writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

An Intimate, Low-Key Gala

San Francisco Ballet Opening Gala
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco,  California
January 28, 2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy
published 3 February 2004

Each year, the style of gowns women wear to the San Francisco Ballet gala changes, and as the tide of fashion ebbs and flows, the zeitgeist worms itself into the cut, the fabric, the absence or presence of bows or corsetting, straps or straplessness and the extent of the decolettage. But exactly which corner of the collective unconscious is revealed is less certain. Is the country nervous or more confident? Poorer or more affluent? More open or more closed? Where does patriotism stand in the American heart? Is San Francisco moving into the vanguard? Or is this town still a backwater longing for centrality?

This year gowns embodied a quiet elegance that was tasteful but not staid, sensuous but not vampish, and it was a mood mirrored in the lovely, romance-laden dancing. The brash bravado of the newly rich but uncultured days of tech revolution was gone, and while there was a clear sense of pleasure in the air, spirits were also subdued. Restraint seemed to rise out of a mood of considerateness Wednesday, not morbid fear as it did last year, when the drums of war beat feverishly and cold dread seemed to course through the crowd. And though the curtain rose 20 minutes late, and it took a while for a hush to descend on the theater, the boorish drunks who wouldn’t shut up just a few seasons ago were nowhere around.

It wasn’t many years ago that vast 19th century ball gowns were the rage. One year, the woman seated next to me, who seemed new to ballet, imperially consumed not only her seat but mine with her wide red strapless number, a dress that looked like a byproduct of Victoria’s Secret catalogue and an overripe Olivia De Haveland movie. In order for me to take my chair, the woman had to gather the fabric, like a parachutist trying to bundle up an opened parachute, but part of the dress wouldn’t budge. She tugged, but something was in the way. She barked at me to remove my foot from her skirt. I squished right, poaching on my neighbor’s territory, but the dress stayed stuck. She snarled again at me. "I’m not standing on your skirt," I shot back. "YOU are." She shifted in her seat, and when the dress suddenly burst free, she sheepishly apologized and shrank into her chair, remaining well-behaved the rest of the night.

Whether the man and the times have finally come into sync, or SF Ballet is finally able to present itself on its merits without hot air, no gala I can remember mirrored Tomasson the artist and man as warmly and pointedly as this one. This was a low-key night of in-house dances dedicated first to the pas de deux form, second to the virtuosity that love and dance demand, and finally to the relationship of individuals to the group and the group to the individual.

There was an implicit emotional and social architecture in the programming that one now expects from Tomasson and which, in the last five to eight years, has grown deeper and more assured. The first half of the evening was built of five pas de deux (Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux by Balanchine, excerpts from  Two Bits and Twilight by Tomasson, the pas de deux from There Where She Loved by Wheeldon and Le Corsaire after Petipa) interrupted by two dances by soloists in small groups (Tomasson’s Chi Lin excerpt and a dance from Paul Taylor’s Company B). Part two consisted of MacMillan’s everything and the kitchen sink dance hall ballet, Eilte Syncopations, which consists of many duets, the occasional solo, and a few small group numbers. No one dances it with as much happy character as San Francisco, which makes a circus of it rather than a slightly creepy side show in eerie gaslight, as it can be danced.

During the season, Tomasson’s aesthetic links aren’t always deep enough to yield a unifying principle, or they can seem a way to add substance to tepid choreography. But he curated the gala with such quiet clarity that he was able to make an aesthetic world view emerge from the accumulating dance fragments with unassuming, organic power. By moving us from the dyad to the group, from portraits of supreme artists to a mirror of an eclectic and endearing public, Tomasson created a sense of partnership between those on stage and those of us in the theater. Not only were audience members pleased to see a parade of easily readable pas de deux that highlighted SFB’s best dancers. The audience seemed to understand subliminally that Tomasson was insisting that art is both a deeply private and communal activity—a love affair between the artist and his viewer, between all of them and all of us--and that we are here to share this feast together.

This is a deeply humane world view in a ballet world increasingly automaton-like and he looks for and develops technically superb dancers who can express it through emotional as well as spiritual depth. He values brilliance and virtuosity in the service of the sublime, and thankfully seems to have little room for gaudy tricks and deafening fanfare, although he’s not above trying to show everyone a good time. He wouldn’t bring Mark Morris back again and again if he were. It’s a perspective that can be overly reserved and over-cautious at times, but Tomasson has the temperament of a miniaturist. It seemed fitting that the duet Wednesday was his domain.

Tschaikovsky Pas De Deux was created by Balanchine in 1960 with music left over from Swan Lake and uncovered many years later in the Bolshoi Theatre archives. Vanessa Zahorian, who has been climbing through the ranks since 1997, brought us whiffs of Farrell style in her lancing, throw-away attack, developpe leg hurtling her off pointe into her next move as though plunged forward by a magnets downstage. Leggy, like Farrell, Zahorian found the bolting freedom in Tchaikovsky, its air of love song both to the Petipa tradition and to youth, and she gave it a joyously flowering quality.

