San Francisco Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

Tender, outrageous, then calm
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The Independent Culture

San Francisco Ballet's second programme begins tenderly, continues with an explos- ion and is a choreographic mix any leading company should be proud of. The tender part comes with two pieces new to London. Quartette, by the company's artistic director Helgi Tomasson, is a limpid study in romantic classicism within which four ballerinas explore dynamic contrasts. The intimacy of Dvorak's piano music, together with Tomasson's tasteful understatement, produces a piece of precise craftsmanship rather than originality.

Sharing the same quiet approach is Sea Pictures by Christopher Wheeldon, the young British-born and trained choreographer feted in the USA as the world's next great talent, but who is not exactly overexposed here. In one sense, Sea Pictures is just that: changing projected photographs of sand and sea to Edward Elgar's song cycle of the same title. At first, Wheeldon's depiction of a fishing community seems plotless, its only dramatic thread a sense that the men are torn between their women and the sea, and the sea is the winner. But his manner is so sensitive that he spins his web almost imperceptibly, and it's not until much later that you suddenly realise you've been caught up unawares in a tragic narrative. He delineates incidents by applying luminous, inspired touches to his canvas, so when Joanna Berman appears among the men of the fourth song and the back photo changes to stormy, foam-laced waves, you know she is Yuri Possokhov's memory of the woman he sacrificed for watery danger. Wheeldon's language may be surprisingly traditional, but how articulate it is, deploying groups in arresting patterns that scud across the stage like surf or suddenly scatter like spray.

After the conventional reticence, Balanchine's Bugaku (Japanese for dance music) slaps you full in the face as the most wildly outrageous and erotic ballet you'll ever see. It was last performed by the Royal Ballet over a decade ago, and gets a consummate performance from SFB, coached by Allegra Kent who created the ballerina role in 1963. Balanchine achieves the nearly impossible: fusing ballet's turned-out aesthetic with Japanese inversions, just as Toshiro Mayuzumi miraculously mixes oriental harmonics with jazzy Western orchestrations. The same collision of continents might apply to the coming together of Yuan Yuan Tan and Cyril Pierre, so grave and massive is their nuptial ceremony, aided by their respective attendants. Public ritual covers riotous private passion and the orgasmic pas de deux is eye-popping, Tan unfolding like an extravagant chrysanthemum while emotion scorches the air.

Jerome Robbins's closing Glass Pieces comes as the pleasing calm after the storm. Part of Robbins's genius has always been to root each chor-eographic concept profoundly in its music, so that Philip Glass's mosaic repetitions translate into a crowd of individuals busily crisscrossing before a graph-paper backdrop. Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Vilanoba dance the mysterious melodic pas de deux, as the night stirs uneasily behind them. Glass Pieces may not be vintage Robbins, but it's pretty good all the same.

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