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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

East Visits West

Balanchine Celebration: Programs 5 and 6
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
March 19-21, 2004

By Leigh Witchel
Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel
published 15 March 2004

The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco sits, like Lincoln Center, in a plaza of public buildings, but it’s older and the buildings are mixed purpose, civic and artistic. It looks to a European model of an opera house, all gilt and filigree aimed at the wealthy rather than the middle class plush of the State Theater. Like the West, it’s wider and more open.

Helgi Tomasson spoke briefly in front of the curtain to welcome us and introduce Stravinsky’s astringent Greeting Prelude (Happy Birthday) from 1955. Wittily brilliant, the melody sneaks suddenly out of the horns. It was a fine introduction to the conductor, Andrew Mogrelia, and the company’s orchestra.

San Francisco’s Balanchine Celebration was divided into two programs; numbers 5 and 6 of their eight repertory evenings. The works on Program 5 (Serenade, Apollo, The Four Temperaments) were from 1929-1946, a period where Balanchine was fascinated by the sculptures he could make from bodies. He moved from this sculptural period into one more fascinated with classical enchaînements. Program 6 (Square Dance, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Who Cares?) contained works from 1957 (revised 1976) through 1972; works being created when today’s company directors were dancing.

San Francisco Ballet feels more diverse in origin than NYCB; many dancers had schooling and careers at other companies first. There is also a racial diversity to the company and it’s nice that it’s not something that strikes you one way or the other. It’s just there.

I saw two casts in Program 5. It could be nothing more than the difference between being seated near or far, but you see individuals rather than the corps de ballet as the curtain rises on the blue-shadow’d world of Serenade. You’re struck by the disparity of bodies. But Serenade is a ballet that turns dancers into a corps de ballet. It’s natural to begin discussing Serenade by discussing the corps, but it’s difficult to talk about a corps de ballet without several viewings. It takes time and process to understand their souls. Some, like the Kirov’s or Paris’, make themselves known to you instantaneously and ascend from a group of dancers into metaphor. San Francisco’s corps is well trained and reliable, but after three performances I was only beginning to catch its perfume.

San Francisco’s soloists and principals present themselves to you instantly, so much so that you can see how specific they are. Casting the company is a fascinating exercise, because in this company the ballerina who is a less than ideal Terpsichore is marvelous as the Waltz Girl, and so on.

Lorena Feijoo was first cast in the Waltz, Yuan Yuan Tan second. Tan was gentler, Feijoo dramatic and tragic. She’s clear and powerful, but she “plays the ending” from the moment she steps out late to find her place in the corps. That’s becoming endemic. It’s time for coaches to pull back from emphasizing the drama of the part, it’s becoming telegraphed. Just come onstage find your place in the sisterhood. Tan played that moment more simply. She’s the marvelous Waltz Girl and the less marvelous Terpsichore. The difference could be the music; she gets the sweep of the Tchaikovsky.

The LeBlanc sisters, Tina and Sherri, were the casts in the Tema Russo. There was no familial resemblance in their dancing, but both were good. Tina is a soubrette grown older and wiser. The footwork and the jumps are still there, but there’s the artistry of directing the audience. Her jumps à la seconde weren’t just lofty and joyous; she knows exactly where to focus our attention to bring us into the air with her. Sherri takes the role with more attack and a fascinating accenting, but she “suffers” a bit in the dramatic sections.

Sarah van Patten performed the Élegie in both casts. She’s a dancer that sneaks up on you. It wasn’t until the second viewing that I felt the impact and depth of her serene legato. She’s not a wild dancer; she did the windmill arms on her first entrance getting quickly to the classical position rather than emphasizing the swirl. She’s consumed by a quiet passion and even so, the motion never stops.

Neither woman in the Waltz has solved the coiffure conundrum before the Élegie. Both came out with their hair too unfastened. For Tan, disaster occurred and it fell out as she was dancing the closing of the Tema Russo. Feijoo had the good idea to hide the motion of pulling out all fastenings with one sweep of her hands in the two steps she took before she starts to chaîné. It’s much more coordinated than other approaches I’ve seen (Imagine the poor ballerina trying to pull pins out of her hair as she turns). But, as at Paris Opera Ballet, the women need to spend the extra time to figure out a hairstyle that will stay up until it’s supposed to come down.

Stephen Legate performed the Élegie with both casts. His partnering in the rollover made too little of the moment; he held both women quite high off the floor and with Tan it did not happen in a single smooth movement. It was one of the few moments where I missed NYCB’s dancers. James Fayette made a point of figuring out how to keep the woman low and the flip thrilling. He never blows that move.

