San Francisco Ballet
Program 3: Variations for Two Couples, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Manifesto, “The Kingdom of the Shades” from La Bayadère
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
24 February 2015
San Francisco Ballet presented a near-perfect evening of dance on the opening night of its third repertory program. Comprising famed works by Hans van Manen and William Forsythe alongside a world premiere by emerging choreographer Myles Thatcher, the company showed why it’s earned worldwide huzzahs for interpreting contemporary dance.
In van Manen’s Variations for Two Couples, with a score combining Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer and Astor Piazzolla, principals Frances Chung with Davit Karapetyan, and Sarah Van Patten with Carlos Quenedit channeled the choreographer’s cool post-classicism with exquisite reserve. Poured into Keso Dekker’s lustrous unitards, the couples slithered in and out of each other’s arms, while the women slipped through the air in partnered jetés and arabesques. Chung’s extensions and Karapetyan’s pirouettes looked sublime, but the eye was loath to stray from Van Patten and Quenedit’s magnetic chemistry. Such a pity that Variations is only 12 minutes long.
Hot on its heels came the dizzying delight of William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, danced joyfully by Chung, fellow principals Sofiane Sylve, Vanessa Zahorian and Gennadi Nedvigin, and soloist Carlo De Lanno. Forsythe’s 14-minute technical tour de force is set to the allegro molto vivace from Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major—and molto vivace it is, with solos, duets and ensembles that blaze through a master class’s worth of allegro steps, fleet turns and leaps en manège. Sylve owned her role, throwing herself into it with musicality, hyperextended postures and fierce attack.
But those were just tasty amuse-bouches before the main course, which everyone had been anticipating since the season was announced: the world premiere of Manifesto, the first regular-season commission by Myles Thatcher. Just 24, the fifth-year corps de ballet member has shown tremendous promise in works created for SFB School performances and the 2013 company Gala; his talents are such that Alexei Ratmansky chose to mentor him via this year’s Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. If Thatcher felt any pressure ahead of the premiere, it seems to have only heightened his creativity; Manifesto was a remarkable debut.
Dancing to J.S. Bach’s The Musical Offering and Goldberg Variations, six couples alternately fill and empty the stage in ever-surprising combinations, kaleidoscoping from angular lines to groups of twos and threes, then disappearing in waves into the wings and leaving one pair behind, on their knees and bathed in a spotlight. Dressed in Mark Zappone’s charcoal-brown dresses for the women and matching unitards for the men, the dozen dancers are nearly impossible to tell apart, but the inventive movement created identities that shift from one section of music, or even one second, to the next.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson has praised Thatcher’s sense of space, and while “Manifesto” traffics in classical allegro and adagio steps, it reveals a young artist with a sophisticated vision of asymmetry, spatial layering and unique partnering that he can sustain for a full 30 minutes. At times there was almost too much going on at once, and a touch more editing would allow the audience to savor more of the movement.
Thatcher’s musicality has been apparent from the start of his career, and he created duets on Jennifer Stahl and Sean Orza, Norika Matsuyama and Steven Morse, Dores André and Hansuke Yamamoto that aligned their individual strengths with Bach’s lyricism. But the section for André and Yamamoto simply flowed over and through Mungunchimeg Buriad’s sensitive piano playing, moving from one liquid transition to the next; Thatcher brought out the best in them. He is one to watch.
One never thinks of “The Kingdom of the Shades” as an anticlimax, but at the end of such a thrilling evening of contemporary dance, it was a high-caliber letdown (the company has danced Natalia Makarova’s timeless rendition since 2000). After a smooth corps procession, Taras Domitro was marvelous as Solor; no one can top his grands jetés and double tours en manège, nor his ardent portrayal of the heartbroken, high-as-a-kite hero. But he and his Nikiya, Yuan Yuan Tan, were mismatched both physically and emotionally; turns were tangled and their intimacy was pervaded by a sense of unease. Mathilde Froustey gave a crisp variation as the first Shade; WanTing Zhao and Dores André danced the second and third.
Throughout the evening, principal conductor Martin West led the orchestra beautifully through the widely varying scores. The musicians’ versatility is a tremendous asset to San Francisco Ballet and its audience.