writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

The Singing Body

by Ann Murphy
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy
published 15 March 2004

One of dance’s deepest joys is watching dancers bloom. One day we witness a brilliant technician without particular color or perfume; the next day this same dancer has become an artist whose impeccable technique has moved into the background and something magical has surfaced, like a rose evolving from a tight-fisted bud into a perfectly-petaled blossom. Helgi Tomasson has the gift not only of intuiting which young dancers might grow into surpassing artists. He knows how to help them flower.

Not everyone he chooses makes it. The womanly Sabina Alleman, a Canadian dancer who left the company five years ago, had a musky lyric style that was womanly, substantial and emotionally fragile, yet she never seemed able to overcome her on-stage insecurity. She seemed to hold herself back, tottering physically and then emotionally. It seemed emblematic that she suffered from arms that didn’t secure her torso, especially in turns, despite sometimes lovely épaulement. The periphery of her body was at odds with the center, and whether it was this technical flaw that kept her from fully flowering or something internal that maintained the technical flaw, we’ll never know. We do see other dancers with similar weaknesses, like the once hyperextended Kristin Long (and now Vanessa Zahorian), overcoming their technical flaws and eventually enfolding the pieces of the body in a singular whole. But trying to discern who has all the parts needed to achieve such transformation has to be one of the greatest challenges for any artistic director. Balanchine believed that dancers simply are, rather than are made, and that led to a parade of unfinished but startling company members, dancers like Merrill Ashley whose hyperextended feet and doe-like arms and legs disrupted the picture but whose attack and freshness for many made up for those flaws. But Balanchine was a choreographer. Tomasson is foremost a director and master teacher, and through his choices he seems to be asserting that an alchemical change can occur when a dancer of great talent is given certain challenges on and off the stage. The possibility exists that that this creature can molt from a beautiful moving machine into a sublime artist.

The recurrent marvel of SFB under Tomasson is that for every Alleman he can’t coax into bloom, he grafts a half dozen dancers onto the roster who are able to devour the opportunity and eventually stun audiences with their artistry. These are artists, too, who seem aware that they are part of a whole larger than and more enduring than their individual selves but whose goal nevertheless is to shine as brilliantly in their time as they can. (Frenchwoman Muriel Maffre is the quintessence of this ethos of humility and mastery.) There may be many petty competitions back stage and in the classroom, but they rarely make it on stage. A student who played rough in a Nutcracker production two seasons ago and broke a fellow Mouse’s nose was booted from the school. Discipline and decorum matter, and the absence of unfettered egotism, along with great technical and expressive mastery, has brought us one of the most sophisticated ballet companies in the United States.

Of Tomasson’s grafts, Tina LeBlanc has been one of the more extraordinary, and one of the few American principals to rise to the very top of SFB’s ballet pyramid, which is dominated by Europeans (including Russians), and, more recently, Cubans. But LeBlanc is nothing less than one of the great stunners of this generation of dancers. The tiny ballerina has evolved from a spitfire with precise, zesty form to the coruscating embodiment of energy in motion. Like Maffre but with diametrically opposite issues being as tiny as Maffre is tall, she has pushed her technique to extreme levels of purity, while at the same time using that purity to release a softer, deeper intelligence and grace than she expressed before. These days she emits something at once tangy like bergamot and fresh and delicate like tea roses. And as she does, she draws one to the edge of one's seat in order to try and decode its magic.

A great temptation in dance and music is for the impeccable technician to remain wedded to her perfect technique, which flirts with the sublime, letting the performer perform without static or drag—the artist gets to be, as a jazz musician would say, in the groove where obstacles, and even time, fall away. Dance technique’s logic with its mathematical precision, it Bauhausian geometry, is as exhilarating as thin mountain air. But dance lovers know that technique alone, while able to express rationality and will, is unequipped to convey the full, mysterious landscape of the soul. Technique has to be made a vessel through which the expressive whole of a dancer freely courses.

LeBlanc came to San Francisco 12 years ago and within a half dozen seasons transformed herself from the sophisticated cheerleader that Joffrey dancers at their best embody, all pep and surface animation, into a dancer of Balanchinian clarity and Danish nuance. At the time she was surrounded by dancers like Joanna Berman, Elizabeth Loscavio, Julia Adam and Katita Waldo, masters of form and wonderful musicians, especially the soulful Berman and the beautiful, witty but overlooked Waldo, whose theatrical range remains quietly vast. Loscavio was sparkling and soft, like diamonds on yellow velvet, but she lacked depth, although had she stayed at SFB she might have developed it.

LeBlanc, meanwhile, seemed to harness her own depth through an unusual combination of granitic will and generosity of spirit. She devoured whole each new challenge Tomasson gave her and offered it back thoroughly digested and her own. Pretzeling elegantly and with irony through Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude? No problem. Finding the pristine drama of The Pupil in Flindt’s obsessive portrait of authoritarianism in The Lesson? That too she made completely, terrifyingly hers, not to mention the translucent classicism of Odette/Odille in Swan Lake and the heartbreaking jejuneness of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

It seems thanks in large part to LeBlanc’s musicality that she had a skeleton on which to hang the gleaming technique she was busy unearthing—without it, her new-found clarity could not have translated extraordinary concision into poetry. It would have read, instead, as cold mastery—a problem that still besets Yuan Yuan Tan, especially when on emotionally uncertain terrain, as in the robust opening of Paquita, which demands an air of abandoned hauteur, deep musicality, and polished form. But LeBlanc also seems gifted with a deep emotional imagination that coincides with her musicality. These aren’t theatrical gifts as much as lyric ones.

