Review: San Francisco Ballet -Programme C -Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 23 September 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 21 September 2012

San Francisco Ballet Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Wheeldon's 'Within The Golden Hour'. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Reviewed: 19 September
Beaux/ Classical Symphony/ RAkU/ Within the Golden Hour

According to the song, “if you’re going to San Francisco”, you should “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair”. The lyrics of Scott McKenzie’s famous hippie anthem of the ’60s tell of the strange vibrations of the “People in Motion” that we’ll meet if we go to the city by the Bay. Sadly I’ve never been to San Francisco but it is missing those ‘people in motion’, rather than the steep rolling hills and other natural beauties of the Bay that is my main reason to be sad about that. Especially since the San Francisco Ballet’s visits to these shores are so sporadic; this being their first trip to London for eight years. As one of the dancers said after the show, “everywhere is a long way from San Francisco”.

Perhaps the long absence explains the feast of dance that the company has brought, with ten works spread over three programmes. Programme C offered the bonus of an extra ballet. No-one could have left the theatre feeling artistically short-changed from a quadruple bill of four such substantial works.

The evening began with an unhappy drama that many will not have noticed as one of the men in Mark Morris’s Beaux, landing badly from a jump, twisted an ankle. He gamely struggled on through to his scheduled exit but was unable to carry on thereafter. The cast of nine briefly became eight with a lopsided arrangement of a ‘five’ and a ‘three’ but happily there was a man in reserve and the full ensemble was soon re-established. It was a transition so smooth that I doubt more than a handful of the audience will have noticed.

Beaux is a typically stylish Morris minor vehicle with the repetitive motifs of his more recent choreography stamped onto the movement like the mascot on the car’s bonnet, further embossed by another favoured Morris emblem in the dominant harpsichord in the pair of Martinu’s meaty compositions stitched together for the score. The San Francisco of McKenzie’s song was evoked in the all-male ensemble’s leotards – designed by Isaac Mizrahi – being splodged in flower-shaped clusters of vibrant pastel colours, matching a mural backdrop. The gentleness of Mizrahi’s costumes was reflected in movement that was surprisingly tender, particularly in the softening blends of partnering that contrasted with the twin pillars of male virility and virtuosity. But the unfortunate injury led to emergency transitions that triggered uncharacteristic slips and even a mid-stage collision which had a notable impact on complex choreography requiring such a precise geometry of synchronisation.

The middle pair of works were both made by the San Francisco Choreographer in residence, Yuri Possokhov, created roughly a year apart in 2010/11 although they appear not to be even distant cousins.

The first (both in terms of age and programme position) although entitled Classical Symphony after the popular name for Prokofiev’s First Symphony was, in fact, a whirlwind of neoclassicism, very much in the American school of Balanchine, with fast-changing patterns where hyper-flexible modern influences are underscored by traditional ballet steps . It drew a remarkable lead performance from the mercurial Maria Kochetkova, providing an essay of perfection with footwork as agile as a gazelle bouncing over the plain, elegantly contradicted by the undulations of her spine suggesting those steep rolling hills back home. Not many ballerinas can dance like this: fewer still can do so while projecting enough radiance to light up the Golden Gate Bridge. Kochetkova was for a while in the lower ranks of the English National Ballet and is rumoured to have been turned down by The Royal Ballet. Sadder still than never having been to San Francisco is the thought that London let this girl go.

For all that, Classical Symphony was a zesty feast of flowing dance; RAkU was as ragged as the typography in its title. It started well enough with arresting visual imagery and a powerful dance for four warriors, their double tours invariably turning into Taekwondo head kicks. The tall central cabinet they appeared to be guarding opens up to reveal a Japanese princess and her consort (the ballet is apparently based on the true story of the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion). But with the sole exception of Yuan Yuan Tan’s emotionally-charged performance as the “princess” crippled by separation and grief, all this early imagery flattered to deceive. Tan’s simmering intensity was at odds with the flatness around her. It was a pity that the bald wig of her ‘High Priest’ gave his head the same appearance of rigid plasticity as an Action Man doll. An unshakable image that ruined the mood, as indeed did the unnecessary sight of Tan throwing sand around the stage and all over her head. It seemed such a waste of time, effort and talent.

Anything can be instantly forgiven when a company performs a ballet as beautiful as Christopher Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. From start to finish, I was so lost in the lyrical poetry of Wheeldon’s choreography that I failed to write a single note. It was a supreme example of the special alchemy of the choreographer’s art: a blend of wonderful music with the structure and form of a suite of dances that seamlessly rolled through and over each other like molten precious metals. The three central pas de deux were sublimely layered with textures and substance that set them apart but kept them together. When Wheeldon is at his best, his choreography is incomparable and the excellent dancers played their parts superbly in making this a gorgeous finale to the rare pleasure of seeing San Francisco’s finest people in motion.

San Francisco Ballet are at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday 23 September with three mixed programmes.
Full details: www.sadlerswells.com

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs and Dancing Times. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

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