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Starry Nights

Beneath blue California skies, manicured trees, and the occasional hum of an overhead airplane, Tamara Rojo took the Frost Amphitheater stage at Stanford University to introduce herself as the new artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. The meeting had future box office returns on the line. This was San Francisco Ballet’s third annual August presentation by Stanford Live, an engagement that is not just a back-to-school warm-up for the company, but also a way of convincing new South Bay and Silicon Valley fans to travel an hour north to San Francisco for the 2024 season come next January. Rojo is going to need these newcomers for programming that looks quite different from her predecessor Helgi Tomasson’s. She succeeded in offering plenty of whiz-bang spectacle to convert fresh balletomanes, despite a closer that seemed to leave many scratching their heads.


San Francisco Ballet’s “Starry Nights”


Frost Amphitheater, Stanford, CA, August 4, 2023


Rachel Howard

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in the "Colour in Anything" pas de deux from William Forsythe's “Blake Works I.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

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The real populist appeal came after the first intermission with a mini-gala smorgasbord of four pas de deux, with casting to excite both first-timers and the company’s close followers. In short: Katherine Barkman was back. Small of frame but shining in stage presence, the former Washington Ballet principal was all set to be last season’s breakout star last January when she tripped on a step and injured her foot. Rojo reintroduced her opposite Esteban Hernandez in “Swan Lake’s” Black Swan pas de deux. The two are perfectly sized for partnering, and both are crisp, fast dancers with a naturally joyous energy that projects to the nosebleed seats—or in this case, the upper picnic lawn. Barkman sparkled like she’d never left, holding an especially beautiful balance after the diagonal of arabesque voyagé. Those who treat ballet like an ice skating competition might note that she stepped slightly early and awkwardly out of a grand pirouette, but the overall picture was one of confidence and musicality, and the crowd was perfectly pleased by the liberal doubles in her fouetté turns.

Katherine Barkman and Esteban Hernández in the Black Swan pas de deux from Helgi Tomasson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

She was matched in bravery by Wona Park whipping through “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.” What a revelation: I had never though of Park as a Balanchine dancer! But it makes perfect sense: Park has always sailed with astonishing strength through the 19th century gut-busters (she is fabulous in “Don Quixote”), but she has never been the kind of dancer to show off extraordinary lines—she’s all about the movement. How fast and musical she was in “Tchai Pas.” The section of springing up into attitude and echappe as the violin plucked out delicate pizzicato eighth-notes was like watching a hummingbird at a sugar-feeder. Aaron Robison may have given the most memorable performance I’ve seen live in the male role, combining a wiliness reminiscent of Jacques D’Amboise with a huge leg-split and in his sissonnes and superhuman flutter in his entrechat beats.

Wona Park in “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Chris Hardy

Sasha Mukhamedov and Joseph Walsh in Yuri Possokhov's “Violin Concerto.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

Another happy return: Frances Chung was back from maternity leave, dancing eloquently with an impassioned Joseph Walsh in the main pas de deux from William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I.” And it was probably wise of Rojo to include Sasha De Sola and Luke Ingham in the ballroom pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” giving the many children in attendance a gold-slippered fairytale to connect with.

The opener was a risk that worked well: a reprise of choreographer-in-residence’s Yuri Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto,” a crowd-pleaser from last year’s next@90 new works festival. All hail the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, out in the elements tackling the Stravinsky Violin Concerto—yes, the same one indelibly choreographed by Balanchine. This viewing didn’t much change my impressions of the work: It’s a surprisingly successful reimagining of the music made great fun with Sasha Mukhamedov sashaying through in hot pink as “the muse.” But its middle sections of complicated couplings don’t come close to eclipsing Balanchine’s duets of stripped-down vulnerability. When Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto” ended, a man behind me asked his family, “So what did that all mean?” I don’t think you’d ever ask that about Balanchine’s.

Sasha De Sola and Luke Ingham in the Act II pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's “Cinderella.” Photograph Chris Hardy

San Francisco Ballet in Danielle Rowe's “Madcap.” Photograph by Chris Hardy

At night’s end, Danielle Rowe’s “Madcap” (another reprise from next@90) also had people saying “huh?” This study of an existentially sad old clown (Myles Thatcher) calls for a contained space—the heavily costumed movements didn’t project throughout the amphitheater. The cackling live vocalizations had some of the kiddos crying in fear. But mostly the crowd seemed to wait it out, then stroll away beneath the stars sorting through their fresh memories of how that Black Swan bit had dazzled. So maybe it’s not such a strange plan on Rojo’s part to close the coming year’s otherwise adventurous season with seven extra encore performances of “Swan Lake.” 

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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