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  • Jen Norris

Review: San Francisco Ballet next@90 Garland, Roberts, Rowe Jan. 20, 2023, San Francisco Opera House

San Francisco Ballet’s next@90 festival features an ambitious slate of nine new works by choreographers from around the world to ring in its 90th Anniversary Season. Classical ballet as a field has been slow to welcome new and diverse voices to its stages, so it is refreshing to read the biographies of the three choreographers whose work composes the opening night of the festival on January 20. Robert Garland hails from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Jamar Roberts made his home at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Australian Danielle Rowe, one of only a few women who have created work for San Francisco Ballet previously, returns to complete the evening’s slate.


Cover slide next@90 projected on screen within gilded proscenium arch of the Opera House, photo: J. Norris


Robert Garland’s Haffner Serenade, performed to Mozart’s serenade of the same name, features five couples, including lead couple Esteban Hernández and Julia Rowe. The mood is one of an afternoon garden party. Eight dancers pose, stately arms extended. Dressed in seafoam green by costume designer by Pamela Cummings, the men wear long sleeved body suits, their tops styled as high-waisted velvet jackets, with jaunty layered white cravats. The women are in sleeveless square necked bodices, with layered tulle skirts cut above the knee, harkening a begone era of formal social partner dancing.


The classical vocabulary of battements, arabesques, pirouettes and jetés is present, with a bit of contemporary swagger added for good measure. Rowe’s hip sways out saucily as she promenades hand in hand with Hernández. Dancers move across the stage gliding on one foot, propelled by the momentum created by the repeated bending and quick straightening of the leading leg.


Though pleasing in texture, this chamber ballet neither offends nor delights. It’s blandness a lost opportunity, given the depth of talent in the company.


The program tells us that in Jamar Roberts’ Resurrection “an austere and malicious Queen uses her powers of persuasion, beauty and magic in her quest to find a suitor to love and assist her in the rulership of her tribe.” As the curtain rises in silence, we find ourselves in a chilly netherworld. Grey arches frame a fog-laden stage. The Queen, a becrowned Dores André approaches a solitary figure. After a careful assessment she shocks him to death, kicking his body into the abyss.


Four figures, each grasping a limb, present her with the slack body of another man. Clad in the same black and metallic blues as she, her disciples gather round. As Mahler’s Totenfeier breaks the silence, the body spasms, showing signs of life. Moving ceremonially, circling in large crossing steps, the ensemble sweep their arms up from the ground their energy assisting the Queen in resurrecting the dead man. A red vest, perhaps with magical powers comes and goes, creating confusion in its wake.


Roberts and the dancers conjure a world of enchanted rituals. The tribe travels in harmonious symmetry, pausing in long lunges to slowly clap above their heads perhaps in prayer or appreciation to a higher power. Their weight is low, the movement more modern inspired than balletic.


André is a villainous puppet-master, her fingers taunt talons, as she manipulates her prey. Isaac Hernández a worthy opponent is caught in her web, his body roiling in response to her gestures. He escapes repeatedly, leaving her deflated, grasping at emptiness.


Does she get her man? You need to come down to the Opera House to find out, as the deceptively simplistic program note may mask more than is apparent upon first viewing.


Act three brings us Danielle Rowe’s Madcap, a surreal, can’t- look-away experience. The original score by Pär Hagström is eclectic pulling from tinkling music box melodies, om pa pa bands, Klezmer, carnival and circus music.

There are star turns for many in this ballet. Jennifer Stahl directs the show as the Oracle. Dressed in a black lace dress with a black cone-shaped clown hat and veil, it is one of the many pitch-perfect costumes by Emma Kingsbury. All the performers wear white clown face, that also reads as creepily skull-like.


Madcap is the nightmare of an elder clown, a magnificent Tiit Helimet. He is the center of the circus, but the butt of every joke.


Sasha De Sola in the role of The Mirror, is a force to be reckoned with. She taps her toe shoes insistently, refusing to be ignored. Helimet and De Sola dance a twisted duet. She sparkles spread-eagle soaring atop his arms, before slithering down his front, her head between his knees, her ankles at his shoulders, more acrobat than ballerina.


Max Cauthorn, Alexis Valdes and Wei Wang, are a trio titled ‘The Juggled.’ They delight us with their sky-high barrel jumps. Their antics are a mixture of clowning with its broad gestures, hip-hop with its one-armed floor balances, and animal act as they jump through imaginary hoops as a trained tiger might.


A red ball floats between the faces of David Occhipinti and Henry Sidford. They keep perfect tension between their heads as they dance a complicated combination of lifts and seated spins. Their limbs knot and unwind in seemingly endless combinations, the ball always hovering between them.


The Oracle makes sure Helimet sees it all. Each new act takes something away from him, his artifice eroding until he collapses, a strawman without sufficient stuffing. By performance end he is barefaced and partially undressed downstage of the curtain, exposed and alone, unsure what is true and what is imagined. A crowd pleaser, this one will no doubt be seen in future seasons.


And thus, the program leaves us with a renewed respect for the versatility of these amazing dancers. Their full-hearted commitment to realize another’s vision is commendable. If this first offering of next@90 is meant to show us the future, it would seem that the range of talents required of ballet dancers will continue to expand to include acting, singing, acrobatics and contemporary dance forms.


Review by Jen Norris, published Jan 21, 2023; Revised Jan 22 10:00 am

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Program credits

next @90 Program Book

January 20 casting:

HAFFNER SERENADE

Conductor: Martin West

JULIA ROWE, ESTEBAN HERNÁNDEZ

Gabriela Gonzalez, SunMin Lee, Elizabeth Mateer, Carmela Mayo

Luca Ferrò, Lleyton Ho, Joshua Jack Price, Nathaniel Remez


CHOREOGRAPHER Robert Garland COMPOSER Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Costume Design: Pamela Cummings Lighting Design: Jim French Assistant to the Choreographer: Tai Jimenez


RESURRECTION

Conductor: Martin West

An austere and malicious Queen uses her powers of persuasion, beauty, and magic in her quest to find a suitor to love and assist her in the rulership of her tribe.

DORES ANDRÉ, ISAAC HERNÁNDEZ

WANTING ZHAO, AARON ROBISON

Samantha Bristow, Isabella DeVivo, Ellen Rose Hummel, Pemberley Ann Olson

Rubén Cítores Nieto, Lucas Erni, Andris Kundzins, Steven Morse


CHOREOGRAPHY AND SCENIC DESIGN Jamar Roberts COMPOSER Gustav Mahler

Costume Design: Jermaine Terry Lighting Design: Jim French Assistant to the Choreographer: Alessio Crognale


MADCAP

Conductor: Martin West

The Clown: TIIT HELIMETS

The Oracle: JENNIFER STAHL

The Juggled: MAX CAUTHORN, ALEXIS VALDES, WEI WANG

The Red Nose: DAVIDE OCCHIPINTI, HENRY SIDFORD

The Mirror: SASHA DE SOLA

The Kid: PARKER GARRISON

The Oom Pa-Pa's: THAMIRES CHUVAS, LEILI RACKOW, TYLA STEINBACH, JAMIE ADELE STEPHENS

CHOREOGRAPHER Danielle Rowe COMPOSER Pär Hagström MUSIC ARRANGED BY Philip Feeney

Costume Design: Emma Kingsbury Lighting Design: Jim French Assistant to the Choreographer: Garen Scribner

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