel. It’s hard to go wrong with that infectious score, and yet I wonder if it’s too much a stretch to note here again the centrality of the woman’s point of view. Oishi has said she was inspired by her recent pregnancy—that she was fascinated by the way one cell splits to become a complex being, and that she heard a kind of cellular-repetition grandeur in this music that she felt suited the theme, which might be summarized as “cosmic wonder at the weird miracle of life.”

What a contrast with Maurice Bejart’s famous testosterone-fueled take on “Bolero,” with its legion of bare-chested muscle men! Oishi’s cast of 16 wore weirdly patterned white and red bodysuits by Emma Kingsbury, sometimes with hoods. A brilliantly postmodern lead-in had the orchestra’s warm-up evolve into a deconstructed scramble of Ravel’s themes by composer Shinya Kiyokawa. Then Esteban Hernandez took center stage and held up his arms, twitching only his thumbs, and the real ride began, building towards a stately all-men unison high, and a finale of grand all-out dancing. Sasha Mukhamedov and Daniel Deivison-Oliveria projected a straight-faced dignity utterly suited to Oishi’s vision, while Yuan Yuan Tan’s role made the most of her seemingly inhuman lines.

San Francisco Ballet in Schreier's “Kin.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Claudia Schreier’s “Kin” also created a total stage spectacle, thanks to a stately set by Alexander V. Nichols and elegant leotard costumes by Abigail Dupree-Polston. Here again we had a triumph of female vision: Schreier commissioned a new score from Tanner Porter, a young female composer, whose music Schreier worked with previously at Boston Ballet. The music was warm, busy, metrically complex, playful, and alternately grand and intimate—in short, under conductor Martin West’s baton, it sounded fabulous.

The abstracted story of “Kin,” too, put women front and center in a way not often seen in ballets by men. WanTing Zhao was the glamorous, commanding female leader Dores Andre seemed to both idolize and fear. Though both women were tossed around (literally and vigorously) by men, their emotional dynamic had nothing to do with heterosexual romance or the male gaze. Cutting through a whirl of rhythmically sophisticated ensemble choreography, Zhao and Andre eventually met for a kiss. The taller, more powerful woman seemed to be giving her blessing to a new leader.

WanTing Zhao and Aaron Robison in Roberts' “Resurrection.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Andre also had a fierce lead role in former Alvin Ailey start Jamar Roberts’ “Resurrection” on next@90’s opening program, but the storyline there was less abstracted, and more confounding. The music was Mahler, and it was big. Roberts’ program note provided the outline: “An austere and malicious Queen uses her powers of persuasion, beauty, and magic in her quest to find a suitor to love and assist her in the rulership of her tribe.” Isaac Hernandez was the suitor, whom Andre sometimes controlled via a red vest that allowed her to manipulate him like a puppet. (Eventually Hernandez turned the tables and put the red vest on her.) Were we supposed to root for Andre? Or see this as a cautionary tale about intimacy and control?

Julia Rowe and Esteban Hernández in Garland's “Haffner Serenade.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Several of the premieres I fear I didn’t give a fair shake. I would like to see incoming Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Robert Garland’s “Haffner Serenade,” to Mozart, in better costumes—it felt impossible to concentrate on its neoclassical merits distracted by Barbie-pink bodysuits with neck ruffles for the men, and sea foam green tutus on the women. Some in the audience seemed passionately responsive to Val Caniparoli’s “Emergence,” a snapshot of pandemic estrangement set to a cello concerto by Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova, but to me, despite a tender duet for Angelo Greco and Lucas Erni at its center, the ballet was not formally interesting. I also really wanted to like Nicolas Blanc’s “Gateway to the Sun,” with its loose representation of 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, but found it strangely monotonous, even with cellist Eric Sung delivering a lovely performance of Anna Clyne’s music from the pit.

Sasha Mukhamedov and Joseph Walsh in Possokhov's “Violin Concerto.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Then there was Yuri Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto,” a flashy, playful take on the same Stravinsky violin concerto that Balanchine choreographed in 1972. There were tall panels bearing projections of Stravinsky and his scores, space age black and white tutus by Sandra Woodall, some terrific passages of fast virtuosic steps for Joseph Walsh and Wona Park, and a sashaying featured role for Mukhamedov in orchid pink.

Tiit Helimets in Rowe's “Madcap.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

It was a little silly. It was fun. Was it the future of ballet? For a glimpse of what’s truly “next” as the company turns 90, I saw more promise in “MADCAP,” by Danielle Rowe, a Nederlands Dans Theater alum whose early work (she made “Wooden Dimes” for SFB’s 2021 digital season) has been uneven. Terrifically costumed (again by Kingsbury), “MADCAP” took us into the dark world of a decrepit circus, with Helimets as a beleaguered clown. The commissioned music by Pär Hagström as arranged by Philip Feeney—a lot of oom-pah-pah accordion above the swelling orchestra—was repetitive. But the movement Rowe devised, both for big ensemble moments and in a few noteworthy solos, was slinky, textured, and kinesthetically engaging. Parker Garrison, a young corps member, had a “who is that kid?” breakout moment as the clown apprentice. The whole ensemble sang, and Stahl, as our loony guide through clown-land, had a big miked speaking part that she delivered gamely.

Vocalizing is still rarely seen at SFB—the only instance I can remember from the past two decades is Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite”—and it was exciting to see Rowe stretching the dancers towards the more experimental pole of dance theatricality. Will this prove a precursor for some of the ways Rojo might expand the company’s repertoire? We’ll know much more soon. In the meantime, as a vision of a more equitable and inclusive future for SFB, next@90 was a positive—if overdue—first step.

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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