Modern Masters at the San Francisco Ballet

Optimistic Tragedy

In the San Francisco Ballet’s “Modern Masters” program, the dancers of San Francisco Ballet move through three distinct short ballets created by widely known modern choreographers. In addition to the fame of their choreographers, these ballets also share a degree of fragmentation. One ballet is a series of fluid vignettes that do not fit together in an obvious manner, one’s choreography comes off as ragged, and one’s title shamelessly recognizes that it is a collection of unfinished dances.

The first ballet in the program is Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” Through individual duets, solos, and group dances, three male-female duos gesture to an idyllic pastoral world. Following the standards of gender and the archetypical duet, the men often find themselves brooding into an unknown distance, only to sweep up a female partner when she delicately runs to him in concern. This convention further locks the ballet into its pleasant world of yearning couples and vivacious solo dances. 

Seven Sonatas

Although bursting with displays of lush technical ability, “Seven Sonatas” never challenged the traditional bucolic bubble it created. Ratmansky may have attempted to burst this barrier by placing the piano and pianist on stage with the dancers, but this element created no tension or intrigue. Instead, the dancers simply skimmed by it and continued on their way, as if it were a roped-off area of the stage that magically emitted piano sonatas. Modern choreographers often place a piano on stage in an attempt to break the separation with the orchestra pit, but this feature can only add to a production if the dancers actively acknowledge its presence. 

Yuri Possokhov aimed to illuminate the heroism of those who die in revolutions in his world premiere ballet, “Optimistic Tragedy.” Instead, he produced an cinematic work with overbearing design that inspires neither the audience nor its dancers. As the cast of sixteen men moved through disjointed choreography and a disorienting plot involving a single female spy and her cronies, they often looked like were concentrating on completing the performance instead of relishing the movement. Along the way, massive video projections at the back of the stage explicitly mirrored what was occurring on stage and a harsh spotlight was blasted towards the audience in a moment of distress. Yet even with this disorientation, I could appreciate the power of a male ensemble. It is rare to see such a powerful grouping of male dancers and their stamina and ability met the production’s goal of creating a military scene.

PasParts

William Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts” was in a whole new dimension in comparison to the other two ballets. This ultra-sleek ballet takes place in a white cube created by sealing off the stage with huge white panels. When the dancers enter this white space, they are safely contained in a landscape that vibrates with a soundscape of unpredictable electronic sounds. Forsythe reimagined Pas/Parts for San Francisco Ballet and it shows. These melodies burst from the dancer’s bodies as they fearlessly explore the seamless choreography that flows between solos, duets, trios, and ensemble dances. While “Seven Sonatas” was limited by its containment within an imagined idyllic world, the closed-in set of “Pas/Parts” creates a world in which all that matters is the dancers and their masterful control over movement. With no clear end or beginning to any of the dances, there is no need to focus on a narrative arc or the construction of the dances. Instead, both the audience and the stage can immerse themselves in the explosive world that Forsythe exquisitely crafted.

Images courtesy of Erik Tomasson

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