San Francisco Ballet
Program 4: Scotch Symphony, Within the Golden Hour, From Foreign Lands
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
1 and 3 March 2013
Friday night, March 1, Alexei Ratmansky premieres From Foreign Lands, his third work for San Francisco Ballet. Le Carnaval des Animaux from 10 years ago and Russian Seasons from 2009 showed different aspects of his ample choreographic talent so I am anticipating a piece worth watching. As it turns out, he manages to combine the sense of community of Russian Seasons, very much in the vein of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, with the very tongue-in-cheek humour that permeated Carnaval. Ratmansky is not a cutting-edge innovator pushing all the boundaries of vocabulary and composition. He is a superb craftsman who uses the traditional ballet steps in the same way a composer arranges a myriad of notes into a serenade, and given the differences between a rondo by Mozart and a Sousa march, there is an infinity of possibilities.
The new ballet, set to Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Orchestra ‘From Foreign Lands’ Op. 23, journeys around the Continent, passing through Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland and Hungary. Beginning in silence the dancers slowly enter, acknowledging each other and then the men invite the women to dance and they exit arm in arm as couples.
Maria Kochetkova paired with Gennadi Nedvigin (hopefully this isn’t typecasting) and Vanessa Zahorian with Davit Karapetyan start out the Russian segment. The fluidity of the choreography is immediately apparent as the steps melt into each other and glide effortlessly through space. The costumes by Colleen Atwood set a fascinating tone of ambiguity. Traditional classical ballet bodices on the women contrast with the campy skirts of multiple layers of ruffled ragged-edged tulle, here in several shades of blue, not to the mention the bare legs with pointe shoes, too frequently de rigeur in contemporary modern ballet. The men sport tight knee breeches in black with gold embellishment down the side of the leg, and coupled with white shirts and richly adorned vests, the look is one of nobility and peasantry folded into each other. Rather like Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid at Petit Trianon.
Next in the Italian portion, Pascal Molat, as a Casanova pursuing three spirited young women, is in his element, dashing and mirthful. Dores Andre, Dana Genshaft and Sarah Van Patten hardly try to elude his attentions. The choreography is an energetic froth of jumps and turns with the most inventive moment showing Molat in a long series of turns with his leg extended to the side while changing the spot of his head to follow the vivacious Van Patten as she circles the stage behind him. Dressed in burnt orange and chocolate brown costumes of the same cut as the previous ones, these dancers are clearly relishing the opportunity to act up. The flip side of this cavorting is in the following German scene where Sofiane Sylve, in chartreuse and pale olive, languidly passes, literally, between three gentlemen vying for her favour. Vito Mazzeo is clearly the winner, not only as far as the lady is concerned, but as a polished dancer and partner, emanating gracious charm and solicitous caring. Both the excellent Luke Ingham and Garen Scribner come in tied for a close second place. The steps are never formulaic or repetitive and their classicism is playfully punctuated with little unexpected twists.
The pace picks up again in the snappy red and black Spanish quartet with Kochetkova, Van Patten, Molat and Nedvigin feistily flinging Andalusian footwork and arm postures at each other. Four couples in apricot and brown then proceed with a Polish diversion. All the dancers exit stage left, abandoning Ingham. After lamenting alone, he is eventually consoled by Van Patten who emerges from the right and escorts him off stage. The finale for the entire cast is the Hungarian and it’s sprinkled with more gentle humour. The soft emerald green and lavender dresses against the men in black, green and gold is quite striking. The ending tableau, on the left side of the stage on a slight diagonal instead of in the customary center stage, is made up of unusual off-kilter poses and has the last satiric word.
This amusing, yet subtle send-up of classical ballet is rewarding in its expertly-shaped choreography, and made all the more appealing by the slight wackiness of the costumes and visual jokes. I particularly appreciate Ratmansky’s intelligent use of the entire stage and his decision to eschew ubiquitous symmetry. Hats off to the terrific cast who bring it to high-definition technicolor life. I only wish that conductor Martin West could tease out more of the national flavours that are inherent in both the music and choreography. He plays it far too safe when some bracing verve is called for.
Opening the program, Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, also danced last season, is still lovely. Both Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan seem a bit off their usual impeccable selves, but not enough to spoil the romantic story to the lilting Mendelssohn score. For the first time, after seeing this ballet countless times, I notice an odd blip in the choreography, suddenly, amidst the highland-fling-infused dancing, the lead couple do a few steps of a Polish mazurka which are then repeated by the corp de ballet. I had no idea the Scots were so multi-cultural. On Sunday I see Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in the lead roles. As I have said before, their partnership is made in Nirvana. Any apprehension over technical difficulties is moot as they show feelings and music, not steps. Her lightness, speed and clarity are a matchless combination and his partnering is so assured that you never even notice it.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour which fills out the rest of the program has never been one of my favorites since it premiered in 2008. But the Friday night cast is made up of the crème de la crème of this company and performances by all fourteen dancers are outstanding, individually and working as an ensemble. They are so good that I hardly pay attention to the choreography. Vanessa Zahorian and Damian Smith, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham, Kochetkova and Boada, are the leading couples and the four other couples – Clara Blanco, Benjamin Stewart, Jennifer Stahl, Luke Willis, Dores Andre, Lonnie Weeks, Charlene Cohen and Garen Scribner – really rise to the occasion. If there is a high point in this already brilliantly executed ballet, it’s the men’s duet with Weeks and Scribner.