The Beginning is the End is the Beginning: SF Ballet Programs 1 and 2

The Graduate‘s Ben (Joseph Walsh) and Mrs. Robinson (Sarah Van Patten) make heat in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson (Photo courtesy of SF Ballet)

“But everything was beautiful at the ballet”
– “At the Ballet”, A Chorus Line, Composer: Marvin Hamlisch/Lyrics: Edward Kleban

When I wrote this article about the Ballet last year, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson told me “I never could have imagined that my final years with the company would be marked by such hardship in the world.” Even if I hadn’t asked the question in the middle of a pandemic that is very much still active, the world was still gone through an undeniable social (George Floyd), political (the White House), and environmental shift that had become all the more apparent since 2016.

As I sat in the War Memorial Opera House for the first-of-two programs running in rep, those changes were all the more apparent. Although I didn’t see any QR code-scanning, N95s are now a requirement, with spares being handed out at the door. This is not only different than the last time I attended a pre-pandemic show of theirs, it’s different than the last time I was simply there.

When I interviewed Tomasson for the above piece, Tamara Rojo had not yet been announced as his successor. Nevertheless, the fact that said successor would have big shoes to fill was something that needed no explanation. There’s a “delaying the inevitable” air that’s hung over the company for the past two years, as the pandemic pushed back all plans for both the changeover and performances in general. As such, expectations were high for both inevitabilities.

How one attends the ballet these days. (Photo by Me)

Both current programs are preceded by a short documentary about the outgoing AD – a fluff piece roughly 5-10 minutes long – but the first night featured the man himself taking the stage before the show. It was nothing elaborate, just a quick “Welcome back” for SF Ballet patrons old and new. Then again, perhaps it was short for the same reason the documentary was short: how do you sum up a career just-shy-of-40-years-long? Maybe it’s to not take up more time when we’ve all been away so long?

With an upcoming season featuring definitive works of the craft (Don Quixote, Swan Lake), several world premieres, and a program piece with the most on-the-nose title ever (Program 6 will premiere Finale Finale), it’s clear that Tomasson wishes head out in grand fashion. Let’s see how we start things off.

Program 1


A man (Daniel Deivison-Oliveira) tries to come between two lovers (Dores André and Luke Ingham) in Tomasson’s Trio at the SF Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Tomasson makes the significance of his legacy clear from the outset with this remount of his 2011 Tchaikovsky tribute. Featuring a stunning Alexander Nichols backdrop resembling a painted cathedral fresco broken up into cubes, it’s a captivating display of physical passion with the spectre of piety hanging above the passionate. The second movement  is best, using the composer’s “Souvenir de Florence” to score two lovers (Dores André and Luke Ingham) who move as if statues come alive. Their alone time is interrupted by the obsession of a competitor for her hand (the captivating Daniel Deivison-Oliveira), but separating the two is as nigh impossible as the movements are fluid.

Also worth noting is the electric enthusiasm of Max Cauthorn, an SF Ballet School alumnus-turned-soloist in 2017. Even in the more crowded sections, Cauthorn insists on standing out, trying to draw the attention away from his fellow dancers. He’s indisputably talented, but he clearly wants the spotlight.

The piece remains a fine display of Tomasson’s skill with two bodies in motion and was the highlight of the program.

Mrs. Robinson (World Premiere)

The problem with putting the central focus on a side character is that it often misses the point of source material. For instance, many have tried to tell Peter Pan’s tale both before (the 2015 film Pan) and after (Spielberg’s Hook) the events of JM Barrie’s classic. But doing so misunderstands the story: Peter isn’t the main character; Wendy is. Peter is only a cipher who exists to interact with Wendy on her adventure.

The same is true of Pan as it is of Mrs. Robinson: the infamous middle-aged temptress of The Graduate exists solely for the sake of main character Benjamin Braddock losing his sexual inexperience. Like Disney’s Maleficent, the urge to flesh out a simplified female character is admirable. Like the film Maleficent, ballet Mrs. Robinson winds up being an overwrought melodrama that strips the character of her original wicked appeal and reduces her to cliché.

Portrayed by a bun-haired Sarah Van Patten – if nothing else, Van Patten fully embodies the character, often elevating the material she’s been given – Mrs. Robinson exists in a Peyton Place-style post-war malaise of American conformity, drowning herself in cocktails as her husband barely acknowledges her existence. Upon eyeing Benjamin the way a wolf eyes a deer, she reignites a passion she thought long dead. Things get complicated when Benjamin (played with adorable befuddlement by Joseph Walsh) sets his sights on Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Madison Keesler).

Set and costume designer Patrick Kinmonth clearly had a great time crafting the “animated Mad Men” aesthetic and Cathy Marston’s choreography well illustrates the characters’ awkwardness and arousal, particularly during Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson’s infamous “first night”. But therein lies the problem: the infamy of that night and its portrayal of “consent” isn’t explored deeply. What’s more, this is a sort of side-story to The Graduate, so Mrs. Robinson usually spends new scenes wallowing. Marston’s scenario, co-written with Edward Kemp, adds no greater depth added to her character, despite no being the apparent central focus. It would have been more prudent to simply do a straightforward Graduate adaptation or an entirely new piece, as everyone involved with that brings their best to it.

