February 9, 2010



San Francisco Ballet

Highlights of the Spring Season • War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA • February 9–May 9, 2010 • Reviewed by Rachel Howard


In its 77th year, the San Francisco Ballet stretched its repertory with unexpected acquisitions from both ends of the past century. By far the event of the season was the American premiere of John Neumeier’s evening-length The Little Mermaid, commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005. SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson first fell in love with this surprisingly violent metafictional take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale at a performance by Neumeier’s Hamburg troupe. He took a tremendous gamble bringing it to San Francisco, where Neumeier is little known and European dance-drama is rarely seen.


The risk was rewarded with a rapturous reception for the dazzling, surreal images created by Neumeier’s self-designed sets and costumes, and for breakthrough performances from two of San Francisco’s leading ballerinas. The delicate Yuan Yuan Tan was a natural physical match for the Mermaid’s hyper-flexibility. (Much of the Mermaid’s movement is waist-up; Neumeier dresses the role in trailing Japanese-style trousers that fan out like fins.) More surprising than Tan’s arching back was the grotesque self-abasement of her second act, where she beat at the walls with a gaping mouth, like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream come to life.


Sarah Van Patten was a more human Mermaid, less pliant, but even more extreme in capturing the masochism, throwing herself at the narcissistic prince so despondently that you feared bodily injury. The Little Mermaid is not one of Neumeier’s strongest works—the repetitive storyline drags on, and Lera Auerbach’s grim score is unmemorable—but the whole company looked at home in the boldly theatrical style, and standing ovations suggested the ballet will make a popular return soon.


Less novel to SFB audiences is the work of Christopher Wheeldon, whose fifth commission for the company premiered early in the season. Ghosts combined alluringly haunting elements: a lyrical classical score by rock musician C. F. Kip Winger, diaphanous costumes (by Mark Zappone) that clung like cobwebs, and Laura Jellinek’s enormous over­head sculpture, which shifted ominously now and again, like a restless raptor.


The movement overflowed with formal inventiveness, and yet the choreography seemed to use abstraction as a hedge, gesturing towards deep meaning while denying any evolving relationships among the dancers. When the powerful Sofiane Sylve tore between Tiit Helimets and Brett Bauer, was she a force from time past, or simply a useful dynamic contrast? Why did she eventually soften, except to create resolution? How was this tempest meant to relate to the serenely tender duet for Tan and Damian Smith? (In the second cast this duet was danced beautifully by Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz, both having standout seasons.) Did Wheeldon himself have an idea, or was he hoping we would fill in connections where he had failed to make them?


A few weeks later, on the fourth of eight programs, Fokine’s Petrouchka left behind more intentional and satisfying mysteries. Fokine’s granddaughter Isabelle directed the meticulous restaging of this 1911 Ballets Russes touchstone. The riotously colorful sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois looked resplendent, and the Stravinsky score sounded exuberant. Pascal Molat drew real pathos out of the title’s abused puppet (Nijinksy’s legendary role), while corps member Clara Blanco gave a wide-eyed, creepily disconnected rendition of the ballerina doll who does not requite his love.


Does the Charlatan who denies Petrouchka’s humanity represent an indifferent God against whom we hopelessly rebel? The provocations raised by SFB’s Petrouchka this spring were as dark and irreducible as they must have been at its premiere nearly 100 years ago. But the ballet did not come off as a museum piece; it was alive.


The Ballets Russes heritage is not often interpreted by SFB, where the company’s international roster trades more easily in contemporary athleticism—and indeed, the program closed with a high-voltage revival of William Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated. But the loving performances of Petrouchka revealed a company that prizes innovation past and present, led by an artistic director who nurtures the full artistic range of his dancers.



Necessary Weather

Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC

May 13–15, 2010

Reviewed by Wendy Perron


An oasis of calm, light, and exquisite simplicity, Necessary Weather is a revival of the extraordinary 1994 collaboration between two dancers and a lighting master. Although Dana Reitz came up with the concept, Jennifer Tipton’s lights and Sara Rudner’s dancing contribute equally.

A beautiful restraint guides all decisions. As in a Japanese tea ceremony, each action is completed before the next action begins. You can lavish your attention on each single movement as it happens—so different from other artistic and social stimuli these days.


Circles of light divide the space or sneak up on the dancers. The shadow of one dancer grows large and conceals the dancing of the other. Light/dark is a third character, so this really is a trio, not a duet. The light finds them in the space, tells them what to do, invites them to investigate. They look at their hands in the light as though for the first time. The quality of attention is intensified by silence.


A narrow beam of light falls into the bottom of a straw hat, turning it into a pot of gold. Although the ray comes from above, the light seems to emanate from the inside of the hat, casting a glow on Reitz’s and Rudner’s faces as they hold the hat. And just so the scene doesn’t get too precious, too magical, the two dancers start talking low, as though surrounding a campfire, barely audible. We hear Rudner murmur in delight, “It feels warm now.”


Sometimes they separate, free to explore on their own. Rudner plays havoc, gently flailing her limbs with great spirit. Reitz lounges on her side. A recurring phrase, beginning with pushing of the right hand, palm pressing the air, brings them back together.


The different qualities of their dancing are very much like they were 16 years ago. Reitz is vertical, contained, precise in her gestures, sharp in her shifts. Rudner’s movement is more rounded; she’s dreamy and creamy and full of pleasure. Her physical, emotional, and spiritual selves merge into a single harmony. One’s eyes and heart follow her, whether she is gesturing with a hand or galloping about the space. Rudner is lit from within.



Photo of Yuan-Yuan Tan and Lloyd Riggins in
The Little Mermaid by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.