A night at the San Francisco Ballet conjures images of stuffy elderly couples, opera glasses, pretentious critiquing discussions in the lobby between acts, and endless classical music. You will almost certainly find the first three, but each act of SF Ballet’s Program 7 presented wildly different scores. The first, Theme and Variations, is everything you expect from a ballet—princess-like ballerinas flitting gracefully about a stage, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s sweeping, romantic melodies passed between glittering string solos and triumphant supporting brass lines. Quick tempos matched the intricate footwork of the cast. Each member was dressed in sparkling, ornate leotards; the prima ballerina wore a tiara. Choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine, the piece was meant, in his words, “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music.”
The second, set to György Ligeti’s modern, rather dissonant score, Continuum©, began with a militaristic march—dancers strutting deliberately from opposite ends of the stage—and evolved, through several short partner pieces, into an uninterrupted flow of controlled movements. Each piece took on an element of breathing, as the dancers progressed through the choreography, “inhaling” to a point, before regressing through the choreography performed in reverse as the exhale. The elegance and stillness the dancers found in each mind-bending configuration lent balance to the jarring one-note-at-a-time, arhythmic piano and harpsichord melodies.
The final act, In the Countenance of Kings, is a vibrant, driving contemporary piece composed by folk musician Sufjan Stevens and choreographed by New York Ballet’s own Justin Peck. The score veered away from Stevens’ recent brand of Bon-Iver-meets-Elliot-Smith indie folk found on Carrie & Lowell (2015) and instead brough the rhythmic hopefulness of Illinois (2005). Beginning with sharp, isolated string plucks, the piece utilized woodwinds and light brass instruments to create a sense of joyous fanfare. Paired with weightless dancers flying across the stage, hardly pausing to land on their toes before lifting off again, the composition welcomed the audience into an awakening: the perfect choice for a spring ballet.
Article by Kavitha George
Photos by Erik Tomasson