Theatre

Finding how You Fit: Digital Program 5 (online) by the SF Ballet

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”
– Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

As I write this, I’m days past having received my first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Sure, I’m tempted start planning all the shows I’d be able to see very soon, but I’m self-aware enough to not fall into that sort of complacency. That would just send us on a backward slide reversing the progress we’ve made thus far.

Still, I’d be remiss not to mention that the sight of the War Memorial Opera House is a welcome reminder of my pre-pandemic arts patronage. I’ve watched that stage as an observer and graced it as a supernumerary. Its sheer size is astounding, no matter what angle you’re observing it from. Cautious as I am from a safety standpoint, I do hope my first jab gets me one step closer to seeing that stage again in person.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson

Revisiting the past plays a crucial role in the Ballet’s latest compilation. All three pieces attempt to look anew at the classic works of a revered composer, author, and psychoanalyst, respectively. All three are now dead, obviously, so it’s impossible to give them feedback on how their works have continued. But the great thing about a “classic” work is that it deserves to be scrutinized for its enduring legacy – that’s what makes it a classic.

The compilation begins with the 2016 performance of 7 for Eight, Heigl Tomasson’s eight-dancer trek through seven pieces by Bach. Alternatively flirtatious, playful, narcissistic, and even suspenseful, the collection suggests a high complexity of emotion in the composer’s work.

Draped in Sandra Woodall’s basic blacks, the ensemble – including the great Yuan Yuan Tan – clearly have fun with that complexity. The go from people who seem afraid to directly touch one another to intimates who literally carry one another from place to place. Relationships are like that. Not all of Tomasson’s choreography suggests romantic relationships, but the relationship between need and distance is illustrated well here.

The second piece, the 2018 production of Snowblind, reminded me of all my literary friends who cause a fuss whenever an adaptation of a book makes any changes from the source material. I don’t know how many of those friends have seen this ballet, but I can already imagine their consternation at the changes.

Zeema (Sarah van Patten), Ethan Frome (Ulrik Birkkjaer), and Mattie (Mathilde Froustey) in San Francisco Ballet’s in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind. | Photo: © Erik Tomasson

Snowblind is an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a book one wouldn’t imagine as lending itself to dance, given the characters’ physical conditions. Naturally, those conditions are done away with here: Ethan (Ulrik Birkkjaer) has no limp; Zee’s (Sarah Van Patten) illness isn’t as plain as the nose on her face; and… well, Mattie (Mathilde Froustey) is still lovely. In fact, they all are; for a book that puts a lot of description into its characters’ appearances, it’s portrayed here by some very pretty people.

There’s also no sign of Zee’s pickle jar, in case you were wondering. Still, the ballet keeps to the book’s points of Ethan, who considers his ill wife a burden, carrying on an affair with the couple’s young home aid. The affair ends disastrously, but is shown well enough here, for what it is. Cathy Marston’s choreography is well-realized and Patrick Kinmoth’s sets and costumes (most notably, dressing Mattie in a bright primary red) make for visually striking choices.

The choice of ensemble dancers to portray weather elements doesn’t fully hit the mark, but this is a loose adaptation as it is.

Design choices also play an important role in the final piece, the 2018 performance of Anima Animus, based on the concept described by Carl Jung. Yumiko Takeshemi’s costumes – consisting of solid blacks, solid whites, and bare skin – remind one of Annie Liebowitz’s photo of Keith Haring. Similarly, John Otto’s sets suggest a Barnett Newman painting.

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

Combined with James Ingall’s lights, it gives the illusion of the dancers transitioning from lit figures to silhouettes. They move in and out of shadow and substance the way Jung’s theoretical consciousness would. Obviously, not everyone watching the ballet will have a Master’s in psychoanalysis (I don’t), but it makes for a pleasant visual display all the same.

SF Ballet has two more digital shows in store (Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake) before closing their season. They’ve optimistically released a roster for next season, which will be the last for Artistic Director Heigl Tomasson. I certainly hope to still be around the Bay Area to see it in person. As this show proves, there are a lot of creative ways to get ideas on that stage.

GRADE:                              B

SF Ballet’s Digital Program 5 is scheduled to stream until the 12th of May on the SF Ballet website.
The show runs 1 hour 35 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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