Leigh Donlan reports from the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco:
San Francisco Ballet presented the world première of Liam Scarlett’s Hummingbird on Tuesday night, a beautifully human work of massive proportions from the twenty-eight year old British choreographer and current Artist in Residence at The Royal Ballet. The program’s other two works included Serge Lifar’s picture-perfect Suite en Blanc, and a revival of The Fifth Season, Helgi Tomasson’s musings on music and movement.
Though full of the same balletic grandeur that makes up the evening, Hummingbird is deeply emotional, due in part to the Philip Glass score: his Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, conducted by Martin West. John Macfarlane’s massive, abstractly painted canopy vaguely resembled a rain soaked window that, when retracted, exposed a large gray ramp. Three duets connected the dance, the women in full-skirted, simple dresses of gray, white and blue with their color coordinated partners in sleek, modern shirts and pants. The women of the duets appear to be heartbroken and angry, though the cause of their anguish is never identified. Yuan Yuan Tan’s wounded woman was mesmerizing – I have never seen her give such an emotional performance. Her partner, Luke Ingham, was powerfully tender and intuitive. One notable scene had Tan frustrated to the point of departure from Ingham. She flees his embrace and stands alone, trembling. Ingham gently approaches and runs his forehead softly down her back in apology – part man, part child, part wounded animal. Scarlett’s fluid choreography allows for a freedom that stems from truly surrendering to the moment, finding significance in every small detail of a movement.
Suite en Blanc is full of “arrogant chic,” to quote Maina Gielgud, who staged this Serge Lifar work, originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943. It is a lesser known classic, rarely seen in the United States, that embodies Parisian Art Nouveau style: unapologetic glamour, flirtatiousness, whimsy and fun. Style, shape and form trump substance. And it’s marvelous. Set to excerpts from Édouard Lalo’s 1882 Namouna ballet suite, this work showcased the talents of its principal dancers, particularly Mathilde Froustey as the “cigarette,” a seemingly organic role for her, given her French roots and impeccable style (let alone the fact that she danced with the Paris Opera Ballet until joining SFB in 2013.) She absolutely nailed it, strutting about the stage, assuredly hitting every mark flawlessly, knowing it was her god-given right to be so perfect. Another pristine performance was given by Sofiane Sylve, also French, as the “flute.” And Davit Karapetyan was magnanimous in “mazurka” with his deeply buoyant leaps and buttery smoothness, barely breaking a sweat.
Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season opened the program; it was a disappointingly sleepy start. Perhaps Tomasson was trying to rein in our enthusiasm until the première, which appeared last. Set to Karl Jenkins‘ String Quartet No. 2, it comprises six sections based on various movements including the waltz and tango. Sandra Woodall designed both the pastel purple unitard costumes and the set – a pale yellow backdrop, with four large monochromatic paintings. Frances Chung and Karapetyan made a gorgeous pair in their lengthy pas de deux, displaying Chung’s steely strength and extensions in many lifts, and Sarah Van Patten was a convincing femme fatale in “Tango.” But the choreography felt unadventurous and repetitive. Tomasson did leave us with a lovely, lasting final impression of the full ensemble – women balanced in backbends upon their partners’ knees.