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Rigour and vigour

It’s elaborate partnerwork and committed performances at programme C of San Francisco Ballet’s big London tour, a two-week bonanza of 12 UK premieres spread over four different mixed bills. This one features Liam Scarlett’s 2014 ballet “Hummingbird” sandwiched between 2018 works from Stanton Welch and Justin Peck. All three pieces invoke abstract themes and contemporary choreography, though their respective tones and textures vary widely.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet in “Bespoke”/“Hummingbird”/“Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Place

Sadler's Wells, London, UK, June 5, 2019

Words

Sara Veale

Dores André and Joseph Walsh in Justin Peck's “Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

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First up is “Bespoke” by Welch, a Bach-scored number devised to celebrate the artistic and technical glory of ballet. The baroque strings of Violin Concerto in A Minor usher in our 12-strong ensemble, the women in colour-blocked leotards and the men in snappy white smocks. The opening phrase—initiated with a crisp solo from Angelo Greco—is bustling and bright, with bouncy legwork, sunny smiles and several rounds of picture-perfect fouettés. The group’s passion here is more brisk than burning, their energy channelled into tidy partnering and fizzy grand allegro. The section heralds the start of a gripping choreographic conceit centred around the ticking clock on a dancer’s career. Oscillating their frames and notching their arms by the quarter hour, the performers deftly convey how their bodies—their instruments—are caught up in the unrelenting wheels of time.

San Francisco Ballet
Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Stanton Welch's “Bespoke.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Things heat up in the second phrase, a lyrical portion choreographed around a luxurious duet between Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno. Clutching each other’s chests, the pair sketch a heated portrait of pleasure and pain. There are a few slip-ups in the following section, a fleet gambol for the female cast, but these are swiftly forgotten in the wake of Sasha De Sola’s impeccable épaulement. The men come in gallant and dashing for their own routine, and it’s onto a swaying denouement that ends with each couple melting to the floor. Spirited, moving stuff.

At a glance, there’s a whiff of ‘contemporary ballet starter pack’ with Scarlett’s “Hummingbird.” (Philip Glass score, check; Scandi-chic palette, check; bare-legged ballerinas dragged across the stage en pointe, check.) The choreography, however, is less predictable. Hung off of three duets, it’s intricate and deeply felt, a swell that builds from the core and surges outwards, powering the dancers’ daring, muscular tangles.

Greco and De Sola start us off with a zesty, animated pairing, drumming up a playful friction born out in smirking shoves and delirious grasps. They make a radiant duo, their mid-century attire and zippy backing ensemble conjuring a “West Side Story”-style romance. Next is Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham with a quiet, fraught maze of molten dips and dives. The mood is grave, though the source of their solemnity is never revealed. Instead, the vigour and command of their partnerwork become the story, a sober chronicle of scooping weight transfers and sustained eye contact. Joseph Walsh and Dores André round off the duets with a lighter, more sprightly caper that gives way to a sweeping group finale. Rippling patterns and busy formations offer a flurry of commotion here. Again, there’s no explanation for this tonal shift, but the cast tackles it with lustrous technique.

San Francisco Ballet
Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham in Liam Scarlett's “Hummingbird.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

The evening rounds off with Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” a bubblegum number about dream cycles that nods to Twyla Tharp while cutting its own distinct path. It’s not surrealism we’re in for but an eager, earnest portrait of youthful wonder. The work is lit like a pop concert, with amber floor lights lining the back of the stage; sneakers, synth tracks and shiny club gear heighten the sense of levity. As the dancing revs up, led by André, there’s skipping, laughing, hand-holding, searching gazes and long, meaningful glances. It’s light and lively, desperate to be adorable at times, but seasoned with some dynamic technical displays.

The dancers are easy with each other and with the moves at hand, even as they cascade into elaborate, winding loops of choreography, and the energy is infectious, particularly in a runaway scene of clicking heels and effervescent leaps. In the minus column are the bopping men’s section (cheesy to the point of resembling a Jonas Brothers gig) and the intrusive accompanying tracks, with their movie-trailer crescendos. Still, it’s a lively exclamation point for the evening, one that’s categorically uplifting despite these minor letdowns.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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