writers on dancing


Celebration of a Vision

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

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2005 by Ann Murphy

Last Wednesday’s gala at the San Francisco Ballet was more than the yearly run-up to the 2005 season. It was first and foremost a celebration of the fact that it’s been 20 years since Helgi Tomasson was lured to San Francisco by a group of the powerful who wanted a ballet company with clout and stature in the city. In the intervening years, Tomasson has matured from a slender, boyish-faced dancer of courtly and uncompromising classicism—along with a certain stiff discomfiture in the public eye—into a shy wizard with a shock of white hair who has a quiet genius for running a ballet company. It was also the occasion to fundraise, as almost any anniversary in the arts must be, and Board President James Herbert trooped on stage to announce the launch of a $35 million capital campaign, 25 of which is already in hand, $1 million of which is Tomasson’s to do with artistically as he chooses—it’s not a lot of money for a discretionary fund for a ballet head, but it’s something.

SFB may not have the regimental clarity of the Bolshoi or the Royal Ballet corps. His dancers may not universally understand the sensual lusciousness that is sine qua non at the Paris Opera Ballet. Men and women both lack the spongy balon that makes the Danes look like they’re moving atop cloud cover. And he has produced no Fonteyn or Baryshnikov during his time here. But he has done something huge all the same. The 62-year-old Icelander has fashioned the quintessential American ballet troupe. He has taken the fresh-faced dynamism of the U.S., added the contending forces of provincialism and visionary internationalism that characterize San Francisco, spiced it with his own European sensibilities, and used those energies to shape a company with global flair and sophistication. Ironically, no purely American recipe could rival this. It turns out we need our melting pot to bubble with fresh material. We need large outsider sensibilities to work with us in order to be shown clearly what American dance can be. Mixing seems to be what we do best, and Tomasson takes our often chaotic eclecticism and diversity and ties it together with Apollonian clarity.

While it is fair, I think, to describe this company as it begins a new decade as conservatively experimental, San Francisco Ballet is above all syncretic, fusing the new and the old, the desired and necessary, the flashy and the sedate. It is a company full of arresting individuals harnassed to a collective purpose, a small city of dance whose raison d’etre is to hold ballet in all its incarnations together, the way Rome holds the ancient, the Romanesque, the Baroque, the fascist and the modern in its architectural grasp. There’s the Balanchine rep, performed with more zing than any company I know; there are the warhorses, like "Giselle," danced with deep artistic integrity; there are Paul Taylor’s and Mark Morris’ modern dances ingested with glee that subvert classicism’s trajectory by their use of gravity and highlight dancers we might otherwise overlook; there are Tomasson’s own works; and there are the occasional specters that defy categorization and often disappear as quickly as they came. Plenty of other company heads try to follow a similar formula, but few succeed as well as he. That may be because few have Tomasson’s background in the experiments of the Joffrey and Harkness Ballets, his Scandinavian dance pedigree, and his esteemed career with Balanchine. Other than a stint with Judson Church or expertise in a non-Western dance form, what more breadth could one ask for? And as his blockbuster "Nutcracker" proves, he can make money where others falter.

Given "Nutcracker"’s success, it made sense Wednesday that the champagne flowed freely before the curtain rose, which turned the well-heeled crowd into a loquacious, lollygaging bunch, atwitter over sightings of Paris Hilton and her camera crew. The women this year sported sleeveless silken dresses eerily reminiscent of the snug sheaths of the pre-crash 20’s, the men wore the usual tuxes, and the crowd sang the national anthem with unconscious fervor. Ironically, the Ukraine’s protest color, orange, was the accent tone of the night, and Venetian-style masks were in many hands, ready for the post-gala ball.

The evening began with a film worthy of an Oscar retrospective—an exhaustive line-up of encomiums to Tomasson and the post-Smuin SFB with a train-load of company directors, critics, choreographers, dancers and board members serially praising the director/choreographer to the moon. If the film became a bit of a blunt club after five minutes, the film editor nevertheless did well to give us multiple takes of Mark Morris, who alone could hold the camera frame with impish swagger. Besides, Morris was unequivocal in his inimitable way: SFB is not only a great company—it is best in all of North America, he said. Who else in ballet has had the courage and foresight and economic savvy to develop a relationship with Morris other than Tomasson? And thanks to Morris’ relationship with the ballet and his subversive working style, using whomever he wants from the ranks, corps members have gotten juicy roles, which has helped catapault a few dancers into a greater prominence and better pay, and inflicted on the ballet system an example of greater democracy. It also has seemed to noodge Tomasson to look at dancers with a broader lens than before Morris appeared.

