Dance review: San Francisco Ballet at the Kennedy Center


San Francisco Ballet reinvigorated the mixed bill in a program that had moments both sublime and really quite odd. (Erik Tomasson)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic November 14, 2012

Once upon a time, a ballet commandment reigned upon the waterfront: Thou shalt open thy Kennedy Center engagement with a mixed-repertory program during the slow-selling workweek.

Then, and only then, shalt thou swap out that selection of short works with a more marketable, familiar full-length production for the weekend.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

In recent years, however, more ballet companies are opting out of the “mixed bill,” preferring to offer a single-story ballet and nothing else. This summer saw the Paris Opera Ballet dancing only “Giselle.” Last month, the Mariinsky Ballet’s run was limited to “Cinderella.” In January the National Ballet of Canada will give us 10 performances of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Why the single-product concept over the assorted box-of-chocolates program? Ticket sales. Not surprisingly, many companies are faithful to that cause. To be sure, it’s difficult to argue for an even deeper money-losing proposition; it stands to reason that well-known story ballets sell more tickets than a raft of unfamiliar pieces.

Yet on Tuesday night at the Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet offered a beautifully persuasive defense of the mixed bill — on artistic merits. Which is, after all, the argument that looks best onstage.

More than any single work, what stood out on this program was breadth and the depth of talent. The evening did not rest on the strengths of a single ballerina and a few soloists, as a full-length production might. Instead, here was the proof of a great artistic organization: range and ability. In four vastly different pieces, we saw dancers of all ranks fill the stage with terrific momentum, with speed, energy, a refined finish to the steps and — even better — a shared esthetic. With its range of backgrounds and nationalities, the San Francisco Ballet is nonetheless cohesive. Its members are well rehearsed, technically polished, united even in their lean, ribbony physicality.

Then there was the spread of dance expression on view. None of the four works was familiar. Three were Washington premieres: “Trio,” by artistic director and principal choreographer Helgi Tomasson; “RAkU,” by choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov; and “Number Nine,” by Christopher Wheeldon. All three were created last year.

The evening was rounded out not by some applause-generating chestnut such as “Swan Lake’s” Black Swan pas de deux, but by a curious little twosome by Frederick Ashton, “Voices of Spring.” It’s always refreshing to see the light, unfailingly fluid work by this British master whose works are not danced here nearly often enough. This piece had those qualities, and also Ashton’s cheeky, cheesy side.

Created for a 1977 production of the opera “Die Fledermaus,” it is accompanied by Strauss’s “Frühlingsstimmen” waltz, which might bring to mind visions of the Three Stooges and countless cartoons that have sampled it. I imagine Ashton would welcome those connections; “Voices of Spring” is full of vedy-vedy-grand ballet tropes, exaggerated arm-sweeping preparations, show-offy one-arm lifts, stage-filling leaps and more leaps. Difficult balances and swift combinations were sprinkled in. Also sprinkled, with a heavy dose of humor: flower petals, scattered by Maria Kochetkova while soaring in the arms of her partner, Joan Boada. Their vigor was remarkable, but jarring at times, when a softer buoyancy was called for.

For larger-scale overkill, there was Wheeldon’s “Number Nine,” hurried along by the nonstop buildup of Michael Torke’s “Ash.” Holly Hynes’s costumes drew from one of the most gorgeous color palettes in memory — tropical lollipop shades, with the corps aglow in yellow — but the relentlessly whirring blur of so much physical flamboyance was exhausting to watch.

The evening’s highest notes came from unexpected places. Tomasson’s “Trio” broke no new choreographic ground but it is an uncommonly stylish showcase (men in smoking jackets, ladies in gowns, luxuries of billowing, lyrical movement throughout) for a large cast, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s spirited “Souvenir de Florence.” Possokhov’s “RAkU,” which transformed the stage into a Japanese temple, gave leading ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan a dramatic role that, despite the murky narrative and quasi-hokey elements, she built to a moving conclusion.

This ballet ended up in a very different place from where you thought it was headed. Granted, the samurai sword-wielding was a low point. Yet as a friend archly observed, “They dared to be almost ridiculous.” These dancers believed in this vague story from Japan’s warrior past of a woman left alone in a man’s world, horrifically violated, rescued unexpectedly and then striking out on her own to deal with her losses. Possokhov believed in it too, never gave up eking emotion out of inventive, none-too-balletic moves. He invented an esthetic and held to it, with admirable results. Shinji Eshima’s composition also journeyed from the oddball to the poetic. You could say the same about the whole evening.

The San Francisco Ballet will perform “Romeo and Juliet” Thursday through Sunday.

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