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A Parisian Dream

A participatory eagerness, a desire to be part of something sweet and beautiful, suffused the return of George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to San Francisco Ballet on the cusp of spring. Many audience members inside the War Memorial Opera House wore pastel silk or lace, and adorned their heads with delicate flower garlands purchased from the company gift shop. On stage, the dancers were even more finely arrayed: For this production, artistic director Tamara Rojo borrowed the sets and costumes by Christian Lacroix created for Paris Opera Ballet in 2017. The whole visual package had a feeling of old world, hand-crafted care, not only in Lacroix’s unbelievably detailed second act tutus (white lace on top, pink tulle in a bright rim below), but especially in the hand painted sets with their giant pansies shading Titania’s bower. Most remarkably, none of this upstaged the dancing.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet: “A Midsummer Night's Dream” by George Balanchine

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA, March 12, 15 & 23, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

Sasha De Sola and Aaron Robison in “A Midsummer Night's Dream” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

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Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising—under the artistic direction of former New York City Ballet star Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet became known as a leading “Balanchine company”—but whether the strong connection to Balanchine’s work will endure remains to be seen late next month, when Rojo will announce the 2025 programming. “Midsummer” was the only Balanchine on offer for 2024, the first season Rojo programmed here. As staged by Sandra Jennings, what a feast it provided for dancers hungry to push their gifts to the limits.

In some ways, this “Midsummer” run felt like the final act of “Sleeping Beauty,” when everyone wakes up from a long sleep to find the palace décor changed, the main character the same yet suddenly grown up. “Midsummer” was the last ballet SF Ballet danced before the Covid-19 shut-down, with one performance before the city shuttered its theaters. Back in 2020, Esteban Hernández was our youthful main character, dancing opening night as Puck. For 2024, he was opening night’s Oberon, suddenly commanding, furrowed-of-brow, and ill-tempered at Queen Titania’s refusal to hand over her favorite child attendant, setting in motion the whole plot to avenge himself by having Puck sprinkle the magic flower pollen on her sleeping face, so that she woke up to fall in love with an ass named Bottom. 

Acting like a jerk does not come naturally to Hernández, who has a mild jaw, a button nose, and an irrepressible generosity, but he pulled it off, angry to a point of threatening violence in his mime, and getting a big laugh from the audience as he waited for Puck with crossed arms and tapping toe. Flying fast through petite allegro, on the other hand, seems completely natural to Hernández, and his passes through Oberon’s famously devilish solo were sheer beauty, the entrechat beats so crisp, those second position feet frozen like a snapshot mid-air, yet at the same time each crossing continuous and fast, the proverbial shot out of a canon.

Frances Chung and Isaac Hernández in Balanchine's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Cavan Conley, one of my favorite rising San Francisco dancers of recent years, was this season’s opening night Puck, and a fine one, but in the second cast he got to try on Oberon. Again, this was a case of natural demeanor not quite fitting character (the most convincingly nasty Oberon at SF Ballet is Joseph Walsh, but he wasn’t cast for it this year)—and Conley was not only working with a naturally sweet visage, but he was more timid in his mime, rushing through the meaner reactions to Titania. Also again, this was a beautiful fit of technique to technical challenges: Conley’s three passes in those stage-skimming solos could not have been better, the feet working freely while his torso held almost a Bournonville-style harmony above.

Conley is currently a soloist; his stage conspirator, Puck, was danced by a corps member who also looks promotion-bound, Luca Ferrò. Mostly what I’ve glimpsed of Ferrò’s full abilities has come from company class, where he is off-the-charts gifted, able to whirl through four clean turns in attitude like a laugh; onstage, he’s been dancing a lot of rank-and-file corps cavalier duties. Never was a breakout role so perfectly matched to a dancer. Small, sharp, and swift, with an elf-like face, Ferro seemed born for these antics, and the audience laughed for every tiptoe he took across the stage.

The first act of Balanchine’s “Midsummer” is long but feels short, packing in all the story action; the second act is short but feels long, an extended dance recital in the guise of a triple wedding for the main characters. (Wait, make that a quadruple wedding of sorts, as we briefly glimpse Oberon and Titania’s renewed commitment, too). At three different performances, one of them a child-packed matinee, I was excited that the audience was game for this, all the better to luxuriate in the pure dancing showcase of the Act Two divertissement couple. 

Cavan Conley in Balanchine's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

The music is a hushed adagio from Mendelssohn’s ninth symphony; the movement is pure legato lyricism, with a long, tricky promenade in arabesque, the couple passing the balance from one hand to another and back again over four slow bars of melody. On opening night, Frances Chung and Isaac Hernández gave it dignity and softness. At the second cast I saw, Wona Park didn’t seem to have yet grown into the full feeling of tenderness, but I was moved by how ardently her partner Wei Wang seemed in love with her. And at the final cast I caught, Sasha De Sola’s performance recalled the imaginative qualities she brings to the adagio in “Diamonds.” De Sola is always moving in an invisible atmosphere, so convincingly that she invites you to see it too; this was especially the case at the walk on pointe down the diagonal, her partner Aaron Robison brushing her arms forward and seeming to clear forest branches from the air.

You can’t separate the movement from the music when you remember that pas de deux, and despite the sparkle of those Lacroix costumes, I think it really was the spell of Mendelssohn’s music that held the audience through “Midsummer’s” lulls. It’s well worth noting that the San Francisco Ballet orchestra has emerged, over the past year, as Rojo’s greatest asset through the leadership transition. The singers of San Francisco choral group Volti joined a top-notch string section and French horn soloist Kevin Rivard for this run under music director Martin West. Surely Balanchine would have approved. Let’s all hold a springtime hope that SF Ballet continues to dance a steady, nourishing diet of his ballets next year.   

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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