San Francisco Ballet’s 80th season (http://www.sfballet.org) began with a bang Tuesday night in the War Memorial Opera House. The curtain went up on a scene so vast and striking it must have defied company photographer Erik Tomasson’s camera because I cannot find a picture in the press portfolio.
To make up for that, here’s the same scene (or as much as will get into the frame) from a similar production of Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” at the Paris Opera Ballet. Isn’t it fabulous? A hearty mixture of the iconic opening picture of George Balanchine’s 1934 “Serenade” (http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/03/09/arts/09maca-600.jpg) and a Busby Berkeley spectacular (http://loveandzombies.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/berkeley5.jpg), it showed some 40 massed white-clad dancers, some seemingly in midair, holding beautiful poses.
It’s hard to believe that Lifar’s 1943 neoclassic work had to wait seven decades to make its San Francisco debut, but at least when the time came, it was done to the nines.
Staged by a world-class expert, Maina Gielgud, with Ronald Bates’ lighting design (which made those floating figures on black platforms possible), and Martin West conducting Edouardo Lalo’s lilting score (written for another ballet, but eminently suitable for this one), “Suite en Blanc” was executed expertly by a superb cast.
Among the many featured roles, Vanessa Zahorian, Frances Chung, Yuan Yuan Tan stood out in ensembles; Maria Kochetkova shone in “Flute” (along with principal flute Barbara Chaffe), followed by Davit Karapetyan’s regal Mazurka. But beyond individual performances, it was ensemble pictures and the corps’ consistent work that made an indelible impression.
No greater contrast can be presented with Lifar’s languid, gentle, myrthful classicism than the world premiere on the program of Wayne McGregor’s “Borderland” – a kinetic-geometric-athletic onslaught, to pounding electronic music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney.
The same huge San Francisco cast, which had just shown itself the equal of Russian and French hothouses of neoclassical finesse, now proved its gymnastic magnificence.
McGregor’s work – said by the choreographer to have been inspired by Josef Albers’ abstract works of chromatic interactions with nested squares – might have said more to an audience unfamiliar for the past three decades with such William Forsythe masterpieces as “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.”
Forsythe and others in the 1980s and ’90s have full explored the then-novelty of dancers walking, running, and twisting themselves into absurd shapes; there might have been some new contributions to dance in “Borderland,” but on first viewing, I failed to see them.
And yet, the dancers made it all amazing, and the variety of the electronic score (with a super-amplified piano and a somewhat kitschy choral finale) stood the comparison well with Forsythe-composer Thom Willems’ powerful, rigorous, and remorseless electronic scores.
Separating wisely and prettily the opening and closing works, came another revival of Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night,” in Anita Paciotti’s staging and with Roy Bogas’ gorgeous Chopin piano score. It offered a sextet of company greats: Zahorian, Sofiane Sylve, Lorena Feijoo, Ruben Martin, Tiit Helimets, and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba.
For those who cannot find something to treasure on Program 1, the fault is not in the stars but in ourselves.