Symphony in C

Mrs. Robinson was not only the evening’s big premiere, but it was also the longest part of the evening. By the time Symphony in C began, several audience members didn’t bother returning from the second intermission.

That’s a shame, because there’s not a thing wrong with this official Balanchine Style rendition of Bizet’s Le Palais de Cristal. With staging by Sandra Jennings and additional work by Tomasson, it has the feel of a retiring musician covering a popular tune – not one of the original band’s biggest hits, but one most everyone can hum along. Even the Karinska-designed costumes – classic white tutus for the women, classic black leotards (with a few sequins) for the men – has an “old-school” feel that seems intent on checking off the boxes of classic ballet.

Once again, Max Cauthorn performs with the enthusiasm of child who knows his parents are in the audience. Fortunately, the ever-fluid Dores André holds her own.

The piece is classic, if average. Perhaps the evening would have benefitted from Symphony following Trio, but Mrs. Robinson could certainly use some revision and trimming. All in all, a slightly above-average night of ballet.

GRADE:                              B-

Program 2


Two nights later, the second program got off to a rather auspicious start. After a replay of the short documentary on Tomasson, his Caprice opened with one of the ballerinas – all clad in Holly Hynes’ earth tones – started the first movement still wearing a black COVID mask. Upon suddenly being aware of its presence, she gracefully removed it and tossed it off-stage-right when her movements brought her there. To her credit, it did not hurt those movements one bit, and it actually relieved me to see a member of the company taking masking seriously when so few audience members (or politicians) do the same.

A costume piece also came off the tiara worn by Yuan Yuan Tan in a later movement, but Tan either didn’t notice or is so in command of her craft that she refused to let it stop her fine performance – neither answer would surprise me. Luke Ingham also gets a chance to shine, mainly through a series of twirls like those of a performative bird.

It all made for a lively, energetic way to start the evening.

In the Night

Young lovers (Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle) encounter their elder counterparts in Robbins’ In the Night // © Erik Tomasson

Next was a revival of Jerome Robbins’ take on nocturnal Chopin. Based around three couples, it’s an amusing and romantic look at how lovers behave when they believe no one can see them. We begin with a wonderfully in-sync duo (Benjamin Freemantle and Mathilde Froustey) gliding along with the freedom that comes from believing you’re the only two people in the world. Next, we have a couple (Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets) in near-Elizabeth attire (all costumes by Anthony Dowell) going through familiar motions, as if to showcase the routine that comes with long relationships. Finally, we have our duo (Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer) who bicker and bite, but always return to one another – perhaps out of love, perhaps out of habit.

Our couples meet, mix, and return to their respective partners. There’s no guarantee the first couple will end up like the other two just as there’s no guarantee the latter two couples directly resembled the first. Therein lies the beauty of the piece: finding what works for you is the key to a good couple. For what is a relationship if not an extended dance?

Blake Works I (West Coast premiere)

It’s the permanent burden of modern lovers of classic work that we’re constantly having to explain their appeal. How could we possibly like something so old, stuffy, and elitist? Though those descriptors may often apply to the (self-appointed) gate-keepers of classic works, the works themselves are, like all art, worthy of constant scrutiny and reassessment. The ability to draw a solid line from an older work to a modern one tells us about both works and those of us who listen.

The hypnotic work of British musician James Blake – collaborator of Bon Iver, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and more – isn’t the sort of score one would usually associate with traditional ballet, but Ayman Harper and William Forsythe have done just that. The result is a series of movements is which the dancers float like celestial bodies against a starry background as Blake’s melancholy tales of lost romance drift in and out.

It creates a strong connection between the classic and the contemporary without condescending either. What’s more, it was a great way to end the evening.

GRADE:                              A

If you haven’t already read it, there was another quote Helgi Tomasson gave me for our interview, one after my asking about the dancers being away from the stage for so long:

True to my expectations, however, the dancers have remained dedicated to their art and are working to make the upcoming season one of celebration and fanfare. It’s a season of world premieres, two company premieres, beloved story ballets and a handful of ballets that I’ve created [at] the company throughout my tenure. It’s a perfect season to tie off this 37-year career at S.F. Ballet, and to look forward to what’s to come for the company.

Though the second program is the stronger of the two, both showcase the company’s strengths. In fact, they showcase many of Helgi Tomasson’s strengths. It’s both redundant and reductive to say Tamara Rojo has “big shoes to fill”, but these two programs are exemplary of the impact Tomasson is leaving behind.

Anatalia Hordov, Carmela Mayo, Luca Ferrò, Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Natasha Sheehan, and Rubén Cítores (far-left) in Tomasson’s Caprice at the SF Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet Program 1 runs until the 12th of February at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes with two 20-min. intermissions.
PROOF OF VACCINATION and BOOSTER required for entry and masks must be worn at all times.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

SF Ballet Program 2 runs until the 13th of February at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
Program 2 runs roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes with two 20-min. intermissions.
PROOF OF VACCINATION and BOOSTER required for entry and masks must be worn at all times.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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