Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Home Grown

September 28, 2011


Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Possokhov's RAkU Photo: Erik Tomasson
With the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic season and the two well-received productions going on at Los Angeles Opera, you might overlook a significant dance event taking place in Orange County this week. In a luxurious weeklong visit, the San Francisco Ballet has moved into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts with two different programs. This weekend will feature performances of the evening length Romeo and Juliet set to the music of Sergei Prokofiev with choreography by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson. The week started on Tuesday with the first of two mixed programs that may not have shared the scope of Romeo and Juliet, but certainly provided an excellent primer about what this company is all about. It was an enjoyable combination that featured some remarkable soloists and best of all, was accompanied by live music. Don’t kid yourself. Ballet with a live orchestra like the Pacific Symphony whose members were conducted here by Martin West always makes a big qualitative difference.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's TRIO Photo: Erik Tomasson
The first of the evening three works, ironically enough, was TRIO another original piece from Tomasson that premiered in San Francisco earlier this year. It’s Tomasson’s take on Tchaikovsky’s string sextet Souvenir de Florence. The work itself was composed both in Italy and Tchaikovsky’s native Russia despite its title, and Tomasson played to the differences in tone between the sextet’s four movements by combining the more Slavic sounding later movements into one thus creating the three sections of he dance referred to in the title. All of the action took place in front of a backdrop suggesting architecture of Florence as seen through the impressionistic light of different times of day. The two outer movements both involved larger groups, the first several sets of couples rapidly flourishing about one another. The middle piece, a somewhat ominous tale of a love triangle was paired with the work’s adagio movement while the finale served up a much greater combination of groups and pairs. All three sections highlighted Tomasson’s flair for movement that is classical in many respects, but with enough modern touches thrown in to give it a recognizable fluidity. The vibrant colored costumes added to the beauty of the piece overall despite some ragged moments in the group sequences.

The second act was another work from one of San Francisco Ballet’s inside artists, Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. RAkU (capitalization his) references the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion. Interestingly, though, Possokhov went out of his way to avoid just about anything in the piece either choreographically or in terms of the original score by Shinji Eshima that was specifically Japanese. There are no traditional Japanese instruments in the orchestration. There are no classically Japanese movements incorporated into the dance per its creator. The story of the fire itself is also largely made up in a piece that only suggests a narrative about two lovers who are separated by war, a lustful priest, and a band of soldiers in costumes that are clearly Japanese-influenced. What the piece does have is an elaborate theatrical sense with several movable set elements and video projected onto the set right down to the fire at the show’s conclusion. The other strength of the piece was the work of the two lovers. Yuan Yuan Tan plays the young woman who appears dressed in a vibrant white kimono with an intensely colorful lining that literally flies off her shoulders revealing a giant tail as it rises into the rafters. Her paramour is a very good Damian Smith and the two provided some of the most compelling couples dancing of the whole evening. Although the narrative in RAkU was more implied than explained, as the work continued with Tan’s young woman slowly coming to grips with her apparent loss, I was completely drawn into the whole project.

The show ended with the beloved and familiar Symphony in C taken from choreography by George Balanchine for New York City Opera with the music of Georges Bizet. It was the only choreography older than this year in the program and was first seen with the San Francisco Ballet in 1961. It still looks beautifully sharp with its black and white contrasting costumes (men in black, women in white) in front of a simple blue background. Again some of the movement here was ragged with a few fumbles at times, but the overall aesthetic was good and the principal dancers showed great finesse and balance. Symphony in C provided a nice coda for the evening looking back at San Francisco Ballet’s history and relationship to the national dance scene in an evening that primarily showcased where the company is going. Tickets are still available for this weekend’s shows, and given the quality of these opening performances, Romeo and Juliet looks very promising, starting on Thursday with matinees on both Saturday and Sunday.

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