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May 2023

 

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 SF Ballet ~ The Colors of Dance    

Renate Stendhal

The final contemporary program of the season was divided in the usual threesome: First Helgi Tomasson, followed by Myles Thatcher with a world première, then William Forsythe.

Tomasson, Seven For Eight

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This piece by the retired artistic director of SF Ballet is one of his finest
neo-classical choreographies. Created in 2004, it has appeared frequently on the program (reviewed in these pages). Set to seven short extracts from Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions, it presents an elegant structure for eight dancers: each segment focuses on a couple, a trio, two couples, a solo, another pas de deux and finally, the ensemble. Having watched the numerous group choreographies of this season's Next@90 Festival of new works, the effect of a ballet that consists of "solo turns" was refreshing. The movements have a beautiful, understated fluidity throughout, with some emotional depth and some playfulness, all danced with superb lines by the cast.

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Yuan Yuan Tan, the prima ballerina assoluta of SF Ballet, has danced the two romantic pas de deux from the moment of their creation, and she is still incomparable in her lyrical, highly musical grace, her thrilling extensions and her long, expressive feet. She was tenderly partnered by Aaron Robison. Also outstanding was Max Cauthorn in a solo of leaps and turns. The beauty of the piece was enhanced by the costumes: everyone dressed in black, the skirts thigh-length – another touch of high-style understatement. The enthusiastic applause confirmed that classy neo -classical ballet, several generations after Balanchine, can still excite.

Myles Thatcher, Colorforms

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Myles Thatcher, a young soloist and one of SF Ballet's "own" choreographers, supplied the title of the soir√©e with his short ballet film Colorforms from 2021, directed by Ezra Hurwitz. That year, in the middle of Covid lock-down, Thatcher had the inspired idea of taking a group of ten dancers (partly corps members) out into SF MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and into the Californian redwoods --  to let loose, gambol, and find a fresh footing. The result was an enchanting romp in exquisite colors with contemplative moments of quiet – a golden Gingko tree on the museum roof, a dancer in a window sketching the tree, faces in closeup, bodies in repose on a museum bench, and the beauty of paper airplanes in flight.

Colorforms Film
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Bringing  this cornucopia to the limited space of the stage was of course a challenge and the ballet suffered by comparison. Lost was the poetry of contemplation, the vast breath of nature, the closer focus on personalities. The continuous ensemble romp with outbreaks of solos, pas de deux or sub groups seemed flattened by the abstract space and did not evoke the same emotion. Even Steve Reich's Variations for Vibes, Strings and Piano with their repetitive dissonances seemed to have lost some of their drive.

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Thatcher's initial inspiration for Colorforms had been Calder's gigantic mobiles at SF MOMA. In interviews he talked about his fascination with the connectivity between all pieces of the mobile and their reverberations when you touched any one element. He transposed this symbol of connection particularly well in the daisy chains: with all the dancers linked through their arms, their movement impulses vibrated and beautifully rippled through the group.

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In the film version, a huge picture frame placed in the redwoods had a stunning effect of contrasting the immobility of the group and trees in the frame with the energy of one dancer (the graceful soloist Jasmine Jimison) breaking through the nature/culture boundary. Onstage, the effect of the frame was lukewarm. Still, the fundamental theme of community connection came across and, with its feast of colors, had a seductive playfulness. Thatcher's easy mix of everyday moves and at times jazzy contemporary styles was highlighted through the charming costume changes --  from hip everyday garb and chic sneakers to diverse classroom attires and pointe shoes. The ten dancers were all impeccable and clearly enjoyed each other and themselves as much as the audience did.

William Forsythe, Blake Works I

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I was eager to see Blake Works I (from 2016) since an excerpt was presented at the opening gala in December: a pas de deux set to a moody pop songs by British singer/songwriter James Blake. The fluid naturalness of the relationship between the dancers (Nikisha Fogo and Isaac Hernandez ), the constant inventiveness of the steps and musical phrases revealed the master of contemporary ballet, William Forsythe.

Blake Works pas de deux
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Forsythe (born in 1949) is familiar to the company thanks to Helgi Tomasson's invitation of major works by the choreographer over the years. To name a few: in the middle, slightly elevated, followed by The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and Artifact Suite (reviewed in these pages). Every one of these works was a milestone in the adventurous development of what one might call post-post-Balanchine vocabulary. Forsythe's style fascinated and influenced the ballet world with daring off -balances, point-counterpoint "combat" moves, extreme leg extensions and neck-breaking speed, often set to Thom Willems's electronic, hammering beat.

 "Classical ballet is like a tattoo, you can't rub it off," Forsythe said in an interview. With his evening-length Blake Works from 2016 he has made a slight u-turn from the edge of experimentation. He seems to embrace and re-color the tattoo in a neo-classicism that brilliantly confirms him as the Balanchine of our time.

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Seven songs from James Blake's album The Color in Anything set very different moods from tender, aching yearning to propulsive explosions of electronic beat. The twenty-six dancers showcased their relaxed virtuosity in Forsythe's demanding speed and sophisticated, often syncopated phrases. Watching excerpts from other top ballet companies doing the same pieces, I found that SF Ballet stands out as one of the best.

Forsythe is also a musician – another parallel with Balanchine – and also has his hand in every element of the performance, costumes, stage sets and lights. Forsythe's group movements never seem chaotic or losing a firm structural pull. He achieves this with rhythmically recurring steps and prominent arm movements that continuously reestablish a group cohesion. Seeing large groups of dancers in turbulent moves – especially in Blake's "I Hope I'm Right" – while they still keep a marked structure transparent, is the kind of aesthetic pleasure that language revolutionary Gertrude Stein would have called "peaceful and exciting."

It is also pure Balanchine.

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A high point was once again the pas de deux. Set to Blake's dreamy title song "The color in everything," it was performed by Julia Rowe and Esteban Hernandez who rendered the intricate steps with such ease and charm that the audience seemed spell-bound. The ballet convention of the pas de deux, the male-female partnering that can so easily be a yawning bore, was reinvented by Forsythe into something brand-new and hard to define. Certainly, there were all the steps of the canon but in Forsythe's handling you forgot that you had ever seen them before.

 

All photos SF Ballet Lindsay Thomas 

 

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Renate Stendhal , Ph.D. (www.renatestendhal.com) is a writer, writing coach and interpersonal counselor based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes. She has published several books, among them the award-winning photo biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, and most recently the award-winning Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir. Her articles and essays have appeared intenationally. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other reviews and articles:, check the Archives.

©2023 Renate Stendhal
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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