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School Report

This year’s San Francisco Ballet School Spring Festival offered a moment to say hello to the company’s next generation of dancers, and goodbye to the leader who shaped them: Patrick Armand, who took over the Trainee Program in 2010 and directed the school since 2017, has just stepped down. In the stark architecture of the Blue Shield Theater lobby, glass cases held photos of Armand, during the dashing prime of his Ballet Theatre Francais career, taking bows alongside Nureyev after a performance of Bejart’s “Song of a Wayfarer.” Meanwhile onstage, a pas de deux by school faculty Viktor Plotnikov best showcased the fruits of Armand’s labors forming this year’s graduating class.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet School Spring Festival

Place

Blue Shield Theater, San Francisco CA, May 26, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

San Francisco Ballet School Students in Dana Genshaft's “Stereo is King.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

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Mimi Lamar and Raphaël Brunais Besse, as glamorous in face and form as they are in name, are the “stars of tomorrow” to remember here, and I wish I had also been able to attend the previous night (the program varied slightly on each of the festival’s three evenings) to see them dance in a quintet Besse himself choreographed. But Plotnikov’s “We . . .,” despite its generic title, was enough to instill excitement about these dancers’ futures. It’s surely not incidental that Plotnikov’s duet exemplifies the style San Francisco Ballet’s school perhaps best prepares dancers for: a slinky, late 20th century international contemporary classicism emphasizing unfurling limbs, spinal fluidity, and the ability to melt from a series of swift chaîné turns into a phrase highlighting a roiling hip.

As war rages on, it feels germane that Plotnikov, who joined SF Ballet School’s faculty in 2020, was born in Ukraine and danced with the Donetsk Ballet Company there before working with several smaller U.S. troupes and finally Boston Ballet. Choreographed seven months after Russia invaded Ukraine, “We . . .” seems to hold a longing for solace, marked by partnering as curiously natural as it is inventive, like the opening image, in which Besse turned Lamar with her pointed feet barely off the floor, her chin hooked over his shoulder. The music was cellist Pablo Casals’ treatment of the traditional Catalonian song “El Cant Dels Ocells,” with its sensuous longing. The connection between Besse and Lamar never slacked, and their lyricism was so sustained that by the time the final image arrived—Besse turning Lamar as she crouched on pointe, regularly flicking out her feet and arms—I’d forgotten I was watching a school graduation.

San Francisco Ballet School Student in Saint-Leon/Petipa's “Frescoes.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

Of course, the whole program began with a demonstration, from the youngest students smiling with adorably tense concentration as they remembered to straighten those knees before stepping into temps lié, up to the big kids dispatching some hops on pointe and double tours. Demonstration-like, too, was “Frescoes,” highlighting bits of choreography by Saint-Leon and Petipa and staged by Vaganova-trained former Boston Ballet star Larissa Ponomarenko (Plotnikov’s spouse). The execution leaned towards the vigorously athletic (Antonia Deprey has an especially appealing exuberance, though she’s still figuring out the finish of her feet). Maya Chandrashekaran stood out for her calm radiance and graciously integrated épaulement.

Faculty member Dana Genshaft’s “Stereo Is King” then ticked off the box for a vaguely Forsythian aesthetic, with an ensemble of eight bouncing in forced arch to electronic music, perfecting their impassive-sexy-stare. (Oh you sweet teens trying to look older than your years—I felt protective, almost as if I were browsing their Instagrams.) Sofia Albers—like Besse and Lamar, a newly minted company apprentice—left a distinct impression of confident musicality.

In most recent seasons, the School’s performances have finished with a big Balanchine number like “Western Symphony” or “Stars and Stripes,” but this year’s finale instead brought a new ballet from Myles Thatcher. Now a soloist with SF Ballet, Thatcher trained at the School, and he would seem to be a graduate of it as a choreographer, too, having made some early works on the students, then cementing his career with his fifth work for SF Ballet last season, a popular hit titled “Colorforms.” I’m happy for Thatcher, though, that he was back making work on the students, the better to keep growing and experimenting away from box office pressures.

San Francisco Ballet School Students in Myles Thatcher's “After Light.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

Thatcher’s new “After Light,” to music by Ryan W. Lott, shows him working with a huge cast of 34—and learning via one of the surest methods of apprenticeship possible, imitation. The similarities between “After Light” and Crystal Pite’s “The Season’s Canon” were just too striking to be coincidental. Pite’s work dresses a massive cast in green cargo pants and flesh-toned tops; Thatcher’s own costumes for “After Light” has the dancers in teal cargos and brown shirts. Pite’s work uses lines and masses of dancers to create roiling group effects; Thatcher’s “After Light” does, too, though with less granular subtlety. Pite’s work features an insect-like woman leader; Thatcher’s centers Maisee Anderson, giving her arachnid-like bent arms that seem to fascinate the other three lead dancers.

San Francisco Ballet School Students in Myles Thatcher's “After Light.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

Where Thatcher’s work differs from Pite’s is in its balder schematics. A male soloist dances with an orb of light in his hands; then a pas de deux introduces two orbs of light; then a ring of dancers lying on the ground introduces a third orb, and another and another, until the whole group is passing around these glowing balls.

I don’t remember if Reed Henry was the soloist with the first orb. I do remember that he was terrific. Thatcher gave him some of the best phrases, tearing through the air as if to punch a hole in the sky, even tossing in a revoltade. In his marriage of fierceness and form, Henry reminds me quite a bit of SF Ballet soloist Joseph Walsh. A trainee last year, he’s not listed on SF Ballet’s new apprentice roster, but in his young dancing life he’s been all over the media (including on Good Morning America), so one expects to see him landing well soon.

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.

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