writers on dancing


Something For Everyone

Opening Night Gala
San Francisco Ballet gala
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
January 26, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright © 2005 by Paul Parish

The rains stopped, the clouds parted and rainbows appeared just in time for San Francisco Ballet's opening night gala, which augured well for a lot of designer gowns that had to cross the street from gala dinner to gala performance and then again to the ballo in maschera that followed all that (and went on till two in the morning).

But it also augured well for the whole evening, and for the company's next twenty years under the direction of Helgi Tomasson. It was not just an impressive gala, blazing with star turns, though there was much skill on display. Unlike the ABT galas of old (which are really the only galas I could compare SFB's with), Tomasson's have always had an idea to them. Since the mid-eighties he's used the gala to show dancing as one of the mirrors in which the community can see itself. Nearly twenty years ago, at his first gala, we came out of the lobby to find members of the Bay Area's modern and ethnic dance companies performing with great spirit on little stages in the lobby, and we realized the party was still going on and ballet was only a part of the whole. It had an electrifying effect on me; ballet was not placing itself above other forms but among them in San Francisco, and that felt like a reflection of the spirit of the place.*

Last Wednesday night's gala was about classicism as a living tradition, one that respects and responds to other dance forms around. Much as San Francisco's social dancers adopt and adapt each others' moves—the swing dancers of San Francisco, for example, have adopted moves and whole organizing patterns (like the rueda) from salsa, and lots of inflections from hip-hop—the ballet continues to incorporate postures, attitudes, props, steps, phrases, material from other kinds of dancing, modern and ethnic. The gala showed a company that is itself the mirror of society—people dancing together. What's onstage is not very remote, you could do this too, if you were in staggeringly good shape and had lots of time to practice.

We really have a multi-cultural ballet company. Repertory that night ranged from Balanchine to Petipa, of course, with several Tomassons, but both Balanchines were demi-caractere ("Tarantella" and "Who Cares?" ) so were the Petipas (bird and Spanish pieces) and the rest ranged from jazz to Angstvoll through whatever you want to call Forsythe, with a temple-dance and a love-scene for romance. And all this began with a great big splendid dance for the children from the school.**

It was a night when the dancers were very aware of the audience—we all were, Paris Hilton was there, in a truly beautiful dress, with her parents in tow as well as a crew from "Entertainment Tonight." So at the end of the evening, when the whole cast was onstage and suddenly the younger corps members were handing round champagne, they raised their glasses to us as if to acknowledge that dancing is something everybody does, not just the pros onstage, so let's go across the street and boogie. A friend who rarely goes to the ballet and whose idea of an aesthetic experience is an eight-hour hike told me that at that moment, it occurred to him that these people LIKE each other and probably can really party.

The gala was not so much about the art as about the activity. Which was just as well, since with so little rehearsal time, there was a fair amount of dancing that was good enough but not stellar. Their new "Nutcracker" had had to go up late, since the opera was in the house well into December and the new production's elaborate tech required lots of stage time….. AND the season itself would open within a week, AND there was still enough flu going around to put some dancers off their game. (I had it on excellent authority that Elizabeth Miner was dancing sick as the female unit in the "Bluebird Pas de deux"—she pulled it off but certainly was not dancing as brilliantly as she had been only a few weeks ago as the Queen of the Snow. Her partner, however, the fabulous Guennadi Nedviguine, had loft, elegance, softness in landings, and birdliness on the most extravagant scale.)

The cumulative effect of the evening was not intended to be strictly dazzling—impressive, yes, but inclusive was just as much the point. It was a variety show, and what variety!

THe smashing bits were surprising. I'd barely remembered James Kudelka's "Terra Firma" (from ten years ago), but its pas de deux was probably the highlight of the evening. Unison trudging kept exploding into hugely expansive phrases, opening from tight postures not much bigger than a fist into major cantilevered extensions or a tornado ot pirouettes on sudden outbursts in Tom Willems' minimalist score, and then returned to their imprisoned stances again all of a sudden. Much of the brilliance of the dance owes to Damian Smith's gifts as a partner, which allowed Kristin Long to dare greatly, knowing he'd be there. Theirs was the only dance that went without a hitch, nor even a hint of hesitation.

