Tuesday was a glorious night for ballet at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Sparkling footwork on a brightly lit stage for George Balanchine's tutu and technique ballet to Mozart music opened the program. In the middle a light, small-scale dance for three men fleshed out the clarity and precision of the other two works. William Forsythe's Artifact Suite was a ballet-lover's dream, and a Balanchine lover's contemporary dream, come true.
The layout of this evening's program illuminated the aesthetic lineage from Balanchine to Forsythe, with time to breathe and absorb between them. Neoclassicism of the syncopated, off-balance développés and arabesques in Divertimento's many solo variations were performed in a tone of pleasant neutrality common to much non-narrative work in the genre of "contemporary" dance which the piece was in 1956, and as it still looks today. Balanchine's use of classical vocabulary in amplified physicality and detailed musicality extended the range of performance possibilities for ballet-based movement. Forsythe's Artifact Suite made use of the entire individual body—especially the back—and the power of many dancers to further explore ballet's potential. From Divertimento to Artifact we witnessed a progression from Balanchine to ultra-Balanchine investigation of form.
Divertimento's eight corps and eight principal dancers were costumed identically (simply adorned short white tutus for women, light blue tights and jackets for men) and therefore indistinguishably by rank. Everyone had difficult dancing to do in solos or featured corps work but challenging steps were seamlessly integrated and moved the ballet forward. Sections of pas de deux overlap, partners swap, and it is the total design of the ballet that becomes featured. Rather than no one standing out, however, most everyone did—even individuals within group sections, which made for a shining collective cast.
Among the principal variations, Katita Waldo had luscious, bending upper body movement and communicated full command of the choreography by completing lines of the body with her head and eyes. Frances Chung was perky and sharp in her solo work, while Rachel Viselli took daring strides sending herself to the edge of her balancing point. Vanessa Zahorian was securely placed in brilliant technique. Nicolas Blanc danced with spring and power while maintaining a warm ease in transitioning to countless turns or gracious partner work. Kristin Long performed electric and legible footwork at the beginning of her quick-paced variation.
One hundred percent excellence in the corps, with particularly strong-footed jumps, demonstrated why the group in fact comprises the body of the ballet. The dancers looked like intelligent, thoughtful beings making individual artistic choices while fulfilling their responsibility as a cohesive group to provide structural foundation for the work. Their eye contact and acknowledgement of one another as well as their attention to their positions and pathways through space created a clear and vibrant moving picture.
Artifact's corps of twenty-five far outnumbered its two principle couples and female soloist, and it was difficult to take an eye away from them for an instant of the ballet. In what could be viewed as a near reversal of the hierarchical politics seen in 19th Century Imperial Russian ballet, the masses of the corps shared importance with the principals onstage during Artifact. They completed a series of gestures performed in unison that visually overpowered the nuance and busyness of the also-excellent principal couples, Muriel Maffre with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Lorena Feijoo with Pascal Molat.
Forsythe's 48-minute piece is performed in two main sections, the first part to Bach and the second to music by the late Eva Crossman-Hecht, composer and former pianist with the Frankfurt Ballet. The dancers wore pea soup colored leotards and tights, with the principal women in the same colored leotards and black tights. The stage was empty of not only scenery but also wings, so that every inch of space was given over to the dancing. The corps often formed a box that created a perimeter (the sides and back, with the face nearest the audience left open), or consumed the space in long diagonal lines. Elana Altman as the Single Female Figure led the cast from downstage center, facing the stage with her back to the audience, like the conductor of the orchestra, while the group watched her carefully to follow her movement directions.
Several times throughout the piece a black drop came down with a crash, bluntly cutting off the audience's view of the play of action onstage in what seemed like the middle of a choreographic idea. The drop would lift again shortly, with the stage totally reorganized. Sometimes dancers changed formation and other times many people exited or entered the space. Between segments of music there was a pause with dim house lighting while music from the first segment continued softly.
These interruptions by the black drop were frustrating at first because someone else was making a choice about what we were and were not seeing. It brought to mind censorship of art and expression. After a few of these changes, however, one became used to the idea that segments didn't have to finish in a neat tableau or with coordination of music and dance stopping at the fall of a curtain. Perhaps there was no more to be said about that section, and for efficiency's sake the audience should have absorbed what it could while it was available.
The drops also provided a minute to consider each interval. During the pause between music selections, the audience burst into conversation with seat-neighbors. It was a perfect opportunity to exchange reactions and hear another's interpretation, then be immediately re-immersed in the work with a new perspective in mind.
During the post-pause segment I started to notice Forsythe's ultra-Balachine aesthetic. An elated group tendu section with heads to the sky, spines in full arches and extremities extreme looked like an exaggerated version of some of Balanchine's tendu celebrations. A large-scale corps diagonal lines and box formations are full of the step in Balanchine's Symphony in C. Forsythe quoted other Balanchine ballets recognizable by some of their signature steps, such as jogging from Rubies and a pull back from the standing leg in arabesque from Agon's men's sections. Crossman-Hecht's piano music, played by soloist Margot Kazimirska, at one point sounded like the low and pounding finale of Balanchine's The Four Temperaments to Paul Hindemith's score. Groups of dancers played all the parts of the music in space, visualizing its many components and characteristics.
Near the exciting and tumultuous end of Artifact, barefoot and barelegged Altman danced in a space-contained frenzy, finally facing front after directing somewhat in the shadows through most of the ballet. The movement looked like a loose and energetic sketch, full of squiggly lines and opposing the order of crisp corps lines and patterns. She looked like Fortuna (or an angry ballet mistress), having earlier controlled the motions of the other dancers onstage and now dealing out their fates.
The curtain closes for its final time on Artifact leaving one desperately wishing to see the ballet all over again, starting right away. Two separate viewings—one for the principals and one for the corps patterns—are the minimum necessary to untangle the visual and musical gems throughout the work. Perhaps this is why the Artifact Suite has returned to San Francisco Ballet this year for its second consecutive season in the repertory.
Dancers for Divertimento No. 15: Frances Chung, Kristin Long, Rachel Viselli, Katita Waldo, Vanessa Zahorian, Nicholas Blanc, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Gennadi Nedvigin.
With Dores Andre, Maureen Choi, Courtney Elizabeth, Dana Genshaft, Shannon Roberts, Lily Rogers, Jennifer Stahl, Courtney Wright.
For Aunis: Garrett Anderson, Rory Hohenstein, James Sofranko.
For Artifact Suite: Elana Altman, Garrett Anderson, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Maureen Choi, Courtney Elizabeth, Nicole Grand, Hayley Farr, Lorena Feijoo, Rory Hohenstein, Margaret Karl, Muriel Maffre, Pauli Magierek, Jonathan Mangosing, Brian Malek, Erin McNulty, Joanna Mednick, Pascal Molat, Brooke Moore, Mariellen Olson, Aaron Orza, Joseph Phillips, Shannon Roberts, Lily Rogers, Garen Scribner, Anthony Spaulding, James Sofranko, Matthew Stewart, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, Quinn Wharton, Courtney Wright.