If you can only make it to one of San Francisco Ballet’s eight programs this year (and that would be a shame), I implore you to make it Program Three, opening this Tuesday. Not because this is necessarily the “best” bill of the season. And not because this is the most urgent bill, when there’s also the contemporary genius of Alexei Ratmansky’s politically timely, full-evening Shostakovich Trilogy offered in April as Program Six.
But Program Three is the bill that will ground you in the most sublime of ballet’s past while carrying you through its 20th century evolution and into its possible future. It will astonish you, move you and make you a sharper-eyed viewer of any ballet you see afterward.
The evening’s foundation is the “Kingdom of the Shades” act from La Bayadere, the 1877 ballet by the man who essentially created 19th century Russian ballet: Marius Petipa. La Bayadere was virtually unknown in the U.S. until the star ballerina Natalia Makarova first staged the final “Shades” act for American Ballet Theatre in 1974, and it is Makarova’s staging that San Francisco Ballet has danced since their first performance in 2000.
It helps, when watching this ballet, to get the backstory out of the way. In the first two acts of La Bayadere – not presented in this program -- the Indian prince Solor has, through a complicated series of events, unwittingly caused the death of Nikiya, the temple dancer he loves. In the third act, to blunt his grief, he smokes opium—and enters a dream in which he sees dozens of identical women in white descending like an ecstasy vapor trail, followed by Nikiya herself. The women in this case are the San Francisco Ballet female corps dancers—Nikiya multiplied to infinity—and the act is the ultimate test of their control and purity of line as they enter on a downward ramp, repeating a phrase in which they must lift the same leg to a perfect upward-diagonal arabesque 38 times.
As the grand dame of American dance criticism, Arlene Croce, wrote upon the “Kingdom of the Shades” premiere at ABT: “La Bayadere looks like the first ballet ever made: like man’s—or, rather, woman’s—first imprint in space and time.”
Standing as the other pole in this program is William Forsythe’s 1996 ballet The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, which offers a prankster’s response to the challenge of making everything old new. All the steps are straight out of Petipa, utterly tidy and classical in their logic, but their velocity (the music is breakneck Schubert) is allowed to whiplash through the torso, resulting in a slinkiness that looks thoroughly postmodern. The costumes are short-shorts for the two men and lime-green pie-plate tutus that look like flying saucers for the women—a look since borrowed by legions of Forsythe imitators. The whole ballet has the delicious tension of a stunt, as though Forsythe were saying to his audience, “You want classical ballet? I’ll give you classical ballet!”
A small, intriguing detour through the middle of the 20th century in this program is Hans Van Manen’s “Variations for Two Couples.” Van Manen is the choreographer who made Nederlands Dans Theater the important troupe it is today. Here the ballet language merges with the weighted solidity of modern dance, in a stark and mystical suite of tense man-woman interactions, set to music by Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Stefan Kovács Tickmayer and Aster Piazzolla.
And finally, Program Three looks to the future in a world premiere by Myles Thatcher, a young SF Ballet corps dancer who has proven himself especially gifted in three previous works created with students of the San Francisco Ballet School, as well as one short piece for SF Ballet’s 2013 gala. Thatcher’s movement language is sleek and gymnastic; his obvious talent is for shaping ensemble structures that move us through the music’s arc, and for this high-profile premiere, he felt he was ready to take on classical music. Speaking recently on his Monday off, he said he chose to contrast Bach’s “Musical Offering” and “Goldberg Variations” as an investigation of the tension between formalism and raw expression in his commission, “Manifesto.”
“What struck me in ‘Musical Offering’ is that the main theme is a little dark, alluring but with an oppressive tone to it,” Thatcher said. “It’s one of the last pieces Bach wrote, and you can tell in its conventions. It’s so mathematical, and the way the theme runs through feels almost like Bach is showing off how incredibly intellectual and masterful he was. And I felt that subdued the emotional aspect because it’s so tightly structured. So to contrast that, the Goldberg Variations feel so stripped down and soulful. That’s what I wanted to play with -- the contrast.”
Thatcher is in the midst of a one-year choreographic mentorship with Alexei Ratmansky (creator of this season’s Shostakovich Trilogy). As a winner of the Rolex Protegee award, he was allowed to shadow Ratmansky as he worked on a world premiere for New York City Ballet, and a setting of the 19th century ballet Paquita. Ratmansky also sat in on five hours of rehearsal while Thatcher created a new work.
“I’ve gained more than I ever expected,” Thatcher said. “Rather than imposing his process on me, Alexei has been asking me questions. He’s put himself in my shoes and helped me clarify what I want to say. His main note was not to be afraid to cut the superfluous things. Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective at communicating. You can see that in his own work.”
And so the language of ballet continues to be spoken in new tongues.
San Francisco Ballet’s Program Three opens Tuesday and runs through March 7th at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$345. (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org.