BWW Review: San Francisco Ballet Dazzles at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: San Francisco Ballet Dazzles at Kennedy Center

As if to prove that the American Ballet scene isn't solely centered on the East Coast, the esteemed San Francisco Ballet commissioned twelve new works that it premiered this spring in its Unbound Festival.

When the company came to Washington for its biennial stop at the Kennedy Center this fall, it couldn't even pack all 12 pieces with them. Instead, six were chosen, only to be divided once more into two programs of East Coast premieres that have been performed in repertoire to rapt audiences all week.

The second of them, Program B, made its debut Thursday night with a rich accompaniment of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra conducted by Martin West. Each work showed the bursting talent of the ensemble as well as the accomplished work of the soloists in creative works that provided new directions for the company and for the choreographers.

Two had choreographed for the company previously. Edwaard Liang's opener "The Infinite Ocean" showed variations on mortality in a world that seemed tinged in peach colors from a large moon in the stark constructivist set by Alexander V. Nichols, which also featured a sharp incline toward the horizon.

This is the demarkation of the "infinite ocean" between life and the hereafter, according to Liang, the artistic director of BalletMet. As such there is hesitation and some scores to settle before taking that leap, particularly in the couples' dances.

The pas de deux of principal dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets particularly riveting especially as their entertaining brought together some movements that hadn't quite been seen previously on this stage, as when through sheer strength and poise she pulls up flat flips over the leg of a kneeling Heilmets, from a crouching curl.

How to top that? How about a backflip into the beyond?

The piece was animated by the crisp performance of the Glass-like piece of music by Oliver Davis, a dazzling showcase for San Francisco Ballet Orchestra violinist Cordial Merks, who joined the dancers at the curtain for a bow.

Music by Amy Beach, Arthur Foote and Arvo Pärt, arranged by Philip Feeney, was used for the second piece by choreographer Cathy Marston, "Snowblind," her first for the company. The stark and stunning adaptation of a literary piece, Ethan Wharton's 1911 novella "Ethan Frome" had Ulrik Birkkjaer in the title role, a conflicted and aching farmer caught in a triangle. Sarah Van Patten was all angles and anguish as his sickly wife, and Mathilde Proustey a standout as their hired maid, not only because she was the only one in the piece to wear pink in a field of dour earth-tones.

Even the snowflakes of the piece's title were brownish like dragonfly wings, as if they had picked up dust as they tumbled along the prairie. The snow on stage and in the backdrops in Patrick Kinmoth's set (he also did costume design) only emphasized the feeling of isolation and imprisonment in the forlorn farmhouse.

Marston drew a lot of emotion from the dancers, often performing in groups of farmlands or neighbors, in clusters away from the light and the principal dancers.

Using an orchestration that stripped down to piano solo (from Mungunchimeg Buriad), it was a fully realized and affecting literary adaptation.

When there's a fully capable orchestra (and conductor) on hand for a full night of ballet, it's a bit of a disappointment to dismiss them for the third piece. Choreographer Justin Peck's "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" relied instead on the recorded music of the French electronic music outfit M83 (after whose Grammy-nominated 2011 album the piece is named).

As tinny as it sounded, comparatively, the workout clothes look of the costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harried Jung) lent to a more casual approach overall to the work (if not the sneakers). With less of the precision and sharpness evident from the other pieces, there also seemed to be a lot of simple walking around, as if they were sleepwalking instead of merely dreaming.

Still, the selection of such an approach demonstrated how Helgi Thomasson, the artistic director and principal choreographer, is willing to constantly try new things to best showcase the country's oldest ballet company and its remarkably international troupe.

Running time: Two and a half hours, with two intermissions.

Photo credit: From top, Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston's "Snowblind" by the San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

The San Francisco Ballet presented six premieres from "Unbound: A Festival of New Works" Oct. 23-28 at the Kennedy center. Information on future dance programs available online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

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