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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Sacramento Ballet presents Innovations works by Balanchine, Schermoly & Caniparoli at The Sofia at B St., Sacramento May 17-19, 2024

Updated: May 23

In my first outing to Sacramento Ballet, this past weekend, I am pleasantly surprised by the consistently high caliber of dancing and the challenging repertoire. Innovations, the final program of SacBallet’s 2023-24 season, includes George Balanchine’s Apollo, the genre-expanding work that launched his international career, Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House, a ballet which weaves a story around five female characters from the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and a world premiere, SALVE, by the much-in-demand South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly.


Michelle Katcher, Victor Maguad, and Jennifer Watembach in Balanchine's Apollo, Photo: Marissa Gearhart


SALVE is a powerful and provocative ballet for three women and three men that shines an unwavering spotlight on domestic abuse. It grabs you in the first moments and holds you uncomfortably rapt until its conclusion.  The dramatization of violence is balletic and yet disturbing enough that a content warning at future showings might be advisable.


SALVE unfolds as a series of conflict-ridden male female duets, in which the men have the upper hand.  As in real life abusive relationships, the couples only have brief associations with other couples. Relief is found in the rare, but important, moments of gender unity, when the trio of women meet alone. 


Designer Zandra Manner’s costume palette is monochromatic, black and grey. The men wear pants and “wife beaters” tanks, while the women are scantily clad in strapless, form-fitting tops and booty shorts. The haunting sounds of an early music choir fill the space. The songs composed by contemporary classical composers David Taylor and Arvo Pärt and reminiscent of Gregorian chant, lend the work a timeless quality.


The world of this dance is claustrophobic.  The dancers are brightly lit but surrounded most often by a black void, though occasionally a new frontier appears, in the form of a narrow strip of light at the base of a black sky (Lighting Designer Trad A. Burns). In silhouette against this low horizon, two figures approach from opposite sides to join hands centerstage. One person is noticeably larger than the other.  As more light is introduced, a man and woman are revealed. They face different directions, a metaphor for varied perspective or desires.  Too soon this partnership becomes abusive, as the man with his hand over her face forces her to back up.  His arm whips as if slapping her. She is thrown to the ground.


Wen Na Robertson & Wyatt McConville-McCoy in Schermoly's SALVE, Photo: Marissa Gearhart


In a second pairing the man approaches his female partner’s prone figure. Grabbing an ankle he lifts, creating a diagonal between her face on the floor and the foot in his hand, as her other limbs flail.  She rises to resists, but soon loses their tug of war. When her abuser leaves her for dead, the man of the third couple rolls her limp body dispassionately out of his way with a foot. He then tosses his own mate over his shoulder, carrying her upside down before leaving her cowering, with hands splayed on either side of her head, protecting it or blocking out his words.


Later, a man rhythmically lifts and lowers his arms above a woman’s shoulders, like a pile driver. His motions are matched by her modulated sinking. Having beaten her down, he grasps her by the back of the neck and forces her to sit upon his bended knee. Her back to us, faceless, she is every woman and no one simultaneously.


Asserting themselves, women push away, pound at chests, and make breaks for freedom. Trapped in a man’s arms, held above the ground, a woman arches away from her captor, fisted hands raised.


Alone together the women assume a deeply female pose, with bent legs spread wide and tipped downward. They share a signal for help, reaching searchingly with arms crossed at the wrist. On their knees, side by side they measure distances across the floor with their hands, planning.


The dancers do an amazing job with a difficult piece, dancing with full commitment, partnering each other with precision and artistry.  In the ethos of classical ballet, the men traditionally help the women soar and shine. Watching them work cooperatively to present a darker view of male/female relationship is unsettling.


The marketing materials make claims of empowerment, a quality that I found lacking. As a child I lived amidst spousal abuse, and while I certainly found SALVE breathtaking, and would like to see it again, the women’s defiant efforts seemed more futile than fearless to me.


The program opened with the inspiring purity of Apollo, which tells the tale of the young god of music, visited by three artistic muses. Under a buoyant blue sky, sunlit dancers clothed in simple white tunics cavort to a score by Igor Stravinsky. 


