San Francisco Chronicle
S.F. Ballet festival offers influx of diversity, energy
Overall, three programs of next@90 bode well for future
Ballets ranging from ambitious to modest to ill-advisedly bold made up the slate of world premieres during opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s final next@90 festival program. But whatever one’s opinions on the hits and misses on Wednesday, Jan. 25, the festival as a whole — with all three programs continuing through Feb. 11 — has been an important success.
At last, the diversity of artists selected by recently retired Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson more closely reflects our society, with a roster of creative talent that is not overwhelmingly white and male. A healthy new energy has buzzed inside the War Memorial Opera House since the festival launched on Jan. 20, and has sustained each night since.
On Wednesday, the ambitious ballet of the night was Claudia Schreier’s “Kin,” and it drew the biggest ovation. Schreier is a young artist boasting a Harvard University degree in sociology and dramatic arts rather than a performing career, and is a choreographer in residence at Atlanta Ballet on the rise with high-profile commissions for Miami City Ballet and Boston Ballet. She took a gamble commissioning a new score from emerging composer Tanner Porter, and it paid off.
Porter’s music rose from the pit in a flurry of textures and time signatures, combining a warm grandeur reminiscent of Berkeley composer John Adams with whimsical, evershifting fast rhythms delivered energetically by the orchestra under music director Martin West’s baton. Schreier’s steps made ample use of this sonic playground, hurling the dancers through space while constantly slinging swift, surprising syncopations.
Almost every phrase has some unexpected moment and a tiny miracle of stolen hang time. Add to this Schreier’s flair for Goldwyn Follies-like tableaux, a simple yet striking set by Alexander V. Nichols, and elegant leotard costumes by Abigail Dupree-Polston, and you have a total-stage spectacle that recalls the oncepopular work of tragically disgraced British choreographer Liam Scarlett, though less sensual.
There is a hint of story: WanTing Zhao is the tall, glamorous central presence in this sleek world, and Dores André seems to both fear and idolize her. The stately Aaron Robison and Isaac Hernández whirl the two women about — and it’s quite an athletic whirl as André flies through the air — until they come to a moment of benediction with a kiss.
I found the implied story line more successful than a similarly strange story in Jamar Roberts’ next@90 program A premiere, “Resurrection”; Schreier hews closer to abstraction, and you aren’t distracted by wondering if you missed the point. I’m left with profoundly mixed feelings, though, about whether I would want this kind of work
to be the primary future of ballet. It looks very physically hard on the dancers, for one thing, and the musicality, though interesting, feels less than meaningful. Schreier is no doubt a brilliant and gutsy talent to keep an eye on, though, and all four principal dancers are triumphantly splendid.
The modest ballet on this program is Nicolas Blanc’s “Gateway to the Sun.” Blanc is a beloved former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer who now serves as a rehearsal director at the Joffrey Ballet, and the audience seemed to be pulling for him. He chose an exquisite score, a concerto for cello and orchestra by widely performed contemporary composer Anna Clyne, titled “Dance,” with each movement subtitled with a line of poetry from 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi.
The extraordinarily clean-dancing Max Cauthorn was the poet figure moving among memories and figments of his imagination in a desert landscape beautifully evoked by Katrin Schnabl’s minimalist sets and costumes. But the drama remained inaccessibly vague and the dance phrases too four-square, even with Sasha De Sola and Wei Wang as the more aggressive couple, and Luke Ingham and Jennifer Stahl as the serene duo. The work cries out for bolder shaping of its dramatic moments.
Boldness is amply supplied in the program’s closer, “Violin Concerto,” by choreographer in residence Yuri Possokhov. The concerto in question is no less than Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D from 1931, which behemoth of 20th century ballet, George Balanchine, choreographed in 1972. But hey, why not re-choreograph a well-known masterpiece? (Actually, Balanchine himself took two ganders at this music, first choreographing it as “Balustrade” in 1941.)
The surprise of the evening is that Possokhov’s rendition almost makes you forget Balanchine’s.
Alexander V. Nichols again contributed the scenic design: Six panels stretch across the back, bearing projections of Stravinsky’s face and music, and also holding up ballet barres. The deliciously confident Sasha Mukhamedov is a muse figure sashaying in bright pink, while the rest of the large cast wear Futurist black-and-white costumes by Sandra Woodall. It’s not clear what Mukhamedov’s emotional role is when she tangles in a duet between Joseph Walsh and Wona Park — she seems to be neither guiding him nor pulling him away — but it’s hard to care about this murkiness when Walsh and Park move so virtuosically.
The movement is classically challenging and consistently surprising, with fun hip-twists and shimmies. I’ve been waiting four years for Carmela Mayo to break out of the corps, and she finally got her moment, handling tricky steps with the confidence of a principal partnered by the charismatic soloist Cavan Conley.
Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto” is no masterpiece, but it brings smiles at the end of a festival that does indeed augur well for the Ballet’s future.
Sasha Mukhamedov (left), Joseph Walsh and Wona Park in “Violin Concerto,” by Yuri Possokhov.