Dancing in the Park
della Regina, Paquita Pas de Trois, The Four Temperaments, Rush
by Paul Parish
For decades, San Francisco Ballet has been doing a free outdoor concert in the park at the beginning of August. The park is called Stern Grove, and there are free concerts of all kinds in its natural amphitheater every Sunday all summer long—which, since this is San Francisco, means that you have to bring enough changes of clothes to deal with cold damp clinging fog, or even cold damp clammy rain—from there on up to scorching 95-degree broiling sun.
Mosquito repellent, various defenses against bees and hornets are advised also, especially if you're picnicking, as is de rigeur.
That's if you're in the audience. The dancers come on, rain or shine. I saw a few years ago Sabina Allemann in a Black Swan tutu turn 32 fouettés in a considerably drenching rain without slipping, and Elizabeth Loscavio danced "Ballo della Regina" on the same stage in only slightly less soupy conditions, nailing her assemblés to point, falling down in the fouettés at the end but hopping right back up and continuing right on the music as if she'd just made up a new step and wasn't that delicious?
Last year, or was it the year before, they actually cancelled one of the trickier ballets because it was so cold. The dancers agreed to go on anyway, even though it was several degrees below what it said in their contracts they didn't have to do, and they did everything else instead.
I love going to Stern Grove. You see what the dancers are made of out there.
This year's concert yielded several more occasions to see grace under pressure . The funniest, probably was watching Vanessa Zahorian checking out the situation in front of her as she executed her variation from Makarova's "Paquita Pas de Trois" while a horizontal lady in distress was being carried directly across the sight lines on the shoulders of paramedics like the dead Sylphide. Ms. Zahorian seemed to yield pride of place to the lady—who was not by any means unconscious, but was overseeing the proceedings and trying, it seemed, to direct traffic with very expressive use of her eyes and chin—without neglecting her duty to her dance, giving each step its little life. I found myself admiring Ms. Zahorian greatly, and remembering her performance in San Jose when the Kirov Academy's "Nutcracker" came through and the lights went out all over San Jose right at the beginning of her big solo. (We watched her by the ghostly radiance of emergency illumination till an oafish stagehand came out and told us we were just going to have to wait and see if the power came back on. She was gracious on that occasion also.)
Even more heroism was shown by Lorena Feijoo, the ballerina in the opening piece, which was once again "Ballo della Regina" in a heavy mist. Everybody else on-stage was in leg-warmers up to the thighs; her partner Sergio Torrado was in black leg warmers, which were ugly and made him look like one of those doctors on a soap opera you know you shouldn't trust, they're too sexy. La Feijoo braved the elements in pink tights, and indeed she fell right down onto her knee almost at once, into a rather beautiful dolphin position, bounced right up and carried on. She gave her difficulties NO QUARTER. What a magnificent creature she is! The only sticky spot I saw was the extension a la seconde that has to melt around the corner into attitude, which got a little stuck and she had to drop the leg to get it there, but it was the same leg she'd just gone down on, so who could complain about that without being ashamed of themselves?
Nicole Starbuck danced with particular finesse the role of fourth demisoloist, picking her feet up exquisitely into little coupés as she turned, and Megan Low simply glowed with her own light in the corps.
The "Paquita Pas de Trois" looked better as an excerpt than it had—but then the first ten minutes of Makarova's "Paquita" seem to last for hours, the tempi she specified are so gluey. Frances Chung was delicious as the other girl, and Guennadi Nedviguine's beaten sissonnes were sensational.
It was a fine afternoon. Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," beautifully staged by Sandra Jennings (assisted by Gloria Govrin), received one of those performances you just can't believe, everybody is so in the groove. Sarah van Patten made such a fascinating vision out of Sanguinic, I felt I'd never seen it before. She is dancing with such authority, such fascinating inner life to every touch of the foot to the floor, it puts me in mind of dancers I've only read about, like Jerome Robbins. It's like looking at thought, rather than looking at a performance.
Yuri Possokhov, on the other hand, showed us what a tremendous thing it can be to look at a thought-out performance. He dances Phlegmatic like a great clown. Dead-pan: at times like Jack Benny, or maybe Buster Keaton, and at one crucial place, where he's stepping backward making reverence—the leg out in front of him, foot flexed—he looks exactly like Petrouchka. It's hard to believe he's not wearing white-face.
Muriel Maffre was thrilling as Choleric.
After the second intermission came Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush," which had its premiere in 2003 at the Edinburgh Festival (which co-commissioned the piece, along with SFB). It was a smash in Edinburgh, but has only recently been seen here.
