San Francisco Ballet’s final program of the 2022 season covers a parcel of territory, like almost two centuries of ballet. Opening with the Bournonvilles The sylph dating from 1836 and generally considered to be the oldest narrative ballet in existence, and ending with Alexei Ratmansky’s Post-Postmodern Antics in 2019, Seasons. The latter, which just received its West Coast premiere, was co-commissioned by SFB and American Ballet Theatre. This program has something for everyone – romance, drama, hijinks and bravery dancing for days. By the time the loud finale arrives, you’ll want to jump out of the Opera House on your way back.
The two acts The sylph can be a bit of a challenge for contemporary audiences as it predates the innovations of Marius Petipa who essentially created what we now call “classical” ballet. The Bournonville style can seem a little foreign with its emphasis on a calm upper body juxtaposed by dynamic leaps and quick footwork, heavy use of mime and minimal partnership. Still, it laid the groundwork for much of what followed and clearly portends the best-known Gisele in its portrayal of ordinary people and mystical otherworldliness of ethereal women in long white tutus.
SFB are extremely fortunate to have Principal Dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer in their ranks, as he trained in the Bournonville style while in his native Denmark and provided additional coaching for this production. And it definitely helps that the artistic director of the SFB, Helgi Tomasson, also trained in Denmark. The end result is that the company pretty much nails Bournonville’s often elusive romantic style. You’d never recognize them as the same dancers who just weeks ago kicked off Balanchine’s supreme neoclassical music Symphony in C and the contemporary pop of William Forsythe Blake works I so effectively.
Located in the Scottish countryside, The sylph tells the story of a farmer, James, who, on the morning of his wedding, is visited by a Sylph whom he finds irresistibly bewitching. The two escape into the forest where James grows increasingly frustrated at not being able to hold the Sylph in his arms. A witch supposedly comes to his rescue with a magical scarf that instead leads to a tragic end. Sure, the plot is pure romantic malarkey, but the idea of having a loved one you can’t kiss surely resonates with contemporary audiences again. After almost two years of quasi-COVID quarantine, I don’t know anyone who can’t relate to that feeling of intense desire for physical touch.
The opening night cast was terrific all around. The corps de ballet danced lightly and precisely like various villagers and sylphs. Esteban Hernandez as James’ friend Gurn showed off his amazing technique in his first-act solo, dazzling with the extreme verticality of his leaps and lightning-fast leg kicks. As expected, Birkkjaer made a perfect James, exciting in his jumps, but above all, extremely committed and clever in the mimed sequences. Mime can sometimes seem archaically off-putting in narrative ballets, but Birkkjaer made the case for its continued motto with its ability to perform stylized gestures while looking like a believable, complete human being. For example, the very specific way he threw the scarf over his head with a mixture of bravado and wonder is a moment I will never forget.
Sarah Van Patten, her near-lover, felt like she was destined to dance the part, and we’re so lucky to see her in it before she retires next month. She has always possessed a seductive opacity and emotional complexity that appeals to audiences. Because the ideal Sylph is a mix of seductive and elusive, Van Patten’s natural temperament is a perfect fit for the role. She danced it ravishingly, with quicksilver leaps and light-as-air arms, moving from flirtatious siren to tragic heartbreaker.
When the curtain rises for Seasons, we are in a completely different territory, although still deeply rooted in the history of ballet. A ballet to this score by Glazunov was a huge success for choreographer Marius Petipa in 1900, but his choreography has been completely lost to history. Ratmansky took the same exuberant score, four seasons theme, whimsical characters, and Petipa’s signature style of movement, and spun it into an all-new ballet of his own imagination. Add in Robert Perdziola’s almost absurd multi-coloured costumes and Mark Stanley’s intensely chromatic lighting, and you have a crazy 44-minute ballet. I’m not sure it all forms a cohesive piece, but when dancing is so fun, who really cares? Seasons is the kind of ballet that will take multiple exposures to discern just how much “there is” out there, and I, for one, can’t wait to begin the repeat viewings.
Because Ratmansky takes Petipa as its starting point, the ballet is stuffed (or rather overloaded) with every movement you’ve ever seen in classical ballet, often passing in the blink of an eye. I especially enjoyed a moment for Wona Park as the swallow that had him swinging between four jumpers while balancing on one toe the entire time, neatly recapping the famous Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty in about sixty seconds in all. However, by the time autumn arrives with a burst of brass bravado, things have loosened up a bit and the movement enters more contemporary tharp-ian and morris-ian territory.
The opening night cast seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout. It’s clear that they enjoy dancing Ratmansky’s choreography and taking on the challenges he presents to them. It’s a huge ballet for 56 dancers (!), and the individual sections often pass by so quickly that it can take the company a little longer to catch up. That said, there were already too many standout performances on opening night to single them all out, so I’ll just mention a few. Kudos to Tiit Helimets for beautifully pairing four very different ballerinas in the winter opening section, and to Doris André for fearlessly crossing the stage in her uplifted arms, landing high in the air. Misa Kuranaga stunned with the speed and detail of her moves in the Summer Section. Perhaps most impressive of all were Isabella DeVivo and Benjamin Freemantle as Bacchante and Autumn Bacchus. The orchestra announced their entrance with great fanfare, so they had plenty to do as they burst onto the stage as if shot down by a cannon. They more than rose to the challenge of this opening salvo, totally unleashing themselves in the still lightning-fast but less purely classical choreography of the final section. The ballet ended with a scene full of exuberant dancers dancing their hearts out in a kaleidoscope of colors. You certainly can’t ask for more than that.
Short postscript: During the bows for Seasons, Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky took the stage to enthusiastic applause and proudly waved a Ukrainian flag. Between the joys of the performance that just ended, the reminder of the horrors perpetrated against the people of Ukraine, and Ratmansky’s blatant contempt for the despicable leader of his homeland, it was a moment that brought tears to tears for many reasons. .
[All photos by Erik Tomasson]
Live performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Schedule 4 continue through Sunday, March 20 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA. The duration is approximately 2h35, including two intermissions. Proof of full COVID vaccination and wearing of masks in the building is required. For tickets and additional information, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415) 865-2000, MF 10am-4pm.