THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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San Francisco Ballet – Programme B
Sadler’s Wells, London until June 8, 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
A visit from San Francisco Ballet to London is never to be missed. Breezy, athletic and self-assured, they are at the top of the US dance world and have an enviable track record in commissioning new work. In a two week run at Sadler’s Wells they arrive with four triple bills, comprising twelve pieces, all new to London audiences. Amazingly eight of them were created just last year as part of Unbound, where director Helgi Tomasson attracted the crop of the world’s dance makers to create pieces as part of an exceptional festival.
The Infinite Ocean (2018), a radiant piece by the Taiwanese-American Edwaard Liang, starts Programme B at Sadlers Wells on a high. It opens with the dancers in silhouette walking towards a giant orange orb. This was inspired by Olafur Eliasson’s great 2003 light installation which Londoners will recall from Tate Modern. The ocean refers to death and crossing over to the other side. Oliver Davis’ wistfully romantic score inspires rather courtly steps and an ensemble so solidly grounded in classical technique as this one carry if off with effortless grace. The duos and solos then narrow the focus to the principal dancers who individually are so physically captivating.
The piece also illustrates how partnering has transformed of late. It is less romanticised and also less relentlessly male-female. Right from the opening you appreciate the sheer diversity of body sizes here and it reminds us how ballet has moved on. Pointe work too us used judiciously and when it is, it thrills, but the company in this piece offer their main calling card, which is exquisite ensemble work
Snowblind (2018) is the first piece for the company by English choreographer Cathy Marston. It continues her signature style which is to weave narrative dance pieces from classics of literature. It couldn’t be more American as it’s based on Edith Wharton’s 1911 novella Ethan Frome about a poor farmer, trapped in a loveless marriage with an older, hypochondriac, wife who is drawn into a romance with her young helper. When it slides into melodramatic excess it reveals the shortcomings of making dances from highly textured classic novels. The score too, a melange of various composers, has a pastoral blandness to it and the costuming includes unfortunate mud coloured culottes which don’t help matters. Marston’s work for trios nevertheless hooks us emotionally, aided by the intensity of the three soloists and in particular the burly Ulrik Birkkjaer, who is solid as an oak tree.
Björk Ballet (2018) by London based Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita is an imaginative spectacle set to the discomfiting songs of the Icelandic superstar Björk. Helgi Tomasson, has amusingly recounted in interviews how he had to resort to getting a family member back in Iceland to secure the phone number of Björk’s Dad in order to finally get through to her to secure the rights. It was worth the effort.
Pita has a credit for ‘visual décor’ and so he should because his designs and Marco Morante’s wacky costumes are as vital to this as the steps. It all has the brash visual splendour of high-end pop video, where no expense is spared, no concept left unstretched.
A nautical theme runs through a few of the songs and early on a host of sparkling silver sea anemones plonk to the floor in witty coup-de-theatre. This is just the prelude to a visual feast that ranges from masked and gagged dancers in chic bondage type gear to a figure transporting a large gold fishing rod. It has the theatrical cheek of Pina Bausch, but unlike with her the design elements are then just dispensed with, rather like arriving at a party and dumping one’s mink coat.
It’s a tribute to Pita that his steps don’t get lost along the way. A dazzlingly good ensemble section with the dancers trailing red chiffon is quicksilver fast and testament to the supreme technique of these dancers.
Björk was always the musical magpie and this is evidenced here but Pita has matched her kookiness with a melange of visuals. You do wish it would settle though.