writers on dancing


Fire and Ice

Programs 4 and 5
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
March 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish

Both programs that opened this week at San Francisco Ballet looked like they were not yet quite ready. There were no mishaps we could see, but (though certain ballets went well, namely the two Balanchine pieces and Tomasson's "Concerto"), it seemed like often people were still getting their signals straight and saw no light at the end of the technical tunnel.

Both programs were mixed bills, primarily Balanchine/Tomasson/Possokhov—as if there's an argument a-making that Yuri Possokhov (a principal dancer who came to SF from first the Bolshoi and the Royal Danish Ballet) is Tomasson's primary artistic associate and may before too long become Associate Artistic Director.

It was Possokhov week, and indeed, the most nearly perfect thing I saw last week was Possokhov's fantastic performance in Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" in Program 5. But he had two "one-act" ballets of his own open that week, and he starred as a performer in the only great ballet of the seven—must have been quite a week at their house.

Possokhov is a juicy talent, and he complements Tomasson. The Tomasson/Possokhov team made a brilliant thing out of "Don Quixote" two years ago. The men must respect each other artistically, for that production had almost everything going right for it: characterizations, style, mime, energy, brio.

Possokhov can make a hot ballet—one with Dionysian energy—that Tomasson can not. The latter's attempts at a St Joan, and other ballets with passionate themes, have lacked all conviction.

Possokhov may have made a great ballet with "Reflections." I didn't feel it pull together on opening night, but it's a complex feat he's attempted, a ballet of rigorous formal complexity that's at the same time extravagantly passionate, and on top of that, it's got built-in effects of shattering, juxtaposing takes from many angles. A knowledgeable friend whose taste I trust saw it the next night and was thrilled by it. I hope to have that experience, but haven't yet.

He is certainly integrating many imperatives: it's as if a poet had tried to make a crossword puzzle, with internal rhymes and an acrostic of the heroine's name, that would simultaneously tell a tragic story.

First of all, he's accepted the rules of a classical symphony (Mendelssohn's first), and set it so we can virtually see the double bars. When the music repeats, so do the formations. The first movement begins and ends (like Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements") with a line-up of corps girls changing their poses in canon, though in this case the girls are in tutus and the line is a semi-circle. In the finale, boys and girls are sitting on their heels like Geishas when the lights go up, and when the theme comes back, thee they are again.

Similarly, in the first movement - which is all-female - there are two ballerinas, the first in white, the second in the same costume except it's fire-engine red. The fire-and-ice colors splashed against a velvety black backdrop echo an effect Possokhov is said to have been overwhelmed by in Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," which one gathers from the program notes has provided an essential subtext for the ballet. But there's another cinematic effect that's more obtrusive, a backdrop of mirrors that forcibly reminded me of the Astaire-Rogers number where dozens of mirrored doors conceal and then reveal dozens of girls wearing Ginger-Rogers masks.

The first movement has a corps of some dozen and two ballerinas, the second is a fascinatingly, achingly intimate duet, the scherzo is all boys (in black tank-top bathing suits), and the finale whips them all together.

Possokhov has used a strict classical language which he's inflected powerfully but rarely with "Forsythisms"—small hip undulations, contractions, initiations that happen at the floating rib and roll up into the shoulder, all of which Kristin Long and Lorena Feijoo made, in their very different temperamental ways, very clear. (In Long's case, the moves look sometimes like quotes from "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," in which she starred a few years back.) Feijoo will have hit a position on pointe in passé, when a contraction in the small of the back will break her aplomb, as if she'd been hit in the gut, or shot in the stomach; I can't remember what she did next. Another jazzy move is a Gene Kelly sort of slide—sometimes in pointe shoes (Feijoo in particular is thrilling in these) sometimes on the knees (I THINK I remember the boys doing these). But the whole effect of it all is of tremendous emotional forces being let loose in a highly formal setting.

Coming in the quiet midst of all that is the pas de deux, which is calmly ecstatic. Damian Smith is a dancer who seems to be able to know what his ballerina is feeling and to cherish that knowledge above any other thing. So it is like love-making of the most respectful, mindful, mutually rapturous kind, a quiet consummation. Muriel Maffre's tutu was white. The imagery her limbs inscribed molded in a continuous molten flow, fantastic to behold.

