To borrow a line from Simon and Garfunkel, “And here’s to you”, the San Francisco Ballet, coming back – hopefully – forever alive, after a two-year hiatus from COVID. The long-awaited opening night on Tuesday, in front of a vaccinated, 100% masked and screened audience at the door of the Opera, was a joyous family reunion.
“Welcome to the theatre,” said father and artistic director Helgi Tomasson, launching his final season of repertoire before retiring after 37 years at the helm, to be replaced by English National artistic director Tamara Rojo Ballet. Tomasson was overwhelmed with huzzahs, also falling on musical director Martin West and the orchestra and, throughout the evening, a company of extraordinary dancers who endured an almost unbearable break in their careers.
One of the company’s new ballets delayed by the pandemic, that of choreographer Cathy Marston Mrs Robinsonbased on The graduation and commissioned for 2020, had its world premiere. He was joined by Tomasson’s Trio, put to Tchaikovsky Souvenir from Florenceand George Balanchine Symphony in C, on Georges Bizet’s symphony, written at 17 and lost or repressed, depending on who you read. It is a cornerstone of Balanchine neoclassicism that calls on everything a dancer has. In a show that required versatility, artistry and endurance, the dancers’ efforts were nothing short of heroic. My nominee for most heroine of all is Sarah Van Patten.
Van Patten, principal dancer since 2007 – paired with remarkable principal Joseph Walsh as Benjamin Braddock – was Ms Robinson. After intermission, just 20 minutes later, she became the principal ballerina for the second adagio segment of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, a beautiful, plotless tutu ballet.
In both ballets, both intended for mass distribution, Van Patten was a central presence, eloquently dancing and playing two enigmatic, extremely diverse women. The aggressive temptress of the choreographer Marston, moved by a multitude of forces, societal and domestic, preceded the flexible ballerina of Balanchine.
Symphony in CDe’s adagio movement is marked by a steady stream of deep, sustained arabesques, dipping and rising, only to dip again, as her partner – here, fine principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer – backs her up in the climactic finale. He sweeps her almost horizontal form in a circle until she lies on the ground in his arms.
One of the “gifts” of Symphony in CThe intrigue is that this role of ballerina is wide open to flights of imagination. You might see her as a princess giving in to her prince, or a captive swan disguised as a mortal, or a woman struggling with love – or perhaps a fatal illness. No matter. It’s poetic, breathtaking and intimidating to dance to.
The other three moves aren’t a cake walk either, especially after a two-year absence from the scene, but the company has risen to the occasion. It will take time to regain the scale and dynamism inherent in Balanchine, but the dancers, already safe in the choreography and so contagiously joyful to be back, are well on their way.
Tomasson 2011 Trio plays on all the strengths of his company: strong technique, musicality, warm emotionality. Tchaikovsky’s string sextet “Souvenir de Florence” ranges from allegro to adagio, and its Russian character motifs in the final third and fourth dance movements were enchantingly boosted by Misa’s light-hearted yet precise performances. Kuranaga and Angelo Greco.
Marston captivated by her 2018 ballet snow guard, after Edith Wharton Ethan FromeBallet Miss Robinson, based on Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The graduation which led to the 1967 film, takes both sources (noting also that Betty Friedan’s film The feminine mystic came out the same year as Webb’s book) and extends them. The music is not by Simon and Garfunkel as in the film, but a jazz score by terry davies, fueled by a smoky, seductive clarinet. While the new ballet is eminently watchable, with superbly nimble, emotive and often witty results, the net result of the screenplay, written by Marston with Edward Kemp, is a headache.
Mrs Robinson seems to be two ballets. One, beautifully choreographed and skillfully, delightfully played by Van Patten’s Mrs. Robinson, is his hot and supple, salty and sultry seduction by Benjamin Braddock, emanating from domestic boredom and the untapped brilliance more common in the societies of the 60s, maybe, than today, but by no means non-existent. We also see and feel the hardening of Benjamin’s (Joseph Walsh) mind after the seduction, as he realizes he has been used and is using now.
His salvation comes – fatally – in the form of the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Madison Keesler), the apple of her indulgent daddy’s (Luke Ingham) eye, much to the jealous displeasure of her mother, whom Mr. Robinson ignores and misinterprets. . The budding love of Benjamin and the sweet, beautiful Elaine leads to the end of Mrs. Robinson. Watching her dance through this fall, seeing her body and face wither and crumble, is like looking into a pit. This is Van Patten’s master class in character dancing.
Ballet two, if you will, alternates with Mrs. Robinson’s story. It vividly depicts 60s suburban culture (wonderful sets and costumes by Patrick Kinmonth), with men going to the office and women staying home to mix cakes, do laundry, dust, etc. (the synchronized choreography for the body of the wives in aprons is wonderfully ironic). Ms. Robinson shares the stage, but apart from an occasional stroll with the housewives in aprons, she is not part of that crowd. His disconnection, it seems to this viewer, sinks the plot.
The guys come home from work, pull their martinis and play with their new irons and sometimes their wives. The defections begin. Slowly we realize that there are only a few faithful housewives left walking in step. The others collapsed under the weight of senseless drudgery. Soon, as the women all regroup, emerging from their backyards, past the boxwood hedge to seek new lives. We don’t just applaud, we wait for the result. But looking at them, all we see are the women’s heads lined up as they stare at us from behind the high hedge, more a shooting range than new, empowered feminists. Ballet two is over and the disconnect, unfortunately, is complete.
Can this ballet be saved? It should be.