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Sacramento Ballet executive and artistic director Anthony Krutzkamp dresses sharp and gives a memorable pre-curtain speech. The way he tells it, the Central California company was in rehearsals for “Swan Lake” last year when he realized he faced an enviable problem: the dancers were too good for the ballets he’d programmed under a five-year plan. So Krutzkamp scrapped that plan and got on the phone, securing a commission from the internationally rising South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly. He then asked San Francisco-based Val Caniparoli for the rights to his widely performed “Ibsen’s House,” and decided to round the program out with Balanchine’s “Apollo.” That last ballet, from 1928, was arguably the only really innovative work on a mixed-rep bill titled “Innovations”—but I’m not complaining. The best thing about this slate was that it proved Krutzkamp right about the dancers. They look like they can take on anything.

Performance

Sacramento Ballet, “Innovations”: “Salve” by Andrea Schermoly, “Ibsen's House” by Val Caniparoli, “Apollo” by George Balanchine

Place

The Sofia, Sacramento, California, May 19, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

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If Balanchine’s cleanly iconoclastic first collaboration with Stravinsky never gets old, neither does the pleasure of watching fresh audiences react to it. Inside downtown Sacramento’s Sofia theater, people laughed when the muses galloped like spirited fillies, they gasped when Terpsichore balanced like a floating bird atop the kneeling Apollo’s back, and they oohed and ahhed over the final sunburst image created by the perfect radii of those penchée legs. As Faye Arthurs noted in her New York City Ballet review last week, so much of the Balanchine rep is virtually casting-proof, but this quartet was notably crisp and confident despite last-minute casting changes, which tells you something about the depth of the company’s bench.

Richard Smith is one of the older Sacramento Ballet members, having joined in 2008, but he brought a youthful innocence to his eleventh-hour “Apollo” debut. Ava Chatterson, also substituting for a colleague, brought a fairy-like sweetness to her Terpsichore—rather than him anointing her as top muse, it felt like she was giving him her benediction. Sarah Joan Smith was an exuberant, almost goofy Polyhmnia, and Julia Feldman danced Calliope with an almost Graham-worthy torso contraction. All the dancers in this staging by Paul Boos understood the jazzy tilt of hips that gives the ballet its edge, but theatrically the performance felt warmer, even sweeter, than one finds at other companies—which felt lovely and inviting.

“Apollo” presents a male god (ahem, a Balanchine stand-in?) coming into his full powers by judging among supplicating women. I don’t think Krutzkamp meant to critique this paradigm by placing Andrea Schermoly’s premiere “Salve” next, but what a thought-provoking contrast occurred.

Three couples take the stage in succession to Daniel Taylor’s hushed and disquieting choral work “The Lamb.” In each duet, the stylish partnering grows brutish, though Schermoly is too sophisticated to outright mime violence. The shoving, the lording over a dependent partner, this all seems to emerge from recognizable contemporary partnering tropes, which makes the effect all the more chilling. When Wen Na Robertson lies abandoned on the floor, Kaori Higashiyama and Enrico Hipolito take their place standing atop her, embroiled in their own grapplings of abused and abuser. But as the music shifts to Arvo Pärt’s “Salve Regina” and the three couples share the stage, the women find tiny moments of freedom and connect, just a touch of hands here, a tiny gesture of solace there. In a loud burst of voices the abuse reaches its crescendo, Hipolito pushing Robertson to the ground and literally stepping all over her, until she runs to the other women.

The miracle here was in how Schermoly’s continually inventive partnering rode the outer edge of discomfort but never descended to melodrama. A program note quotes Maya Angelou: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” Just knowing that a woman choreographed this had me alert to subversion without need to consult the program. A man might choreograph partnering just a hair’s breadth less violent without recognizing an implicit misogyny. “Salve Regina” felt like a calling out of this blindness as much as a story of female solidarity.

Wen Na Robertson and Wyatt McConville McCoy in Andrea Schermoly's “Salve.” Photograph by Marissa Gearhart

Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House,” choreographed in 2008, carried on the theme of sympathy for the struggles of oppressed women, but in a framework controlled by men—both Caniparoli and playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose major heroines take the stage in Victorian dress one by one. They are named in the program (Hedda Gabler, Nora Helmer, Mrs. Alving, Ellida Wangel and Rebecca West) and each defined by a distinct gesture. But they remain a distanced menagerie as the worried music of Dvorak swirls about.

The dance phrases are challenging, particularly for the stony-faced men who must tear through technically precise turning sequences in heavy knee-length coats. I appreciate a lot of Caniparoli’s choreography, but I confess I don’t understand why quite a few companies (Singapore Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Grand Rapids Ballet) have wanted to acquire this work, which originated at San Francisco Ballet; to me the experience is emotionally stagnant.

Sacramento’s dancers delivered a committed performance that would stand up against any other troupe’s, with Isabella Veasquez (Hedda Gabler) standing out for her strength of presence and Sarah Joan Smith (Ellida Wangel) leaving an impression of daring. More choreography worthy of their boldness is in the works for 2025: as Krutzkamp revealed in his pre-curtain speech, the company has commissioned Amy Hall Garner, whose “Century” was such a hit at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, for its upcoming 70th season.

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.

comments

Faye Arthurs

That’s the beauty of Balanchine, isn’t it? The works can withstand almost any casting with their essences intact, but every dancer who passes through them alters the tenor of each piece too. As do the stagers. Wish I could’ve seen this group, but thank you Rachel for the lovely reporting!

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