San Francisco Ballet | Photo by Lindsay Thomas.
SF Ballet’s next@90 Festival Makes The Future Of Ballet Look Bright
Attending the 90th anniversary gala for San Francisco Ballet(SFB) and the next@90 Festival was a momentous occasion. Their gala is one of the largest and most glamorous events for ballet lovers in the country and next@90 is a three part event that features 9 world premiers by innovative choreographers hailing from across the globe. This alone is enough to delight any balletomane, but for me, it was significant on even deeper levels.
This season marks my own fifteen year connection to SFB. I joined their school during their 75th anniversary season. I was a naive kid who had only been dancing for 6 months and somehow finagled my way into this world class institution. I was immediately struck with the beauty of the War Memorial Opera House, the incredible talent of the dancers, and the grandiose level of production that the company is able to put on. Fifteen years later, surrounded by the grandeur of the gala instead of the grit of the classroom, I was still in awe.
GARLAND / ROBERTS / ROWE PREMIERES
The first rep of the three part next@90 Festival opened with a rep of works by Robert Garland, Jamar Roberts, and Danielle Rowe. The energy in the theater was palpable. The audience was littered with prominent figures and directors from the ballet world and the feeling that something exciting was about to happen.
The evening began with Haffner Serenade by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s soon-to-be Artistic Director, Robert Garland. Julia Rowe and Esteban Hernandez danced the central roles in Haffner and did so with beautifully articulate technique and charm. Garland was inspired to create a work expressing joy and drawing inspiration from his mentor, the late Arthur Mitchell. The emphasis on classical technique and the unfettered lightness in each step made for a joyous tribute to that mentor and founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Next up was Jamar Roberts’ Resurrection – a loosely narrative driven work. Roberts’ says in the playbill, “I don’t do ‘story ballets,’ I don’t do these sort of linear narratives, but it just kind of happened”. His loosely structured approach to narrative is on display here; we are aware that there is a central and powerful female figure and perceive a sense of community on stage but what shines brightest through the piece is the movement phrases. They were rhythmic, physical, articulate, and left you wanting to see more.
And then something magical happened – the type of moment that makes a festival like next@90 unforgettable. It was MADCAP by Australian born but now San Francisco native, Danielle Rowe. Rowe took us into a strange world of circus performers following the journey of a central figure, danced by Tiit Helimets. Jennifer Stahl brilliantly guides us through this bizarre journey using a dynamic movement quality and eerie live narration. The gorgeous sets and costumes by Emma Kingsbury further immerse us in this nonsensical world. Every single element was uncannily strange; a world so completely cohesive that one could not help but get lost in it. As the curtain went down the audience collectively leapt to their feet and exploded in applause and cheers.
Tiit Helimets as the king, dancing with Jennifer Stahl and Sasha De Sola (left) in Bridget Breiner’s The Queen’s Daughter/ San Francisco Ballet | Photo by Lindsay Thomas.
CANIPAROLI / BREINER / OISHI PREMIERES
The second night of premiers featured works by Val Caniparoli, Bridget Breiner, and Yuka Oishi. The opening piece was Caniparoli’s Emergence, an abstract commentary on the COVID-19 crisis. The cast of 8 dancers started dancing in individually to the voice of a performer talking about the struggles faced during the pandemic and the unique challenges as things return to a new normal. From there the lush score by Dobrinka Tabakova comes in and Caniparoli took us into sweeping duets and group sections. Caniparoli’s experience as a long standing choreographer was apparent through his use of a solid structure and a fresh feeling.
Bridget Breiner’s The Queen’s Daughter was next on the program. The Queen’s Daughter took us on a narrative journey of Solome, often portrayed as a femme fatale or manipulated girl, from a female perspective. The biblical story of Salome, a girl who danced so beautifully before the evil king Herod that he swore to give her whatever she may ask for as a gift. After conferring with her mother who saw a chance for personal vengeance, Salome asked for the head of the religious prisoner John the Baptist to be brought to her on a platter. Herod balked, but a vow had been made. Who knew that the wishes of beautiful dancing maidens could be so brutal and bloody? Here Sasha De Sola in the role of Solome exhibited a power and depth that made the narrative crystal clear no matter one’s familiarity with the tale. The warm reaction from the audience spoke for itself.
Closing out the evening was Yuka Oishi’s rendition of Bolero. Choreographing to such a well-known piece of music with so many previous iterations is a bold move. Oishi tackled the challenge with a unique approach which integrated projections as a backdrop to the dancing. The work began during the intermission and the dancers slowly filled the stage in oversized gray suits. Oishi was interested in exploring the connectedness of all things from a molecular to a universal level. This allowed for some lovely visual explorations of movement and formation woven in with the graphic projections and sleek unitards that were eventually revealed.
Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham (left) with Sasha De Sola and Wei Wang in Nicolas Blanc’s Gateway to the Sun/ San Francisco Ballet | Photo byLindsay Thomas.
BLANC / SCHREIER / POSSOKHOV PREMIERES
The final night of premiers featured works by Claudia Schreier, Nicolas Blanc, and Yuri Possokhov. A program order change had the evening opening with Claudia Schreier’s Kin. The curtain went up and the stage was filled with energy, gorgeous lifts, and energetic bounds by dancers. This work was a feast for the eyes. Dores Andre and Wanting Zhao were the female leads entangled in a definite but unknown power dynamic. Understandably during a run of 9 world premiers in the span of a week, I felt that this piece would have really shone with a bit more rehearsal time.
Following Kin was Nicholas Blanc’s Gateway to the Sun. The dancers of SFB danced phenomenally throughout the entire festival, and the choreography of Blanc fused a fresh softness and virtuosity that further showcased the dancers. We follow Principal Dancer Max Cauthorn through a journey of different choreographic sections intended to represent different emotions inspired by his poetry. The concept is concise enough, yet fluid enough, to really work, making one wonder if all the details were captured by our eyes or if some tantalizing detail was missed.
Closing out the evening was Violin Concerto by SFB Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. Possokhov too made a bold musical choice; Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. George Balanchine choreographed an iconic work to this score in 1972 that Possokhov danced many times himself. This Violin Concerto felt like a love letter of appreciation for the great score. The stage featured partitions with ballet barres as the backdrops for projections of Stravinsky. The choreography displayed Possokhov signature dynamically neo-classical style and showcased the Principals, Soloists, and Corps dances beautifully.
Witnessing the next@90 Festival truly felt like a glimpse into a hopeful future for this artform. Seeing the diverse group of not only choreographers but designers, composers, and contributors makes one feel like ballet can continue to evolve and reflect all of us that love it.
At the end of the season opening gala, San Francisco Ballet’s new Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, greeted the audience to say,
“The future of ballet starts now, HERE, at San Francisco Ballet. We know that ballet has the power to transform our culture and change the world for the better. It has had a colossal influence on fashion, music, literature, architecture, and every art form throughout history. And here in 2023, I invite us all to think even bigger about what ballet can do to harness our imagination and dream big.
I encourage you all to share and spread the word that things are happening here at SF Ballet, so we can reach out and touch as many people as possible with this wonderful art form. Together, we will ensure that the impact of our first ninety years is just beginning and that our dreamed exciting future becomes a reality.”
She spoke in such a heartfelt and earnest manner that the entire opera house could not help but to feel and believe these inspiring words. With the talent, passion, and leadership at hand the next chapter for SFB feels bright.
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