San Francisco Ballet's “Starry Nights” at Stanford University's Amphitheater
San Francisco Ballet: “Starry Nights”
Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University, CA, August 5, 2022
That eerie post-Covid time warp—are we moving forward or stuck in a loop?—prevailed on a windy summer night as former San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson took the stage of Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater and explained that the program would begin with his old staple set to Bach keyboard works, “7 for Eight.”
For the record, Tamara Rojo is the new artistic director of SFB as of December, and in addition to beginning a restructuring of the artistic staff, she has indeed moved into the big corner office across the street from the War Memorial Opera House, where SFB usually performs—but she was not actually in the United States for these two shows presented by Stanford Live. Perhaps those of us who love continuity can take comfort that an old leader’s legacy doesn’t get erased overnight. (Or again, we can feel stuck in the Twilight Zone: The coming 2023 season was programmed by Tomasson, and two of the works on this Stanford Live program will be repeated as a repertory offering next spring.) But no—let’s really look forward. This show was a preview of which dancers are at the height of their powers for the year to come.
One name that tops that list for me? Montana-born Cavan Conley, still a soloist. He cast the brightest afterglow in “7 for Eight,” spicing up the Baroque cool with his natural undertone of mischief. I’d say he missed his calling as a Mark Morris dancer were it not for the ever-increasing strength of his classical chops. His jumps and beats were all textbook purity and softness, every rough edge sanded out. And yet what thrills most is how seamlessly he moves into a corkscrewing pirouette with his upper body curled into a downward spiral. All the different logics and impetuses for movement seem integrated within him now, and he radiated simultaneous calm and freedom.
Forgive me if I treat “7 for Eight” as a dancer showcase rather than a work of choreography—like so much of Tomasson’s output, it functions that way without feeling recital-like. So then, to tick down the list: tall and dashing Aaron Robison came back in better-than-ever form after breaking his thumb last year, partnering WanTing Zhao in the two central pas de deux. Zhao, for her part, was stepping into the role created for SFB’s unofficial prima assoluta Yuan Yuan Tan, something the company’s been grooming Zhao to do across the repertory for quite some time. The project doesn’t entirely work, because despite also being strikingly tall and flexible, Zhao is a very different dancer, elegant but sturdy—you don’t have the sense you could snap her wrists and ankles like twigs. She has a frank, stare-you-in-the-eye aspect to her face, and didn’t seem particularly vulnerable as she curled atop Robison’s shoulder, and he slowly carried her clinging body out, striding backwards. In partnering work, she often doesn’t seem like she needs the man’s support at all. But that makes her all the more intriguing.
Meanwhile, two much greener women, Jasmine Jimison and Swane Messaoudi, flitted about her in the ensemble passages, long and pretty but to their credit never careful. And Max Cauthorn, arguably the most controlled dancer on the male roster, swept through with his boy-next-door sweetness.
The audience seemed to have come just for Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night.” They were rewarded. SF Ballet has a special strength when it comes to the Robbins’ repertory. They’ll be taking “In the Night” to New York’s Fall for Dance in September, and if they take this cast I wager New Yorkers will be pleased. The ingénue Elizabeth Powell pairs well with Prince Charming-handsome Joseph Walsh in the young love pas de deux that serves as a baseline in this study of three different relationship dynamics set to Chopin. Sasha Mukhamedov (out most of last season) shone brightest among the cast here in the duet suggestive of companionable married love, opposite Tiit Helimets—she was less intentionally stiff than most I’ve seen dance it (restrained just doesn’t seem to be her nature), but still dignified. Yuan Yuan Tan missed some opportunities for bolder theatricality and light humor in the third, tempestuous duet with Luke Ingham. But no one on the amphitheater grass seemed to mind, what with the tulle dresses swirling and a few planets—and yes, finally stars—at last appearing overhead.
William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I,” created in 2016 and already a staple in several companies globally, didn’t hit full force in this environment, minus the stage fog and murky lighting that makes for magical entrances and exits, and the impact of being in an enclosed environment as the electro-bass beneath James Blake’s more synth-driven pop songs pounds. But I relished the chance to see it again, and see it exposed, the better to observe its minutely calibrated workings. What a marvel of a machine with its big ensemble waves of rhythmically interlocking dancers, the gears more fine-tuned than the eye can grasp.
But Forsythe’s genius (OK, one aspect of it) is to constantly contrast that big-machine bedazzlement with human spontaneity. The central pas de deux feels like it’s taking place in a small apartment—there’s no lyrical reaching, but rather a ordinary man and woman (Walsh and the wonderfully earthy Julia Rowe) working out a thorny conversation in pedestrian gestures, and stomping off flat-footed, hand-in-hand. Worth studying, too, is how Forsythe cranks up the climax in the sassy, smile-inducing “Two Men Down” (which actually stars three men, on Friday a playful Wei Wang with Cauthorn and the puckish Lucas Erni), then gives us a simple, aching coda in which the music simplifies to touchingly exposed piano and voice.
It’s the quietest of finishes, and the audience response Friday was a bit subdued, too. Or maybe we were all just drifting onward, strolling across the lawn beneath an unbounded sky, floating through an age when everything seems to move so fast and yet so slowly.
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