Since I like "Rush" better than anything else of Wheeldon's that I've seen— which includes well-known "Polyphonia," "Continuum," as well as a piece to Elgar's "Sea Pictures"—it might be worth it to describe the ballet for those who haven't seen it. "Rush" is an almost Humphrey-esque music-visualization of Bohuslav Martinu's "Sinfonietta La Jolla for Piano and Orchestra" of 1950, and sets the three movements (Poco Allegro; Largo/Andante moderato; Allegro) for a corps of ten couples, dressed in sorbet colors (blueberry, mulberry, tangerine, that sort of thing - costumes by Jon Morrell) with two pairs of allegro principals and an adagio couple. The Sinfonietta is a sparkling three-movement neo-classical serenade that sounds a little like the take-offs on Haydn which Poulenc wrote for Boulanger's fêtes-champêtres. Not so school-boyish, not so prankish, but…. there's a similarity to the way they jazz up the old forms. The motifs have a classical shape but the colorings are post-eighteenth-century: mauve and Gulf-orange, deep purple, aniline-dyed; some of the passing harmonies are druggy-sparkling. Stretches of passage-work owe much to Debussy. Every inch of it is danceable.
The atmosphere is like a summer romance. Which is perfectly appropriate to the idea of La Jolla ( rhymes with Goya) which is a beach community north of San Diego —perhaps the single most beautiful spot on the famously beautiful coast of California; it's an immensely wealthy town (Scrippses among others) whose music society commissioned the work in 1950. The Sinfonietta suggests a fantasy of high life such as Cole Porter might have written had he worked in large neo-classical forms.
Martinu's tone in the Allegro is rather "Let's don't and say we did"—it's somehow reassuring to know that the first movement is based on a Czech folk-song, Bolava hlavenka (My Head is Aching). My mother, when spotted holding her forehead during a migraine, used to put the other hand behind her head, stick up two fingers, and say "Me Hiawatha." It's a wonderfully complicitous kind of humor, of the kind that isn't sunny California but in fact a Central-European response to "the land where the Citronen blooms."
The ballet is not deep, nor is it accessible; it is simply fabulously good-looking, like Twiggy. I can not follow it (I can follow Haydn, and Balanchine, and Ashton; I can't follow Wheeldon). I can't tell you what it means.
But there are some images I have SO clearly, they are such ODD images, and so clearly intended, and I like them so much, I'll try to see if they add up.
Wheeldon may have wanted the allegro ballerinas in long skirts—he is said to care about such things. I mention this because of a rippling he gets them to set up, like a pennant in the breeze, when they échapper into second position on pointe right next to each other, down right, and swivel their hips like they were playing with a hula hoop; they might be on tip-toe at the front of a boat, leaning into the wind, or like kites that are swimming on a shifting breeze. There's nothing 7th chakra about it. It's not hotcha hip action, it's not sexy; it's more like play, but more than playful; it's brave, a test they didn't know they could pass. Both ballerinas, Tina leBlanc and Kristin Long, are delightful at this move, and adorable throughout.
Another image is Janus-headed—the corps women double-spot their chainé turns, looking both towards where they're headed and backwards. They're going very fast, it's difficult—WHY are they dong this? I don't know, but it is just spankingly brilliant The climax of the first movement is a diagonal of men who catch the girls one at a time: each throws herself up facing them, flips in mid-air into arabesque, and stops right there, and 1-2-3-4-5-6, just like that, the line up materializes, like ducks in a row.
An almost Ashtonian plastique prevails in this ballet. It's particularly noticeable in Elizabeth Miner, an outstanding corps dancer recently elevated to soloist whom Mark Morris featured as Sylvia earlier in the year. Miner was in fact the best of the Sylvias, partly because her épaulement is so good: her early training in Portland came from a teacher steeped in Ashton, and Miner's sternum, shoulders, arms and head positions are strikingly clear—which makes her particularly visible in "Rush," since she presents the plastique so clearly you can't mistake it for a mistake. The torso is tilted, a lot; the arms are often en couronne, and then suddenly the elbows turn in, the position closes like a Chinese fan, and then opens right back into high fifth, and you notice that the upper body is tilted, almost like a Geisha's, though I couldn't tell you why. (The feeling isn't Japanese. It could be Romantic, it is certainly "feminine"—it is lively, alert, but it passes so quickly I wonder if I really saw it.)
The adagio is scrumptious, melting, chaste, again involving a great deal of plastique in the arms and much maneuvering of the ballerina. She spends a lot of time upside down, in penchée (like Makarova in "Swan Lake," with the arms going into and out of "couronne") and in lifts. Katita Waldo is transfigured by it, looking more beautiful than she has in years. Damian Smith, the most versatile dancer in the company, is a partner of such gifts he puts one in mind of a horse whisperer, the sensitivity, the imagination, the musicality are so great that they seem to be emerging from him and taking shape in her body.
All the corps comes in for a section that's got a slightly faster pulse, and when it returns to adagio, the couple return, again to extremely intimate effect.
The rumpusy finale involves everybody dancing until they're good and tired, with a memorable sequence in which an allegro girl runs up the body of a corps boy like Donald O'Connor in "Make them Laugh"—she's got an assist from her partner and doesn't actually do a back flip but merely jetés off his chest, but the effect is the same as O'Connor's. In case you didn't see it, they do it again, BOTH of the allegro ballerinas this time, and it makes you laugh all over again. It's a big delicious rush, and then it's over, and it was wonderful.
Everything on this bill will be danced in the three programs of their up-coming performances at the Sadler's Wells Theater in London, September 20-25. Should go over very well.
Photos: (alas, there
were no photos of Rush available)