Review: San Francisco Ballet Next@90 Blanc, Schreier & Possokhov January 25, 2023 War Memorial Opera
San Francisco Ballet’s (SFB) debuted the final three ballets of the next@90 Festival on January 25. It was a disappointing end to festival’s offerings which included Rowe’s Madcap, Breiner’s The Queen’s Daughter and Oishi’s Bolero, all unique and likely to have a permanent place in SFB’s future repertory programs. Possokhov’s VIOLIN CONCERTO, which closes this program has much to recommend it, but its structural parallels to the two pieces which precede it on Program 3.
The three works’ resemblances are myriad. Each ballet is cast with thirteen to sixteen dancers. Deconstructed ballet with a sprinkling of modern dance is the unifying style. The loose narrative of each, even the one that claims no story, is shaped around a central figure or two, who we discover in an isolated pool of light as the curtain rises. Large backdrop pieces surround each. The works’ similarities made the whole evening feel less innovative. The sacrifices necessary for a company to learn nine new thirty-minute dances is showing.
A San Francisco Ballet commission is an amazing privilege but also a huge responsibility. Risks were taken in selecting so many choreographers for whom this work would be their most prestigious classical ballet assignment to date. New choreographic voices are needed, but one must take the time to help them succeed.
Projection of cover slide for next@90 festival within a gilded proscenium; photo J. Norris
Program 3 got off to a rocky start with choreographer Claudia Schreier’s KIN. It is performed at breakneck speed and contains every formation and deconstructed ballet movement imaginable. The dancers seemed hurried throughout and the performances are uncharacteristically uneven.
The ballet begins with a brief tableau featuring Wanting Zhao in a conquering warrior pose. At her feet is the curled body of a woman, Dores André, her naked back exposed. After a black-out, the two women are gone, replaced by many dancers whirling through space. It’s a very gendered world where the job of the male partner is to lift the woman and carry her around while she strikes difficult and unusual poses. One minute she holds her body stiffly horizontal, the next she is posed knees and elbows bent to make the silhouette of a runner, all while being carried or lifted or both.
Ms. Shreier tells us the ballet is about the relationship between two women, but she prefers to not fully define that relationship, despite naming her piece Kin. Zhao clearly has the upper hand, and André seems to seek her love and approval suggesting a parental or sibling association.
Solos and duets are cut are too brief, truncated by the visual noise of a supporting cast in near constant movement. At one point the four leads crouch downstage their backs to us, as if trying to make it possible for us to see the corps dancing upstage. Is this deconstructed ballet or an unresolved transition? Either way it drew focus, perhaps unintentionally.
For GATEWAY TO THE SUN choreographer Nicolas Blanc uses a Rumi poem and 13th Century Persia as his inspiration. The costumes by Katrin Schnabl (who also designed the set) all feature a pleated half skirt from hip to hip, an effective reference to the clothing worn by warriors of the time. They flare out beautifully when the dancers twirl, evoking images of whirling dervishes.
A dozen figures stand in silhouette against a backdrop of soft-edged pastel mountains. The sound of wind is heard as the figures lean so slowly to the left, then to the right, mimicking blades of grass swaying in the breeze.
Max Cauthorn is the central character, our poet. He is a searcher, a thinker, and a tortured artist. He spends much of the piece walking yearningly through or observing others. His moments of contemplation include deep spread legged squats and arms or hands thrown over his eyes. Early on his movements mirror another man’s which I decided was how learning happens in this danced world. Blanc tells us the other dancers represent “thoughts and worlds.”
Sasha De Sola and Wei Wang in red, and Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham in orange, help Cauthorn explore the world of his poetry. While not defined, for me, De Sola and Wang embody passion. De Sola’s arms and fingers explode in the air as Wang helps her soar. Stahl and Ingham’s choreography is more stately, with measured partnering, they represent intellect.
I especially enjoyed a duet between De Sola and Stahl. Their relationship is complementary, not competitive. De Sola bending forward to support Stahl’s backward arch, they fit together like puzzle pieces. Despite some excellent dancing, and a good concept, this ballet felt under-developed.
The evening closes with VIOLIN CONCERTO, a ballet by Yuri Possokhov to Igor Stavinsky’s work of the same name (yes SFB has a Balanchine in the rep already to this piece). The setting (Alexander V. Nichols) of wall sections arranged in a semi-circle suggest as ballet studio.
Sasha Mukhamedov, “The Muse,” steals the show from the moment we discover her posing frivolously at a barre, wryly observed by Stavinsky’s projected image. Dressed in a flamingo pink tango dress, by Sandra Woodall, worthy of ‘Dancing with the Stars’, Mukhamedov beacons the fourteen other dancers to the stage, all clad in black and white in geometric harlequin patterns. The women’s petite stiff tutus are delightful. They spring as the ladies bounce their hips in syncopation.
Possokhov is adept at building a ballet, and making these dancers shine. His patterns as viewed from upstairs are interesting. He wisely relies of the music to carry the emotional movement, from weighty to light-hearted. Joseph Walsh and Wona Park dance with flare, bringing out the fierce and fiery best in each other. Esteban Hernández and Cavan Conley make a playful pair, trading moves, enjoying their camaraderie, in between their assignments as the partners of Camela Maya and Julia Rowe.
The finale finds Mukhamedov preening against the proscenium, as two huge swirling circles of dancers dash in and out of each other. They reform into lines, falling to the floor folder over their legs momentarily before popping up to direct their unified focus to the lady in pink. The running and uneven floor work at the end suggest a lack of rehearsal time. There is potential here, and in another season this piece could shine.
Review by Jen Norris, published Jan 26, 2023.
CHOREOGRAPHER: Claudia Schreier
COMPOSER: Tanner Porter
Conductor: Martin West
Dancers: DORES ANDRÉ, ISAAC HERNÁNDEZ
WANTING ZHAO, AARON ROBISON
Samantha Bristow, Olivia Brothers, Isabella DeVivo, Ellen Rose Hummel, Norika Matsuyama, Pemberley Ann Olson
Lucas Erni, Andris Kundzins, Steven Morse, João Percilio da Silva, Mingxuan Wang, Adrian Zeisel
GATEWAY TO THE SUN
CHOREOGRAPHER: Nicolas Blanc
COMPOSER: Anna Clyne
Conductor: Matthew Rowe
Cello: Eric Sung
A poet: MAX CAUTHORN
SASHA DE SOLA, WEI WANG
JENNIFER STAHL, LUKE INGHAM
Samantha Bristow, Nicole Moyer, Leili Rackow, Jamie Adele Stephens
Davide Occhipinti, Jacob Seltzer, Alexis Valdes, Adrian Zeisel
CHOREOGRAPHER: Yuri Possokhov
COMPOSER: Igor Stravinsky
Conductor: Matthew Rowe
Violin: Cordula Merks
WONA PARK, JOSEPH WALSH
JULIA ROWE, ESTEBAN HERNÁNDEZ
CARMELA MAYO, CAVAN CONLEY
Juliana Bellissimo, Joshua Jack Price
Gabriela Gonzalez, John-Paul Simoens
Elizabeth Mateer, Mingxuan Wang
Angela Watson, Nathaniel Remez