writers on dancing


Lightweight Opener

Program One
“7 for Eight”, “….smile with heart”, “Theme and Variations”
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
February 1, 2005

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2005 by Rita Felciano

Maybe because SFB’s Gala gave birth to the new season on such a high festive note the week before, the first program induced, at least in this viewer, a slight case of post-partum blues. On the surface there was nothing wrong with it. The dancers performed admirably. The orchestra sounded fabulous. Two of the works, Helgi Tomasson’s “7 for Eight” and Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” were quite good. Lar Lubovitch’s “…smile with my heart”, receiving its San Francisco premiere, however, was dreadful. What on earth could have possessed Tomasson to take on this forgettable piece of theatricality? At ABT, at least, it was a premiere; Tomasson knew what he was buying.

But it was not only the Lubovitch that kept the evening from being the soul satisfying event you wanted it to be. I can’t be sure, but I think the problem was with the programming, specifically the music. So essential to ballet, the ground of which the choreography grows and from which it draws nourishment, the individual musical choices were not truly excellent. Together they result in a malaise.

Tomasson’s “7” is quite a fine piece—as good as he gets as one colleague put it. Premiered last season, it’s choreographed for four couples who only appear together in what Tomasson builds into a sweeping finale which, even on second viewing, a I happen to think as overextended. The work, with the same marvelous cast that premiered it last year (see Paul Parish’s review in DVT, March 1, 2004), has a wonderful sweep to it in which each of the configurations plays off the previous one.

The intimacy of Yuri Possokhov and Yuan Yuan Tan adagio couple made you forget that you were watching two dancers. (The black on black costumes helped.) From the moment he extended his right hand to her left, as if going into a reverence and her accepting it, they were destined for each other. His little head rocking became part of her balances; her floor deep cambre, an exhalation of their togetherness. Folding, leaning and exploring each other, her limbs looked like llanas reaching towards the light.

Fleet, playful but ever so crystalline whether in the air or on the ground, Tina Le Blanc and Gonzalo Garcia used the space as if a window had been thrown and fresh air let in for some flirtatious partnering. Even when traveling to opposite sides their sparks filled the space between them. And so the piece went. At first Elizabeth Miner and Rachel Viselli jetes made them look like the Bobbsey twins until the arrival of Joan Boada, who took turns partnering them, revealed differences with Miner’s golden disposition being complimented by Viselli’s greater lyricism. Boada in his solo looked the best he ever has. While his elevation is still spectacular, height is no longer the ultimate goal. Clean execution and soft landings, details like tiny pearly rond de jambes and expansive port de bras are.

Where Tomasson’s piece fell short was in the choice of music, excerpts from Bach keyboard concertos. They were arranged for orchestra and piano except for Boada’s solo which was reconfigured for two harpsichords. Individually, within the sections, the music worked beautifully because Tomasson responded so excellently to it. However, the transitions, particularly to the two harpsichords which popped up out of nowhere, were jarring. So the choreography, loosely built as it was, had a lovely clear trajectory but the music did not. It hiccupped.

Besides programming the Lubovitch at all, putting it right after Tomasson’s own work, was not such a good idea either. “7” employs small groupings which come together at the end. “…smile” opened with a sextet that then opened into three duets.

The work was set on Malvin Laird’s “Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rogers”, performed live on stage by a (badly amplified) chamber ensemble. Valiantly the composer tried to avoid using the Rogers songs as a crutch. In the process he managed to just about obliterate Rogers’s distinct flair for melody and harmony. More seriously he didn’t manage to substitute anything for the originals’ flair and charm. The music sounded like an exercise in negativism.

The choreography was packed with steps, lifts and ballroom moves—the dancers, apparently, loved it—which, however didn’t amount to anything but the most stereotypical depictions of three kinds of relationships.

Frances Chung, an ebullient member of the corps with a winning smile, was paired with Garcia in an athletic horsing around, catch-me-if-you can duet. The lifts in split, with Chung snapping her ankles at the apex, looked rather precarious during the first performance. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith’s pushing and shoving fighting duet at least let them step into the role of soap opera characters. Every good tortuous relationship needs at least one upside lift. Lubovitch did not disappoint.

LeBlanc, in the third duet, is simply magical in everything she touches these days. Here her diminutive stature stood her in good stead to Stephen Legate’s comforting embrace for a duet in which he tried to be supportive by mainly taking his cues from her. She apparently needed an almost animal-like sense of comfort, expressed in the way she rolled off his back or curled around his waist. Had she been giving better material, LeBlanc’s trembling intensity could have been quite touching. Here it was used for calendar art.

“Theme and Variations”, a work I think that works better as an opener than as a closer, was danced quite beautifully with all of the demis (Sarah Van Patten, Viselli, Chung and Miner) and Lorena Feijoo in the ballerina role (paired with Vadim Solomakha) all debutantes.

For some reason, I always thought of “Theme” as having an an odd structure, particularly in the way that grand-imperial opening evaporates only to return—sort of—in the end. Alexandra Tomalonis has written that the ballet is like a kind of pre-wedding garden party for Aurora. That makes more sense than any other reference to “Sleeping Beauty”, despite the clear connection in the Pas de Deux.

Even with less than stellar soloists, “Theme” enchants with the ease and fluency of its patterning for the corps. If this ballet is an homage to Petipa, it’s not a remembered Petipa but a reimagined one. The roundedness, the linearity, the unfurling of patterns look absolutely contemporary. No starch here, just the crispness of natural fabrics.

Feijoo is not that much of a Balanchine dancer. She tries too hard, somewhat unable to let the music guide her. You could feel the steely technique behind every step. Even the tendus looked like hard work. She attacked the opening section with such force that it made Solomakha’s softer approach look wimpy. To give her credit, her “attendants” feathery delicacy eventually rubbed off on her and at the center of the line-up in which her extensions, front, side and back, talk about being at the center of the universe, she looked like the first among equals. In the pas de deux, she finally seemed to realize that this was not Imperial Russia, and she had fun with it.

If Feijoo was overly intense, Solomakha was a little stolid even in his bravura solo which he dispatched with aplomb but no particular investment.

Where I wish “Theme” was different was not in the choreography but in the music though Balanchine made magnificent use of it. Lovely as these variations are, nicely balanced, imaginatively orchestrated—and excellently performed by the SFB orchestra under Andrew Mogrelia’s direction—ultimately that score is not Tchaikovsky at his best. It is light weight.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano


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