San Francisco Ballet
Continuum, In the Countenance of Kings (premiere), Theme and Variations
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
07 April 2016
San Francisco Ballet (SFB) saved the best for its last mixed bill of the 2016 season. The alchemy of Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum, George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and the world premiere of Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings showed the company at its best and gave the audience a thrilling evening of dance.
The highlight, in an evening of many, was the work by Peck, his first commission for SFB. A soloist with New York City Ballet as well as that company’s resident choreographer, the 28-year-old has intelligent abstraction flowing in his blood. In Countenance of Kings, he refreshes ballet vocabulary with a youthful, urbane sensibility that’s more Robbins than it is Balanchine, and specifically calls to mind NY Export: Opus Jazz.
Peck devised Countenance with clever structures and cleverer transitions. In the lead roles of The Protagonist and Quantus, Joseph Walsh and Dores André vacillate between discord and adagio, repeatedly disappearing into a battalion of corps dancers, nicknamed The School of Thought, that disperses into the next phrase of music. After a joyful allegro duet, Frances Chung as Electress and Gennadi Nevigin as The Foil walk off grinning as a phalanx of dancers materializes and absorbs them. Jennifer Stahl’s Botanica, with Luke Ingham as The Hero, enter and exit in solos and duets that merge into and then break away from pairs and trios of the corps.
There’s no plot for the quirkily-named dramatis personae to act out, but Peck employs Balanchine’s savvy stroke of creating connections that read as meaningful but signify little. When done well, as here, it’s a handy device that cues the audience’s own imaginings about what an abstract dance means to them, in that moment. The dancers seemed to derive ample purpose, devouring Countenance with refreshing enthusiasm and irrepressible smiles.
For the music, Peck chose a film score by Detroit-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Written for the avant-garde film The BQE, about New York’s blighted Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the music mixes Bernstein-esque fanfares, piano and shuffle-beat drums, percussion and woodwinds.
Intended to play a secondary role to the visuals they accompany, film scores rarely stand on their own, and this one is only a partial exception. Michael P. Atkinson truncated and reorchestrated it for the SFB Orchestra, who played with their usual aplomb. But the uneven pacing inherent in a film score, with frequent shifts in theme and extremely short arcs, causes the mood to swing too low, too high, too fast. But it was a fun ride, and we get to do it again next season when SFB brings Countenance back.
Wheeldon choreographed Continuum for SFB in 2002, and it still reigns as his best creation for them. It showcases the SFB dancers’ sophisticated musicality; the more challenging the rhythms, the more deeply a piece of music seems to engage them. Here, four couples – Vanessa Zahorian and Luke Ingham, Dores André and Steven Morse, Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh, Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets – danced György Ligeti keyboard works that ballet master Anita Paciotti describes as “nearly uncountable” but seem melodious when paired with their perfectly attenuated movement.
Not that Wheeldon placed the steps on the counts, such as they are. Rather, the slow développés, pirouettes, jetés and outstretched, cantilevered balances wend through the music, played with exquisite sensitivity by Mungunchimeg Buriad and Natal’ya Feygina, and reveal the sometimes mournful, sometimes cavalier, melodies hidden within them.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson went back to the source for the program’s finale, Theme and Variations. Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin starred in this plotless paean to Imperial Ballet. Structured like an extended grand pas de deux and set to Tchaikovsky’s 1884 Suite No. 3 for Orchestra, it sets the central couple loose in a whirl of soloist and corps couples, here costumed by Nicola Benois in azure and aquamarine.
Theme opens so innocently, with a handful of tendus and perfectly closed fifth positions. It’s mercilessly technical from there on, a riot of sissones, double tours, pirouettes and a can-can’s worth of kicks – all done to one side and then the other. Kochetkova and Nedvigine are both Bolshoi trained, and they can’t help but bring elegant command and lyrical musicality to the work, as opposed to more Balanchinean off-beat timing. But so much the better – they made it look easy, and they made it look Imperial.
Nedvigin reprises his superb Lensky in Onegin, the final program of the season and his last as a professional dancer; he becomes artistic director of Atlanta Ballet on August 1.