As we prepare to welcome San Francisco Ballet to London, we have below – thanks to dance writer Laura Cappelle (aka @bellafigural on Twitter) – a report on the Company’s recent Hamburg tour, where some of the works to be showcased at Sadler’s Wells next month were on offer:
Is it the sea air? Together Hamburg and San Francisco boast the longest-serving artistic directors in the ballet world, John Neumeier and Helgi Tomasson, two choreographers who have been at the head of their respective companies for over a quarter of a century. The comparison could stop there: for decades Hamburg Ballet’s cerebral brand of storytelling and San Francisco’s large repertoire of plotless works promoted wildly different visions of ballet.
However, the two companies have found common ground over the past few years, and the resulting cross-pollination has been fruitful for both cities, with more and more performances of Neumeier ballets stateside and San Francisco Ballet’s first tour to Hamburg at the end of June.
These performances were part of Neumeier’s annual Ballet-Days Festival and seeing the local audience warm to a company entirely new to them proved to be an unexpected treat. I heard a German regular admit that San Francisco Ballet’s “American style” took some adjusting to, particularly in a city that sees few tours by ballet companies, but as their second show progressed, polite attention turned into genuine enthusiasm in the auditorium. Work after work, the dancers were greeted with more anticipation; it was one of “those evenings” in the theatre, a testament to San Francisco’s strength and depth both in terms of repertoire and roster.
The triple bill started with Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, a supremely elegant work in seven movements for eight soloists. Set to Bach and firmly in the tradition of the abstract series of Pas de Deux and soli, it blends classicism, musicality and poetry. Sarah Van Patten embodies the mysterious, elusive quality of Tomasson’s choreography in the first movement and, much like the heroine of Balanchine’s Diamonds, there is a sense of unfulfilled yearning as she neglects to take her partner’s hand several times, her moonlit face beautifully serene. 7 for Eight also shows San Francisco’s men at their very best, virtuosic and as sculptural as the women. Every showy manège is interspersed with subdued lyrical moments; one male duo, all suspended lines, has the delicacy of a conversation between princes.
The next offering, Yuri Possokhov’s RakU, is one of those works where everything comes together – music, sets, costumes, choreography – to tell a story so impeccably that any weaknesses are soon forgotten. You don’t need to know much about the actual plot, based on the burning of Kyoto’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion in 1950, to be drawn into this 30-minute work; the stunning Noh-inspired imagery, the video projections onto towering sets combined with effective choreography build the tension until the harrowing finale. San Francisco Ballet commissioned the score from a member of their Orchestra, Shinji Eshima, and it contributes to RakU’s austere sense of drama and honour, a reflection on Japanese culture that rarely feels forced and yields extraordinary moments of stillness.
This 2011 work, which features seven dancers, including a chorus of four sword-wielding warriors, is also an outstanding vehicle for one of the company’s Principals, Chinese star Yuan Yuan Tan. It is genuinely hard to imagine anyone else in the role; her slight frame and flexibility seem to promise a music box ballerina, but from her first appearance, standing still in heavy traditional clothes, she projects a mix of intensity and restraint true to the Japanese character. The sinuous shape she gives to her endless lines adds depth to the choreography, particularly in the pas de deux with the monk who assaults her and with the husband, who dies in war. Clearly unafraid of looking weird or ugly, she throws herself into the strange shapes Possokhov designed for her, her fingers increasingly tense and odd, a bird with broken wings as she reaches for the sabre brought to her along with ashes of the dead husband.
The weakest link in the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s Pas de Deux from Continuum, a fine showcase for French amazon Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo but hardly more than an afterthought between RakU and Within The Golden Hour. The latter, set to Ezio Bosso and Vivaldi, conversely ranks as perhaps one of Wheeldon’s very best works. There is an inevitability to the choreography that sets it apart in his repertoire: his “golden hour” feels suspended in time, with the dancers moving like exotic creatures on a hot summer day, their movements alternatively quirky and languid. Leitmotifs abound: limbs folded for the dancers to hide or rest behind, lifts where the women seem to suspend in the air, steps taken as if underwater.
The costumes are appropriately unique, but the women’s low-cut unitards and overlaid colourful bras aren’t exactly flattering. The three central Pas de Deux highlight the San Francisco dancers’ versatility and Sarah Van Patten is arresting again in her duo with Pierre-François Vilanova, luxuriating in back bends or tilts forward while her partner holds her foot, as if ready to swim away. Another number, for Vanessa Zahorian and Rubén Martín Cintas, is all quirky tango moves, flexed feet and playful partnering. Elsewhere the pixie-like Maria Kochetkova, known in England from her years with The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, brings Russian lyricism to Wheeldon’s abstract drama.
Within The Golden Hour weaves those characters into an unusually coherent whole and ends on a striking image – a group of dancers with locked arms shuffling back and forth as one – that triggered an instant ovation from the Hamburg audience. Few companies can boast so many tailor-made neoclassical pieces in their current repertoire, and to have three (and a half, with Continuum) in one excellent triple bill is quite a statement for San Francisco Ballet, the kind of show of confidence that ballet needs more of.
Laura Cappelle lives in France and writes about dance for a number of print and online publications, including the Financial Times, Pointe Magazine and Dansomanie. She also regularly blogs at Bella Figura.
Follow Laura on Twitter: @bellafigural