Review: San Francisco Ballet - Programme A

Performance: 14 - 23 Sep 2012
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 17 September 2012

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's 'Divertimento No.15' © Erik Tomasson

Reviewed performance: 14 September
Programme A: Divertimento No. 15 (Mozart / Balanchine); Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninov / Liang); Number Nine (Torke / Wheeldon)

America’s oldest repertory ballet company, San Francisco Ballet, makes a welcome return to the UK this week with its first visit in eight years. The company’s West-coast base is reflected in its healthy mix of white, Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race dancers, but there’s an East-coast feel to this first programme, with contributions from New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine, former NYCB soloist Edwaard Liang and resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

The oldest work leads the programme.Divertimento No 15, created in 1956, is Balanchine in tutus and tiaras rather than Balanchine in unitards, and displays the great man’s skill with musical detail. Set to a Mozart chamber piece of the same name, the choreography reflects the simple complexity of Mozart’s music. Flashing feet and dainty hand gestures pick up runs and flourishes in the music; just as the delicate arrangement of then score leaves no room for error, so the movement at once appears effortless while leaving the dancers totally exposed.

The central series of solo and duet variations best illustrate this principle; each dancer must connect an exacting sequence of piqués and passes without pause, hitting a line here only to move on to another and another as the music flows on. Frances Chung makes beautifully light work of her solo and really looks as if she’s enjoying herself up there; Davit Karapetyan whirls through his leaping solo with an energy and wonderful precision of which Mr B himself would surely have approved.

At the other end of the programme, Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine plays generous tribute to the Balanchine style. It’s there in the grids of performers stepping lightly through conveyor belts of quicksilver footwork and airy arms; it’s there in the big battements for the girls and buoyant leaps for the boys; it’s there in the acid-bright leotards and rehearsal skirts, and in the shade of International Balanchine Blue on the back cyclorama. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of homage, and Number Nine is a vivacious short work with lots of charm that has both audience and performers breaking out in smiles.

The centrepiece of this opening bill is Edwaard Liang’s Symphonic Dances, a long abstract work set to music by Rachmaninov. The piece opens with a pleasing, flame-like motif; dancers dressed in diaphanous gold and orange flicker over the stage with sweeping arms and deep curving arches. Where Balanchine’s choreography (and Wheeldon’s after it) revels in the illusion of simplicity, Liang’s doesn’t even pretend to be easy. Instead, it’s leg-splittingly, back-bendingly, toe-tippingly difficult, full of motifs in which female dancers leap from the floor straight into arcing cantilevered balances which must have taken hours in the studio to perfect.

There’s no question that Liang’s work challenges this company of fine dancers, and that they rise to the challenge with consummate grace (Yuan Yuan Tian is particularly ravishing in her languid duet with Vito Mazzeo). But a few minutes of this elegant eye-candy is more than enough to satisfy; and Liang’s piece continues for many more than a few minutes.

Mixed bills are designed to appeal to a range of tastes, and I’m sure there was appreciation in the audience for the studied languor of Liang’s full-bodied piece. But the dazzling intricacy of Balanchine’s classic work coupled with the sheer flair of SFB’s performance was the evening’s winner for me.

San Francisco Ballet are at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday 23 September with three mixed programmes.
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Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher, as well as a regular contributor to & Arts Professional.

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