I made my first trip this season to the San Francisco Ballet last Friday, for the opening night of Program 7. First up was Petrouchka, to Stravinsky’s music, staged by Isabelle Fokine with the choreography by her grandfather, Michael Fokine, and scenes and costumes after Alexandre Benois. Since I’d recently finished reading Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans’s history of ballet, I was eager to see this landmark. It’s much more of a pantomimed play than the other more abstract pieces on the program. There’s a very specific story (it helps to read the synopsis beforehand) about the sad clown Petrouchka (the Nijinsky role, danced by Pascal Molat) and his hopeless love for the Ballerina (a peerlessly doll-like Clara Blanco), who is in love with the more vigorous Moor (Daniel Deivison, his face painted blue).
Petrouchka in love is a bit of a sadsack, with his shoulders drooping and his big mittened hands often held in front of his crotch, suggesting the physical frustration behind his unhappiness. Though he is unhappy in love and subjugated by the Charlatan (Ricardo Bustamente), he is ultimately triumphant: a sadsack, but also a trickster. This was a treat to see, with colorful and elaborate sets and costumes in a folk Russian style; it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to attend the Ballets Russes.
Emil deCou conducted and the music was excellent, though what I remember most vividly is the sustained drumming between scenes. The second piece, Underskin, was set to Schoenberg’s elegant and mysterious Transfigured Night, choreographed by Renato Zanella in an elegant and mysterious way. I thought this was the most powerful segment. The setting is just some large shafts set leaning in the middle of the back of the stage. The lighting (designed by David Finn) is low throughout. A woman (Sofiane Sylve) enters, dressed in a tight black outfit that glitters like snakeskin. Her movements (she enters again past the halfway mark and then again at the end) are bold and outward in a way the movements of the others are not; even when there are six or seven couples on stage their movements are more intimate than hers, as they shift and struggle. There are suggestions of stories, but no specific plot. At the end, the dancers turn their backs to the audience and form a fist in their right hands, which are bent upwards at a 90 degree angle. They start moving towards the back, except for one woman, isolated in a spotlight to the left, who stands there, while the woman in black moves towards her. Large red petals fall on the woman in the circle of light. It’s very striking and enigmatic and powerful.
The third and final piece was the world premiere of Number Nine, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to Michael Torke’s Ash. This was the first time it had been danced in public, and even though I thought the piece wasn’t living in the dancers the way it would after further performances, it was still vivid and joyful and ended the evening on a high note. It’s fairly brief but packed full of moves that sometimes seem balanced between classic ballet poses and gymnastics. It’s vigorous and athletic as well as graceful. The backdrop is a series of bright jewel-like colors, and there are four main couples, each wearing matching bright colors, along with the corps de ballet. “I just love all the colors!” I heard one man exclaim, as the audience let out.