March 6, 2020 was not an ordinary opening night at San Francisco Ballet. Some patrons inside the War Memorial Opera House wore hospital masks; others counseled fellow audience members to wash their hands a full 20 seconds in the bathroom at intermission. Onstage, the performers in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—not staged at SFB in 34 years—danced as though this were their last night before lockdown, and in the velvet seats, the audience applauded as though we would never see these dancers again. We headed home with our memories of an exquisite performance. And as we slept, the order came: the threat of COVID-19 had shut down the theater. The run was over.
In the weeks that followed, the losses mounted: First, facing the reality that Programs Five and Six—include a world premiere by Cathy Marston—would also have to be scrapped. Then, as California announced shelter-in-place policies, the loss of the whole SFB season, and with it $9.5 million in revenue. But, since it feels like time stopped on March 6, my imagination has remained fixed on the more immediate loss of those later casts that would have danced “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Would dancing Puck have been a breakout moment for the loveable longtime corps stalwart Diego Cruz? What gorgeousness would Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno have made of the second act pas de deux, and how would we all have relished it, knowing that at season’s end they planned to leave SFB for Germany? At a time when any mitigation of this catastrophe’s toil comes as a welcome miracle, I’m taking high comfort that not all of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was lost. It happens that, just before shelter-in-place, on March 14th, the company made a recording, in the empty opera house, of the second cast. Last week, this recording was streamed for “Dream” ticket holders and donors. It is a beautifully filmed and danced recording at a moment when we all need any glimmer of beauty, and these dancers deserve their due.
The big news here is Cavan Conley as Puck—a dancer who embodies the adjective “puckish” shining in a role he was born for. Hailing from Montana, Conley danced with Oklahoma Ballet before joining SFB’s corps last year; he was quickly promoted to soloist. He has a wide, handsome brow, a playfully swaggering confidence, and a killer turning ability. He was not as clean and sharp in Puck’s marathon series of fast jetes as Esteban Hernandez on opening night, but surely his technical refinement will continue in his larger SFB career, and in the meantime his charisma radiates not only in “Dream,” but also in a recording of Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke” that SFB made available on its website last week. (“Bespoke” will be up at www.sfballet.org until Friday.) Conley is also a regular participant in SFB’s shelter-in-place company class, conducted on Zoom and broadcast on Facebook live. Glimpse him there and you will see that the promise is immense.
Esteban Hernandez, in his turn, stepped up from his opening night Puck into the harder role of King Oberon for this recording. (He was originally scheduled to dance Oberon one night after debuting as Puck, if you can imagine that exhaustion.) Hernandez has the quick-footed clarity and terre-a-terre agility for Oberon’s famously demanding solo (created, in 1962, on Edward Villella), and his pristine batterie here is thrilling. So it feels ungenerous to fault his acting—and he does have some great, wide-eyed moments as Oberon thinks up his petty schemes—but it’s also impossible to erase from memory the delicious smugness Joseph Walsh brought to the role on opening night. Hernandez is simply a sweetheart through and through. Well, who could wish otherwise?
Sasha De Sola, meanwhile, makes a luxurious Queen Titania in the Suzanne Farrell mold, with an emphasis on melting musicality (that lovely fall from developpe) and natural imperiousness. Dramatically, she made great comedy of the duet with the donkey-headed Bottom by staying in deep character—I loved the moment when she tenderly teased Bottom with the handful of grass behind her back, then was so overcome by love that she had to feed it to him. Her Cavalier for the pas de deux in her rose-bedecked bower was Vladislav Kozlov, who gave her silken support, seeming to whisper into her ear.
There is much more fabulousness in this recording to commend. Sarah Van Patten is all innocence as the first unloved, then comically over-loved Helena, and the acting of her Demetrius, Luke Ingham, could not be better—he was not afraid to overplay bug-eyed fear as Hippolyta’s hounds wreak havoc in the dark forest, with the result that he played it just right. Myles Thatcher, equally well known as a rising choreographer, often dances soloist roles but rarely dramatic ones. It is a treat to see his theatricality as Lysander opposite the always-pert (and a still a smidge too restrained) Elizabeth Powell as his beloved Hermia. To pile on the riches, Julia Rowe is a lovely lead butterfly, her gifts for attack here softened by graciousness, and a call out is overdue to Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, standing out for his dignity among the second act cavaliers. But this recording is truly crowned by Ulrik Birkkjaer and Frances Chung in the Act II pas de deux.
For a few years now, I’ve tried to put a finger on the special magnetism of Birkkjaer’s face, and finally from seeing it on the screen I see: He’s the spitting image of Jimmy Stewart, with a wide hairline, kind eyes, and always verging-on-a-smile mouth above a tapering chin. But of course the beauty of his performance here is not in his God-given face but also in his choices. This is a strange pas de deux, capping a story ballet with two new dancers who have no character roles and no function other than to embody mature love. But Birkkjaer takes the abstractness and makes it real and particular, partnering so gently and lovingly, his eyes always searching for Chung, and his face rippling with happiness every time he takes her hand. And Chung amplifies this by dancing as though for a force larger than herself, her gaze wincing with the pain of an invisible vastness when not grinning gratefully to peer around her back and see Birkkjaer’s hand waiting for hers. Physically, she is all lightness and articulation here—the slide of her foot from tendu to a flat fifth before she développés up again is a strange magic. Altogether, this is one of the greatest partnership moments I’ve seen captured on film.
The directors of this recording, Frank Zamacora assisted by Lauren Chadwick, deserve technical credit. Their choice of shots brings you close up while still allowing the feeling of watching an actual stage performance. And one of the benefits here is the chance to watch the orchestra during the overture, and see music director Martin West’s robust way of conducting the Mendelssohn. Credit too, to the Volti vocal ensemble for singing Titania’s lullaby and the finale, with trilling clarity from soprano Gabrielle Haigh and mezzo soprano Alice Del Simone.
SF Ballet will be streaming other shorter recordings—works from the archive—with a new stream every Friday on their website. At the end of this one, with the theater emptied by the threat of contagion, the orchestra applauded the dancers, and then the dancers applauded the orchestra, and then the performers altogether applauded the Critical Relief Fund donors. The appreciation is circular. We always did need each other, but we know it all the more now.