San Francisco Ballet
Dances at a Gathering, Hummingbird
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
24 February 2015
Over the years San Francisco Ballet has shown many ballets by Jerome Robbins: the stylistically modern Glass Pieces and The Cage, the up-beat jazzy Fancy Free and West Side Story Suite, and the darkly spiritual Dybbuk. Then there are three of the four pieces he set to the music of Chopin – The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody), a hilarious comedy, and the romantic In the Night and Dances at a Gathering. Despite sharing the same composer, these last two are very different from each other. In the Night is choreographed to three nocturnes for three couples. The atmosphere is definitely aristocratic, elegant, as reflected in the sumptuous gowns for the ladies and jackets for the gents. Dances is very down to earth, with simple dresses for the women and loose shirts and boots for the men. Although it is still a ballet on pointe using primarily classical steps, it also incorporates folk dance steps that later in history were polished and refined into dances for the upper crust.
The first time San Francisco Ballet staged Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering back in 2002, the piece was already thirty-three years old, having premiered in 1969 at the New York City Ballet to standing ovations and rave reviews. This masterpiece, nearing its half-century mark, still retains its poetic power. The previous performances here had a deep impact on the dancers of that era, particularly in the way that they related to each other on stage. Those familiar with the performers could only marvel at how even the more reserved dancers were drawn out to engage actively with everyone else and the extroverted virtuosic ones were proving that strong ensemble work was far more memorable than flashy pyrotechnics. Somehow the spirit of the choreography could work its magic on a cast to offer them up as a veritable community, artfully melding into one cohesive group, without each dancer losing any individuality.
Accompanied by a melange of Chopin compositions (four études, five waltzes, five mazurkas, one scherzo and one nocturne), Dances has no distinct narrative, but rather is a series of impressionistic vignettes that reveal the dynamics within the group of five couples through different combinations of male and female dancers in trios, quartets, quintets as well as the pas de deux. Imagine the villagers in Giselle, without the leading couple – dancing, celebrating, flirting and finding comfort in their closely-knit group. This season with new dancers (except for Vanessa Zahorian and and Lorna Feijoo who are reprising their roles), and staging by another team – Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Jenifer Ringer Fayette – it’s not surprising that the overall effect is hardly the same.
To the Waltz in A minor, three of the five women – Maria Kochetkova (Pink), Dores André (Blue) and Zahorian (Mauve) – warmly establish their understated rapport, a quiet sisterhood that expresses itself through seamless harmony. All three could try to find a way show their own personalities more without losing the tight camaraderie. Mathilde Froustey (Yellow) is rather energetic in contrast, her port de bras in mild disarray and her smile a tad too forced. Only Feijoo (Green) seizes her role and shapes it from deep inside. She relishes every opportunity to shift between moods, incorrigible flirtation to smarting rejection to flippant insouciance.
The five men – Vitor Luiz (Brick) with Feijoo, Steven Morse (Blue) with André, Joseph Walsh (Brown) with Froustey, Davit Karapetyan (Purple) with Kochetkova and Carlo Di Lanno (Green) with Zahorian– are all deft, supportive partners and truly fine dancers on their own. Walsh could stand to lose a bit of his polished elegance and embrace his inner peasant more, probably not too difficult to do given his obvious gifts and with a little help from his friends on stage.
Yet the final section renders all the above analysis moot. Stopped in their tracks by a passing thunderstorm, the entire cast stands at the front of the stage slowly scanning the “sky” as if watching the clouds disperse while the sun emerges. In those moments there is nothing to separate any of us, audience or dancers, in art or in life.
The not-yet-thirty Liam Scarlett is still in the early stages of his career as a choreographer. After creating a handful of works for the Royal Ballet in London, Miami City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre in New York, he was commissioned last season by Helgi Tomasson to add to SF Ballet’s repertoire. The result was the closing piece, Hummingbird, choreographed for three lead couples and a corps of twelve to the Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Philip Glass.
The relentless score at least propels the excellent dancers to attack the choreography with plenty of energy. However, the frequent entrances and exits by various groups of the corps are extremely distracting because there seems to be no logical reason for them, unless perhaps the title explains it – lots of random flitting about. My experience with those diminutive birds in my garden confirms that usually they are either looking for flowers or fleeing my cats. Pretty clear motivation, I think.
Frances Chung with Gennadi Nedivigin, Yuan Yuan Tan with Luke Ingham, and Maria Kochetkova with Joan Boada are stellar, as are the scenic design and costumes by John Macfarlane. The generally generic modern ballet vocabulary is competent, but judged on this Scarlett has yet to find his own distinctive voice.