San Francisco Ballet
Program 2: Rubies, Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, Fearful Symmetries
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
27 January 2016
At least a dozen choreographers have taken a crack at John Adams’ dynamic composition Fearful Symmetries, from Peter Martins to Doug Varone to Ashley Page. Now it’s Liam Scarlett’s turn, on the invitation of San Francisco Ballet. Scarlett’s second SFB commission, following 2014’s Hummingbird, had its world premiere Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House.
Sinister and brooding, and loosely influenced by William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” Symmetries opened with a pantherine Sofiane Sylve lurking and writhing on the ground beneath a suspended crosshatch of fluorescent light rods. As she rose she seemed to summon dark forces, and the piece exploded in her wake, with duets and solos and ensembles emerging from the inky darkness at breakneck pace.
Clad in deconstructed Mad Max shreds, the murky horde surges with Adams’ driving rhythms, percolating with horns, winds and synthesizers, exquisitely played by the orchestra under Martin West’s direction. Scarlett teases a sense of menace out of the ballet vocabulary, adding quirky timing that cues major and minor notes in the score. The principal couples – spiky Frances Chung with Vitor Luiz, luscious Dores André with Joan Boada, and sultry Lorena Feijoo with Luke Ingham – were fully committed to the hostile tone. A voracious corps backed them up, sucked them in and spit them out.
Kudos to SFB for running with David Finn’s postapocalyptic lighting and Jon Morrell’s Mad Max costumes – daring and dangerous, if a bit too heavy on the leatherette. But despite his high concept, Scarlett seemed to lose the thread halfway through, resorting to lascivious theatrics to complete the work. The most uncomfortable instance was a duet for Feijoo and Ingham: their groping and grinding eventually led to Ingham on all fours, with Feijoo riding on his back as he crawled downstage. He finally stood, lifted her overhead and reached a hand up and over her breast.
What one hoped was a fluke proved a pattern by the booty shakes that capped Gennadi Nedvigin’s otherwise handsome solo. Complaining feels prudish, but I think the issue is actually the opposite – in San Francisco’s clothing-optional performance environment, gyrations just seem trite rather than irreverent.
Symmetries ends with a spoonful of treacle, a gooey duet with Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan in ivory – the virginal counterparts? With Scarlett’s outside perspective on the company, it’s fair to expect him to explore new dimensions with the dancers, or show the audience aspects of them that we didn’t know were there. Bending Tan inside out and melting her over a partner showed us nothing new.
George Balanchine’s Rubies, staged by Elyse Borne, opened the evening on a jubilant note. As a former principal with New York City Ballet, Sofiane Sylve was in her element as the cornerstone lead, in command of the stage and those flinging, hig-armed attitude derriere balances. Joseph Walsh made his debut in the pas de deux, partnering Maria Kochetkova. Both move a hair more softly than the classic Balanchine dancer, but their exultant attack, flirtatiousness and whirlwind speed deserved the mid-performance cheers.
A seasonal programming change transplanted Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes from later in the season to Program 2, and it was an unreserved pleasure. Morris has created eight works for the company, but Drink to Me started as a creation for his own dancers, then was completed in 1988 for American Ballet Theatre. A quarter-century later, it’s as lovely and dewy and enchanting as ever.
SFB dancers possess the triumvirate of qualities required of a Morris interpreter: musicality, freedom of technique and witty timing. Wearing Santo Loquasto’s loose ivory pants and skirts, men and women enter and exit in every imaginable combination and unimaginably inventive steps. Nedvigin and Hansuke Yamamoto performed a syncopated tango of pirouettes into promenades á la seconde into ronds de jambe en l’air, then fall to the floor. Galloping sashays led to hop-turns landed in fifth, with wrists crossed overhead; women stretched their arms out and up, revisiting Sleeping Beauty’s fairies.
Pianist Natal’ya Feygina joined the ensemble onstage, playing Virgil Thomson’s early-20th-century etudes, which range from folksy melody to hostile cacophony. Drink to Me peaked when corps dancer Lonnie Weeks floated through a solo set to her finely plucked music-box notes. As the golden overhead lighting shifted to an amber glow from the wings, you couldn’t help wishing that the sun would never set in fairyland.