SF Ballet – Program 3

SF Ballet Program 3
February 15, 2020
War Memorial Opera House,SF

Talent…Terpsichore Trauma

The SF Ballet displays no end of technical ability. It is gratifying to see both young and ‘older’ dancers in such fine shape, amazing audiences night after night with their skills. The SF Ballet Orchestra, under conductor Martin West produces marvelous music.

Although Director Helga Thomasson, has, year after year, enlisted choreographers from around the world to refresh the company’s repertory, the choreographic offering are often limited. For Program 3 of the 2020 season, a new work, “The Big Hunger” by Trey McIntyre, left audiences in confusion, while “The Infinite Ocean” by choreographer Edwaard Liang (from the 2018 Unbound season) was inventive and pleasing.

The set of “The Big Hunger” is one then another “No Exit” sign. Before it, three couples dance ‘pas de duex’ each proclaiming more and more difficult organization. Sasha De Sola and Max Cauthron executed the first; Sasha Mukkhamedove and Steven Morse the second. The duets grow more and more brutal. McIntyre says (in program notes), “Eventually all those things just crumble into a pile.” Yet the dancers’ skill prevails.

Most disconcerting is the appearance of lines of ‘goon’ men with floppy wigs on their heads who enter and exit at intervals through the “Exit” openings. The wigs changed from red to black. There is another duet for Cavan Conley and Lonnie Weeks in long grey coats, an added sequence which does not clarify the scenario. This reviewer is used to theatrical complexity, but neither the sequences nor the plot elements satisfied. What saved the piece was the extraordinary performance of Prokoviev’s Piano ConcertoNo.2 in G Minor, Op. 16, Yekwon Sunwoo, pianist. McIntyre has perhaps attempted a scenario that he cannot realize despite the dancers’ skills.

The Infinite Ocean” was seen in the Unbound program of 2018. The dancers face a blazing orb (scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols, lighting by James F. Ingalls). On stage an uphill riser provides an ultimate exit. Intense duets executed by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helmets, then Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno. The work is informed by a message choreographer Edwaard Liang received some time before from a dying friend:  “I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.” The message is philosophically compelling, but Liang is able to realize the choreographic challenge.

Program 3 ended with “Etudes” a study in ballet technique. It is an old work first performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948. It could most profitably offered as a “curtain raiser” in a short program. In “Etudes” we see the entire process of ballet training; the long sequences at the barre; romantic quotes from “Les Sylphdes”; and bravura skills from men jumping, women turning and the corps in perfect coordination.

Misa Kuranaga, Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez and Cavan Conley as soloists kept the audience applauding after the execution of each powerful skill. Yet, since the evening demanded so much, it was more than enough.

The 2020 season will offer two familiar ballets, “Midsummer’s Night Dream” (Balanchine) and the brilliant “Jewels” (Balanchine). These are greatly anticipated as skillful choreographic works that provide great satisfaction with the ballet art form.

Joanna G. Harris

The Infinite Ocean” Ballet by Edwaard Liang


SF Ballet – (Re)Visions

SF Ballet Program 2
Season 2020
February 11, 2020
SF Opera House

(Re) Visions

SF Ballet has made quick program changes for the 2020 season. For the opening of Program 2, Mark Morris’ “Sandpiper Ballet was the major concluding work on the program, preceded by “Director’s Choice(s)”.. For the February 11 evening, the choices were “Foreshadow”, Val Caniparoli’s trio of characters from “Anna Karenina”; “Pas de duel” from “After the Rain” by Christopher Wheeldon and “Soréess Musicales” by director Helgi Thomasson.

Of this selection, “After the Rain” emptying the talents of Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham was the most successful. To music by Arvo Part, the duet established a new dimension of lyricism for Tan and noble partnering by Ingham. The piece is slow moving, even sentimental, a sober quiet performance by two established artists. Tan transcended her acrobatic skills and was nobly supported by her partner.

Best of the program was Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke” to Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, brilliantly performed by violinist Cordula Merks and the SF Ballet Orchestra. Six couples enter and leave the stage in exuberant long dance phrases, sometimes partnered and sometimes solo, joining together with trios and the entire ensemble.

It is the silent solo by Esteban Hernandez that starts the piece; then the orchestra picks up his energy. It is arresting and exciting and the audience anticipates each time Hernandez reappears with his wonderful focus and superb jumps. All the men are capable of such technique and the women are swift and sure in long locomotor patterns that whisk across the stage. Frances Chung, sometimes partnered by Hernandez and often solo, again, for this reviewer, stole the show.