After the speeches and the presentation of a plaque came heady applause for Tomasson, who blushed and tried to silence an unsilenceable crowd. When he was finally able to talk, he said that dance was what they did best, so let the dancing begin. Mercifully the company got on with the show.

In the end, it was a lively but uneven night that hinted at the promise in dancers on the rise more than in the season to come. A sense of too little time, too much rep to learn, so few weeks between a demanding new "Nutcracker" and the launch of the season coursed like a disturbance in the field Tuesday. But it didn’t matter, because what is astonishing about SFB is that even when they are wobbly or green, or in medias res, the dancers dance with everything they have, projecting to the theater’s high altitudes and conveying how lucky they, not we, are to be in that hall. No one, not even any of the army of charming kids (from near tots to young adults) from the school who performed choreography by Irina Jacobson (dominated by the simple and elegant, criss-crossing chodzony ), to Tchaikovsky’s "Polonaise" from "Eugene Onegin" never turned slack or retreated from the moment. That reflects not only the level of talent on board but a tight and gleaming ship run by a respected director.

There were interesting interpretations afloat Wednesday. Vanessa Zahorian and Nicolas Blanc performed Balanchine’s 1964 "Tarantella" with 1940’s MGM glamour, reminding me of one of the delicious "ethnic" dance interludes that riddled B films before WW II. While every previous performance I’ve seen of "Tarantella" has treated it like an austere and highstrung elegy to a long ago era, emphasizing the tarantella’s spider bite frenzy, these two danced like gorgeous kids consciously and adeptly playing at the edge of kitchy exoticism. Balanchine’s subversive wit rarely seemed so clear or Zahorian’s smile so photogenic.

To place Ashton’s 1971 "Thais" directly after was ingenious, like serving a poetic sorbet after a spicy appetizer. Katita Waldo and Vadim Solomakha were pitch-perfect as the female vision and the dreaming young man dancing to the Massenet score. Waldo’s hands and forearms, which are deer-like in their delicacy, were full of heartbreaking longing as she bourreed forward, her face covered with her apricot colored veil, and Solomakha’s restrained response was a testament to a poetic heart. These two spotlight the passion in each other’s understated dancing and deserve to be paired together more often.

The third couple dance of the night was an excerpt of the "Bluebird Pas De Deux" from Act III of "The Sleeping Beauty" with Elizabeth Miner and Guennadi Nedviguine. While this should have taken us back to the technical subfloor of the previous two pas, Miner’s half of Bluebird wasn’t limned clearly enough. Nedviguine had no difficulty rippling through the air with avian litheness in his perfectly arched brise volees and gorgeous batterie. But Miner’s technique isn’t yet up to the task. Where her foot should have slipped to the back of the leg above the heel or behind the knee before shooting into attitude derriere, it instead slipped along the side and rose obliquely up, muddying the geometry so critical to "Bluebird’s" brilliance. Also, her developes a la secondes came to rest stuck in the hip, which made the position oddly static, when instead the foot should have kept the energy rising upward. Her upper body was limpid enough, but without crystalline shape in the legs and an always breathing line, this is one bird that grows sluggish.

Five more duets filled the night. James Kudelka’s "Purple" from the 1995 Terra Firma with music by Michael Torke held up surprisingly well with its stripped down signature walk that reads like a slo mo breakdown of a 60’s dance, fists balled, hips rocking, shoulders punching the air. Damian Smith combined a Brando-esque restraint with a sultry, deeply musical sexyness. Long didn’t linger inside the music with the same lushness as her partner, but she kept the magnetism alive all the same, and proved that a pas de deux can be much more than a simple love story.

Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Villanoba tore through the often seen excerpt from Forsythe’s "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated" with its stark mercury vapor light and recherche industrial score by Thom Willems. As the once chi-chi clangor ripped through the air, these two acrobats didn’t so much prove that humanism will be victorious over a dehumanizing social structure as they confirmed the miracle of 180 degree extensions and bodies like Gumby.

