Dance diary. March 2013

  • Luke Ingham

In mid-March I had the pleasure of meeting up in San Francisco with Luke Ingham, former soloist with the Australian Ballet. Ingham and his wife, Danielle Rowe, left Houston Ballet in 2012 to take up other offers. Rowe went to join Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague and Ingham scored a soloist’s contract with San Francisco Ballet. Ingham has already had some great opportunities in San Francisco and my story on his activities is scheduled to appear in the June issue of Dance Australia in the magazine’s series Dancers without borders. Watch out for it.

  • Walter Gore’s The Crucifix

I have always been fascinated by a photograph taken by Walter Stringer of the final scene from Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix. Alan Brissenden, in his and Keith Glennon’s book Australia Dances, reproduces the photograph on page 53, and a print is part of the National Library’s Walter Stringer Collection. Brissenden gives a brief account of the storyline and the reception the ballet received when it was staged in Australia by the National Theatre Ballet in 1952.

Paula Hinton in Walter Gore's 'The Crucifix', 1952Paul Hinton in the final scene of Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix, National Theatre Ballet, Melbourne 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

I have just recently been making a summary of an oral history interview I recorded with Athol Willoughby in February and his recollections of performing in The Crucifix tell us a little more, especially about the final scene, and provide, furthermore, a wonderful example of the value of oral history. Willoughby played the role of one of the soldiers who accompanies the executioner, played by Walter Gore, to the scaffold. He says of the opening performance:

‘The scene changed to a huge [stake] with a lot of fake wood around it … Wally came in carrying Paula … Her hands were tied … and he lifted her onto the [stake]. Just as the symphony ended he picked up a torch—none of us had seen the end of the ballet, even at the dress rehearsal the end of the ballet hadn’t been choreographed and we didn’t know what was going to happen—he picked up a flaming torch and threw it at the pyre of wood. The minute he threw the torch at her the wood lit up, the symphony finished and Paula screamed … It was so powerful.’

  • The Rite of Spring: an animated graphical score

I  have just received the following note and link from composer Stephen Malinowski:
‘The last few months, I’ve been working on an animated graphical score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This week I completed the first part:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02tkp6eeh40
Enjoy!’

  • Pacific Northwest Ballet

In my review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s recent program I mentioned that the show I saw was only the second time I had seen the company in performance. Well that is not quite true. I had the good fortune to see the company in 2007 in Seattle when the program consisted of George Balanchine’s La Sonambula, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement. Certainly a very interesting program.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2013

Featured image: Luke Ingham and Sarah van Patten in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Diary NoteFurther details

‘Guide to Strange Places’, ‘Beaux’, ‘The Rite of Spring’. San Francisco Ballet

10 March 2013, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

In a year that has already seen various dance productions set to Stravinsky’s 100 year old Rite of Spring, and will see more as the year progresses, Yuri Possokhov’s new version for San Francisco Ballet will surely have to count as one of the most dramatic. Full of suspense and tension, the work looks to the subject matter of the original staging, that is the pagan ritual of human sacrifice, for its narrative line.

There was a distinctly Russian feel to the work. Costumes by Benjamin Pierce, with their largely red-toned on white designs (with a touch of spring green), recalled the Roerich originals, and the set, also by Pierce, consisted of a sloping platform upstage, OP side, with a mini-forest of poles representing silver birch trees. Again recalling the original, Possokhov’s choreography, which had the women on pointe, emphasised the down beat in the music and often used parallel or turned-in movements. There the similarities ended, however, as Possokhov made the story his own by emphasising the evil he saw as underlying the story of human sacrifice. His two elders, conjoined as a double personification of evil via a costume of stretch fabric and skeletal additions, drove the piece relentlessly to its inevitable and terrifying conclusion in which the birch trees played a major role as they were dragged down onto the body of the Chosen One.

'The Rite of Spring', San Francisco BalletArtists of San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

What made this work especially mesmerising was the dancing of Possokhov’s tribe of people. They seemed sometimes sexually driven, sometimes just plain obsessed, sometimes filled with fanaticism. They slithered down the ramp. They seemed to side with the elders once the Chosen One had been selected, waving a hand in the air as if agreeing. They danced with the drive that characterises the music and occasionally played along with it by drumming sticks on the ground. It was absolutely absorbing from beginning to end and brilliantly performed.

The middle work was Beaux by Mark Morris, a subtitle for which might be ‘Boys Playing’ or even ‘Beautiful Boys Playing’. Choreographically there were moments that briefly reminded me of Cunningham, especially when the dancers’ upper body was held still and erect with arms stretched straight right through to the palms while the legs executed various movements. But mostly the movement was softly balletic with men partnering men in ways that are usually reserved for men partnering women. Some charming images remain—a line of men resembling cut-out dolls, a wave from one man to the rest of the cast and three men carrying another aloft and running with him across the stage.

