First of all: thank you, Justin Peck, for giving the men something to do. When the curtain goes up on Rodeo and the men go racing across the stage—one knows immediately that the rest of the ballet is going to be good. And it is. Peck’s Rodeo, to the suite version of Aaron Copeland’s music, is above all else a good-natured ballet. I found myself smiling while watching, simply because I was enjoying it so much.
A big part of the fun is the way Peck plays with groups of people, with packs and patterns coming together and dissolving, only to come together again with an inevitable logic. It’s a delight to watch, especially from above. (I was seated in the Balcony Circle, and throughout the evening I felt that the ballets were rewarding me for watching from on high.) Peck is aided by Copeland’s wonderful score, which manages to capture the big open spaces of the American West; there’s no mistaking it for anything else. And the warm lighting of the all-white drops suggests that the sun is rising on a bright new day.
As the lone woman, Dores André has a great “look at me” entrance, flying through center stage for her first brief appearance before her pas de deux in the third movement. In the program notes, the point is made that although Rodeo includes a pas de deux for the lead couple, it is not the center of the piece. The ballet is really about the men. One rarely sees large groups of men dancing together onstage. And while they didn’t move like a traditional corps, their ensemble work was excellent. When they all hit their fourth position finish at exactly the same time after a pirouette, it was so satisfying!
Rodeo was the perfect end to an evening that began with Balanchine’s Serenade, sandwiching between them an expanded The Chairman Dances—Quartet for Two, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied for last year’s gala. The ballet is essentially two separate works, danced by different dancers to different pieces of music by John Adams, with nothing in common and nothing to help the audience transition from the high energy of the first part to the somber tone of the second. It was the first part that premiered last year, and I remember liking it, almost against my will. Did it stick with me? Not the way Rodeo already has, with lifts and leaps I’m itching to try! Part two consists of three duets, danced respectively by a man and a woman, by two men, and by two women. The interest, dare I say the novelty, lies in having each couple repeat entire passages, so you get to see how the movement adapts. Had the transition between the two parts been less jarring, I would have liked the piece more. As it is, I would have been happy to leave it at part one.
Which leaves Serenade, classic, iconic, almost universally beloved—especially by dancers. Serenade is absolutely a dancers’ ballet. It has tons of dancing for the corps, real dancing that feels like it matters to the ballet as a whole. Although there are three female leads, the ballet belongs to the corps right from the beginning, standing there with arms outstretched. (The opening formation has never struck me as strongly as it did this time, with its two intersecting diamonds. This ballet reads very well from above.)
This is a big year for this piece of music, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48. In addition to Balanchine’s Serenade at San Francisco Ballet, Smuin Contemporary American Ballet is presenting Garrett Ammon’s Serenade for Strings, set to the same music (but played straight through, not with the reversed ending a la Balanchine). And, at the San Francisco Symphony, Ithzak Perlman will be playing the piece on a program that includes Bach and Elgar. If you have a chance, you should try to catch all three!
San Francisco Ballet: Program 2: Bright Fast Cool Blue
February 13, 2018, 7:30 pm, at the War Memorial Opera House
Serenade, The Chairman Dances—Quartet for Two, Rodeo