An Otherworldly Evening: San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3

Leigh Donlan reports from the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco:


San Francisco Ballet's glorious corps in the Kingdom of the Shades from Act II of LA BAYADÈRE (Makarova/Petipa) (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet’s glorious corps in the Kingdom of the Shades from Act II of LA BAYADÈRE (Makarova/Petipa) (Photo: Erik Tomasson)


Twenty-four dancers in white classical tutus descended the shadowed grotto into Solor’s opium-induced dream, stepping into grand arabesques ever high and in unison, an awesome vision to behold. The epochal Kingdom of the Shades from Act II of La Bayadère opened San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 on Wednesday night at the War Memorial House. This legendary scene is no easy feat: the corps must work precisely as a team and if just one person’s leg, arm or head is out of sync with the others, even for a moment, it disrupts the entire visual effect. The SFB corps dancers should be applauded for their accomplished, triumphant entrance.

Minkus’ opulent score and Petipa’s spectacular choreography – staged by the revered Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova – was simply captivating. Davit Karapetyan’s performance as Solor seemed effortless, his leaps drawing much spontaneous applause, and the stunning Yuan Yuan Tan as Nikiya maintained superb command beneath her delicate illusions. Together, however, they lacked chemistry or maybe had an off night, exhibiting some instability in lifts and supported turns, though separately they delivered remarkable performances. Mathilde Froustey turned in a lovely, polished performance as one of the three soloist Shades, perfect in every detail. Simone Messmer was strong though at times rushed, and Sasha De Sola pulled off her solo confidently, but with a tendency toward “all legs.” I would have liked to have seen a softer and more fluid upper body from both of them, particularly in this most classical and ethereal of works.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's GHOSTS (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s GHOSTS (Photo: Erik Tomasson)


While the Kingdom of the Shades is simple and stark, Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts is complex and multilayered, from the couplings and linear formations, to the rhythms and undertones, set to an equally complex musical score by C.F. Kip Winger. This abstract dance seemed to have a lot of people scratching their heads – though when I considered it as a tribute to 9/11, it made more sense, especially the monstrous steel sculpture (by Laura Jellinek) that slowly descended toward the stage. Wheeldon’s mixture of neoclassical and contemporary styles remained graceful through quick and drastic directional changes. He is an expert at showing off and celebrating the lines of the body. The women looked like water nymphs in long flowing silvery skirts and green tops, with loosely secured hair. Many complicated steps filled the downtime, not really going anywhere, which made me appreciate the pas de deux and trois when they finally arrived. Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz delivered a soft and harmonious performance that almost warranted an emotional response but didn’t quite get there, while Lorena Feijoo, Gaetano Amico and Ruben Martin Cintas’ pas de trois – urgent and forceful as they leapt over and slid under each other like crashing waves – produced a sense of numbness that was never alleviated.

Pascal Molat as the deliciously evil Kaschei in Possokhov's FIREBIRD (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Pascal Molat as the deliciously evil Kaschei in Possokhov’s FIREBIRD (Photo: Erik Tomasson)


Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird ended the evening on a high note. In this playful reimagining of another beloved classic, Luke Ingham turned in a spectacular performance as the multi-faceted Prince Ivan, suspicious of the madness swirling around him, yet lovable, and James Sofranko was an irresistible force as the evil Kaschei. Sure to move up the company ranks quickly is corps dancer Grace Shibley who, as the princess, showed insightful artistry with her musical sensibilities and careful nuance. But it was Jennifer Stahl who won our hearts in the title role. Her fierce portrayal of the determinedly free spirit displayed a technical mastery and voracious attack, even as she maintained a strikingly supple épaulement. I wondered if she had any bones in her back during her many backbends.

Ming Luke conducted the gorgeous Stravinsky score, the heart of the performance, bringing the finale’s crescendo of ecstatic woodwinds and bashing cymbals to a spectacular close.

An evening of spirits, sometimes haunting but always wondrous.
– As usual, Carla and Leigh find themselves squabbling over this program. CLICK HERE for Carla’s take on Program 3, seen on opening night with a slightly different cast and reviewed in Bachtrack. –

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