At the Sunday matinee the featured role of Apollo is danced by Richard Smith, with Julia Feldman as Calliope, Sarah Joan Smith as Polyhymnia, and Ava Chatterson as Terpsichore. Both Smiths are last-minute substitutes, announced during pre-curtain remarks, making role debuts without ever having had dress rehearsals. The good news is that the whole cast does an excellent job of bringing the sprightly cadences and elegant lines of this neo-classical ballet to life.


Richard soars as Apollo in the initial tableau, the Birth of Apollo. Facing us he jumps, kicking his legs to the side. His top leg is parallel to the ground as his other folds inward in order to bring foot to knee midair, before he lands gracefully to repeat this gravity-defying trick once more. 


His Muses stride in, a stately trio en pointe, arms spread, each step a well-matched high kick. Arms linked they become a four-person revolving ouroboros.  The women hop on both toes backward in perfect unison. They walk on their heels. The movement is unexpected, inventive and fresh, all the more so 95 years after its premiere. 


The pas de deux for Calilope and Apollo is notoriously challenging. In a tremulous moment, we see the effort required to lift her, as Richard carries Feldman along his side across the stage, yet through sheer determination and skill they deliver an artistically strong duet. Their balance is immutable and shapes stunning as Feldman balances in a perfect arc atop Richard’s neck and shoulders as he poses on bended knee below her. The carefree nature of their gracefully waving arms masks the difficulty of this sustained hands-free belly to neck lift.


The audience awards the beauty and execution of Apollo with warm applause, while the company insiders seated behind me stand and bellow in appreciation for their colleagues’ unexpected and successful feat.


Isabella Velasquez and Wyatt McConville-McCoy in Caniparoli's Ibsen's House, Photo: Marissa Gearhart


Act 3 features Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House (2008), a SacBallet premiere, a women-centered ballet featuring a quintet of powerful characters from Ibsen’s plays. Each rebels against the late 19th Century patriarchal society in which she suffers. Misunderstood by the men in their lives, these women struggle between gender expectations and selfhood.  Coming after the iconic magnificence of Balanchine’s Apollo, and the searing images of 21st Century women plagued by abusive partners in SALVE, Ibsen’s House, and its unhappy heroines feels like too much. Two acts would have been sufficient. If a third act is desired, perhaps something abstract and ungendered would have provided better programmatic balance.


Review by Jen Norris, published May 22, 2024.

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Production Credits and Casting 5/19 matinee:

Innovations

Sacramento Ballet – The Sofia at B Street

 

Apollo

Choreographer George Balanchine @The George Balanchine Trust

Music Igor Stravinsky

Repetiteur Paul Boos

Costumes Zandra Manner

Lighting Trad A Burns

Props Tim McNamara

5/19 Dancers:

Apollo: Richard Smith

Calilope: Julie Feldman

Polyhymnia: Sarah Joan Smith

Terpischore: Ava Chatterson

 

SALVE (World Premiere)

Choreographer Andrea Schermoly

Music Daniel Taylor The Lamb; Arvo Part Salve Regina

Costumes Zandra Manner

Lighting Trad A Burns

5/19 Dancers: Maia Lee, Wen Na Roberts, Mesa Burdick, Maxence Devaux, Enrico Hipolito, Wyatt McConville-McCoy

 

Ibsen’s House (Sacramento Ballet premiere)

Choreographer Val Caniparoli

Music Antonin Dvorak

Scenic and costume design Sandra Woodall

Lighting design: James F. Ingalls remounted by Trad A Burns

Assistant to the Choreographer Betsy Erickson

5/19 Dancers:

Hedda Gabler: Julie Fledman & Richard Smith

A Doll’s House: Michelle Katcher & Maxence Devaux

Ghosts: Ava Chatterson & Ugo Frediani

Lady from the Sea: Maia Lee & Enrico Hipolito

Rosmersholm: Dominique Wendt & Eugene Obille

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