Harald Lander’s ballet “Etudes” is like every ballet class ever taken all rolled into one 40-minute performance. It begins with one ballerina center front stage doing a small plié (knee bend to you civilians), and then running offstage after a quick and whimsical shrug, leaving behind 12 dancers standing at ballet barres on three sides of the stage. So opens this delightful – and wryly humorous – tribute to the life of the dancer, and the most lovable choreography of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3: In Space & Time, which opened last Thursday.
As the music continues on, the dancers, in groups of three, go through the next set of warm-ups, pointing their feet, front, side and back. That they are all in sync and in time to the music is one of those miracles (and necessities) of training.
Lighting is crucial. In this opening all the stage is in darkness except for overhead spots shining down on the dancers’ pink tights–clad legs. The legs are distinctive, even when anonymous, trim and shapely.
Lander’s 1948 ballet was choreographed when he was the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, and focused on reinstating the classical technique of Bournonville, derived from 19th-century French ballet technique and known for its clarity of style. “Etudes” was set to music by Knudåge Rilsager, who composed the piece as an orchestral version of Carl Czerny’s piano studies meant specifically for dance.
The ballet moves through class exercises from pliés to beats to leaps to turns, interrupted by interludes of sylphs floating across the stage in long classical tutus. Sasha De Sola leads them with support from Angelo Greco, Joseph Walsh and Carlo Di Lanno. And they in turn are supported by a 36-member corps, all moving closely in sync. At times they look like a centipede, waving its legs.
Make no mistake though: as frothy and lovely as all this looks, it’s difficult, mind-boggling difficult, and only possible after hours, days and years of repetition.
All hail the ballet dancer!
Also on the program were Helgi Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season” and Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind.” Tomasson’s neoclassical ballet is a six-part ballet set to music by Karl Jenkins. The ballet opened with a dynamic ensemble led by Dores André and Vitor Luiz. The following five pieces emphasized the romantic, with shifting duets and trios. The Tango section danced by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, Luke Ingham and Vitor Luiz was gorgeous and sensual. It was followed by a duet between Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets, set to a sweetly sensual violin solo rising above the orchestra. Tan always conveys a delicacy that borders on the fragile. That quality combined with the ephemeral nature of dance seemed to portray the fleeting and momentary briefness of life and gave the dancing a poignancy that brought bravas from the audience.
Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind” was another of the company’s premieres in last year’s Unbound Festival. A narrative ballet based loosely on Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome, the story is almost unbearably predictable. A sickly wife, a frustrated husband, a young serving girl. The inevitable love and disaster leaves the trio bound in broken bodies and tortured minds.
As rendered down as the story ultimately becomes there is some question in my mind why Marston thought this story was particularly American. The choreography itself is more interesting than the narrative, and the music arranged by Philip Feeney from compositions by Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Arvo Pärt and Feeney himself is seamlessly put together. The dancing was beautifully realized with Ulrik Birkkjaer dancing Ethan Frome, Jennifer Stahl his wife Zeena, and Mathilde Froustey the young helper Frome falls in love with. The corps de ballet danced, variously, the Snow, Neighbors and Farmhands.
– Jaime Robles
San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3: In Space & Time continues through February 24 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For information and tickets, visit sfballet.org.