Sadler’s Wells, London
May 29, 2019
San Francisco Ballet, under artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson, jets into London with a repertoire that updates the register on ballet in the twenty-first century. It’s neatly packaged in four programmes with a team of versatile dancers. Eight of the twelve ballets were written in 2018, and the earliest (it’s impossible to use the word ‘oldest’ about this company) as recently as 2012.
That work is Symphony #9, the first part of Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy and is perfectly pitched to introduce the company. Shostakovich’s music with melodies to break your heart can also descend into rumbustious parody in a dark sardonic vein. In this ballet, Ratmansky takes the baton and runs with the anarchic mood. Like Shostakovich, Ratmansky is well versed in classical rules but also aware that traditions need constant revisioning to keep the artform relevant. The classical form is a constant and so are the surprises.
Joseph Walsh’s clean-cut technique goes into a tailspin as he launches into space to be caught mid-air and horizontal by a line of men. Dores André, with sparkling eyes and razor pointes, is ready to subvert at a moment’s notice and formal pirouettes nosedive to end in penchée with hands on the floor. In the second movement Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison are restless and vigilant, finding a backstory that adds intensity to their duet as the fluid wrap of bodies is punctuated by an unsettling edge. It is a joy to see Robison back in London. He is a powerhouse of virtuosic energy delivered with ease and elegance that is riveting to watch. The wild card is Wei Wang, a mercurial figure who adds spice to the mix with a series of fleeting entrances to dazzle the eye.
Chamber Symphony is the emotional heart of the evening. The score that developed from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.8, is a work that comes close to encapsulating the composer and the era. Written in just three days it expresses the terror and violence of Stalin’s rein. Violins have seldom been used to such powerful effect.
Of the three works, Chamber Symphony is the most strongly narrative, offering a central dramatic role for Ulrik Birkkjaer. The backdrop, a mosaic of craggy faces, moves in and out of focus but the fear remains. The three female roles: Sasha De Sola, young and romantic, Mathilde Froustey, a sophisticated beauty and Yuan Yuan Tan, an exquisite spiritual presence, move in and out of his life. Each relationship is expressed in subtly different language exploring the complex depth of the composer’s life. Despite very good performances and the commitment of the dancers, the work hovers uneasily between narrative and abstract with allusions but little resolution but ultimately it succeeds on the quality of the dance.
The third section, Piano Concerto #1 is a high-flying delight in soaring lifts and breakneck spins. The corps are so much more than background to the action, both as generous performers and as top-quality dancers. Their two tone unitards are a cool grey of the front, warming to a fiery red when they turn their backs and Ratmansky features the effect in cleverly structured dance.
There is a hint of subtext as established star, Sofiane Sylve, and rising star, Wona Park are positioned both in contrast and in harmony. It may have been first night uncertainty, but the chemistry didn’t ignite, and it was only in the final moments that Park displayed her talents in blistering turns and jumps. The choreography, notably in the partnering was fresh and imaginative, the lyrical flow interspersed with athletic lifts. It found many forms: structured as a cluster of men with a female soloist or in the duets, Sylve paired with Carlo Di Lanno and Park with Angelo Greco or a surprise switch as the women supported the men in their pirouettes.
The trio of works made a well-balanced programme as Russian compatriots delve into the soul of modern Russia. It was a thrilling evening all round, and this is only the beginning.
San Francisco Ballet continue at Sadler’s Wells to June 8, 2019, with this and three other programmes. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for details and tickets.