Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Ambitious ballet


San Francisco Ballet dancers Dores Andre and Aaron Robison in Arthur Pita's Salome. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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Big events are crowding each other out as we reach the peak of the Bay Area's dance season. Two ambitious mixed bills alternate at San Francisco Ballet through this Sunday at the Opera House, while last weekend Cristal Pite's dance company Kidd Pivot from Canada outdanced anything I've seen at the ballet, at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

Her show Betroffenheit, like the much-anticipated Salome at the ballet, revolved around drug-induced frenzy, but her dancers floated in a magical way, like figures in a dream or nightmare in the process of detoxing from an addiction. The choreography boasted extended passages of magnificently sustained phrases supported by powerful movement logic. The suffering depicted was hard to bear, but I'm not sorry I went.

It's with a heavy heart that your reporter confides that Arthur Pita's Salome, the big new item on SFB's contemporary Program 5, is a terrible ballet that shoots its wad with the very first effect, when a limo as long as the Ritz rolls onto the stage and various expensive-looking people get out and prepare for vicarious thrills. They're going to drug up a hot ingenue (Dores Andre) and feed her some sexual gladiators fetched from the set of Blade Runner . But though the sex-slaves are hunky and abject, and the one who gets chosen (Aaron Robison) is as hunky as one of Martha Graham's back-up men, the choreography has no movement logic, no force in phrasing, nothing but some opportunities to display some well-developed shoulders, thighs, throats. It would have taken me a whole bottle of poppers to make up for the lack of significant phrasing and the bathos that this inept spectacle kept falling into.

The limo was fabulous, but the potion was downhill from there. When Salome (Dores Andre) drank her Mickey Finn, I didn't believe it for a minute. That's not what my drug experiences have been like, when my libido suddenly went into orbit. It was like a porno with condoms. Extra violence to amp up excitement when there's not much actual erotic feeling at play. Much pasting of pelvis to pelvis, front and back, and also to the face, sometimes done with the force of a jump, where the legs go like a tuning fork past the body of the guy. British sex: you know what they're talking about, but it just didn't seem sensuous enough to qualify as sex.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's Diamonds. Photo: Erik Tomasson

There were some great production values. Colored feathers got shot out of guns and filled the stage-picture. But they did this over and over, perhaps as blackouts between scenes, but they didn't have that effect. The tone was all over the place. The poor sexual gladiators brought for the subject to choose from looked so abject, with their shoulders pinching the collarbones, I couldn't get into it. All the men of SF Ballet would look wonderful in their birthday suits, but I don't like watching anybody cringe. No offense to the leather community: I'd like to know what Mr. Marcus would have said, and I do hope John Karr will post an opinion.

The ballerina Dores Andre did not convince me, despite the way her legs snaked out from under her long red dress and hooked themselves over the victim's shoulders, or around his waist, always like tentacles pulling the creature towards her "nether mouth."

But we'd seen all this earlier in the week, in Balanchine's Prodigal Son, starring Joseph Walsh as the youth and Sofiane Sylve as the Siren who feeds on his soul. Both were making their debuts in the roles. Both were wonderful in this Biblical tale of the youth who ran away from home and "wasted his substance in riotous living." In every case, the application of clitoris to pubic bone, or the top of the head, or around the waist, was done better by Balanchine back in 1929 – and to much better music, by Serge Prokofiev, who, incidentally, had expected something more genteel than the frank sexual acrobatics Balanchine employed, and hated it.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in Liam Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries. Photo: Erik Tomasson

The whole Balanchine Program 4 is worth seeing. The stylized folk dancing of Stravinsky Violin Concerto, danced to an acerbic score from 1931, is buoyant at the highest levels. The arias, despite the scrubbed, anti-sentimental clarity of their knotty phrases, are in fact full of emotion – grief. The piece was choreographed after Stravinsky's death in tribute to him. The finale is the dance equivalent of a wake, where everyone gets drunk and tells stories. It's hilarious, kvelling with love for the man whose music put the kick in the chicken. Diamonds ends that program with magnificent display of dance-counterpointe. The cheap seats upstairs are best for this one, you'll want to see the interlocking trajectories.

Program 5 is saved by Liam Scarlett's wonderful setting of John Adams' Fearful Symmetries, a big work for many dancers to a hugely rhythmic score that's filled with heroic dancing, especially from Joseph Walsh, Jennifer Stahl, Max Cauthorne, Frances Chung ,Vitor Luiz, Lorena Feijoo, Isabella De Vivo, James Sofranko, and Wei Wang – wonderful performances from all of them, and they are dancers you could go round the world to see.


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