Letter from New York

The Lincoln Center Festival
Third Week
San Francisco Ballet
New York, N.Y.
July 25-30, 2006

by Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2006
by Nancy Dalva

For a lovely week at the end of July, the San Francisco Ballet moved into the New York State Theater, and Cupid, the presiding god of Mark Morris’s “Sylvia,” reigned. And reigned not only during the three-night new-to-New York run of that ballet, made in 2004, but on the opening and closing programs as well. This last was long, very long, and mostly a grim-fest, but by then I was interested in seeing what the company could do, and how they did it, whether I liked it or not. Amor vincet omnia.

The engagement started with a marathon: “Opening Night Celebration” was a soup to nuts, meet everyone, wowie-kazowie smorgasbord of excerpts from no less than 14 ballets. First, the Californians tore out of the starting gate with a true-to-its-title rendering of William Forsythe’s “Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” proceeding thence to pieces by David Bintley, Yuri Possokhov, their own artistic director Helgi Tomasson (four entries: “Swan Lake” Act 1 Pas de Trois, and Act 11 Adagio; a marvelous men’s section from a piece to Corelli; and later, a “Chaconne” to Handel; and a duet from his recent “The Fifth Season,” set to Karl Jenkins); also some early George Balanchine (the “Harlequinade” pas de deux, a show piece made in 1950 for Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky; the choreography for the 1965 full-length version, seen last year at New York City Ballet, is different, being less oomph-y, and more charming), and some of Fokine’s “Chopiniana;” also something made for them and contemporary from James Kudelka, and a smooth, ballroomy duet to Richard Rodgers by Val Caniparoli, the Act III pas de deux from “Don Quixote” (listed as after Gorsky and Petipa), a solo from Lar Lubovitch’s “Elemental Brubeck,” and last, the third movement from Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces,” which is set to Phillip Glass. There was live music for all, with notable piano accompaniment by Michael McGraw (playing Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35” for the Bintley), and by Roy Bogas, who played the Handel “Chaconne (and 21 variations) in G major for harpsichord” from a piano on the left apron of the stage. These two musicians came out here with the company, as did their music director and principal conductor Martin West, with the New York City Opera Orchestra in the pit.

So? The best thing about this bill was meeting the dancers and beginning to recognize them, so that on the succeeding nights of “Sylvia,” their faces were already familiar, as was their overall personality. For this company indeed has a personality, clear across all the various works performed, in various styles, from various periods, and in various modes. The dancers are direct, athletic, and open; unironic, un-angsty, and un-sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought (these being New York states of mind). They are clear, natural, technically skilled, generally full of heart and soul, confident, easy, and modest. In other words, they’re easy to love. It helps that the are divine looking, in an athletic, non-neurasthenic way. The women are gorgeous, and gorgeously assorted. The men are — shall we just cut to the chase? — really handsome, buoyant, with an unaffected masculinity.

If I had to compare San Francisco Ballet to another company, it wouldn’t be another ballet company, and it wouldn’t be Mark Morris’s company, although he frequently choreographs for them. (To my eye, this is a tribute to Morris, and to his affectionate regard for this troupe. For as we were to see in the “Sylvia,” he loves them.) No, the troupe that comes to mind looking at SFB would be Paul Taylor’s. Nothing about technique, a lot about personality, American-ness, and an easy rapport with the audience. But never mind comparisons — although to be sure there was a lot of comparing going on, in this city with two ballet companies of its own; and, at every program, various artistic and stage directors and choreographers gracing the house. (I saw Mikko Nissenen, in from his own wonderful Boston Ballet; Judith Jamison, the eminence grise of The Alvin Ailey Company; Kevin McKenzie, over from ABT; Karole Armitage; Peter Sellars; and there were multiple reporting sightings of New York City Ballet’s helmsman Peter Martins, speaking — or not speaking — of comparisons there for the making.) But my impulse on opening night wasn’t to think overmuch, since after all was said and done, much of the choreography didn’t need much thinking about, and the rest of it one had, mostly, thought about before. It was to look at the dancers, and begin to know them. Then it was on to "Sylvia."

