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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Some Fabulous Dancing

Don Quixote
Quattro Stagione, Study in Motion, Tu-Tu
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco,  California
February 2004

by Paul Parish
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Parish
published 16 February 2004

Return visits to San Francisco Ballet's opening pair of programs gave lots of evidence of spirit, energy, and attention to style in the company, particularly in the performances of dancers in side roles, or even in the deep background. This was the quality that made Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake so thrilling a decade ago—the easy idiomatic clear dancing among the also-rans, which does at least as much to create the world of the ballet as the performances of the principals (and can do more to break the spell if it's not present than an off-night effort from a star).

A mid-run repeat of the mixed-rep program (reviewed on opening night by my colleague Ann Murphy in last week's issue) showed some fabulous dancing in mostly-weak choreography, and the Saturday matinee of Don Quixote gave us a show that the audience ate up and wanted more of.

Vanessa Zahorian's Kitri showed lot of spunk and high spirits and that kind of heart that pulls a brilliant performance out of a body that is not fully co-operating. She really has the stuff of a ballerina—strong technique, personality, and that diamantine will. She is going to lay the audience flat, wreck this house, even if she doesn't have a great balance today, which on Saturday she didn't. Early I thought I saw her decide not to push her pirouettes, since she fell out of her first and only triple with a move that scooped it up and saved it and gave nobody a tremor and probably few even noticed. She then put her wits to work emphasizing the flick of her foot as she sprang through arabesque into her final pose and whipped open her fan. The image of a girl leaning onto a pointed foot at the one end brandishing a fan at the other is to Kitri what a swan arabesque is to Odette—it creates that flourish which sets the outline and makes her unmistakable, as recognizable as Liz or Marilyn or Elvis.

Zahorian is a little bit of a thing—her general body-type is like Margaret Tracy's —short-waisted, very long legged, sharp features on a small pretty face, with a mobile, warm, expressive smile and dark eyes. Her only physical defect is a short neck, which means that some costumes (such as Kitri's) that bring lots of color up onto the shoulders can make her head positions hard to read. Her excellent training at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Kirov Academy have gone a long way to minimize this problem, and in the gold and white tutu she wore for the grand pas de deux her poses were clear and thrilling.

Her partner, Vadim Solomakha, is a dreamy, poetic dancer—perfect for the boy in Green from Dances at a Gathering, and a marvelous Siegfried in Swan Lake. He is temperamentally less suited to Basilio than Zahorian is to Kitri. He is a noble dancer rather than a heroic one, and though he has the technique for a role like this (he can and did give us huge scissoring leaps and soaring double cabrioles, and beautiful pirouettes), he had progressive difficulty making all this seem to emerge naturally from his character. By the finale this had become telling; he left out any by-play with the toreador, who was marvelously embodied in Moises Martin (probably the best-looking man for 100 miles in any direction). Solomakha and Martin both gave high-spirited, glorious accounts of the first act—Martin, in fact, was superlative—but seemed to be distracted in the finale, as if all the difficulties of pulling Don Q off had become rather a slog. Solomakha had little engagement with the other performers in the last act, no by-play with Martin before his solo, which needed the interaction, since the character dances must look spontaneous, like street-dancing on a wedding day.

Zahorian remained up for it all, but it was only Muriel Maffre as the Street Dancer/Mercedes who had paced herself to have big-time energy all the way through. Even on the side-lines, she was the one who raised her arm in that grand Spanish salute —the visual equivalent of "Ole!"—which ought to be the rest-of-stage picture after every full stop in the dancing. And in her dancing, she preserved the Spanish timing—it's like double-dotting in music, everything is pulled a little too long, with a sudden move at the last moment into a contrasting pose—which tended to get evened out among the others.

Maffre is our French ballerina, and every inch a ballerina. She is so tall, of course (every bone that can be long is long, she is probably 8 feet from toe to toe in penchee), one wonders if Tomasson will ever let her dance Kitri. (She has done other roles for which her body is wrong. She was marvelous as the Sylphide, and her Aurora one Saturday afternoon gave us lots to think about). But one of the great things about this production is how thoroughly they have shown the virtues of type-casting: it may be Possokhov's influence, since in many ways it captures the simple and clear virtues of the Bolshoi production— they have let the story tell itself, and let short people do short people's roles and tall people do tall people's.

This has produced some marvelous results.  Dancers have come out of the corps to dazzle us. Pablo Piantino has been endlessly resourceful and delightful at every turn as Sancho Panza, Elizabeth Miner has been simply a vision as Cupid, unbelievably right in that quicksilver part. She stops, when she stops, like a knife in the floor, and goes like an arrow when she goes. Val Caniparoli has his best character part in years as Kitri's father. His way of miming, as they troop after the fleeing lovers, at each each new "Have you seen a young couple on the lam, with a really pretty girl, with a pelvis that knows what she wants" has to be seen to be believed. It's not outrageous, it's not too big, but it is unmisunderstandable.

