Helgi Tomasson's final season with San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet Programs 4, 5, and 6; Sarah Van Patten Farewell Performance; and Helgi Tomasson: A Celebration
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. March 15, April 2, 6, 15, 16, 17, and 24, 2022
Dozens of ballet luminaries including Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier, Joffrey Ballet director Ashley Wheater, and recently retired New York City Ballet principal Gonzalo Garcia gathered here last week on a confetti-blasted opera house stage to mark the end of an era. Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet since 1985, is about to finish his final season. The larger ballet world’s moment of overwhelming change, with the revamp in leadership at New York City Ballet, and Kevin McKenzie’s impending retirement at American Ballet Theatre, feels magnified here. Tomasson has served seven years longer than McKenzie has led ABT; he began his directorship just two years after Balanchine died. He has reliably cultivated civility, civic pride, and top-rate dancers, and done so in a soft-spoken, fatherly way—it’s hard to find a dancer, choreographer, or staff member with an aggrieved word to say about him. Combine this impending loss with the heightened desire for comfort stirred by politics and the pandemic and you find yourself with an SF Ballet audience primed for catharsis. They got it this season (SF Ballet’s 89th) in Dwight Rhoden’s epic new “The Promised Land.”
Rhoden’s is the ballet I suspect everyone here will remember most vividly at the finish of this jam-packed season (seven programs crammed into two and a half months). I liked it better after a second viewing. On opening night, I wrote about it positively, in part because I could see how strongly the audience was responding—my companion, who only recently started watching ballet, was in tears. In truth, I held some reservations, which I later learned a few other longtime ballet watchers shared.
A crystalline, carefully etched work of art “The Promised Land” is not. This is bombast writ large, from the blown-open stage space with bright industrial lights, to the large cast, to the night-club flashy costumes by Christine Darch. Nor is “The Promised Land” a work for music purists, stitching together an aural backdrop rooted in two Philip Glass excerpts and pieces by other composers for solo cello (the live cellist Jonah Kim was heroic), and ramping up to a surging movie-soundtrack-like climax by Hans Zimmer featuring loud electric guitar. Everyone has their defensive impulses when responding to art; one of mine is that I resist being manipulated by over-obvious music. But when I saw “The Promised Land” again on its closing night (and again a companion new to ballet cried), I realize that I not only appreciated “The Promised Land;” I also respected it.
I respect it because it feels driven by convictions that are deeply embedded into its design. The ballet is a spiritual odyssey in seven parts, but the section numbering begins with zero, as if to establish us first in the infinite, which we could also think of as the ground of finite being. A solo, searching man weaves through—on opening night, Esteban Hernandez, who was also featured in Rhoden’s 2018 piece for SF Ballet, “Let’s Begin At the End,” and who projects full-bodied presence and innocent vulnerability.
The next five sections each feature a different couple, though in each case the drama between them does not feel romantic, but more symbolic of human interdependence with all its push-pull necessities. (In this way, Rhoden’s work reminds me very much of Alonzo King’s.) The partnering is jaw-droppingly challenging and endlessly inventive, with lots of popping into forced-arch positions, and swimming through the air with frenzied arms. To be honest, not much contrast between the duets stays in mind, except for the third section, “Relive,” with its majestic side-split developpes choreographed on the powerful WanTing Zhao and Benjamin Freemantle.
The ballet snaps back into focus at the end of its penultimate section, when a section of Glass music with thundering percussion powers a rousing full ensemble high point. Then the real brilliance of the ballet is in section six, “The Promise,” when the slow build of the Zimmer music begins, and Rhoden brings out each of the couples, one by one, near the lip of center stage. It’s a movie-montage feeling, a sense of your life flashing before your eyes. Finally, all the dancers make a chain, a simple stage design, but very effective here, as they allow the solo man to burst through the gates of their arms, but not back out.
To say this is all a “showcase” for rising dancers seems like a shallow perspective, but my goodness did the talent meet the occasion. The first cast featured many of SFB’s most confident dazzlers—Sasha De Sola with Wei Wang, Frances Chung with Angelo Greco—and they were, as expected, gorgeous. But who doesn’t relish the chance to champion the underdogs and up-and-comers? A principal since 2017, Jennifer Stahl has not been featured much this year. She’s an interesting dancer, glamorous of face and frame, but never winking or teasing like De Sola can be. She seems mature, unmannered, and soulful, and I preferred her in the “Reflect” section, partnered seamlessly by Henry Sidford. And I was astonished by the young Lucas Erni’s ability to step into Hernandez’s lead role, a marathon test of dancing with complete integration and commitment. Erni is a short, muscular-legged dancer. But like Hernandez, he looked vast.
