February 13, 2021
The second programme of San Francisco Ballet’s 2021 Digital Season mixes contemporary ballet and art, the three works by Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, and the incomparable Mark Morris taking dance from the War Memorial Opera House stage to SFMOMA and back again.
LET’S BEGIN AT THE END by co-founder of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Dwight Rhoden, begins in silence. Perhaps when this was first done (was it Forsythe?), it was innovative but now it feels clichéd. In theatre with a live audience (remember those days?), it often seemed to make those watching uncomfortable and acutely aware of every distraction. Online, it probably has everyone reaching for the sound bar to check if everything is working. As a theatrical device, it has a habit of syphoning attention away from the dance rather than focusing it towards the performers.
Of the musical choices from Steve Reich, J.S. Bach and Philip Glass, it is the latter that is more suited to the choreography, echoing the sense of urgency and stress in the frenetic moves and angularity of the dance.
There is a hint of some sort of relationship between the leading couple of Frances Chung, Angelo Greco, and a solo man, Esteban Hernandez. As throughout, the classically-based movement has a very contemporary edge. Extensions are always high and every opportunity is taken to go to extremes. Arms flail in contradiction to the tightness and discipline of the accompanying Bach.
Much use is made of doors at the back of the stage through which dancers enter and exit. The central section includes a pleasing pas de deux; more lyrical, and while extensions are still full, time is taken to extend fully. Other dancers appear in varying and unexpected combinations. The section ends one man spinning his partner round and round, en attitude, en pointe, an oddly fascinating manoeuvre.
The epilogue is danced and has the most balletic section in a Hernandez solo. Men seize the women round the clavicles, almost as if they are strangling them against a background of relentless, scything strings. It could be Bernard Herrmann and Psycho. The final pas de deux is delicious. LET’S BEGIN AT THE END is a harsh work, always interesting if not always flowing, but choreographer Dwight Roden certainly does not offer much solace in difficult times.
Wow! In contrast, COLORFORMS, a new ballet by SF Ballet Soloist Myles Thatcher, explodes on the screen with élan, vivacity and verve. Set outside and inside SFMOMA, Yerba Buena Gardens, Golden Gate Park, and at the War Memorial Opera House, sudden cuts enable dancers to jump location and from street clothes to dance clothes. It’s a brilliant use of film to which Steve Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings makes a perfect musical accompaniment.
A city sapling in full autumn glory flutters outside in the breeze and then we jump cut to a Frances Chung, sitting in a window seat sketching the tree. From red coat and trainers to leotard, tights and pointe shoes and suddenly we are in the theatre. Superb editing by Ezra Hurwitz makes the dance flow from one location to the next completely seamlessly. Connections too in the colour palette, the walls of the theatre space lit in the same hues as the picture in front of Chung in the gallery.
Similar connections are made repeatedly. The empty SFMOMA is vibrant with coloured light. Dancers run through the corridors and rooms in choreography reminiscent of Jerome Robbins and West Side Story, street and stage flipping back and forth. It’s as if the colours in the modern art on display have somehow escaped, been given life and a revelling in their freedom.
A male duet by Cavan Conley and Esteban Hernandez flips from inside to out. A dancer pops gum in extreme close up then offers a gum ball to a partner. When she drops the bag, more gum balls spill across the floor in yet another clatter of colour.
We shift to a gallery, a spectator looking at the paintings, another listening to the audio description, sound spilling from the headphones. Bright green apples spilling down the outside steps like the gum balls on the inside. We see an aerial view of dancers running down a staircase in a rotunda like the rotating spaceship in 2001, then in sneakers in the foyer, sliding down the staircase, making a shape in the lobby, the movement rippling along like a waveform.
A lone dancer enters the empty lobby through the revolving door, looks around, walks up the stairs, rides down an escalator. She walks past discarded sketches in a window, then goes outside to admire the tree and leaves a paper plane as tribute. Always connections. Flipping back inside, she continued her dance en pointe. Outside, her hair blows in the breeze, inside it is pinned up.
When the dancers run into the woods of park, coloured paper planes bisect the air. Aerial shots show more darting colours before the camera pans into the air and the music stops to leave just the rustling of the leaves in the breeze and birdsong.
COLORFORMS is sheer joy. Originally conceived of as a stage work, Thatcher and the creative team have instead produced a marvellous dance film. Even so, wouldn’t it be fabulous if it could find a live, in-theatre home one day? And I think it could. I’ll say it again. Wow!
Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet is an old friend and a dear one. It may be, but sometimes that’s just what’s needed. From the joyous strains of Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ to the tick-tock of ‘The Syncopated Clock’, but lacking the eponymous ‘Sandpaper Ballet’, this is sheer bliss; great fun and a brilliant way to end a programme.
Using a cast of 25, Morris never loses an opportunity to create a visual gag with the ‘odd dancer out’, whether they are sliding into the corps, like Corporal Jones, a beat too late, or popping up from the back of the line like a Jack-in-the-box. But there is subtlety in the ballet too and of course, being Morris, it’s all intensely musical. There is a photograph of the dancers in rehearsal on the San Francisco ballet website and they all have big grins on their faces. Me too.
San Francisco Ballet’s Digital Programme 2 is available until March 3, 2021. Visit www.sfballet.org for more details and tickets.
For full details on the remaining programmes, click here.