Beaux. San Francisco BalletArtists of San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris’ Beaux. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Set and costumes were by New York-based fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. An oversized painting was hung upstage against a plain cloth. Its myriad of organic shapes in orange, lemon and shades of pink overlapped each other and the cloth was lit variously with similar colours. The nine gentlemen in the cast wore high-necked, sleeveless all-overs in similar colours to those of the painting and with similar shapes printed on them. It was a pleasant work but that’s all.

The program opened with Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, which was premiered by San Francisco Ballet in 2012 and which is danced to music of the same name by John Adams. It seemed to be mostly about legs—especially women’s legs—and how and where they can extend, and how they can be manipulated by a partner. San Francisco Ballet’s dancers are beautifully athletic and so they accommodated the hyper-extensions very nicely. But to me it was uninspiring choreography. The fact that it was meant to refer to an old French book called (in English translation) A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence explained its strangeness to a certain extent. But even thinking along these lines couldn’t save it. It had so little to touch the soul.

My soul was touched by Possokhov’s Rite of Spring and I regret that I only had the opportunity to see one performance.

Michelle Potter, 14 March 2013

‘Scotch Symphony’, ‘Within the Golden Hour’, ‘From Foreign Lands’. San Francisco Ballet

09 March 2013 (matinee), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

What a glorious program Helgi Tomasson put together as Program 3 in San Francisco Ballet’s current repertory season. With works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, to me it said the 20th century had a great choreographer in Balanchine but look where the 21st century is heading with Wheeldon and Ratmansky.

This triple bill program opened with Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, a work dating back to 1952. It was more than ably led on this occasion by principals Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan, she in particular combining a crisp technique with an elusive element to her dancing and thus perfectly fitting the role. Scotch Symphony shows the delight Balanchine took in making references to other dance styles and techniques and blending them with the technical strengths of his classically trained dancers and with his own characteristic choreographic patterns. In this case the precise footwork of Highland dancing sat side by side with the floating, beyond-this-world feeling of the Romantic movement in ballet. But always obvious were those unexpected Balanchine groupings and his use of the shapes and spaces thus made to develop new groupings.

The corps de ballet shone throughout, especially the men and especially Diego Cruz and Lonnie Weeks in their leading roles in the corps. They gave their roles real personality and one of them knocked me for six with a fabulous saut de basque with arms in 5th in which the lift to 5th was at least as exciting as the saut de basque. The one jarring area to my mind was the backcloth, a dark grey shadow of a castle structure by Broadway designer Arnold Abramson. To me it captured little of an elusive and blended world that the ballet itself presents.

In the middle of the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, made for San Francisco Ballet in 2008. It is a series of interludes, seemingly unrelated, beginning and ending with sequences for the full cast. In between the beginning and the ending we see a quirky waltz for for a couple, which is picked up almost as it ends by several other couples; a fast and technically demanding duet for two men filled with turns and beats; a pas de deux that scarcely moves through space, a quartet of ladies performing at first as shadows; and a second pas deux that does move around the stage a little more.

Wheeldon’s choreography in Within the Golden Hour mixes ballet technique with all kinds of other styles from ballroom to his own take on contemporary dance. This work was by far the most popular with the audience, who gave it a standing ovation at the matinee I attended. I enjoyed its changing momentum and its quirkiness, but it isn’t a great work.

From Foreign Lands was specially commissioned by San Francisco Ballet from Alexei Ratmansky and had its world premiere on 1 March 2013. The performance I saw was just the ninth show and there were still a few moments when the dancers looked a little unsteady. But what a lovely work it is, exciting to watch, often surprising, often funny, and even redolent at times of those ubiquitous visits we used to have decades ago from groups performing ethnic dances from their homeland. Those tours showed us dancers happily competing with each other to jump higher, turn faster, execute the most difficult steps, and ultimately to win their lady-love.

Made up of six parts, ‘Russian’, ‘Italian’, ‘German’, Spanish’, ‘Polish’ and ‘Hungarian’, From Foreign Lands is performed to an 1884 score by German composer and pianist Morris Moszkowski. The ballet, however, begins in silence with a brief introductory section for the full ensemble of twelve dancers. It suggests to us that dancing is to be the order if the day. But apart from that it is an opportunity to see the charming, tiered, older style tutus (finishing just above the knee) designed by Colleen Atwood. Then follow the six sections, which choreographically are largely quartets, or a variation on the quartet.

San Francisco Ballet in 'From Foreign Lands'San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’  from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Ratmansky’s choreography in this work contains some quite unexpected movement. He drops a supported cartwheel into ‘Spanish’, for example; elsewhere two men perform a simple jump on sequential beats so that they look like pistons going up and down; and occasionally the dancers face each other and dance mirror images. And all this alongside some glorious, ‘straightforward’ classical technique. I found ‘German’ one of the most interesting of the six sections, despite the fact that program notes suggest that it is ‘over-the-top romanticism’. As a quartet for three men and one woman it had a different feel from other combinations and I loved its lushness and the smooth and flowing dancing of Jennifer Stahl.

All in all a wonderfully uplifting program!

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2013

Featured image: San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’ from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Within the Golden Hour