Two dancers having big breakthrough seasons were whiplash-excellent in the “Never Land” section: the soloist Elizabeth Powell, whose delicately sculpted face makes her seem like someone careful and correct, but who proved this season that she’s game for the wildest things; and Max Cauthorn, a refined technician (you will never see his shoulders near his ears) who is proving why he got a promotion to principal during the pandemic—he also danced an outstanding James in “La Sylphide” this season. Then too, corps member Thamires Chuvas matched principal Julian MacKay in strength and made me say “who was that?” It was all bittersweet come curtain, because MacKay is not returning next season, and Freemantle, too, was giving his last San Francisco performance—he’s decided to pursue a freelance life in New York.
And so we return to the theme of this review: So much monumental change at once. After 20 seasons, Sarah Van Patten decided to retire this spring. Do ballet watchers in New York and Europe know her as well as she deserves? As Justin Peck said in his video tribute, she’s the kind of ballerina that defines a company. She ought to be as recognizable as Sara Mearns, and perhaps she is valued outside of the West Coast more than I realize; she certainly drew video-recorded accolades from an impressive array of choreographers at her special farewell performance on April 17, with testimonies from Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, and Mark Morris, who joked that “she’s not going to the glue factory!” But where is she going, retiring at 38, still in top form (her second movement of “Symphony in C” this season was a stunner)? And what will she do now, having assembled her own professional dance pod and then produced an impressive professional performance (featuring works by Rhoden, Wheeldon, and Tomasson, no less) during the pandemic? She has two young sons to raise, but everyone expects she is too intelligent and driven to stay away from the ballet world long.
The season felt like a ramp to her farewell. She danced everything—the title role in Cathy Marston’s new “Mrs. Robinson,” the Winter section of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Seasons,” and thankless assignments like Yuri Possokhov’s “Magrittomania.” She even made her debut in “La Sylphide,” big-eyed and dotty and implausibly but utterly seductive, while the very image of those famous Marie Taglioni lithographs as she struck the storybook pose in the open window.
Her farewell night was a sandwich of quintessential Van Patten with some forgettable personal selections in the middle. She started with the pas de deux from “Diamonds,” making me flash back to her debut in San Francisco, in a gala finale of “Diamonds,” having joined the company as a soloist at age 17. Then, she was bold and irrepressibly musical, but also a little mannered because of a strangely disjointed quality when she wasn’t moving big and fast. Now she is absolutely unmannered, and even more bold, even in the quiet moments. To watch her in the passage where she links arms with her partner (Ulrik Birkkjaer) and walks on pointe on the beat, then reaches away from him in a deep plié—there is nothing fake on her face as she does this, only a feeling for the beauty of the music, and you have to wonder if even Suzanne Farrell would approve.
The forgettable middle stuff was fine—a melodramatic pas de deux, from “Gabrielle Chanel,” by Possokhov, her first time dancing it, and a long section from “Wooden Dimes,” a 1920s showgirl fantasia by a longtime friend (and wife of her most frequent partner, Luke Ingham), Danielle Rowe. And then came the balcony scene from Tomasson’s “Romeo and Juliet.” This was Van Patten’s breakout role at 16, when Neumeier chose her for his version at the Royal Danish Ballet. This has been her signature role throughout her tenure at SFB. And she was fresh as ever in it rushing down the steps to Birkkjaer, a headlong, hormones-raging girl and a thing of wild power. Birkkjaer has big eyes in a movie-star face that always reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, and his interpretation of Romeo couldn’t have been lovelier, regularly shaking his head as he stood back as if to say “I can’t believe this girl! My God, she’s a force!” Another poignancy: Birkkjaer’s performance with Van Patten was also his last.
Other highlights of the season have been overpowered by these heart-laid-bare moments in my mind. Christopher Wheeldon unveiled his new “Finale Finale,” which has a lot of attractive qualities, using a sophisticated-yet-zany score by a major yet relatively obscure 20th century avant-garde composer, Darius Milhaud, and making of it a sweet romp for seven dancers with outstanding costumes by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme. But you always hope there will be new pleasures and complexities to spot in a ballet upon a second viewing, and that wasn’t the case here.
Seeing Tomasson’s new “Harmony” a second time was a bit more satisfying, even though it’s not as memorable as other Tomasson works showcased on his farewell tribute. Like every Tomasson ballet, it’s a vehicle for the dancers, this time to keyboard works by Rameau, Baroque music being an especially hospitable aural landscape for the tenderness and dignity that mark most Tomasson works. Julia Rowe has an effusive, hummingbird-like solo that reminded me of Violette Verdy. Angelo Greco and Misa Kuranaga were beautifully passionate in the climactic “La Cupis” section.
As the curtain fell on “Harmony” on April 24th, company members past and present rushed the stage. Love and appreciation swelled through the hall. Tomasson credited his wife Marlene for being instrumental to his success, and in his usual shy way soon said he had done enough talking. I was left thinking about John Neumeier’s tribute at the beginning of the night. Neumeier noted that unlike a museum director, a ballet director works with live, vulnerable human beings. He said that we in attendance were looking with hope to the future of the company when Tamara Rojo takes the reins. But, he said, those of us who witnessed what Tomasson accomplished will also say to each other “remember when?” And remembering, we’ll smile.
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