(lyrics by Sam Cooke)

Cupid, draw back your bow and let your arrow go
Straight to my lover's heart for me, for me
Cupid, please hear my cry and let your arrow fly
Straight to my lover's heart for me

Perhaps the greatest treat of this “Sylvia” run was getting to know a new ballet through successive casts, and seeing different facets of the work revealed by different performers. For instance, the opening Sylvia, Yuan Yuan Tan, is especially beautiful in lifts, and especially legible, possibly because she is very thin, and has a very clean and clear line. Thus I saw, at one point in her choreography, a little boop-boop-de-boop kind of plie, to one side and then the other, fast as a flash, and reminiscent of Balanchine’s “Rubies.” The next “Sylvia,” the blonde beauty named Elizabeth Miner, was very “Philadelphia Story.” (You will remember that in that movie, Katherine Hepburn — and in the musical version, Grace Kelly — are chaste, or at least chilly, and very much Diana’s acolytes.) The last “Sylvia,” Vanessa Zahorian, was a real Wonder Woman, very much in charge from the start and not overly overwhelmed by her abductor, with whom she toyed as Titania does Bottom in Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Because I knew the little boop-a-doop step was there, I looked for it on the second two "Sylvias," and barely caught it. Instead, they brought out different things.

This is a very different experience from seeing a ballet one knows well across several evenings. In a situation like that, you have some notion of the work already in your head quite apart from individual performances. Somehow, over time, all the times you’ve seen a ballet, and all the casts you’ve seen perform it — and indeed all the performances you’ve read about, and seen pictures of — combine to form an Apollonian version of the work apart from its individual performances. That is, you have some idea of it as choreography, as steps.

I still don’t have a grasp of “Sylvia” anything close to that, though I have begun to. For instance, I have noticed a particular motif, quite wonderful, in which a sleeping figure (in the first instance, the shepard Aminta; in the second, Sylvia) is awakened by someone (in the first instance, Cupid in disguise; in the second, the abductor Orion) who first strokes the recumbent unknowing body, sliding a hand over the curve of the hip, down to the ankle; and then leans over the sleeper, who, stirs, reaches up an arm, and hooks it around the leaner’s neck. He then sits up, and the sleeper is thus also lifted to a sitting position, still asleep. The sleeper then wakes, and is startled. This scene occurs under totally different circumstances, in different acts, with different results. (Aminta is awakened from the dead; Sylvia awake to discover herself in durance vile.)

These parallel episodes because they are a key, I think, to a kind of construction typical of Morris. There is something very similar, for instance, in his “Hard Nut,” when the choreography between Drosselmayer and the Nutcracker Prince is repeated by The Prince and Clara. The context is different, and there’s a moral in that version missing in “Sylvia,” but as a device, it is very similar indeed. Further, I thought I saw a third version of this sleeper waking motif in the third act of the ballet, in a vision scene between the goddess Diana and her mortal love Endymion, but backwards, sort of. First up, then down. I wish I could see the ballet again, just to check on it. And to see Muriel Maffre again playing Diana, very Vanessa Redgrave.

The plot of “Sylvia” is improbable, even impossible, but no more so really than a lot of other ballet stories — just another version of Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Or maybe it’s Girl Meets Boy, Girl Loses Boy, Girl Gets Boy. Or both. The first act, in which Cupid intervenes in the lives of the mortals and sets up the action,is a sylvan revel, complete with naiads cavorting in threesomes with dryads and satyrs. The second act takes place in a cave — I think of this act as the Kingdom of the Goons, and it could possibly excerpt wonderfully as a one-act number, being self contained, funny, happy. The third is called a Bacchanal, though it’s so stuffed with plot that that description seems wanting. Basically, the whole affair is a battle between chastity and love; between Cupid and Diana. In other words,“Sylvia” is all about Eros.

And just so. “Sylvia” is a happy Valentine from Mark Morris not only to San Francisco Ballet, but to the very notion of the story ballet. This is not some post-modern version of a story ballet. There isn’t an ounce of irony in it; it is unmediated, and devoid of commentary, though full of allusion, at least to my eye. Throughout the three acts, there are homages, or what I suspect are homages — let us say there are resonances — to other story ballets. It’s impossible to tell, without asking the choreographer, if these things are put there, reside there without consciously being put there, or whether I am making them up. But here’s some of what I saw: Cupid, on top of a plinth bearing a statue, posing the same way Oberon does in Balanchine’s “Midsummer” — in what I think of as the Jack Benny moment, with hand under chin, looking out at the audience as of to say, “Well...” There is also, vis a vis “Midsummer,” that second act moment already mentioned, between Titania and Bottom. Indeed, the opening, with little runs on point very like Puck’s signature tip-toe, and the denizens of the forest coming out to play, is also reminiscent of Balanchine’s perfect story ballet, as are the Nymphs of Diana, with their arrows and quivers, reminiscent of “Midsummer’s” Hippolyta.