Sandra Jennings set the ballet. There aren’t striking variations from the NYCB version; the most immediately noticeable is when the three men come out to raise the Waltz Girl aloft at the close. At both NYCB and Suzanne Farrell’s company, the woman faces the men and looks at them before they raise her, and dancers like Darci Kistler and Bonnie Pickard have made it their great moment. Both Feijoo and Tan place themselves facing the upstage corner before the men come out. It’s a different effect, but also one of steely determination, like a condemned noblewoman awaiting the cart that will take her to the scaffold.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Jacques d’Amboise narrates his story of Apollo in time with the music. Just from watching his staging of the ballet, you can see that’s how he teaches it. There’s immense clarity in the details of the narrative. Gonzalo Garcia performed first cast, Vadim Solomakha second. Garcia’s performance is a marvel of imitation become synthesis. He’s copied d’Amboise into his body from the swayed-back stance and loose low port de bras down to the way he parts his hair. We can almost see both performing at the same time.

There are two ways of approaching the role of Apollo: Apollo the classical god or the demi-caractère wild boy. Garcia is a beautiful, wild boy. In this genre, he’s the best I’ve seen. One of the great classical Apollos, Peter Boal, stands upright when he holds the lute, revolving his hands to reel in the muses. Garcia sways as he brings music out of the instrument, amazed by the sounds it makes. He also does the heel shuffle better than anyone else I’ve seen, reaching out with effort. He makes sense out of it as baby steps towards maturity.

Solomakha is a very fine Apollo, but it looked as if he were being coached to be self-consciously demi-caractère when he’d be better off approaching the role classically. He’s an intelligent dancer with a naturally soft accenting and attack. Good details were there, but when Solomakha shudders through a circle of faltering arabesques, it seems like the details of awkward youth are forced.

The setting is the 1957 revival but as well as the excised birth scene, there are a few differences. Apollo lifts his leg in attitude when he hands the muses their attributes, at NYCB it’s a grand battement. Also, his reactions to the muses’ variations are different. Garcia did not react at all to Calliope (van Patten), but remained impassively stone faced in rejection as she slinks off. Solomakha turned his head from Rachel Viselli in a more familiar gesture. Both Apollos pushed their palms in front of them rather than crossing their wrists to disqualify Polyhymnia from speaking. Oddly, Solomakha changed to sit normally on the stool facing us as Terpsichore (Julie Diana) danced, rather than facing her with the back leg extended. I can’t recall anyone else doing that.

Garcia’s Terpsichore, Tan, is very thin with prodigious, spiky facility, but feels remote. She warmed up in the pas de deux. Besides clarity, d’Amboise’s excellent setting emphasizes motion. The lift in the pas de deux upending Terpsichore with her legs split becomes about the journey rather than the final position. The muses in this version were less distinct than in others (the second cast had a rough day) but then again, this is a setting from the perspective of one of the great American Apollos.

The San Franciscans were able to field two strong casts in The Four Temperaments as well. Nicolas Blanc’s Melancholic elevated quickly to tragedy; agony even more than sadness. It was beautifully done and reminded me of performances at the Paris Opera Ballet. The Europeans make Melancholic a protagonist; he’s active in his predicament rather than just suffering. Garcia was the second cast, he took a more labored approach to the character; every fall and flip was a boulder carried up a hill.

Damian Smith is an honest, lovely dancer, but sometimes so honest it sends him into retreat from the audience. His Phlegmatic isn’t exotic and decorative as usually done in NY, when he curls his arms from one position to another in the jogging line of dancers he’s exhausted and spent. We only saw Yuri Possokhov this weekend as the second cast in this role, and he took an intriguing unorthodox approach. Imbuing it with a Russian sadness and with a face as expressive as Chaplin, we saw Phlegmatic as Petrushka.

Like fortified wine, Muriel Maffre’s attenuated lines are a heady and acquired taste. She’s all elbows and knees and her long, long limbs fly uncontrollably in Choleric as she slashes through the part. Her body would be impossible to tame into orthodoxy. She’s unafraid to be ugly, and here, it’s strangely beautiful.

Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada performed the leads in Square Dance at the single performance this weekend of Program 6. Lately at NYCB, the leading female role has been cast with dancers project innocence (Margaret Tracey, Abi Stafford); LeBlanc again gave a mature, adult performance. She flew through her beats and echappés and her feet articulate all the way through her pointe shoe. The gargouillades don’t always sparkle and she doesn’t do the coupé jeté entrée with those amazing splits Merrill Ashley did, but who does? She’s able to make the turned in poses look natural and comfortable instead of coy. Boada is a strong, extroverted dancer cast in a contemplative, introverted role. He practically marched on to reenter in the men’s dance and he lands from his jumps loudly. In the solo added for Bart Cook in the 1976 revival, (Cook set the ballet on the company) Boada presents it to us instead of performing it as a soliloquy. It’s done for us and to us, as if it were one of Nureyev’s legato variations for a prince, not a poet.

