San Francisco Ballet
Contemporary Voices: Fusion, Salome, Fearful Symmetries
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
9 March 2017
When San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson commissioned Arthur Pita for the 2017 season, it’s unlikely that he expected the outcome: a black stretch limo rolling in from the wings, gangsters in black suits herding nearly naked male captives to center stage, a drug-addled Salome dancing John the Baptist to his doom.
That’s Pita’s Salome in a nutshell, and to Tomasson’s eternal credit, he went with it. Perhaps Tomasson was sanguine in the hours leading up to the Thursday, March 7, opening night, but it’s easy to imagine jitters: This production was an enormous gamble. If the Ballet has ever done anything this risky, I can’t name it; Damned, Yuri Possokhov’s 2002 treatment of the Medea story, was as intense dramatically but more midcentury-modern in its storytelling style. Pita’s Salome is pure postmodern dance-theater, and a five-star surprise on the Opera House stage.
Pita looked to Oscar Wilde’s Salome for inspiration for the 37-minute work, but took further liberties than Wilde did. Keeping the biblical temptress as the central character, Pita throws in David Lynch’s cinematic surrealism and Sunset Boulevard’s Salome-obsessed Norma Desmond to create a Grand Guignol spectacle that’s Blue Velvet, The Rite of Spring and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls rolled into one marvelously entertaining package.
On opening night, Val Caniparoli was the ice-cold capo Herod while Anita Paciotti was his murderous moll Herodias, wearing a cocktail dress in acidic envy green. It is her daughter, Salome’s, birthday, and when Dores André emerges from the limousine in her sheer red gown, she receives a cake and a toasting glass filled with an elixir that glows like absinthe.
Bathed in stage fog and the limo’s headlights, the stage suggests a remote desert, perhaps outside Las Vegas; the kind of place where screams won’t be heard and discarded bodies will go undetected. Into this desolate scene, Herod’s henchmen bring seven shrouded, filth-smeared male hostages.
Confetti bombs explode on both sides of the stage, and colorful papers drift through the air like acid trails. As the erotic hallucinogen takes effect, Salome begins to dance. Pita may or may not have had the impending 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in mind.
Herodias chooses John the Baptist, Aaron Robison on opening night, as the one who is to die, and Salome sets on him, by turns seducing and strangling him. André and Robison were a lioness and a gladiator, pitted in a dance battle from which only Salome will emerge in one piece. Both dancers seem to instinctively grasp Pita’s choreography, which is decadent and guttural, stripped of all extraneous movement and morally ambiguous.
André’s red chiffon dress barely shrouds her body as she whips the men – representing Wilde’s seven veils – into a primal frenzy. The tempo builds slowly (at times too slowly), and stillness says as much as momentum here. André gives herself completely to it, rolling in the growing piles of confetti, slithering and crawling over the men, and smearing her dress with dirt from their bodies. When Salome crashes from her drug-induced high, André’s eyes reveal a distant dawning that she has been used as a weapon of destruction. No matter, apparently; she shakes it off and gets back into the limo.
Pita brought his frequent creative collaborators into the mix. Frank Moon’s atmospheric and percussive original score lays a filmic foundation from which everything springs. Yann Seabra’s simple sets and costumes do exactly enough to delineate the scene and characters. Local lighting wizard Jim French suffused the stage with jewel hues.
There were two other pieces on the bill, not that anyone noticed. Possokhov’s 2008 Fusion transitions from Dervish-inspired turns and port de bras to contemporary ballet and back again. Lorena Feijoo, Lauren Strongin, Frances Chung and Yuan Yuan Tan are the links between East and West, passing between four Dervish men and four contemporary men in flurries of footwork, balance-testing pointe work and hip shimmies. The music by Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman is a tad too New Jazz to have an edge, but cross-cultural choreography has symbolic resonance in the current political climate.
The Burning Man aesthetic and hip-thrusting choreography of Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries, commissioned by SF Ballet for the 2016 season, gains nothing on second viewing. This year’s casting did give a deserving showcase to rising corps dancers Jahna Frantziskonis, Max Cauthorn and Esteban Hernandez; they and the rest of the strong cast elevated the work. John Adams’ relentless score nodded to the beloved San Francisco composer’s 70th birthday, on February 15.