writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Dream of a Program

Balanchine Festival
Serenade, Apollo, The Four Temperaments
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
March 19, 2004

By Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 15 March 2004

Some nights the stars align so that everything falls in place. And you know that magic is real; it’s so real that you can practically taste it on your tongue. The opening night of San Francisco Ballet’s two-program tribute to George Balanchine was one of those rare occasions. With three masterpieces, near perfect casting and one superb debut, it was the kind of experience you dream about. Except that this one really happened.

With Serenade, set by Sandra Jennings, the magic almost didn’t take hold. Some of it had to do with a little bit of opening night jitters. A tinge of nervousness distracted the corps as it scattered after the opening moments, but the time they had realigned upstage left for the first of those ingenuously designed “lessons on how to become an ensemble,” they had caught their breath. Wondrously inventive as Serenade’s patterns and billowing re-alignments are, the ballet, it has always seemed to me, gets its real magic from the port de bras. If the port de bras works, you are half way there. This ensemble seemed to understand this as it collectively held and shaped the air. Additionally, when Tina LeBlanc’s Russian Girl flew in on a breath all of her own, the whole corps responded. As she wove through them, she seemed to touch each one individually with a fairy’s kiss.

The Russian Girl’s flying entries and exits, which seems to so inspire the corps, always looked connected to one of the ballet’s favorite sections. Balanchine created a quintet with the Russian Girl kneeling at its center. She extends her hand first to the dancer at her left, than to the one at her right. At the end of the chain, this simple hand-giving gesture reaches into the air. With LeBlanc, in particular, it seemed like an invitation to all the dancers absent from the stage. LeBlanc’s elevation is not what some others’ are, but she mesmerizes with the musicality of her phrasing, the assuredness with which she etches her body into space and the absolute clarity of even the tiniest beats.

The other reason why Serenade didn’t quite come up to what it could have been, had to do with casting. Lorena Feijoo (with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba) as the Waltz Girl was not a good choice. Feijoo is a steely technician and a fierce performer; she also has a tendency to dramatize. Here her talents were used inappropriately. Where you wanted flow, you got strong accents. When she raised her arm to greet Stephen Legate at the beginning of the Dark Angel trio, it was almost a melodramatic plea. Fejioo seemed to inhabit a different universe. Her performance stood out and not positively.

Sarah Van Patten’s Dark Angel had just a touch of imperiousness about it. A clear, strong performer with good presence, when she flapped her “wings”, the signal to depart was unmistakable.

Unquestionably, the evening’s highlight was Gonzalo Garcia’s Apollo. Coached by Jacques d’Amboise (assisted by Sandra Jennings), I am told that he danced it very much as d’Amboise had. Garcia, who can be a very impetuous dancer, created an Apollo who grew from a toddling infant into a god in what seemed a single pre-ordained trajectory. Yet he showed each distinct stage of this process of maturing. In Garcia’s hands the role became a metaphor for the life process itself.

Included in this Apollo was the birthing scene in which Pauli Magierek’s Leto went through impressively literal contractions high above the stage. Her isolation in the darkness, with the two attendants, hovering in the shadows below, did not quite work. Some adjustment in the lighting design probably would help.

This opening scene, so often omitted in contemporary productions of Apollo, dramatically set up our first view of the young god. Wrapped in the proverbial swaddling clothes, he looked like a log dropped from a shute. Staring straight ahead, he seemed blind, but immediately started to take control, helping to unfurl himself to try out his unfamiliar limbs. Garcia was a clumsy but enthusiastic participant in the handmaidens’ lute playing lesson. That initial vision of this young god as a creature, both dumb and blind, greatly helps to design the trajectory of his growth. It makes one think that Balanchine was wrong in dropping the scene from later productions.

Garcia is a muscular dancer but when the lights came up on him in the second scene, his body seemed elongated, more linear and, of course, more in control. It was a striking transformation. Yet this was a young man who still remembered his first wild attempts at playing the lute even though now he played with the instrument as much as on it. His gad about town solo did have that required natural athleticism but Garcia also imbued it with a suave and elegant sophistication that suggested that he knew this was but a game. It was also the logical predecessor to Apollo’s second solo in which he not only expands his trajectories but, inspired by Terpsichore, expresses his manhood in more complex steps and timings.

Entering from separate corners, Van Patten (Calliope), Vanessa Zahorian (Polyhymnia) and Yuan Yuan Tan (Terpsichore) beautifully subordinated individuality into unity as they tiptoed towards Apollo, expressing their respect for him with reverential arabesques penchées.

Van Patten’s Calliope had just a touch of the drama queen about her as she pulled those silent screams out of her contractions but she never “acted” the role. Zahorian, as well, pushed Polyhymnia’s wildness but not to the point of its impinging on the clarity of the steps and the serenity of the atmosphere.

In this version, Apollo never shows any sign of disapproval. We see him sitting in profile, erect, immobile, the statue of a God. Garcia apparently was told not to react at all. In other performances, Apollo turns his head in disgust when Polyhymnia just about pushes her hand into his face. Here the lack of reaction was actually a more powerful indictment.

During Terpsichore’s variation, Apollo stares out at the audience. Supposedly he imagines her in his head and doesn’t need to see her dancing which explains why he can finish her variation by extending his hand over on the last beat of the music. But from a purely visual perspective, this interpretation made little sense.

Tan’s Terpsichore started a little on the girlish side, almost flirtatious with those pawing and walking on the heel steps, but in the pas de deux, she too has grown up, sitting shyly on his knees, letting herself enfold into his budding young manhood.

With the advent of the “god music,” Garcia steps into the final transformation as naturally as everything that came before. Like every young god in mythology he knew his final fate. At first the ascent up the stairs, which finished a little before the music, seemed out of step. But on second thought the timing felt right; we needed a moment to take in that final image.

This splendid Balanchine program ended with a superb performance of The Four Temperaments, staged by Jennings, assisted by Gloria Govrin. As appreciated as the excellently cast variations soloists were, the production also highlighted the importance of the “accompanying” quartets. These excellently trained ensemble dancers performed their parts beautifully.

Newcomer Nicolas LeBlanc is physically slight but he has a strong, expressive back and a penchant for precise placement. His Melancholic’s strong arms pushed away whatever forces impinged on his riding those violin and piano lines. Though dramatically telling, he always danced the music not a role, drawing sustenance from his encounters, first with the duet, and then with that hip-thrusting quartet of females.

Julie Diana and Stephen Legate’s Sanguinic looked somewhat bland, slightly sleepy as if this section was all about those traveling, floating lifts instead of a sense of competition and speed. Not unpleasant, but not distinctive.

Damian Smith, who, like LeBlanc, is dancing at the top of his abilities this season, invested Phlegmatic with a sense of wondrous investigation, as if finding out for the first time what his body could do. The performance was beautifully phrased; Smith placed each gesture, each cross-stepping foot, with a virginal sense of discovery which culminated in the way he pushed himself through the women’s legs as if throwing open a window.

It has always seemed that Choleric’s variation could have been longer, in part probably because the music already leads towards the coda, but Muriel Maffre’s fierceness, the imperiousness of those turns and thrown arms made their statements succinctly enough.

In this performance’s majestic finale, with its portent of something monumental about to happen, the orchestra and the dancers became one. The sense of inevitability, whether it announced the end or the beginning of the world, arose not only from a kinetic and musical assuredness but a quasi Utopian certainty that everyone knew where they were going. Andrew Mogrelia conducted.

Photo:  Yuan Yuan Tan and Gonzalo Garcia in Balanchine's Apollo (photo courtesy of SF Ballet)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 12
22 March 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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