It was not news that Tina LeBlanc dances "Square Dance" brilliantly. Certainly when New York City Ballet did it here some five years ago it had none of the elan, sparkle, or wit LeBlanc scatters around herself like handfuls of coins. She does gargouillades like a kid doing things on a skateboard, casually, jazzily, throwing them away. Our production (staged by Bart Cook, and kept in excellent shape by Sandra Jennings) is sensationally entertaining, touchingly social dancing. The corps honor their partners and their corners while executing their figures in the purest classical style (and the steps are not easy, and they are so very exposed). Gonzalo Garcia danced the cavalier handsomely, but brought perhaps too much restraint to his solo, and missed the line on a grand pirouette, which scratched the sheen a bit on his performance.

Hans van Manen's "Grosse Fugue" filled out that program 4. Peter Brandenhof's intense muscularity began to make the ballet make sense to me, and I am beginning to see how some people I admire greatly can like it as much as they do.

Program 5 opened weaker than 4. Tomasson's Paul-Taylor-esque "Meistens Mozart" had little of the charm that made it the most lovable ballet of his early years here—but then, none of the original cast remain, and over and over again I found myself missing them, especially Eric Hoisington, who gave himself expansively to the pastoral mode in this ballet and used his weight, like he modern dancer he was, to give sweetness to the movement. The ballet is intensely sentimental, set to quasi-kitsch "pa-rum-pa-pum-pum" style German boys'choir settings of lullabyes and drinking songs in the style of Mozart. The dancers wear white, with daisy-chains in their hair, and the movement is like a Robbins take-off of Taylor.

The ballet when new was brilliantly faux-naïve, the sweetly ironic way we understood that this was Tomasson-doing-Robbins-doing-Taylor, in order to give dancers like Jennifer Karius and Grace Maduell, corps girls with very distinct personalities, couturier-fit roles. (Karius had a devilish sniffy mannerism, so Tomasson made her the girl who sneeze in "Gesundheit! Herr Nachbar.") Both Karius and Maduell were still visible in the steps, although this year's girls were actually exquisite in their roles, and Elizabeth Miner brought a mysterious power to her role I'd never seen before which gave those renversés a majesty that almost consoled me for the loss of Hoisington.

It's been a decade since we saw it last, and indeed, at first glance, it made one consider how far Tomasson has come as a choreographer, to compare "Meistens Mozart" with his recent "Concerto Grosso," which was fabulously danced by five men, four corps boys and one male principal. But immediately one realized that Concerto was made on these dancers, it suits them to a "T." Garret Anderson did nothing that wasn't beautiful; the movement butter-soft, large, generous, gorgeous. The others were handsomely contrasted, and all danced like virtuosi. The other four were Pascal Molat, Jaime Garcia Castillo, Rory Hohenstein, Hansuke Yamamoto.

Possokhov's "Study in Motion" looked under-rehearsed this year (Katita Waldo's partner seemed unable to get her onto her leg a couple of times), and under-staffed. I missed the corps dancer Brooke Reynolds, who had a great success in this ballet last year, holding her own against the likes of Tina LeBlanc. Reynolds always reminded me rather of Peggy Lee. She was replaced Friday night by Rachel Viselli, a dancer with a stronger technique but a much weaker temperament. It's not Viselli's fault that my mind wandered, but this ballet seems to require dancers who're somehow strong of soul, to make the spookinesses of Scriabine's music and Possokhov's response to it register.

"Four Temperaments" was out of this world. Sarah van Patten is fascinating in "Sanguinic," Muriel Maffre is thrilling as Choleric, and Possokhov, though he plays it straight, is somehow comically sublime in "Phlegmatic." His dead-pan reading made me think of Bert Lahr's famous performance in "Waiting for Godot"—it's at that level, genius, I guess. The kind of intelligence it takes to play it like that! It makes you think about the phlegmatic temperament, and how in fact many of the greatest clowns—Jack Benny, Jerry Seinfeld—are fundamentally unexciteable, and ponder the mystery of that.

Volume 3, No. 11
March 14, 2005

revised March 16, 2005
copyright ©2005 Paul Parish


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