San Francisco Ballet
Program 6, Space Between: Die Toteninsel, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, Björk Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
29 March 2019
Liam Scarlett has great taste in dancers. For the 29 March world premiere of Die Toteninsel, his fourth commission for San Francisco Ballet, the British choreographer chose the lyrical and athletic principal Joseph Walsh and soloist Lauren Strongin, a superb artist who gets far too few featured parts. She was wonderful as Elizabeth in Scarlett’s Frankenstein, an SFB original co-commissioned with Scarlett’s home company, The Royal Ballet; Walsh helped originate the role of Frankenstein. (Walsh and Strongin also happen to be married.)
Dancers with the technical refinement and emotive impact of Strongin and Walsh can make the most abstract of choreography seem bountiful in meaning. They give a major boost to Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead), which transmits a high concept through vague characters. Scarlett’s ballet is inspired by Rachmaninoff’s moody orchestral tone poem Die Toteninsel, itself inspired by Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin’s 1883 image of a skiff ferrying shrouded figures and a coffin to a forbidding islet cemetery.
The dancers enter through an invisible slit in the black backdrop, materializing like specters into David Finn’s murky lighting, accented by the glow of a suspended round panel that’s embedded with bulbs that brighten and dim. Walsh and Strongin seem to be a couple who get drawn into an uneasy triad with Esteban Hernandez, who perhaps represents doom, transformation or a reckoning of some sort.
Hernandez’ forceful presence eventually draws Strongin away from Walsh, and Hernandez becomes her new partner in a scenario reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ In Memory of…. Their agitated pas de deux is a standout, with an oboe solo weaving around Strongin as she splays over Hernandez’s back and retreats into a fetal curl in his arms, around and around and over and over. Scarlett has her bourrée delicately toward Walsh and departs with him, blurring the trio’s relationships and causing more perplexity than mystery.
Scarlett was intrigued by Rachmaninoff’s moody music and its challenging 5/8 time signature, but 27 minutes of adagio tempo gets tedious without enough visual tension. Scarlett’s dynamic chorographic structure helps a lot: a supporting chorus of Dores André, Vitor Luiz and Wei Wang encircle and echo the three leads, and Scarlett plays with solo, duo, trio, quartet and octet combinations. Behind them is a corps of four men and four women.
But outside of Strongin and Hernandez’ climactic duet, the choreography looks conventional—supported arabesques and pirouettes—and hazily referential, like repeated outstretched arms that convey unsourced anguish. In the final moments, Hernandez kneels down and bows to the hovering light disc, implying that all along he’s been the henchman for an electronic overlord.
The triple bill also included the return of Justin Peck’s 2015 Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes and Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, commissioned for SFB’s 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works. Set to the suite from Aaron Copland’s iconic Western score for Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, Peck’s version features fifteen men and one woman in four vignettes. The contemporary choreography celebrates old-fashioned hoe-down glee—high kicks, frolicsome energy, and a dance-off straight off the ranch. You can almost see the wagons circling a campfire.
Hernandez’ hijinks, especially a whimsical wind-down of à la seconde pirouettes, are great fun, and a tender vignette for five men feels like you’re spying on a group of fauns from behind a tree. Carlo Di Lanno and Sofiane Sylve looked uninterested in their duet, and the ensembles need much more unison. And even after seeing Peck’s Rodeo several times, I still find this blissful take on Manifest Destiny unsettling.
Björk Ballet is Pita’s wildly imaginative, erotic and vibrant love letter to the Icelandic singer. It was the surprise smash hit of the Unbound Festival—the opening-night audience started clapping the moment the curtain rose. It’s an iconic tableau: dozens of silver plants hanging from the ceiling and will soon drop to the stage with a crash, and a silver-fringed pixie hops into the scene and flits through the entire ballet.
Maria Kochetkova created the pixie role and defined it with her Russian-ballet-meets-performance-art movement quality and radical curiosity; first-year corps dancers Carmela Mayo has an earthier, more sensuous style and she gamely flung the fringe, but isn’t as innately weird as Kochetkova. Elizabeth Powell took over the sultry pas de deux created by Sarah Van Patten and could dig a lot deeper, as her rendering felt mechanical than lustful. Powell could take a cue from André, whose duet with Luke Ingham to capture the essence of ecstasy on Ecstasy.
Pita’s daring dances and Marco Morante’s spectacular costumes—often little more than strips of ribbon and a facemask—frame the central character of a fisherman, portrayed by Walsh in a tragedy mask. Pita’s fisherman embodies the searching soulfulness of Björk’s music (the playlist includes “All Is Full of Love,” “Hyperballad” and “Frosti,” played in recordings after the orchestra’s live “Overture”), and he finds a tenuous peace when he reels a comedy mask out of the orchestra pit and puts it on backwards. Now doubly masked, he is happy and sad by turns, which is about all a person can ask for.