Well, actually Muriel Maffre threw herself pretty boldly into a pas de deux from Forsythe's "in the middle, somewhat elevated", the role in which she burst onto the scene here, like Garbo, fifteen years go.She perfectly understands Forsythe's version of neo-classicism, the pevlic tilts, the penchées that pull against her partner, the sous-sus again pulling against her partner, rolling her pelvis past us in a smoothed-out version of the mess-around. Five minutes of that was like a very dry martini, stinging and brilliant, and then came the first-act curtain.

The ballet I most want to see again is Lar Lubovitch's"Smile with my Heart," from which TIna leBlanc and Stephen Legate danced the "My Funny Valentine" excerpt that was featured in Robert Altman's film, "The Company." Like my colleague Ann Murphy, I found myself edgily taking against it while I was watching it, though some moments were wonderful—but in the days since, I have not been able to get the music out of my head, and movements from it have stuck with me. It's gotten under my skin. I wonder why.

The evening was long, what with speechifying, and an infomercial about Tomasson's first twenty years, and then thirteen numbers. But it did not feel too long, mostly because the performers never broke their contract with us. When Lorena Feijoo dropped her fan early in the "Don Q" pas de deux, she did nothing hasty nor petulant. She left it there, continued her dance as it led her to other parts of the stage, and when she came back that way again she stepped over, genuflected, swept her arm round and picked it up, snapped it open, looked at us, and fanned herself. Now THAT's class. She was not particularly on that night, technically, but it did not bother her, and so it did not bother us. She still did her fouettés brilliantly, in singles with the fan folded and doubles with the fan spread across her heart—and closed with a thrilling balance—but what made the dance WORK was the proper Spanish timing of her flourishes, the way the arm unfurled upward, the elbow opening, the wrist uncurling, and the fan and the eyes and the chin arriving at the line exactly when it counted. And handsome selfless partnering by her compadre, Joan Boada (both come from Cuba).

Perhaps this is to say that San Francisco Ballet is still dancing in he tradition of Adolph Bolm, who founded the company, and the Christensens who continued it—a classical company with a very strong character flavor—or in terms being much used at the moment, one which is willing to cross a cultural border and learn from other ways of dacning, so long as it can keep its identity intact. But then in one sense Petipa's "Don Quixote" was cross-over in its day.

* That event owed much to the influence of Richard leBlond, who not only rescued the SF Ballet Association, re-organized it on a professional basis, and agitaed to return to classical standards, but also made common cause with all the other dance companies in the area and helped found the Bay Area Dance Coalition and helped institute the Ethnic Dance Festival—in seeking community support for SFB, leBlond consistently and adamantly demanded respect for all forms of dance.

**Mme Irina Jakobsen's "Polonaise" is set to the great one from the last act of "Onegin." Her polonaise is kind of like a grand defilé, like masses of children came onto the stage, starting with the tiniest children, doing the polonaise step, in single file, another group in couples, groups and groups and groups—glamorous teen-agers in pointe shoes doing piqués in passé or other semi-fancy steps, handsome soldierly boys looking gallant, and ending up with the smallest people you've ever seen crossing the stage in front of everybody else, a total throng, and then they do a big port de bras and hand it all to you like a gift. It's a really sweet grand gesture, and everybody loved it.

It was wonderful for us to have the great Leonid Jakobson's widow live and work among us; she did a lot for this school and company. It was admirable that Tomasson wants to keep alive the connection of SFB to the great Russians who've worked here, as he kept Anatole Vilzak's Trepak in his new "Nutcracker." This polonaise made a kind of consecration of the house to emphasize the importance of training and tradition as he starts his 20th season. Again, by showing "our children dancing" he demonstrated the continuity of the dance and the community.

Photo on front page:  Yuan Yuan Tan and Vadim Solomakha in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote. Photo by Chris Hardy

Volume 3, No. 5
January 31, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish


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