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Giselle and Titania and more to come: SF Ballet’s programming banquet

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I’ve seen the first two programs of San Francisco Ballet’s new season—that is, Program One (Giselle) and the visiting Hamburg Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—and it strikes me that together they represent what SF Ballet continues to offer us, year after year. Lucky, lucky us.

In his 29 years as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson has created a terrific company, whose dancers have achieved such a high level of artistry, he could practically replace his principal dancers, as they retired or moved on, through promotion, without bringing in anyone new from another company. Not that he would do so, of course. If that were his policy, so many wonderful dancers would never have joined the company.

To provide just one example: Maria Kochetkova, who danced a Giselle who made me cry at the end of each act. In Act I, she embodied the naïve peasant girl, in love with dancing and the duke who deceives her; her descent into despair, madness, and death at the end of that act is heartbreaking. In Act II, when the duke visits her grave in the dark of night and she tries to save him from the vengeful Wilis (maidens, in German lore, betrayed by their lovers and dead before their wedding day), she is somber, ethereal, and ghostlike, entirely different from her innocent young girl. This all portrayed through beautiful, accomplished movement and mime. You want a Giselle who brings joy and tears, and Kochetkova (pictured here in the company’s upcoming Cinderella, which opens March 11) can do that.

I should add that in the nine recent performances of this classic Romantic ballet, with music by French composer Adolphe Adam, five women and five men danced Giselle and the duplicitous Albrecht, though I saw only Kochetkova and Taras Domitro. I know at least one dance critic who will happily watch a particular program night after night, to see how the different principals perform, and I can totally understand why. Regarding Giselle, this was not the original 1841 ballet but the 1999 version choreographed by Tomasson, who kept much of the original choreography but gave the men more to do, simply because there are so many great male dancers these days.

So one of the reasons I revere this company is its level of artistry, thanks to Tomasson’s inspiration, training, and discerning eye. Another is the programming itself. If it’s not an evening-length story ballet, the program will consist of three short ballets, and Tomasson is excellent at offering an intriguing variety of works in these mixed programs. The dances in Program Two, which begins February 18, are all fairly new: Tears, a world premiere choreographed by the ballet’s Val Caniparoli to music by Steve Reich; Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, and Wayne McGregor’s Borderlands, inspired by the work of visual artist Josef Albers—the last two commissioned by SF Ballet and premiering last season.

Two years ago, Tomasson had his counterpart at the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier, work with the SF Ballet dancers in Neumeier’s 2005 ballet The Little Mermaid (and a bland retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale it was not). Last year, Neumeier brought his own company to perform in another of his works, Nijinsky, from 2000. This year, Hamburg Ballet was here—for just two nights!—to dance in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which premiered in 1977. This is a more traditional ballet, except for the long dream sequence (in which, on the eve of her wedding, Hippolyta imagines that she is Titania, the fairy queen of Shakespeare’s play; Theseus, her intended, becomes Oberon, and a lively court entertainer transforms into Puck). Here, Neumeier intersperses music by 20th-century composer György Ligeti and dresses his fairy crew in skintight Lycra and sequined caps. It is a long and ambitious ballet, and in many parts very funny, especially when the “rustics” perform their play at the end. Critics I know consider this ballet both pretentious and descending at times into shtick, and fault the choreography. The audience I was with found it highly entertaining, and the dancing was magnificent.

Like or disdain this ballet—my audience gave it a standing ovation—having a chance to see another major ballet company and a new work is always worth applauding. Thanks, Helgi!

San Francisco Ballet Program Two, February 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, and March 1 (matinee and evening), War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F., 415.865.2000, sfballet.org.

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