San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet are two world-class companies notable for continuing to focus on mixed programmes. New pieces enter the repertory every year, from established choreographers and young voices alike. These short, one-act ballets have always been the main canvas on which young choreographers can develop their skills. Indeed, some of the greatest choreographic voices have regarded short work as their cornerstone: from Balanchine’s many masterpieces to some of Ashton’s and MacMillan’s best works. This summer, SFB brought no less than 18 short ballets to Les Etés de la Danse, a three-week festival at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. More than ten choreographers were featured, and half of the creations had been made on the company, with many receiving their European premieres.
The last three days of the festival featured works by Balanchine, MacMillan, Scarlett, Ratmansky, Tómasson, van Manen and Wheeldon. To see these works performed side by side makes for a very interesting experience, as they portray the evolution of modern classical choreography and the links between the leading choreographers of today and masters of the past. The middle duet of Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird, for instance, inherits many of the intricacies in MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux (which found in Sarah Van Patten an extraordinary interpreter), while Helgi Tómasson’s The Fifth Season showed clearly the influence of Balanchine. This neo-classical piece is all about speed, space and precise technique, featuring two couples and a ‘tall girl’ (think Rubies), plus a corps de ballet of 12. Davit Karapetyan made a strong impression with his clean tours and Yuan Yuan Tan was her lyrical self in the Largo, but it was Sofiane Sylve who made a statement of the choreography, revealing both playfulness and strength during the Tango. However, for all of Tómasson’s skill, it seems unfair to measure it against Allegro Brillante, one of those Balanchine creations that condenses the story of classical ballet in a single short work. Here, Maria Kochetkova devoured space, showing us why she has been called a ‘delicate dynamo’. Former POB dancer Mathilde Froustey also demonstrated the confidence she has gained since moving to the Bay.
The differences and similarities between the works by Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky and Liam Scarlett were compelling to observe: Within the Golden Hour is one of my favourite Wheeldon works. There is something very effective in the way he creates moods by using classical vocabulary and then suddenly takes it out of context with more contemporary movements, and opening the body more widely. Even so, there is an underlying feeling that Wheeldon has to work hard at putting together a structure, something which is not apparent in the works of Ratmansky or Scarlett.
Ratmansky in particular – a choreographer whom we greatly admire, and whose works we save all our pennies to travel to see – is never afraid to unleash a big corps de ballet, and part of the fun of watching his pieces is attempting to peel back the layers to see all the detail he puts into a single phrase. If Wheeldon can be thought of as a minimalist at times, Ratmansky is the opposite, and Piano Concerto No 1, the third work of his Shostakovich Trilogy (which Emilia reviewed at its ABT premiere) is a good example. Clearly there is a structure, but there is infinite variety, with flurries of dancers in red and grey, rapidly changing formations. And there’s proof that Ratmansky never shies away from a wow moment if he can have it: why have just one blazing grand jeté when you can have four?
Scarlett’s Hummingbird sits comfortably somewhere in the middle. His natural ability to create beautiful things with the corps de ballet is in evidence here, with duets coming together before disintegrating into solos or condensing into trios. This is not unlike Ratmansky, but where the latter pushes for more, Scarlett stays restrained. There’s also the legacy of MacMillan’s “pashmina” pas de deux and the suggestion of a narrative, which always emerges from even his most abstract ballets. Scarlett gives this all a great shot, with Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham bringing dramatic tension to a duet built around events that are left unsaid. The formulaic Philip Glass music, however, proves limiting, and the third section feels disconnected from the main body of the piece.
Performing 18 works over three weeks is an almost superhuman artistic endeavour, and one would certainly not expect everything to pass without a hitch. But even then, it was disappointing to find unexpected changes to the programmes at curtain-up. Injuries happen, of course, but swapping full works for others at the very last minute was a bit inconsiderate to an audience that was counting on specific ballets. Tómasson has assembled a company of outstanding dancers at all levels, so it is hard to believe that no one could have stepped up. But this somewhat sour note didn’t, in the end, detract from the fact that SFB did something special here, which companies around the world would do well to try to emulate.