Best of all have been Sarah van Patten as Kitri's friend and Maffre as the seconda donna. In all the other casts, the roles of street dancer and Mercedes have been divided among two dancers, but when Maffre is cast she does them all, and it has been a great enrichment to the proceedings. As the tavern dancer, she is spectacular whether she is dancing in the background—in the finale, she's on the table center-stage at the back, just a part of the larger picture, like a finial on a lamp—and she keeps it small, but it is exquisite and perfect, and finishes the picture exactly. And in her grandest moment, when she springs into the center of the stage, presents her back, and rolls left to right through a back-bend so deep it nearly stops the show, she is the only one of the dancers in this role who make you see that the huge effect is a kind of failli—which is the single-most characteristic step in Don Quixote, that half-turn where the back leg swings across and the weight falls onto it, which gives the Spanish-gypsy flavor to everything.

Van Patten has been a miracle of presence in Don Quixote. Nothing too much, everything beautifully presented. In the mixed repertory show, though, she went far beyond that and danced more beautifully than anything I've seen all year so far—and in the choreographically so-so Quattro Stagione, a piece of Helgi Tomasson's from 1992 (set to all four of Vivaldi's 4-season violin concerti), which he has revived this year, and (according to program notes) partly rechoreographed. Perhaps van Patten's role is part of the new choreographing; in any case, it looked new minted, as if she were making it up on the spot. Such involvement of the whole body in dancing I haven't seen in quite a while; the arms, the back, the neck, the turn of the head, her ears, eyes, nose, it was all like she was making it up on the spot as she listened to the music. And all this above the most fastidious footwork. I've never before actually seen a dancer "keeping the toes," as Mr. Balanchine wanted dancers to do when they do tendu. But you could see it in her every step. She was exquisite, her foot magically placed, nothing too much, everything appropriate, but so expansive, and musical phrasing I have not seen since Elizabeth Loscavio showed us the kind of pleasures a dancer could find in Tomasson's choreography.

I must say that Pascal Molat also found tremendous opportunities in the all-male finale or the Quattro Stagione; he looks well-coached, and Tomasson may have asked for very particular qualities. "Winter" seems to grow out of Tomasson's personal experience—he grew up, of course, in Iceland, where winter is a still and mighty force. SFB's men are thrilling, refined, very beautiful in this section, and Molat's quiet virtuosity recalls that which Tomasson was famous for as the boy in Brown from Dances at a Gathering (indeed, the choreography recalls that role).

But SFB's men are in fact the glory of the company. The twenty-year-old corps dancer, Jaime Garcia Castillo, took my breath away just doing a sauté in arabesque; his foot in arabesque rivals anything Mary Ellen Moylan ever did, every step he takes is a miracle. Garcia-Castillo is a perfectly made creature— but all the men are schooled and sensitive and expressive and capable at level that recalls the Royal Danish Ballet and which at the moment, from reports I've been reading, I wonder if the Danes themselves could outmatch. I will just list some outstanding men in the corps: Chidozie Nzerem, Garrett Anderson, James Sofranko, Hansuke Yamamoto, Jason Davis, Rory Hohenstein, Jonathan Mangosing, the afore-mentioned Piantino and Martin and Garcia Castillo.

I've not mentioned the one piece of remarkable choreography in the second show, Yuri Possokhov's modestly titled Study in Motion, some fugitive visions set to short pieces by Scriabin: short but by no means slight. In fact, the shorter, the more visionary. I really don't know what hit me; I wish I could see it again. In form it is piano ballet and has some resemblance to Robert Schumann's Davisdsbundlertanze. It's surrounded by gauzy white curtains, which are fluttering and dancing in a breeze the whole time. The women are similarly shrouded in gowns of floating sheer white silk.

The ballet has an opening movement, set (I think) to the Sonata No.5, and a second movement that has been shattered into fragments (composed of Preludes and Impromptus). It's set for 4 couples, with a primus-inter-pares role for a wonderful new soloist, Nicholas Blanc, partnered mostly with Tina leBlanc (who dances like cold fire). Other couples I saw were Yuan Yuan Tan with Damian Smith, and the lovely corps dancer Brooke Reynolds, who held her own beautifully, dancing with Guennadi Nedviguine, and Katita Waldo with Peter Brandenhoff.

It's the second movement that sends the chills up your spine. Dazzling, strange, mysterious things happen, marvelous flutterings of the legs, uncertain gyrating balances, a sudden collapse from arabesque into a little heap on the ground. At the very last the gentlemen rush in and knock the wind out of the ladies with a little push to the rib-cage. I don't know what it is; it is certainly spooky, but it seems somehow about the way we live now. I certainly want to see it again. The next morning, I saw several teenagers in ballet class who'd been in the audience; it was the piece we all wanted to talk about, but we couldn't find words for it.

First:  Rachel Viselli and Sarah van Patten in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote (photo by Andrea Flores)
Second:  Liz Miner as Cupid in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote (photo by Chris Hardy)
Third:  Nicholas Blanc in Possokhov's Study in Motion (photo by Andrea Flores)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 7
16 February 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish




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