The mechanics of her imagination are most visible in the music. When LeBlanc dances, she never breaks her phrases into their constituent parts, as Tan can still do. Instead, she builds her attack and shapes her phrase like a musician building arcs into the musical line, shifting tempi masterfully within a phrase in order to bring a solo or duet to its musical, implicitly intellectual, but ultimately emotional apotheosis. Yet she steers clear of exaggerated rubato; we are never diverted by her manipulation of the musical line. Take Nutcracker’s Butterfly. LeBlanc’s piqués, which should resemble a stitching needle, were as delicately precise as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, and equal parts resilient and fragile. The resilience was evident in her attacks, which evaporated from view, leaving us only the bracing keenness of her arrival. As a dancer of impeccable transitions, she indulges in no "cheating" (last minute torque of the hips, a shift of the foot), and consequently the steps themselves remain firmly fixed inside the music. Her fragility in Butterfly had nothing to do with gossamer wings that might tear. It was all about the paradoxically fragile but indomitable nature of light, which can be interrupted or blocked but not stopped.

While LeBlanc may be more lyric than theatrical she understands the expressive power of moving from the upper back—its poetry, its ability to evoke depth and volume. The shift of shoulder or lift of the breastbone adds chiaroscuro to movement, even when épaulement isn’t being expressively employed. A lift beneath the shoulder blade in second arabesque, the ear tilted toward the shoulder, creates a spiral action in the body which by itself has great geometric beauty. Greek sculpture is rife with such complexity. So is Baroque art. As Caravaggio shows us, there is enormous expressive potential in a body operating in multiple planes. LeBlanc drives herself in several opposing directions through multiple counter forces, conveying that there there is no real dance without it. But such spiraling is rarely executed with the lyric understanding and animation that LeBlanc brings to it. The visual effect is of ever-rising internal torque against linear action, the body always singing upward as it moves out.

But LeBlanc is not alone in this camp, although no one matches her diamond-like luster. Cuban Lorena Feijoo uses lines of force to draw greater shading from her muscular body and fierce, obdurate and impassioned persona. Spaniard Gonzalo Garcia, when he’s on, as he was in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight, like LeBlanc creates a picture of bracing clarity but then adds the insouciant flirtation of a matinee idol so we find him irresistible, and we do. And even when his puckish seduction is too obvious, how could he be less than enchanting when his perfectly placed turns in second are as crisp as newly laundered shirts, and his beautifully executed pas de cheval or coupes manage to transform his foot into a sex object? Russian Guennadi Nedivguine on the other hand, could use some of Garcia’s insouciance to electrify his gorgeous, volume-rich technique. We got a glimpse of his potential splendor in the demi-soloist of Paquita—his cabrioles and brisee vole sailed with soft nobility and his leaps soared with effortless dignity. Now all he needs is to find an emotional plasticity to match.

Meanwhile, Vadim Solomakha from the Ukraine revealed in Tomasson’s Four Seasons, as he danced with the lovely Sarah Van Patten, that here is a danseur of boyishly courtly sensitivity ready to burst out. Yuri Possokhov still leads the way in this arena, though. His inestimable partnering of Yuan Yuan Tan in 7 for Eight proved that few of the other men can touch him (Australian Damien Smith is one). But Possokhov went further than proving his danseurly qualifications in 7. With a detached pathos as he tenderly attended to Tan, he transcended love and gave a metaphysical dimension to the duet as they wove through Bach’s melancholic Largo movement of the F major Concerto. It is no wonder that the couplings in Possokhov’s Study in Motion have the existential torque of an Antonioni film conjoined with a cup of Tarkovsky’s deep melancholy.

Finally there are the Frenchmen, who seem to stand at the border of the technical purity of the Danes, Russians, Cubans and even the Spaniards, and the buoyant optimism, speed and surface charm of the Americans. Enter sweet, Dionysian Pascal Molat, who’s emerged in the two years he has been with Tomasson as a compelling comic as well as a combustible lovers; handsome, debonair but not fully cooked Pierre-Francois Vilanoba (his transition steps fall slack); and arrow-keen Nicolas Blanc, soloist, who arrived in 2003 and seems to be dancing like a thoroughbred on the right race track. In them Tomasson has found the mix of classicism and sexy modernity, a playful, slightly brainy irony that he has been cultivating among his lead dancers, qualities that are both so French and so apt for much contemporary ballet.

While the Americans are outnumbered by the brilliant dancers from abroad, and will continue to be until American technical training matches the Cubans or the French, there are a number of interesting homegrown talents being polished to join the ranks with Julie Diana, Stephen Legate, Long, and the Le Blanc sisters (Sherri is a soloist). Bostonian Van Patten, who apprenticed with the Ballet School of the Royal Danish Theatre at 15, is being given chances to show off her technique and blossom into the complexities of partnering. Elizabeth Miner, who gives intimations of a 19th century ballerina with soft, cloud-like ballon, is being challenged to develop her expressive range. Zachary Hench, newly promoted to principal, I expect will be pushed to bring more soulfulness to his athleticism, while Rachel Viselli from Utah who dances with a rare and beautiful quietude has been called upon in works like Don Quixote and Le Quattro Stagioni to start finding her own version of the singing body.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 11
15 March 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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