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BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be

The smashing 2nd program of SF Ballet's 2021 Digital Season is available for streaming through March 4th

BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be
Cavan Conley lifts Esteban Hernandez in Myles Thatcher's COLORFORMS
(Image courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

San Francisco Ballet just released the second program of its 2021 digital season and it's a knockout. The mixed-rep program of 3 very different contemporary ballets beautifully shows off the breadth and depth of the company's artistry. Watching it, I kept saying to myself, "God, they're good!" The headliner of the program is COLORFORMS, a stunning world premiere by Myles Thatcher, but more on that later. First up, I want to talk about the other two ballets, both wonderful, so they don't get lost in the mix.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be
Angelo Greco & Frances Chung in
Dwight Rhoden's LET'S BEGIN AT THE END
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

The program opens with Dwight Rhoden's alluringly enigmatic LET'S BEGIN AT THE END, created in 2018 for SFB's "Unbound" new works festival, during which this performance was recorded live. Seeing it almost three years later, I was struck by how perfectly the video captures the heightened energy and excitement of that festival. The level of commitment and focus by every dancer onstage is palpable as they strive to make the best possible case for this new ballet. Beginning in silence as Frances Chung and Angelo Greco dance a brief, tempestuous pas de deux, the orchestra then comes in with music both classic and modern by J.S. Bach, Michael Nyman and Phillip Glass. The music gives the ballet a sort of nervous energy that creates a through line for the multitude of shifting group dances, duets and solos that comprise most of the ballet before it comes to a close with a heartbreaking, extended pas deux, again for Chung & Greco, that echoes and expands on the opening one. This time it is set to solo piano, and clearly depicts the inevitable end of a fraught romantic relationship. It is danced with heart-rending tenderness and tempestuous conflict as the pair struggle unsuccessfully to find common ground.

Then again, the dancing by the entire cast is a terrific match for Rhoden's movement throughout the ballet - at once fierce and elegant, spiky and sinuous. What a pleasure it is to see Sasha De Sola, known for her impossibly graceful line in classical roles, get a chance to throw herself into a more angular, contemporary role. She dances with a bold attack that seems new for her, and she is perfectly matched by partner Benjamin Freemantle. If the overall arc of the piece seems a bit muddled at times, it ultimately doesn't matter when a ballet is this engaging and danced this well. This is the first piece Rhoden has made on SFB, and I sincerely hope it will not be his last.

The program closes with a reprise of Mark Morris' effervescent Sandpaper Ballet, set to a suite of classic mid-20th century earworms by Leroy Anderson. His eternal chestnut "Sleigh Ride" serves as a sort of impertinently unseasonal overture before the curtain rises on 25 dancers, aligned in a perfect 5x5 grid. Designer Isaac Mizrahi has dressed them all in lime-green bodysuits with blue and white cloudy-sky crop tops, giving the dancers a look that is at once chic, a little off-kilter, and vaguely amphibian as they romp through a cavalcade of breezily inventive tunes. Whenever it seems the high spirits may be getting out of hand and that chaos is about to descend - snap! - the dancers instantly and magically return to their home positions in the 5x5 grid at song's end. The overall effect of Sandpaper is akin to watching a loopy dance troupe from a 1960's TV variety show - if it had just happened to be choreographed with endless invention.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be
San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris' Sandpaper Ballet
(photo by Erik Tomasson)

This performance was captured live in 2020 and largely features members of the corps de ballet, giving each of these team players their own moment to shine at some point. Kudos to the entire cast, but I have to give special mention to Cavan Conley for his pristine, light-as-air solo in "A Trumpeter's Lullaby." I have seen Sandpaper dozens of times, and I've never seen that solo danced with such clean articulation and buoyant musicality.

In between the Rhoden and Morris ballets, Program 2 takes a sharp detour into what is likely be the most remarked-upon piece of the program, the world premiere of Myles Thatcher's COLORFORMS. The piece was created during Covid specifically for a video format, and Thatcher has risen to the occasion by working within what could be seen as limitations to create a dance that feels both beguilingly contemporary and utterly timeless.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be
San Francisco Ballet in Myles Thatcher's COLORFORMS
(image courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

Shot in a variety of locations, including the galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that morph into color-saturated dance studios, and a final gambol through Golden Gate Park, the ballet is a riot of color and unexpected transitions, rife with allusions to our collective cultural history. As the dancers cavort throughout SFMOMA in contemporary footwear, delighting in making this sacred space their own, they could be in a Jerome Robbins sneaker ballet. When they magically switch from street clothes into ballet attire, it calls to mind Gene Kelly slipping into a Paris streetscape only to find himself in a fantasy ballet. The final sequence where the dancers are transported to a majestic redwood grove echoes the plea from West Side Story that, even in a world gone horribly awry, surely somewhere there's a place for us.

Of course, none of this would register if it weren't captured so dazzlingly and imaginatively by film artist Ezra Hurwitz (who BTW is the husband of former SFB principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia). Hurwitz' choice of camera angles and quick edits intensifies the energy of the choreography, instead of diminishing it as so often happens with dance on film. This clearly was a close collaboration with Thatcher as they know just when to retreat a bit from the saturated colors and when to bump them up again, when to jump cut through a progression of angular movements and when to focus on a spare, still image in almost Zenlike fashion. I'll admit that I was so enjoying the sections set at SFMOMA that I was initially a bit taken aback when the ballet goes on a final flight of fancy into Golden Gate Park. And then I got it. Of course! The one, really the only, place that we San Franciscans can currently still move around with any sense of abandon, where we can refresh our spirits, is in the abundant nature that is woven throughout our city.

I don't think I've ever seen the SFB dancers look as unabashedly joyous as they do in COLORFORMS. I also don't think they've ever been allowed to be so much themselves. Just take in the sheer delight of Esteban Hernandez and Cavan Conley engaging in a playful, tag-team duet. Or the delicious way Ulrik Birkjjaer and Sasha De Sola surreptitiously cruise each other while pretending to look at some art before engaging in a serendipitous romantic fantasy. Or how Jasmine Jimison gently wafts in the breeze, mirroring the undulations of the golden gingko tree behind her. Those are just a few fleeting highlights; everyone in the cast of 10 has moments of distinction. The ballet ends with the dancers disappearing into the depths of a redwood forest. It feels like an escape from of our troubled times and a promise of restoration yet to come, a day when Covid will be just a distant memory.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 02 at San Francisco Ballet Shows How Thrilling Contemporary Dance Can Be
The full cast of Myles Thatcher's COLORFORMS
(image courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

Program 02 of San Francisco Ballet's digital season is available for streaming through March 4, 2021. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415)865-2000.


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