San Francisco Ballet’s Energy and Freedom of Movement is Clear

United KingdomUnited Kingdom San Francisco Ballet, Programme C (choreography by Welch, Scarlett, Peck): Principals, Soloists and Corps de ballet of San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Martin West (conductor). Sadler’s Wells, London, 5.6.2019. (JO’D)

San Francisco Ballet’s Hummingbird (c) Erik Tomasson

Choreography – Stanton Welch, Liam Scarlett, Justin Peck

Music – Johann Sebastian Bach, Violin Concerto in A Minor; Philip Glass, Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; M83: Anthony Gonzalez, Yann Gonzalez, Bradley Laner, Justin Meldal-Johnson

Programme C of San Francisco Ballet’s London season, the third of their four triple bills, opened with a ballet about ballet, but ballet with ‘a dying fall’. Stanton Welch’s crepuscular Bespoke (2018), to a violin concerto by Bach, is about ‘time passing’. It starts with a male dancer in what could be the adage section of a ballet class. Other dancers enter from the wings and from the darkness at the back of the stage. Sasha De Sola’s musicality in pirouettes and chaîné turns; the port de bras of Carlo Di Lanno and Mathilde Froustey (delicate and melting, respectively); the energy of Esteben Hernandez: they are all there to be appreciated before the dancers sink to the floor in turn to represent, in too literal a way perhaps, the brevity of their careers.

In keeping with the focus on the female dancer that pervades his work, Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird (2014), which followed, starts with a woman (Sasha De Sola) who stands centre stage on a metallic floor, her back to the audience. The man who joins her (Angelo Greco) makes a surprising entrance by sliding down a partially obscured backstage ramp, then comes to the front with a self-satisfied swagger. The subsequent pas de deux, to the rhythmic regularity of Philip Glass, is the first of three, colour-coded pas de deux (blue-green, cream, gun-metal grey) around which the work is arranged.

An interesting feature of the piece is the awareness shown by each pair of dancers of the pair who comes to replace them. If the first pas de deux has been combative but playful, Sasha De Sola seems to understand that the next, by Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham, is going to be a more serious affair. Liam Scarlett has acknowledged the influence of Frederick Ashton’s use of épaulement on his choreography. He may also be indebted, here, to Ashton’s use of the corps de ballet.

While Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham work through their problematic relationship, six female dancers lie as if in sympathy at the top of the backstage ramp. After the climax, as Yuan Yuan Tan walks away from her partner, they too come to the front of the stage. Like Swans or Wilis, like the friends of The Young Girl in Ashton’s The Two Pigeons (1960), they both deepen and soften the heroine’s sorrow by making it universal: the corps de ballet as Everywoman (as Jennifer Homans describes it in her book, Apollo’s Angels). During the applause, several women in the audience paid Yuan Yuan Tan the homage of a standing ovation.

For Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2018) the dancers wear sneakers. In 2013, when Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project came to Sadler’s Wells, the Justin Peck piece they performed began with sneakers, arranged in a circle, which the dancers ran on to the stage to claim. ‘Sneakers create a different posture and approach to dance,’ the choreographer says in the San Francisco Ballet programme note. They allow the dancers ‘to take greater risks’.

Circles are still important in this choreographer’s work, too. At the start of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and again towards the end, the dancers appear in circular formation, unified and equal. What they do in between, in their sneakers and their shiny ‘street’ clothes, is a little difficult to see. Backstage spotlights, at floor level, point directly towards the auditorium. Even so, on a stage that is deconstructed as if to represent an urban ‘non place’, and to electronic sound by M83 music project, the dancers’ energy and freedom of movement is clear. Both are undercut by an unexpectedly bittersweet farewell. It comes as no surprise to read in the programme notes that Justin Peck is currently choreographing the Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story.

John O’Dwyer

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