Mark Morris Premiere, SF Ballet

Written by:
John Sullivan
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San Francisco ballet dancers in Mark Morris’ “Beaux”
Photo by Erik Tomasson

‘Beaux’ Bummer

Program 2: mixed repertory
“Beaux” (world premiere, choreographed by Mark Morris), “Chroma” (choreographed by Wayne McGregor), and “Number Nine” (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon)
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Feb. 14-25, 2012

With “Beaux,” Mark Morris strives for slight — and very nearly misses the mark. Set on nine male dancers, this piece purports to explore how men can relate to each other in noncompetitive, nonaggressive ways, physically and emotionally. But it’s not very convincing and offers little insight into the dynamics of man-to-man dancing. It feels like a studio piece, unfinished and ragged around the edges, slapped together by the choreographer on a stopover in the Bay Area en route to any number of his other engagements. It’s Morris’ eighth commission for San Francisco Ballet, and hardly his best. In fact, the company should ask for a refund.

The opening tableau looks straight out of Paul Taylor’s “Arden Court,” with the cast arrayed in a line, buff duffs on display, arms in Y formation (it’s hard to decide what to call this: an homage or a rip-off). Continuing the borrowed theme, Isaac Mizrahi’s unitards echo those “Arden” costumes, this time in pink and yellow camo that would fit in better at an Easter-egg hunt. (The matching melted-sorbet backdrop that looms behind the dancers also lends a meaningless added attraction to the dance.) The piece doesn’t build toward anything in particular: the men take turns zigzagging across the stage, solo or in groups, pausing to execute unrelated phrases or to “lift” a partner (but not really; there’s too much anticipation and too many obvious leaps into the lifts for them to look like what they ought to be: surprising displays of tension and controlled strength on the part of both dancers). At times, they stand, hip cocked or arms crossed, observing another dancer performing a solo. (What’s that mean? That guys like to watch each other?) Every now and then, a dancer rushes in from the wings, arms outstretched, airplane fashion, making a broad loop before disappearing upstage. At other moments, two or more dancers hoist another over their shoulders, with the latter mimicking an airplane, that same arms-outstretched style telegraphing some boyish game. It’s a device that worked to greater effect in earlier Morris works (notably, his 1988 “L’Allegro”); here, it’s part of a catalog of feelings (happiness, exuberance, tenderness, etc.) with no context—unless you actively invent some premise for the title (“beaux” being a bunch of handsome, eligible, agile guys just hanging out at, um, an Easter-egg hunt). That said, a couple of the dancers excel at making the most of what they’re given (the piece is double cast, with different dancers alternating at performances): Soloist James Sofranko engages with his sincere execution of what might otherwise appear silly movement, and corps member Daniel Baker performs with assurance, his strong torso lending a credible virility to what often appears a limp, fey ballet.

An essential to Morris’ greater works is their humanity, and specifically, how they display the range of emotion in novel ways. But don’t go expecting big insights into how Morris sees men in happy, exuberant, and tender moments; they simply aren’t available in “Beaux” beneath its surface. Part of the misfire is owing to his choice of music, a concerto for “revival harpsichord” by Bohuslav Martinů that doesn’t strike the ear as particularly pleasant dance music in spite of its quirky rhythms. Still, that hardly qualifies as an aesthetic pitfall (think of all the “undanceable” music in all those Merce Cunningham dances, where quirky rhythm is paramount). It’s just that here Morris is so preoccupied with making steps to the music that he overlooks what they stand for. The effect is dry and devoid of passion. That Morris seems emotionally withholding in this work for San Francisco Ballet is bizarre, given the city’s embrace of gay sensibility. (Consider how much more successful is Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso,” choreographed in 2003 and packed with homoerotic zing.) For all the talk of the work breaking some longstanding taboo of men lifting other men, or—heavens!—guys showing some affection and care and love for each other, “Beaux” ends up trivial and insignificant.

The Morris premiere is bookended on Program 2 by works of two other influential choreographers: “Chroma” by Wayne McGregor and “Number Nine” by Christopher Wheeldon. Both dances had their San Francisco Ballet premieres last spring, and both have settled on the company in different, if not altogether felicitous, ways.

“Chroma,” McGregor’s abstract dance set to music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III, remains an edgy exercise, though thankfully its smugness and apparent cynicism have been toned down. McGregor’s usual medium is not strictly ballet (in spite of the fact that he snagged the resident choreographer post at the Royal Ballet), and this piece has the uneasy look of a ballet bent to his iconoclastic imagination, with classical vocabulary serving some far-out ideas—think microbes on meth undergoing mitosis, or geese in a mating ritual. The dance plays out against a large, blank window in the center of massive white walls (“Chroma” supposedly evokes hue and saturation, though brilliant white abounds here), and the company (clad in weird, flesh-colored, abbreviated tunics by Moritz Junge) performs on both sides of the divide, stepping over the threshold when their cue arrives. (McGregor called the set, designed by architect John Pawson, “serene,” though “sterile” would be more like it.) A good deal of the choreography goes by with little thematic cohesiveness other than the choreographer exploring his ideas in a little-of-this, little-of-that way (the name of his own company is, after all, Random Dance). A couple of duets approach gentle sensuality (credit a suave Vito Mazzeo and a most limber Sofiane Sylve), but for the most part this dance is about angular, difficult movements and uncommonly stiff couplings that break up as quickly as they form, with the dancers finishing abruptly and practically storming off, full of attitude (the pout, not the pose). The music is loud and pulsating, and (judging by the applause and hoorahs) the kids in the audience love it. But whether this will replace “in the middle, somewhat elevated” (a more coherent and appealing abstract work by William Forsythe in the company’s repertory) is an open question.

“Number Nine” (see video excerpt below) closes the program, and on a good note, both musically and in terms of eye-pleasing dancing. Christopher Wheeldon is perhaps the most natural successor to Balanchine, his style composed of satisfying symmetries and expressive, joyful movement evocative of the master. Plus speed. Wheeldon loves to challenge his dancers (those of SF Ballet in particular) with not only difficult steps but also presto timing, leaving little room for error: miss a beat, and you’ve bungled your bit and the next dancer’s as well. (His “Rush,” which the company has danced since 2004, is another example of this urgent, highly detailed choreography.) Fortunately, the cast of 24 (12 women, 12 men) are up to the task, and this spritely ballet (set to Michael Torke’s “Ash,” a kind of neoclassical mini-symphony whose sections are infectiously danceable) unfurls in remarkable, swift order, like a flag fluttering in the breeze. It’s a singular pleasure to watch Pascal Molat fly in his leaps, his double cabrioles majestically prefiguring his superb partnering of Frances Chung, the recently promoted principal whose light ballon and elegant ligne make her a perfect Wheeldon ballerina. Let these mature artists dance to the increasingly appealing work of a maturing choreographer for seasons to come.

John Sullivan

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