The night’s biggest two disappointments were Lar Lubovitch’s "My Funny Valentine," from his upcoming SFB premiere "smile with my heart," with music after Richard Rogers, the great musical balladeer of Broadway, and Tomasson’s own "Bagatelles," to Bartok’s "Fourteen Bagatelles." While the jury is out, "smile" doesn’t look promising if this pas de deux is the caliber of dance to come. It was a thoroughgoing cliché "about" love filled with movement that reminded me of Alvin Ailey’s most half-hearted romantic stuff, not pure social and not Horton based modern dance but some hokey amalgam of the two. The clichés, from nuzzling up the body of the woman to resting along the side body of the guy were everywhere, and it added up to a big "ho hum," despite great execution by Tina LeBlanc and Stephen Legate.

For his latest premiere Tomasson used five of Bartok’s bagatelles, played beautifully by pianist Roy Bogas, music with constant melancholic echo, jagged pitch, and asymmetrical shape. But Tomasson’s trio of two women and one yearning man seemed oddly underchoreographed or meant for other music altogether—something by Stravinsky, say, sinceTomasson seemed to ignore the dark rhythmic bones of the score and proceed with lyric Balanchinian mystery to investigate the triangle of a man and two women. It was, however, admirably danced by the dreamily poised and gentle Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, recently of the Royal Ballet School, the gallant Moises Martin and increasingly regal Sarah Van Patten.

Tomasson’s stunning "Concerto Grosso" on the other hand proves how solid the director’s dancemaking abilities can be. This beautiful quintet for five men to music by Geminiani is shaped with diamond cutter precision and glistening clarity, and suggests that Tomasson is better suited to the geometries of Baroque era than the asymmetries of modern music. Unfortunately for gala-goers, this was a less successful rendering of "Concerto". Pascal Molat, who was the lead, was master of the swift current of movement, although he could use more ease in his placement, especially his hip and shoulder joints. Jaime Garcia Castilla’s beautifully arched feet, pliant hips, and beautifully plumb alignment made him seem at home in the sweeping, leaping choreography and rapid fire diagonals, whereas Rory Hohenstein’s technically weak upper body, especially his neck and upper back, kept him bogged down and struggling just to keep up with the music. Hansuke Yamamoto no longer attacks every step as grand allegro, thankfully, and the deepening richness in his approach to phrasing is full of promise. Garrett Anderson performed with enough elegance, but he and the others together didn’t produce the group magnetism that Concerto not only deserves but needs in order to become the beautiful abstraction it is.

Later, Yuan Yuan Tan was delightfully girlish as Juliet in the balcony scene from Tomasson’s "Romeo and Juliet," but as wonderfully paired as she and Yuri Possokhov always are, Possokhov, who’s gotten a bit thick in the leg, has lost the boyish impetuousity that every Romeo needs. The upshot was that he seemed far too mature to meet Tan’s credibly adolescent energy. Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada followed, and although these two have torn through the Pas de Deux from Don Q’s Act III far more effectively on other occasions, they nevertheless held the stage through their wonderful hauteur.

Gonzalo Garcia was even more expressive in a solo "Sin Regreso," an anguished piece made for him by Myriam Agar to music by Philip Glass, and inspired by the Madrid train bombings. Caught in a track of light with the sound of trains clacking, and later combatting explosions of white light from the wings, Garcia writhed and jumped bare chested in a solo of hellish entrapment a la Sartre’s "No Exit". Offering only a vaguely sculpted portrait of existential despair, the dance is forgettable, but Garcia danced it as though it were a gem.

With characteristic curatorial care, Tomasson made the close of the program a mirror of its opening, although rather than showcasing the school, it was a large segment of the company that appeared to dance the breezy "Who Cares?" by Balanchine with music by the Gershwin Brothers. What a fitting, light-hearted ending to a celebratory night, and it elided right into the on- stage champagne toast by the company to their boss, the fizz rising, the light of Apollo piercing every glass.


Volume 3, No. 5
January 31, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Ann Murphy


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last updated on January 31, 2005