Her partner, the boyish looking Gonzalo Garcia, was as nervous as Zahorian was unleashed, which gave Garcia the quality of a teenage boy overwhelmed by the libido of the girl he’s smitten by. Although the Spanish-trained dancer’s batterie are deliciously soft and his jumps soar, every preparation was nervously prepared, and transitions seemed points of fear and loathing rather than moments of energetic release and freedom. He appears to have a bit of Peer Gynt-ish insecurity about him, and needs to emotionally deepen to be able to use the full extent of his talent.

As a pair Tina LeBlanc, back from her second maternity leave and not a wobble anywhere, and Guennadi Nedviguine with his square face and Bolshoi training, a guy who dances like a pristine black Camaro races, were perfectly matched in Tomasson’s Two Bits, a throw-away gloss on flamenco. Few dancers in the company come near the sheer diamond-like brilliance of these two, whose placement is so clean and effortless it allows them to turn their limbs into diamond cutters carving geometric shapes into the air fueled, especially in LeBlanc, by controlled fire. Both have clean, saber-like attacks, and both convey a questing relationship to movement, although Guennadi can get cut off from his source, which turns his movement stolid and academic rather than expressive. LeBlanc, by contrast, is a diamond cutter powered by tnt.

Loreena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov followed with an excerpt from Tomasson’s melancholic ballet Twilight, with the torqued spatial patterns of Tudor but none of Tudor’s tragic ineluctability. One dance later Twilight appeared expanded upon by Wheeldon’s duet from There Where She Loved You, an oddly recherche-looking ballet of lover’s angst danced with convincing pathos by the two brilliant, tall French dancers trained at the Paris Opera School, Muriel Maffre and Pierre François Vilanoba. Maffre is a dancer of stunning intelligence and depth, and is the dancer in the company most capable of shape-shifting to meet a role—any role, despite her height. Nothing seems beyond her, and most roles she assumes are enlarged by her interpretation. Here she danced a breaking heart with austere, stoic beauty as mezzo soprano Elise Ross Rattle sang Kurt Weill's "Je ne t'aime pas".

The Petipa-inspired Le Corsaire, calling to Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux as The Oddysey calls to Ulysses, was a treatise on duet first principles. Although it was performed with laudable virtuosic display by Kristin Long and Joan Boada, their performance lacked subtex and had an oddly athletic affect, as though the dancers couldn’t see past the tutu and the harem pants to discover that the dance is in fact a treatise on mating. They may not have to look at each other, but we should be able to smell fire burning as he bolts into grand jetés and she piqués or retiré-leaps like a dervish. Instead, she reminded me of Queen Victoria—intelligent and proper--and he seemed too sweet and open faced to have dared save this slave girl from death. There was nothing cooking in them or between them, although technically they were spot on, when in fact they needed to dance it as though their lives depended on it, which seems to be what Lord Byron had in mind.

Chi-Lin is Tomasson’s homage to Chinese dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, who at times, with her endless lower legs, and stick-like arms seems to be the incarnation of a beautiful egret or stick bug. This is a ballet about Chinese mythology rather than a dance of these myths and is oddly static as a result. But this excerpt, called Chi Lin’s Dance, in which Yuan Yuan dances the dance of the mythical unicorn, the emblem of earth, is a gorgeous vehicle for the dancer’s limbs and haunting, angular style. She has the most beautiful limbs and feet anywhere and her legs are both fiercely steely—you wouldn’t want to be kicked by one of them—but also as supple as bamboo.

In the way the Tomasson made a vehicle for Yuan Yuan, surrounded by four men, he gave Brett Bauer the role of Johnny to devour in Taylor’s Company B, surrounded by seven women. Bauer, who is all legs at 6’4", bounced like a rubber ball through the swing-inspired ballet, embodying callow youth as he sailed through his grand pas de chat. I find Taylor’s coyness in "Johnny" annoying and puerile with its view of girls as comically predatory airheads, Johnny literally heads and shoulders above them. But at least Bauer got to be the new kid on the block (he joined the corps two years ago) and Tomasson is telling us to watch him. He plans to send him places.

Finally, the parade of principals gave way to the company in the sexy, wackily costumed "Elite," (get-ups by Ian Spurling) with Scott Joplin’s rags played on stage by a winnowed-down orchestra. With the stage laid bare, this is an irresistible plebe ballet, raucous and silly, a bit bawdy but always comic, its virtuosity subsumed in character studies, rather like life. Julie Diana, for such a Diana-esque dancer, is wonderfully naughty in Elite, a big red star at her crotch like a call-girl’s g-string, and Katita Waldo can always shimmy to beat the band. Maffre performed her big-girl-hugs-little-guy routine, a gag that seems to turn up a number of dances, but here is performed with tenderness, rather than a giantess’ s obtuseness. It was a great night as galas go. By the time I left the theater I realized that Tomasson is not only a miniaturist, he’s an optimist, too.

The company in Elite Syncopations. Photo: Chris Hardy.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 5
2 February 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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