Four choreographers, four exterior locations, one piece of music: SF Ballet @ Home’s Dance of Dreams

United StatesUnited States Dance of Dreams: Dancers of San Francisco Ballet in a new dance film (click here) for SF Ballet @ Home by Benjamin Millepied for San Francisco Ballet and premiered on 13.8.2020. (JO’D)

Choreography – Justin Peck, Dwight Rhoden, Janie Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon

Director – Benjamin Millepied

Music – Bernard Herrmann, Vertigo Suite: III. Scène d’Amour (music was individually recorded by SF Ballet musicians and mixed by music director Martin West)

Dancers – Joseph Walsh, Ellen Rose Hummel, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Frances Chung, Madison Keesler, Benjamin Freemantle

Four choreographers, four exterior locations, one piece of music. The choreographers are Justin Peck, Dwight Rhoden, Janie Taylor and Christopher Wheeldon; the San Francisco locations a brutalist rooftop in sunlight, an expanse of damp concrete near the Golden Gate Bridge, a clifftop walk with a sea view, and the Rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts.  A suite from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo floats over the successive solos and pas de deux, which are filmed in a way that enhances its dreamlike atmosphere of desire.

San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, commissioned this six-minute-long film for dancers of his company to give audiences ‘the feeling of dancers still moving and dancing during this horrible time we’re living through’. L.A. Dance Project’s Artistic Director, Benjamin Millepied, who chose the music and directed the film, makes the camera almost as mobile as the dancers. It circles and swoops. The editing is fluent, and an often washed out look to the backgrounds of sky, sea and buildings constantly reflect the oneiric qualities of the soundtrack.

Joseph Walsh, on the rooftop, is dressed like Gene Kelly but moves with the nonchalant self-awareness of Fred Astaire. In Justin Peck’s trademark sneakers (which the choreographer says allow ‘greater risks’) he runs, he turns, he performs plié and arabesque, he leans backward. The Coit Tower stands enigmatically on its hill in the distance.

Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira must have got up very early in the morning to dance the duet by Dwight Rhoden in a blueish light and with the Golden Gate Bridge seen through mist behind them. The choreography responds to the music expansively, energetically, especially in its final lift as the music soars. The figure of another early riser, looking out at the water over railings, comes into view once or twice. Strange that he wasn’t edited out, but he adds to the sense of the exterior, the urban landscape as a setting for dance.

Frances Chung seems almost precariously placed for the solo by Janie Taylor on the clifftop walk. It is only her control of balance as she folds and unfolds her limbs that reassures you. Wearing colours that echo those of Joseph Walsh in his rooftop solo, on this windy ledge she dances out her dream.

Surrounded by urns and arches, Madison Keesler and Benjamin Freemantle perform a closing pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon. Starting off with circular runs, it becomes increasingly complex, even fussy. At its ungainly climax the dancers are, once again in this choreographer’s work, all knees and ankles.

If this section disappoints, it does not really matter. Bernard Herrmann’s music continues into the credits, and the film is so short one is still remembering the heady moment the camera rushes up behind Joseph Walsh to look out over his shoulder at a view of San Francisco that evokes the city of Vertigo in 1958, and also a city in lockdown in 2020.

John O’Dwyer

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