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BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers

SFB's intoxicating new program is available for streaming through May 12th

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight
(L to R) Taras Domitro, Gennadi Nedvigin, Lonnie Weeks & Tiit Helimets

The latest offering of San Francisco Ballet's 2021 Digital Season shows off the wondrous artistry of the company's dancing more than anything. This mixed rep program of 3 very different ballets originally made on the company provides a dazzling showcase for the dancers' versatility, technique and musicality.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
Yuan Yuan Tan (L) and Tiit Helimets (R) in Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight

Program 05 opens with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight, set to the enchanting keyboard concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach. Tomasson made the piece back in 2004, and it was an instant sensation. If anything, the ballet has only gotten better with time and remains in my opinion the best work Tomasson has made to date. It bears the hallmarks of his choreographic approach at its finest - which is to choose gorgeous music and then match it with movement that shows off the individual talents of his remarkable dancers. The movement here is elegant and understated, punctuated by brief bursts of bravura to keep the energy pulsing throughout. It's not the kind of choreography that's going to set the world on fire, but when dance is executed this well, it's just insanely pleasurable to watch. After the trials of this past year, I can't think of a better tonic to lift our collective spirits.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
Gennadi Nedvigin (L) and Lonnie Weeks (R)
in Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight

The structure of 7 for Eight couldn't be simpler - it's just a chamber ballet for eight dancers set to seven different Bach tunes. Each of the seven pieces is a gem, with the dancers seeming to glide effortlessly on the surface of the music. Luckily for us, this performance was captured back in January 2016 with an ideal cast, including some phenomenal dancers who have since retired. What a joy it is to once again experience the wonders of Gennadi Nedvigin, with his clean line, supple phrasing and impossibly high jumps. Or Vanessa Zahorian, with her fresh, buoyant technique that gives the impression she is responding in the moment to the music. The ballet also includes one of Tomasson's patented set pieces for the exquisite Yuan Yuan Tan, in this instance expertly partnered by Tiit Helimets. The two breathe and move as one in a pas de deux that is suffused with pathos, at once sweet, sad and beguiling. Perhaps the most affecting part of the ballet comes in the 4th movement with an unusual duet for Nedvigin and Lonnie Weeks. Both men are refined and graceful in a beautifully tender dance without any of the usual clichés for male dancers - no roughhousing, no macho one-upmanship, no vaguely implied romance. Just two superb male dancers alternately mirroring and complementing each other. I can't recall ever seeing a dance quite like it.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
San Francisco Ballet in Cathy Marston's Snowblind

The middle ballet on the program is Cathy Marston's Snowblind, based on the Edith Wharton novella Ethan Frome and made for SFB's Unbound Festival in 2018, which is when this performance was captured. The narrative sticks to basics of the book - a New England farmer stuck in a loveless marriage falls for the young woman hired to help his sickly wife, before tragedy inevitably ensues amidst a winter snowstorm. In tackling "Frome," Marston has set herself up with two significant choreographic challenges that she unfortunately fails to meet - how to devise compelling movement for a leading character who is seriously ill and often bedbound, and how to allow her dancers their full range of movement if dressed in the bulky costumes that would be appropriate for the wintry climate. In both instances, Marston basically just fudges it. The movement rarely feels particularly illustrative of, or specific to, the characters. And the chic, sleeveless costumes seem entirely out of place for rustic folk surviving a harsh winter. The saving grace here is the dancing, which is as good as the choreography allows for. The leading trio of Ulrik Birkkjaer and Sarah Van Patten as the married couple and Mathilde Froustey as the woman who comes between them all dance with commitment and passion without ever descending into mawkishness. But given the paucity of choreographic imagination, the ballet wears out its welcome long before it comes to its drawn-out denouement.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
(L to R) Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer & Mathilde Froustey
in Cathy Marston's Snowblind

The Program 05 closer, David Dawson's curiously-titled Anima Animus, was also made for the 2018 Unbound Festival, and this one's thankfully a winner. Working with the nervously pulsating music of contemporary Italian composer Ezio Bossi, Dawson takes the standard 3-movement, fast-slow-fast neoclassical ballet structure, and pushes it to its limits, requiring an attack and all-out commitment from his dancers that is thrilling to witness. The movement is fierce and gutsy, and the design is stark with its eight black-and-white-clad dancers lit in Caravaggesque chiaroscuro against a blinding white backdrop. They shimmer and sparkle one moment then morph into silhouette the next as they bound across the stage.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
Sofiane Sylve in David Dawson's Anima Animus

The performance features another peerless cast, this time centered around the amazing Sofiane Sylve and Maria Kochetkova. They are an intriguingly mismatched pair as the stately Sylve typically exudes regal stillness and the tiny spitfire Kochetkova excels at dizzying spins and classical bravura. The thing the ballerinas do have in common, though, is that they both seem most alive when tackling contemporary, off-kilter, go-for-broke choreography, and here they're given a feast of it that they tear into with relish. Another enormous pleasure of this cast is the equally improbable pairing of the diminutive Russian Kochetkova and the lanky American Henry Sidford. Somehow, they meet in the middle and bring out the best in each other, a la Astaire and Rodgers. He gives her an understated elegance; she gives him a wild abandon. Whatever it is that's going on between them, it's a smashing partnership.

BWW Review: PROGRAM 05 at San Francisco Ballet Highlights the Talents of Its Superb Dancers
Henry Sidford holds Maria Kochetkova aloft
in David Dawson's Anima Animus

The only aspect of Anima Animus that disappoints is that it is the one ballet on the program that suffers noticeably from the video format. Its overall impact is somewhat diminished compared with the experience of seeing it live onstage. The full range of the lighting extremes cannot be fully captured on camera, and this is also a ballet where it is critical to be able to view the entire stage picture at all times. We need to be able to see how valiantly its eight dancers take the stage against the vast white expanse that constantly threatens to engulf them. Even captured on video, though, it's still a pretty thrilling ballet. All of which is to say - SFB please, please, please bring Anima Animus back once the company resumes in-person performances! I'll be there with bells on.

(All photos by Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet's Digital Program 05 is available for streaming through May 12, 2021. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415)865-2000.


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From This Author Jim Munson