San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris' “Sandpaper Ballet.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

The Future is Green

San Francisco Ballet's mixed programs 2 & 3

Performance
San Francisco Ballet: “Classical (Re)Vision” / “Dance Innovations”
Place
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, February 22-23, 2020
Words
Rachel Howard

If there is a downside to San Francisco Ballet’s zeal for commissioning international choreographers, it is that we do not often have the luxury, here in Northern California, of considering the dancers over the dance.

So it was a special pleasure, on a late February weekend, to return for Sunday matinees of two mixed rep programs just to relish the company’s rising talents. The world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s “The Big Hunger” on Program Three had passed; the news was that it is a theatrically impressive ballet, making ambitious use of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, but a bit dull choreographically through long passages, and this proved true on second viewing. At the same time, another big name choreographer, Liam Scarlett, had been nixed from the repertoire in response to scandal, his ballet pulled from Program Two and hastily replaced by “Director’s Choice” ditties. No loss really; all the better to focus on the exquisite performances dancers were delivering in ballets well known to San Francisco fans and perfectly tailored to this company’s strengths. It was a weekend of breakout stars (Cavan Conley!), adrenalizing virtuosity (Benjamin Freemantle! Wei Wang!), standing ovations and adoration from audiences that packed the back-of-the-house standing room two rows deep.

Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre’s “The Big Hunger.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

And it was fitting that the highpoint of the weekend came in a ballet honoring dancers. Two years ago, Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke” got a bit lost among the 12 ballets commissioned for SFB’s Unbound Festival, and a bit underappreciated by some critics (including this one). Last weekend, with the festival buzz cleared, we saw the work’s staying power. Set to Bach’s violin concerti in A minor and E major, “Bespoke” begins with an exposed, silent solo created for principal Angelo Greco, and at the Saturday matinee he danced it with dignified fearlessness, moving from its “clockhands” arms motif (Welch’s nod to the brevity of a dancing career) through demanding promenades, exploding in a final echappé and double-tour as the music blasts in. But just as thrilling was the ensemble dancing that often rushes in and out through slits in the back “wall” of the stage, and never lets up.

Corps members Kamryn Baldwin, Thamires Chuvas, and Lauren Parrott each danced with clean lines, precise placement, and joyous freedom, rallied by the strength of soloist Isabella DeVivo and the spontaneity of principal Frances Chung. Wanting Zhao brought new qualities to a central pas de deux that had unnerved me at the work’s premiere, when it was originated by the far more emotive, loose-limbed, and in this role victim-like Mathilde Froustey. Zhao is equally leggy, but more muscular; she was regretful and melancholy wrapping herself around her partner Steven Morse, and pressing her hand to his stomach, his chest, his forehead—but never desperate. Morse seemed struggling to smoothe some of the challenging partnering, like a new switchboard operator still working hard to remember every button to push. Between that intense section and the ballet’s climax, when one by one the dancers succumb to the floor in piles of two, Greco gave himself to physics, unafraid to slide for the wings, and Cavan Conley, who first danced with the company as recruit from Tulsa Ballet just last year, nearly lost his plumb line in a high-velocity pirouette sequence, which only made the audience cheer louder as he fought his way to finish cleanly.

Conley really was the object lesson in charisma over the weekend. He was in nearly everything, and he was impossible not to watch. A mid-height Montana native with a Midwestern cowboy kind of build and a wide-brow, small-eyed face with the mischievousness of, say, Leonardo diCaprio, he has a powerful jump and a beautifully integrated upper and lower body. But as I watched him through both the deadpan hijinx of Mark Morris’s “Sandpaper Ballet” and the elegant twinings of Edwaard Liang’s “The Infinite Ocean,” it occurred to me that what sets him apart from most corps members (and he was in the corps just last season) is his complete immersion in the imaginative space of the stage. He radiates awareness out of the back of his head (to see his chest and face react as ballerina Misa Kuranga approached him from behind in “Etudes” was a masterclass in presence). He has an intensity of intelligence that can’t be taught at the barre, and I would lay down money he’ll rise to principal within five years.

Lucas Erni in Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Meanwhile, another name to keep an eye on is Lucas Erni. Shorter than Conley, Argentinian, and brand new in the corps, he led the five-man ensemble in one of the “Director’s Choice” selections (and another Baroque showcase), Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso.” Originated by that ever-winking trickster Pascal Molat (who retired in 2016), the man in red’s role calls for riding the edge between athleticism and refinement with unbounded pleasure, and Erni fit the bill, though at the moment there is a bit of boyish submissiveness to him. It will be a joy to watch him grow.

And so, also in the meanwhile, what mastery in the powerhouse leading men who soared along with Conley in the ballet that closed these programs’ run, Harald Lander’s “Etudes.” Benjamin Freemantle, a breakout talent of the Unbound Festival who rose to soloist in 2018 and principal just one year later, made a drama of sissones with his hyper-muscular thighs, but that’s just one secret weapon among his arsenal of crisp batterie, unabashed smile and now (what every dancer really needs) flashy hair. Wang, who like Freemantle finished his training at SF Ballet’s own school, was every bit his equal in technique, and perhaps his superior in exuberance.

Benjamin Freemantle in Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

These two just love to dance—but so, it seems right now, does the whole company. The classical capers of “Etudes” having put a 40-plus-strong ensemble through their paces, we audience members heard a group cheer from backstage as the final curtain closed—an echo of our own joy in their accomplishment.

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