Caniparoli’s “Foreshadow” with Jennifer Stahl (Karenina), Tiit Helmets (Vronsky) and Elizabeth Powell (Kitty) is a lyrical introduction to the famous characters. the dynamics are established, but the work does not develop the tensions necessary to bring the drama to fulfillment. Perhaps it just needs to be extended.

Mark Morris intrudes into the ballet world and seems to make audiences happy. For “Sandpiper Ballet” he uses the familiar music of Leroy Anderson; everyone can leave humming. Twenty-five dancers in Mizrahi green/blue costumes fill the stage for 35 minutes displaying Morris’ “tricks of the trade:” extensive geometric patterns, lots of acrobatic leaps and lifts and a sight gag now and then. (The downstage left corner of the line-up welcomes a dancer who is late to get in line.) A fellow audience member, admiring the work, nevertheless remarked that the ‘greenbeans’ on stage got a bit tiresome to watch.

SF Ballet’s 2020 season as (Re) Visions is off the a lively start. The soloists, primarily the men, and some of the women dancers are brilliant; the corps de ballet well trained. There will be more Dance Innovations in the weeks to come before full-length programs follow.

Kudos as always to the fabulous SF Ballet Orchestra, Martin West conductor, The orchestra’s ability too go from Bach to Anderson in one evening deserves special applause.

Joanna G. Harris

Mark Morris’ “Sandpiper Ballet


Sharp & Fine Company

Just Ahead is Darkness
Sharp and Fine Company
Z Space Theater
February 7 – 9, 2020

Memory and Celebration

Sharp & Fine is a San Francisco based contemporary dance company founded in 2011 by sisters Megan and Shannon Kurashige. Their aim is “to create narrative performance work that brings together physical exuberant choreography, emotionally nuanced text, live music and multi-disciplinary collaboration.“ (quote from program notes)

For the most part they succeed with an extremely talented group of dancers and musicians. The thematic material of “just Ahead is Darkness” concerns family life, death, and memory. It draws on the “Japanese and Japanese-American tradition of remembering the dead to tell a poignant and magical take about family, love, loss and the eternal return of ghosts.”

There are two stories. The first, featuring dancers Sonja Dale (child), Sarah Woods-LaDue (mother), Chistian Burns (father), Megan and Shannon Kuashige (aunties) involves the father and daughter sharing infatuation with the starry night. After the father’s death, he returns as a ghost and haunts the family’s memory. Burns is a particularly interesting dancer, able to perform extremely articulate dramatic movement with his arms and legs as extensions of his torso. Dale and Woods-LaDue both have great range of movement skills and dramatic ability.

All dancers execute long phrases of movement combining ballet, modern dance and contact improvisation skills. These are accompanied by dramatic dialogues and monologues which can be beautiful and sentimental. Alas, there are too many movement phrases, mostly with the same dynamic and also spoken interludes which(at this event suffered from technical difficulties in the sound system.

The second story, introduced by a long monologue by Tristan Ching Hartman as “Death” tells the story of a boy who, holding a rock in water for a long time, nevertheless, drowned. Hartman’s descent from an upstage right staircase was an arresting, breathtaking event, as was Woods-LaDue’s similar action carrying the rock. Again, family story telling and long interactive movement phrases amplified the memories and sentiment.

At the start of the program and at an interval, the company danced with members of audience as if to bring memories with them. These events were prelude to the demonstration of “Fukushima Ondo” by Kay Fukumoto, Brian Nagami and Jen Sumida of Maui Taiko during which most of the audience danced. This last event celebrated the Obon festival that Megan and Shannon experience in Hawaii. Shannon writes; “Bon dances are part family reunion, part ritual…but mostly about bringing people tougher.” That celebration and the festival of food that graced the end of the evening in the lobby, surely accomplished her aim.

Musicians Steve Adams (woodwinds), Jordan Glenn (percussion), John Schoot (guitar) and Cory Wright (woodwinds) deserve special recognition for their excellent accompaniment.

Technical credits include Allen Willner (lights), Emily Kurashige (costumes) and Mika Hamamura, Jason Kurashige and Jon Hamamura (scentic design and production). Bravo!

Joanna G. Harris

Sarah Woods-LaDue (Mother), with rock, and Christian Burns (Father) in Just Ahead is Darkness. Photo by Stephen Texeira.