Cook and Maria Calegari set Stravinsky Violin Concerto. They cast good dancers (Maffre with Pierre-François Vilanoba, Tan with Smith) but the pairs could have used more contrast; Tan may be shorter than Maffre, but both are long-limbed dancers and Vilanoba and Smith are comparatively similar. Again, Maffre’s strangeness is appropriate in the von Aroldingen part and its series of backbends. Vilanoba looked distracted in the opening, but tore through the finale. Smith’s attack in the second pas de deux (Peter Martins’ role with Kay Mazzo) was sweetly but oddly gentle. The final moments of that dance are usually terrifying in New York; for an instant as the man pulls the woman’s head back you wonder if he’s going to snap her neck. Smith caresses her forehead as if he’s putting her to sleep. You know he could never harm her. He’s tall, but not overbearing, and that was part of the original casting, how Martins overpowered Mazzo. Smith is a clean technician and an excellent turner but falters in the folk steps of the finale from his reticence. He just needs to be brought out.

The company performed a truncated version of Who Cares?; the pas de deux for the five couples were cut due to resources and rehearsal time being stretched thin for these performances. Jennings also set this and the costumes are “after Karinska” but they’re after an earlier version than the present one at NYCB where the men wore open collar pullovers and pants cinched with cords. It’s less glitzy than our version, but then, who cares? The edges on both the production and the dancing are harder and brighter in New York. Here, it’s a reverie on New York City. In the McBride role, Feijoo took softer and sexier accents; a Latin from Manhattan (though she isn’t.) The Chita Rivera version of "Fascinatin’ Rhythm" can be great fun to watch; the Chita Rivera version of Sanguinic, even if partnered by the solicitous and graceful Ruben Martin in the second cast of program 5, is another matter.

Katita Waldo did the von Aroldingen jumping role very well, making it amusing and witty. Vanessa Zahorian took Marnee Morris’ turning variation and spun out double fouettés, making them look eerily easy. The corps took a little time to find themselves at the outset.

Throughout the weekend, the orchestra played marvelously, something any visiting New Yorker would envy. San Francisco gave us six choice works for a celebration, a perfect Balanchine 101 introduction. It isn’t fair to make comparisons of quality; they aren’t saddled like NYCB with the onus of guarding the canon. It was a pleasure to see them take the luxury to present these works burnished, cogent and cared-for.

* * *

The San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum is in the fourth floor of the Veteran’s Building right next to the Opera House, and George Balanchine: Ballet Master, curated by Sheryl Flatow and on view through June 19 is worth a special trip to see. There are treasures there that aren’t available in New York. Bernard Taper, Balanchine’s biographer, has recently donated his collection of Balanchine memorabilia to the library. What great fortune for San Francisco, what a terrible loss for the Library of the Performing Arts in New York. Many of the photos are reproduced in the Taper biography, but a few aren’t.

The exhibit is not Balanchine 101; it goes into analytical depth on his career and artistry. The material on display includes John Martin’s column from the August 18th, 1935 directed at Lincoln Kirstein hoping that “he will take in friendly part a whole-hearted suggestion [that] he charge his whole experience to date to profit and loss . . .shake hands cordially with Mr. Balanchine and get to work starting an American Ballet.” It’s right next to Lew Christensen’s golden slippers from Apollo and Kirstein’s angry rejoinder to Martin the following week.

In the same display case is a program from the June 9, 1934 performance by the American Ballet School at Woodlawn, the Warburg estate in White Plains. The 1933 version of Mozartiana, Serenade and excerpts from Les Songes were performed. Extrapolating the evolution of Serenade from this little bit of evidence is tempting detective work. The cast list includes “Miss Pelus”, later to become Marie-Jeanne and “Miss Mann” whom I am guessing is Nancy Knott Mann, who reset the variation from Reminiscence for the Balanchine Foundation nearly 70 years later. There are 19 women and no men listed in the cast. There is no Tema Russo (it was added in 1941).

Other treasures include pictures of Balanchine’s lost Seven Deadly Sins. There is a lovely picture of Lotte Lenya and Allegra Kent, but a picture above it isn’t from the NYCB production. This photo is from 1964, and of San Francisco Ballet. The dancing Anna is Cynthia Gregory. Are there people out there who can still piece any of it together?

There’s a group picture of NYCB taken on tour at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in 1956. A thousand stories are in those faces, from Nora Kaye’s reverie and Sally Streets’ calm sweetness to Kent’s inexplicable sullenness. She sits hunched in the front row with her hands crossed over her. Fully made up, her lips are a slash of color but her face is stone.

Balanchine is hidden in the back row save for his face, but his direct gaze at the camera from the center of the row makes your eye go directly to him. How appropriate that he’s the apex of a compositional pyramid.

First: Balanchine's Serenade (photo by Lloyd Englert)
Second:  Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada in the SF Ballet premiere of Balanchine's Square Dance (photo courtesy of SF Ballet)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 12
22 March 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel




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