Sunday, 2 June 2019

San Francisco Ballet in London

Standard YouTube Licence

The San Francisco Ballet  The Infinite Ocean, Snowblind and Björk Ballet 1 June 2019, 14:00 Sadler's Wells

The San Francisco Ballet was founded in 1933 which makes it one of the oldest ballet companies in the United States. It was founded by William, Harold and Lew Christiansen who were born in Utah.  They were the first American company to dance Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.  Balanchine was an important influence but he was not the wellspring of inspiration. There have been plenty of other influences from around the world including Buornonville, Ashton and van Manen   Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director since 1985, was born, trained and began his career in Iceland.  The San Francisco Balet is therefore different from the companies on the East Coast and in many respects much more interesting.

The company has brought a portfolio of new work to London which includes many ballets by British choreographers such as David Dawson, Cathy Marston, Arthur Pita and Liam Scarlett.  Having seen Jane Eyre, The Suit and Victoria I am something of a Marston fan. When I heard that Marston had been commissioned to create a work for the San Francisco Ballet to be premiered on my 70th birthday I seriously considered a trip to San Francisco as a birthday treat to myself. Happily, I did not have to cross the Atlantic because the company has brought Marston's new ballet to London.

The new work is called Snowblind.   It is a one-act ballet which forms part of a triple bill.  The other works in the programme were Edwaard Liang's The Infinite Ocean and Arthur Pita's Björk BalletI do not recall seeing anything by Liang at all but I have seen Arthur Pita's Dream within Midsummer Night's Dream for Ballet Black at least 8 times plus once in rehearsal and I love it to bits.

Although I must have seen the San Francisco Ballet when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s because I spent much of my time watching ballet, I do not have a clear recollection of them as I do American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I do not think they were as well known or well regarded in those days as they are now. I had seen many snippets of their performances on YouTube as they were one of the Royal Ballet's partners on World Ballet Day.  I knew they were good but I did not know that they were that good until I saw them in the flesh yesterday.  Some of their physical feats - particularly by the women - were amazing.  In The Infinite Ocean, for example, there were several scenes where they on pointe with their lower legs ramrod straight but their upper legs forming a perfect 90 degrees but their upper bodies bolt upright. That must have been so uncomfortable, yet they kept it up for some time.

The title of Liang's work was inspired by a Facebook message from a friend who was suffering from a terminal illness:
“I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.”
According to the programme notes, Liang lost his father to cancer at the age of 13. His ballet is an exploration of the time between life and death.   I was expecting something morbid but it was far from that.  The ballet opened with the dancers clad in gold and white walking slowly towards a golden orb like the sun to the music of Oliver Davis played on a Stradivarius violin by Cordelia Merks.  I was reminded a little bit of Macmillan's Gloria which was also set against a slope though I only noticed it in the last moments of Liang's piece when one of the dancers suddenly dropped behind it.  There were 12 dancers in the piece including duets by the principal dancers, Sofiane Sylve with  Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan with Vitor Luiz.  The impression I formed was that each character was facing his or end in a different way, some with resignation, others with serenity and yet others with regret.  Something that we all have to think about but never do.

Snowblind is a narrative ballet inspired by Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome of which I regret to say I had never heard until I read about it in the programme notes.  It appears to be a very simple story of a husband with an infirm and ever demanding wife in a  remote farmstead who falls in love with a young woman he employs to care for his wife with predictable consequences. The set is very plan.  There is a bed for the wife and a chair for husband.  The husband meets the young woman at what appears to be a square dance.  She is resplendent in red while all the rest are in featureless grey.  For her score, Marston approached Philip Feeney who arranged the music with pieces by Amy Beach, Arthur Foot and Arvo Pärt. The husband, Ethan, was danced by Ulrik Birkkjaer, the wife by Jennifer Stahl and the woman in red by Mathilde Froustey.  A hallmark of Marston's work is what I call the dance equivalent of the chorus in classical Greek drama.  I had first seen that technique in Jane Eyre and she used it very effectively in The Suit.  The ballet opened with the chorus bending in the wind like snowflakes in a blizzard.   This is the best work from Marston that I have seen so far - or perhaps, less pretentiously, the work I have enjoyed most.   She appears to be very busy with new commissions.  I look forward very much to seeing her next one.

I guess that Pita chose a ballet on the music of one of Iceland's most popular entertainer because Tomasson also came from that country.  It opens with miniature golden palm trees that eventually fall to the ground with a thud.   Some of the women appear to be wearing yashmaks at one point which must be as far from Iceland as one can get.  The man with a very long fishing rod wears a tragedy mask but then fishes up a comedy mask from the orchestra pit which he wears on the back of his head.  I was reminded of Pita's Dream several times as I watched Björk Ballet.  The fishing rod made me think of Damien Johnson's butterfly net.   Also like Dream was the sudden juxtaposition of classical and popular music, the glittering costume of one of the female dancers and quirky interludes like the dropping palm trees.  Pita's quirkiness and sense of fun shone through.  I described the ballet on twitter as "the icing on the cake, the piece de resistance, the real McCoy for it was all those things.  The perfect end to a very log but also very enjoyable programme.

The Liang, Marston and Pita part of The San Francisco Ballet's season ended last night and I fear we shall have to fly to San Francisco if we are ever to see those works again. However, the company remains at Sadler's Wells until 7 June.  There is a lot more to see and if I lived in London and did not have to labour in the law courts for a living I should have seen them.

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