Visiting with my granddaughter enhanced my experience even more because she is local and very familiar with both the venue and the company. My first experience of the evening was of the building, the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. The building’s exterior is impressive but inside, it is spectacular. I learned from the website that “The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House rivals Old World theaters with its elegant lines, vaulted and coffered ceiling, marble foyer and sweeping balconies. Built in 1932, the War Memorial Opera House is the 3,146-seat home to the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet.” My granddaughter gave me a short tour and I found the restaurant area on the lower level large and user friendly, while the shop upstairs was just amazing.
We took our seats and drank in the grandness of the hall, the size of the stage, and the classic lushness of the curtain. And then the curtain opened. We were attending the opening for Program 2, a mixed bill, which included: Opus 19/The Dreamer with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Sergei Prokofiev; Ghosts, a world premiere by Christopher Wheeldon with music composed for him by C. F. Kip Winger; and Company B with choreography by Paul Taylor and music by the Andrews Sisters. It was a perfect blend of dances: bringing these works together was inspired. Each created a balletic movement vocabulary sculpted into modern-contemporary movement. And each pushed this movement vocabulary to the extreme, pulling the audience on an abstract, somewhat surreal journey through space and time. It was a masterfully built experience, which underlined both the current relevance of each of the pieces while simultaneously showcasing the dance history, which influenced the creation of each piece.
While I knew that the San Francisco Ballet was a world-class arts organization, I had not been aware that it has been performing continuously since 1933, when it was founded primarily to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length operas. Currently, the San Francisco Ballet School trains approximately 350 individuals from all over the world who join distinguished ballet companies throughout the world.
The program began with Opus19/The Dreamer choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. The world premiere was in June 1979 by New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet premier took place in January 1986. This production was staged by Lindsay Fischer with costume design by Ben Benson. The tone on tone, the blue costumes against a blue background felt so right with the calm, lyrical, dreamy movements of the dance. The dreamer is in contrast to the blue calm, in white. This was not classical ballet since Robbins blends jazz inflections and frequent movements from folk dance with classical steps. This was a joy to watch and the music was so significant that violinist, Franklin D’Antonio joined the principal dancers Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in a curtain call.
During the first intermission, I spoke with my seat neighbors, Deron and Sondra Jones and found their story fascinating. They have been fans of C. F. Kip Winger since the 1990’s. Learning that Winger composed the music for Ghosts, which was to have its world premiere, the couple who live in Danville, Illinois arranged for a three day San Francisco visit in order to attend this event. They had never before seen a ballet. Deron commented on the surprising “athleticism” the dancers displayed and how lovely the music was. After seeing Ghosts, they said they were definitely inspired to see more ballet.
It is hard to say enough about Ghosts. This was the world premiere of the work by choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon to music by composer C. F. Kip Winger (they have known each other since 1997) featuring principal dancers; Sofiane Sylve, Brett Bauer, Tiit Helimets, Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith. The scenic design was by Laura Jellinek, with costume design by Mark Zappone and lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger. If this isn’t the most beautiful ballet I have ever seen, it surely ranks at the top of the list. There was the perfect other worldly feeling in the costumes’ filmy quality, while the unusual steps felt just right and the partnering was amazing. I hope it will be added to ballet repertoire and I will be able to see this “delicious” ballet in the future.
The wonderful San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the baton of music director and principal conductor, Martin West, played the accompaniment for Opus19/TheDreamer and Ghosts. But the recorded music of The Andrew Sisters was the linchpin on which Company B was based. The songs immediately brought me to my youth during the WWII, a time not at all like energetic, happy time the dances would have one believe. I remember the constant fear and unease in the adults around me. The dances to nine songs with “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” beginning and ending the series demonstrate the way that Paul Taylor often accesses difficulty topics to heighten the viewers awareness of a problem he sees. There is a dark undertone underlying the good-time nature of the singing and dancing. While captivated by the great costumes, music and dancing, a haunting sense of irony creeps in. Patrick Corbin staged choreographer, Paul Taylor’s work with costume design by Santo Loquasto and lighting design by Patrick Corbin. Though it premiered with the Houston Ballet in June 1991, the Paul Taylor Dance Company performed it in October 1991. Paul Taylor, now in his 80’s, created his first dance in 1954.
Anyone who has the opportunity to see this production is fortunate, indeed. I can’t wait for another opportunity to see both full length and mixed bill programs on future visits to the area or maybe when I am in Greece!
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, California
Phone: 415.865.2000 or go to: sfballet.org
Photos: Erik Tomasson