There is also a structural resemblance to “Midsummer,” concerning a much criticized sequence in the first act, when, instead of dancing, Sylvia sits in a giant swing, decorated with leaves, and is pushed, and then bobbles herself back and forth, as the acolytes dance for her. This seems to me to be analogous to the passage in the Balanchine when Titania takes to her ostrich and sea-shell bed, and her court dances her to sleep. The swing itself has other resonances, but one could go on with such things practically forever. There are, for instance, not one, but two vision scenes. There is a fantastical boat, in the grand ballet tradition of fantastical conveyances. There are also other reminders of other ballets, other choreographers, other design traditions, including some reminders of Bakst, and of Massine’s “Parade” — this via the Cupid as Sorcerer number, and also the Cupid as Pirate number, both of which are also Turkish looking. There are also actual Greek folk dances, or something very like.

The “Sylvia” sets, by Allen Moyer, are in the first act a super-scale floral (it looks like chintz) that reduces the dancers to fairy denizens of a giant kingdom; the second act is similarly grand scale; the third, a classical scene, is also over-scale. Martin Pakledinaz did the costumes, with bright good cheer. James F. Ingalls provides the brilliant and varied light, which subtly guides the eye in otherwise visually overwhelming circumstances. His lighting seems to go with the music, which means, of course, that it goes with the choreography.

This leads me to a last point about this ballet, the one I have yet to really understand. That is, I don’t understand, really, the relation of the steps to the music. I’ve never felt this with Morris before. Indeed, quite the opposite. After my three viewings, I could only conclude that he was hearing ideas, almost, in the Delibes score, itself so resonant with echoes — to Bizet, to Minkus, to Offenbach, to Adolphe Adam, and to other Delibes. He’s with Delibes, then, in spirit, and in harmony, but not necessarily in lock-step.

The final bill, which I saw on Sunday afternoon, at the company’s farewell performance, was called “Mixed Repertory," involved three different notions about neo-classicism, all using Bach, at least in part. First up included a piece from Tomasson called “7 for Eight,” with Michael McGraw at the piano again, playing Bach. The high point of this rather chic outing — very ladies in black — was a fifth movement solo for Pascal Molat, who skimmed along the way Ib Anderson used to in Balanchine’s "Mozartiana". Perfection, in other words. But the entire piece — seven numbers, as in the title — was a showcase, and the dancers looked as good as they did in anything in the entire run. The piece fits them to perfection, and they can dance in it as themselves. I won’t dwell on Christopher Wheeldon’s “Quaternary,” a work divided into four seasons and among four composers, including Bach, John Cage, Arvo Part, and Steven Mackay. It’s stuffed full of choreography, but without structure. William Forsythe lit and costumed his own “Artifact Suite,” which includes repurposed material from earlier work, recombined into this piece in 2004, and taken up by SFB just last March.

If the Wheeldon had no structure, the Forsythe ballet called “Artifact Suite” was all structure — or at the beginning, when a curtain crashed down repeatedly, dashing one’s expectations of what might come next–structures. It’s a group piece, with couples and soloists emerging — that sounds like a lot of dances, of course, but this piece is especially mechanistic. It includes repurposed material from earlier work, recombined into this piece in 2004, and taken up by SFB just last March. In fact, some kind of recombining seems to be its key.

The action concerns a concerns a single figure — at the matinee, Muriel Maffre — conveying material to the group though semaphoric arm gestures. She seems to be telling them how to replicate. Thus the work seems to be about recoding the ballet genome. Chromosomal, helical, recombinant, genetic. And yet, never inevitable. Forsythe is never that. The piece is harsh, unyielding, and unrelenting. And San Francisco? They get it. They dance it wonderfully. It’s against type, but they can do it. And so they did. Then they returned to their city by the bay. Cupid being what he is, I found I missed them at once.

Volume 4, No. 30
August 7, 2006

copyright ©2006 Nancy Dalva



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