Fresh Air From the West Coast: The Women Dominated at San Francisco Ballet, With Sofiane Sylve the Standout

Meanwhile, BAM applauded William Forsythe’s drearily pretentious 'Sider'

Sofiane Sylve in  Wheeldon's 'Ghosts.' (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

Sofiane Sylve in
Wheeldon’s ‘Ghosts.’ (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

Here’s what the renowned San Francisco Ballet hasn’t brought to the Koch Theater: anything classical or anything by Balanchine, Ashton, Robbins or Tudor. Instead, it has counted on recently commissioned ballets (all new to New York) by current name choreographers they’ve counted on before—Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky—plus its version of house choreography, beginning with a recent piece by the artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. Well, there’s nothing to stop an artistic director from presenting his own work, and nothing has stopped Tomasson. The first ballet of his I remember seeing was a pretty, fluent piece called Ballet d’Isoline, which he made for the School of American Ballet in 1983 when he was still dancing for City Ballet. It had nothing to tell us, but it deployed the kids pleasingly. Thirty years later, he’s given us his recent Trio (Tchaikovsky), which is pretty and fluent, deploys his dancers pleasingly—the first duty of a house choreographer—and has nothing to tell us. He has made almost 50 ballets, and he has made no progress at all. There’s no sign of a choreographic personality; Trio is implacably generic.

Another house choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, was a leading dancer in the company and, like his boss, knows the dancers and dishes up material that shows them off well. The music is Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony,” and the ballet is indeed called Classical Symphony. The company’s men are strong jumpers, and he has them madly jetéing around in circles (gasps from the audience). Little Maria Kochetkova tosses off the obligatory fouettés (more gasps). It’s all predictable, efficient, provincial. Edwaard Liang has worked for San Francisco before, but Symphonic Dances is more ambitious than anything he has done until now. The Rachmaninov score is long, hard-driving, exciting, and Liang doesn’t have the wherewithal to fill it. The chief weapon in his armory is the lift. Those poor ladies: They’re swung up, over, behind, around, through; they’re coiled, curled, spiraled. Let’s hope they’re airsick-resistant. Liang isn’t particularly musical, but he keeps the energy level up. I wish he wouldn’t.

Energy is also the main ingredient of Wayne McGregor’s work, but it’s a different kind of energy—a modern dance kind. McGregor is a leading British choreographer, and whenever I see his work I find myself responding to the unsparing attack, the convulsive movement, the exaggerated penchées, the huge extensions, the thrusting, the kicking. Yes, Borderlands all seems arbitrary—we’re not talking structure here—but the dancers are relentlessly on the move; it’s one long climax. Tomasson, Possokhov and Liang exhaust your patience; McGregor exhausts your powers of resistance.

Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands is a far cry from such recent works of his as New York City Ballet’s odd and wonderful Namouna and his thrilling version of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances for Miami City Ballet. It’s a lovely divertissement, presenting a series of modest national dances for small groups of dancers. The music, by Moritz Moszkowski, is from 1884—appealing numbers that elicit from Ratmansky charming vignettes: Russian, Italian, German, Spanish and Hungarian in character. There are no big effects, but there’s a cornucopia of fascinating small ones—the hallmark of this superb choreographer is constant invention, never fussy, never assertive, always alive. I was reminded of the stylish restraint and warm humanity of Bournonville. Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands couldn’t be more different from McGregor’s Borderlands, and it’s a tribute to Tomasson’s dancers that they looked so good in both.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts (no connection to Ibsen) was strangely opaque. Was the set a dark glade? There was certainly a big fuzzy moon up in the nighttime sky. Were the women’s pale flimsy dresses meant to suggest the afterlife—like the Wilis in Giselle? Was there a touch of Kabuki? The vocabulary was rhapsodic (lifts again) for beautiful Yuan Yuan Tan in her duet with Damian Smith, more edgy for Sofiane Sylve and her two admirers, Tiit Helimets and Shane Wuerthner. Wheeldon knows all about partnering, but the various elements of this ballet—including the score by heavy-metallist C. F. Kip Winger, though more soupy than metallic here—don’t add up to anything much beyond anodyne.

It always distresses me not to enjoy a new work by Mark Morris, but his Beaux left me more perplexed than stimulated. The music, by Bohuslav Martinu, seemed distancing, not inviting. The Isaac Mizrahi costumes—all nine boys in sherbet-colored camouflage unitards—blended together in an unhelpful way. Ditto his background mural, in more or less the same colors. And why do without women if you’re going to have your men do exactly what women would do? Is one man borne, soaring, across the stage by two other men any more interesting than if he had been a woman? Is the idea to affirm that “anything they can do, we can do better”? It wouldn’t matter if the individual tropes took Morris into new territory, but they don’t. There are engaging examples of his talent for group action, for ingenious patterning, for repeated gestures, but the similarity of everything to everything and everyone to everyone makes for a bland exercise rather than a compelling dance.

So the repertory this far has been less than convincing (we still have Wheeldon’s Cinderella to come). But the company was convincing—considerably stronger than when it was last here. Then it was the men who dominated; now it tends to be the women. The big plus is Sylve, who joined up after an interesting but not defining stay at City Ballet. There, her European star quality wasn’t essential; here, it’s transforming, because this isn’t a company of stars, of larger-than-life individuals who dominate the stage. Instead, the dancers tend to be alike—not characterless, certainly, but all on the same level and in the same mode. The boys in particular, even when they look unalike, dance alike, almost as if there were an institutional resistance to anyone standing out, though Pascal Molat and Hansuke Yamamoto can strike sparks.

Sylve stood out in everything—the Ratmansky, the Wheeldon, the McGregor and the Liang. Tall, dark, handsome, electric, she animates every passage she’s assigned. You can see her succeeding in any major company—anywhere except City Ballet. (I guess, given her European background, she just wasn’t meant for Balanchine.) Sarah Van Patten is a dancer who has steadily grown and now glows with confidence and command. Kochetkova, from ABT, is a Natalia Osipova wanna-be, her allegro attack more irritating than exciting. Frances Chung, though, handles assertive roles more naturally, while Tan and Vanessa Zahorian possess ballerina beauty and classiness.

It was a pleasure watching this excellent company, and it would be even more of a pleasure, I imagine, watching it in less trendy, more substantial repertory. Let’s hope they’re back soon to show us what else they can do.