thu 30/05/2024

San Francisco Ballet, Balanchine/ Liang/ Wheeldon, Sadler's Wells Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

San Francisco Ballet, Balanchine/ Liang/ Wheeldon, Sadler's Wells Theatre

San Francisco Ballet, Balanchine/ Liang/ Wheeldon, Sadler's Wells Theatre

First of three programmes shows an invigorating company as full of energy as finesse

Divertimento no 15: world ballet depends on Balanchine as the earth’s ecology depends on oxygen

It's been eight years since San Francisco Ballet were last here, charming us with their finesse and their smiles - welcome back. They offer a boost of spirit to the gloomsters of ballet over here. This small city which punches many times above its weight in the cultural world owes a vast amount of its self-confidence and charisma to its mixed ethnic roots, so the range of dancers from the Far East via North Europe and the Latino Americas is representative.

But only a gifted, purposeful artistic director, which Helgi Tomasson evidently is, can fashion eager youngsters from such varied cultures and physiques to cohere with the shared artistry of a company that is aesthetically as much as home in middle Europe and Russia as in America, and so winningly includes their audience in their belief.

Their opening programme of three modern ballets to be shown over the next week at Sadler’s Wells makes a fine virtue of differences and company harmony, and I'd expect their visit to be consistently rewarding. You can’t expect to love all the works, but you can know that they’ll be performed full out with quality and desire.

You go home thinking about the lessons other companies could learn

I wish (should I be cursed for this?) the first programme hadn’t been so obviously dominated by George Balanchine’s Divertimento No 15. The more time that passes since his death 29 years ago, the more obvious it is that world ballet depends on him as the earth’s ecology depends on oxygen. There simply was no one - not even Marius Petipa in the 19th century - who could pluck so easily, and with such visual genius, ideas of constant delectation from Mozart (or Stravinsky or Bach or Brahms or Tchaikovsky, or, or, or...) and make you simply gasp at the sweetness of the temper, or the sudden emotional flavours that flicker in and out of what appears to be a purely dancey divertissement.

We've learned the hard way not to expect this most ephemeral and miscegenated of art forms to yield many geniuses to follow him. Edwaard Liang and Christopher Wheeldon, the two young choreographers condemned (I’m afraid) to join him on this opening bill of the three, could not have relished being his neighbours. Divertimento No 15 is the purest, most delectable confectionery, a tutu ballet (the girls’ pale yellow and aqua tutus are sprinkled with blue bows and sparkles) that dazzles, matching Mozart’s profligate inventiveness. A series of solos set to the theme and variations of the second movement exploit, in the tradition of the 19th-century St Petersburg genius Marius Petipa, very short, specific phrases, but tooling and faceting them with a diamond-cutter’s skill, each little difference catching the light in multiple ways, full of colours and brightness and individuality. This is something that suits this company down to the ground.

San Francisco’s dancers, whatever their rank, perform like stars, with fastidious, pretty feet and hands and American blast. I loved them, even when I didn’t love their rep. I loved the way Frances Chung reined in her bold athleticism with lacy finishes, I loved the insistence on perfect fifth-position couronne of Sofiane Sylve’s arms and the ardour of Hansuke Yamamoto's response, I loved the voluptuous, almost privately indulgent plunge to the ground of Yuan Yuan Tan's face every time she had the chance to do a deep arabesque penché, I loved the flaxen-haired boyishness of Tiit Helimets, I loved the charisma of the corps de ballet. All of them are personally showing ballet’s beauties, mutually comprehended and individually subsumed with a disciplined desire to achieve the work for itself (ie, no showing off).

Their energy made the wit of the ending of Balanchine’s Divertimento just exultantly funny - the central stars assemble their closing pose, but the corps de ballet streak off stage while the curtain falls, as if they’ve got another dance to get to fast.

wheeldon number nineThe vim and polish of the company means that even though the second piece, Liang’s recent Symphonic Dances, is a prim bore (Rachmaninov’s music is much too brash and lush for such tediously sighing females and poker-faced hod-carrier males) and the third, Wheeldon’s Number Nine, seems like a breezy primary-coloured postcard sent in from a busy man (pictured above, by Erik Tomasson/SFB), you go home thinking about the lessons other companies could learn. Birmingham Royal Ballet could learn so much about what’s achieved by refusing to compromise with the highest technical and classical demands; the Royal Ballet could learn from the energetic stylistic harmony to which all the multi-ethnic performers appear to subscribe; the Russians could learn from the serious-minded aesthetic enrichment that the San Franciscans find in diversity.

I couldn’t say the scratch orchestra delivered the required musical standards, despite SFB’s talented conductor Martin West urging them on - too many half-rehearsed violins skittering adrift in the Mozart, too many cracked horn and trumpet notes, and a sense that the shadowed, dislocated, sampled baroque effects of Michael Torke’s excellently disconcerting piece Ash (Wheeldon’s music) would gain many fans by a better-rehearsed performance. But I do expect, given the evident standards demanded at SFB, that later performances of this bill will deliver to fine standard, and that the audiences will enjoy themselves.

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Artistic director Helgi Tomasson introduces SFB's 2012 season, including tasters of Number Nine and other works in the Sadler's Wells season



I would be cautious about characterizing San Francisco as "punching above its weight" when it's the center of a region of over seven million people which sits at the heart of an abundant agricultural and financial community - the home of Napa, Silicon Valley, etc., etc. The city not only holds its own in the United States and around the world - it stands shoulder to shoulder with New York and London in cultural preeminence (dismissing, of course, the pop culture capital, Los Angeles). I enjoyed the review. What I enjoy most about the company is its commitment to new works and its willingness to bring back, time and again, the choreographers who work best with it. SFB may not always have the most technically talented dancers, on an objective level, but season after season it has performers who love what they do, and seem to exceed their capabilities daily - they don't even seem to know what they're able to do until they do it. I live in New York, but I get out to see this fantastic company a few times a year, and it's a privilege every time I'm able to do that. Thanks for reminding of the experience - despite your unfortunate shots at the supposedly "provincial" nature of one of the world's great cities.

I took no potshot at "provincialism"! I described San Francisco as a small city because it is - 800,000 population, 200,000 fewer than Birmingham, UK, only 100,000 more than Leeds. Yet it has an iconic status in American & even Western culture. And this first-class dance company. That's a tribute, not a potshot. But we agree about the dancing.

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