The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Outside of the Routine: 2021 Digital Program 3 by the SF Ballet

(© SF Ballet)

“Habit is a compromise effected between an individual and his environment.”
– Samuel Beckett, Proust (1957)

As we officially cross the one-year mark, the very act of noting the loss of our once-normal routine has itself become routine. We’ve now spent a full twelve months in which the majority of our day is spent staring at screens, washing our hands, and communicating only with the few people we can safely see face-to-face.

We’re encouraged to believe that one particular routine, watching live performances, is on the verge of returning. That’s certainly great news for our ever-struggling live venues, but this past year has taught us that trying to prematurely return to normal only sets us back to where we started. So, as much as I would absolutely love to have another night out at PianoFight (which is in great need), the DNALounge, or even the SF Ballet, I certainly won’t risk the health of myself or my fellow citizens to get it.

The latter company’s latest online show is about routines define us, for better or for worse. Escaping from the norm is the only way to discover your limits, but the only way to do so is to sacrifice a measure of safety.

We begin with Alexei Ratmansky’s 2014 production set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 (conducted by Martin West). Reflecting the composer’s upbringing in Stalinist Russia, Ratmansky’s choreography emphasizes the uniformity of our characters, all adorned in muted colors against a near-blank backdrop. There are frequent marches in step, and both men and women expected to stick to their predetermined roles.

Aaron Robison, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Blake Johnston, Jennifer Stahl, Ludmila Bizalion, Maggie Weirich, Mingxuan Wang, Sean Bennett, and Wei Wang (Erik Tomasson / SF Ballet)

Such is not enough for two young lovers (Aaron Robison and Jennifer Stahl) whose mere vicinity to one another is enough to make them fall out line. The caution with which they touch one another suggests that doing so would make the clouds themselves fall from the sky. And the only thing more disturbing than an idea out of the ordinary is when the idea begins to spread.

The concept of the idea’s proliferation is illustrated through Alexander Nichol’s curious projects of a monochromatic “wallpaper” accentuated with splashes of red over images of flags, airplanes, zeppelins, and so on. Are the characters’ eyes finally open to the perceived evils of conformity (such as the red of communism) or are merely more perceptive of the great wonders of the world?

That piece intriguing note of ambiguity carries all the way to the ballet’s end, in which soloist Wei Wang’s electrifying body allows everyone around him to disappear before the light itself goes out on him. We yearn for freedom, but somehow it isn’t as simple as we’ve always imagined it.

With our own world having almost forgotten its old routines, who can say how we’ll make out when our current one is finally over?

As they did with their last digital program, the company has sandwiched a new film in-between two archival videos. The film this time is the world premiere of the James Stephenson-composed Wooden Dimes, directed and choreographed by Danielle Rowe. The title, as the opening text shows us, comes from the old idiom that one should “never accept wooden dimes” (or “nickels” in some variations) – because they’re worthless, you see.

Betty (Sarah van Patten) performing the routine that could make her a star. (© San Francisco Ballet)

Our story follows Betty Fine (Sarah Van Patten), a Vaudeville hoofer for a popular burlesque show in the big city. Her husband Robert (Luke Ingham) spends his working hours behind a desk moving papers from one place to another. His days are as monotonous as his wife’s are glamourous. Still, Robert is so devoted to his wife that the mere sight of her hand being kissed by her boss (Tiit Helimets) is enough to make Robert wonder if his marriage is worth the license it’s printed on.

This sends each of them on a downward spiral of paranoia and self-destruction that, unfortunately, isn’t as sad as it could be. Although we know our lead couple based on their occupations, we don’t have much a sense for who they are as people. If you haven’t read the credits in the program, you’d never know the two were married – just that a guy in a nice suit has a thing for a showgirl and gets jealous when he sees another guy flirting with her. (Indeed, before I read the credits, I thought Betty’s boss was just a wealthy admirer.

Rowe’s choreography is well done, particularly the big showgirl number. It’s a jazz-era feather fan piece that combines ballet, burlesque, and even a little Esther Williams-style synchronized dancing (but on land). Similarly, Robert’s decent into vice is shown as something out of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub sequence. Both well showcase the dancers’ skill above a story that’s really thin. Plus, the editing can be a bit too erratic at times.

The program ends with the archival video of the company’s 2015 world premiere of Swimmer, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, composed by Shinji Eshima, Kathleen Brennan, and Gavin Bryars, and featuring songs by Tom Waits. The show premiered during the final year of Mad Men, and the latter’s influence couldn’t be more clear.

Through a mix of practical sets and projections, we follow a philandering family man (Joseph Walsh) from mid-‘60s suburbia. After kissing his wife and kids good-bye to head for his office job in the big city, he wastes no time in getting frisky (thankfully, consensually) with his secretary. After that, he takes in a show and romances not-one-but-two of the headlining ladies. Somehow, someway he winds up at a beach party, where flirtation takes a back seat to deep swimming. So deep, in fact, that he may never come back up again.

Joseph Walsh as the titular ‘Swimmer’. (Erik Tomasson / SF Ballet)

With all due respect to the credited composers, had the show’s soundtrack consisted only of the chosen Waits tunes, it would lose none of its impact. The use of “Green Grass” and “If I Have to Go” give excellent commentary on the portrayed generation and the conformity they actively sought out. At the same time, it serves as a warning they can’t heed regarding the counter-cultural movement just around the corner. What’s more, having our lead swimmer go underwater to Waits’ “The Ocean doesn’t Want Me Today” is the sort of tragicomic brilliance dramatists can strive their lives to achieve without pulling it off.

Still, not all of the magical realism works. An extended sequence in which our swimmer encounters a group of young boys (nothing happens) says enough about both modern and past perceptions, but also drags. A better sequence, in which a projection of Hopper’s Nighthawks is used to set the scene for a couple in a bar, better conveys the characters’ sense of longing, discomfort, and alcohol-tinged bad judgement.

Still, the show itself is a creative spectacle from the era of Saul Bass designs. I can see why it’s enough of a favorite for the company to show it again.

Perhaps the company recognizes how routine the need to shake up the all-digital season a bit more, because they next scheduled show will be their 2002 premiere of George Balanchine’s Jewels. A triptych of colorful dance number by classical composers is the sort of thing one would expect to get into the spring spirit. Digital Prog. 3 is oddly appropriate, given the way its three shows encourage breaking from the monotony of the average day-in-and-day-out.

It’s imperfect and the three parts to completely stick the landing, but at this point perfection just seems overrated.

GRADE:                                             B

The SF Ballet’s Digital Program No. 3 is scheduled to stream until the 24th of March on the SF Ballet website.
The show runs 1 hour 49 min. with no pre-programmed intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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