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Seeing a ballet company in its home theater, in front of its home audience, is a unique experience. As I sat in San Francisco’s beautiful War Memorial Opera House watching two performances by San Francisco Ballet, ballet fans around me talked about the company excitedly. As I read over my program Thursday, the couple behind me discussed the rise of corps member Elizabeth Miner. Wednesday, the two women next to me exclaimed, “How wonderful!” when their companion told them the company would travel abroad this summer. While civic pride in a ballet company warms my heart, my critical side questions the value of hometown fans’ opinions.
But, after watching two programs of San Francisco Ballet, then a modern dance performance featuring short excerpts by eleven different San Francisco-based modern choreographers, I began to decide that San Franciscans have a right to their own opinions about dance. Why should they care about the East Coast giants? San Francisco abounds with good dance and great dancers. Saturday night at Yerba Buena I was impressed by the incredible artistic range. The benefit for dance venue CounterPulse had everything from the politically provocative experimental circus troupe Circo Zero to newcomer Leslie Seiters dancing a funny, yet beautiful duet with Jessica Swanson and a large pair of men’s shoes. Diversity coupled with depth also sums up the ballet. The company shimmered in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” bounced through Paul Taylor’s “Company B,” and benefited from a surprisingly good choreographic vehicle, “7 for Eight” by Artistic Director Helgi Tommason. In both the ballet and the modern performances, there were weaknesses. At the ballet Lar Lubovitch’s “…smile with the heart” had little depth and younger dancers in Mark Morris’s “Maelstrom” looked tentative. In the modern concert, Jesselito Bie’s “Steamroller” looked like fun, but really seemed like an excuse to wear bright pink while flipping over ballet barres to techno music. But, my sense of San Francisco generally is one of a city with solid choreography, sometimes quite innovative, and fabulous dancing
Tomasson’s ballet the made the biggest impression on me. “7 for Eight,” set to Bach, is clearly a ballet made by a director who knows how to make his dancers look good. The choreography is all in the extremities; the dancers torque their bodies, their legs and arms extending into long, open lines. The ballet clearly draws from the Balanchine tradition: the dancers wear all black, a bit fancier than leotards and tights, and dance as though paying tribute to the music. The sky blue lighting of the scrim led me to decide the relationship between the dance and the music was not a conversation (as it is in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” later Thursday), but that the choreography was like water running off the music: a fount supported by a sturdy fountain.
Principal dancer Katita Waldo brought a quiet intensity to the “7 for Eight’s” first and sixth movements, both duets with Vadim Solomakha. Finishing the first, then re-entering in the fifth, wrapped around Solomakha in a fetal position, Waldo kept expanding her body throughout, her limbs growing. How she could look longer and taller in the seventh movement finale, I do not know, but she did it.
Where Waldo specialized in expanding, male principal Joan Boada who performed the fifth movement solo specialized in recoil. Small in stature, Boada cruises across the floor and through the air, physically impacting the space. His presence is so powerful; the absolute silence of his movement stunned me, especially in contrast to the harpsichord’s gentle plucking. (Other movements were accompanied by the piano, though Bach originally composed the music for the harpsichord.)
In the second movement, Kristin Long and Gonzalo Garcia mirrored each others’ openness, she with her inviting port de bras and he with his powerful legs, darting in and out of assembles.
Thursday closer “Theme and Variations” featured another strong couple, Vanessa Zahorian and Guennadi Nedviguine. In his solo, Nedviguine seemed to barely touch the floor, springing into yet another tour en l’air before I fully realized he had landed the previous one. In their pas de deux, Zahorian and Nedviguine streamed through adagio sections, and then brightly sprinted through the petit allegro. I am a great admirer of Balanchine’s work, but, with the exception of “Serenade,” my admiration has always been more cerebral than emotional. But during their pas de deux, I found myself truly moved. The pas de deux was the last of the brilliant dancing for the ballet. In the finale, I do not know who was off the music, the corps or the principals, but neither in the all female nor all male sections could the cast get it together.
Wednesday’s program was not as successful as Thursday's, largely because it lacked substantial choreography. Stanton Welch’s “Falling,” a premiere this season, seemed decent at the program’s close, but after watching Tomasson’s work, and then, of course, Balanchine’s on Thursday, Welch’s attempt to convey Mozart’s complexity paled. Welch tried to create choreography as a visualization of the music, matching each trill with a wiggle of a dancer’s head, shoulders or feet. The movements had the choreographic effect of a hiccup and the gimmick grew tired. In the ballet’s opening sections, Welch represented the theme of falling quite successfully. Yuan Yuan Tan and her partner stumbled over each other; Muriel Maffre tossed and turned elegantly. But near the ballet’s midpoint, I lost sight of the theme.
Thankfully, the dancing, particularly of Tan and Maffre, left me with ample artistic food to chew. Tan is so small and lithe, yet her slender frame seems to have no angles. Her arabesque line runs from head to toe in a beautiful arch and she moves with equal grace and lightness.
I had never seen Maffre before and was entranced by her beautiful legs, accentuated by Welch’s choice to leave the women bare legged. With each developpé, whether large or small, she offered up her body to her partner or to the audience.
Only in Mark Morris’ “Maelstrom” did I find myself a bit unsatisfied with the dancing, though a number of corps members debuted in the ballet Wednesday, which I suspect might have been the source of the overly careful approach I felt. Corps dancers Brett Bauer, Brooke Moore and Pauli Magierek redeemed their rank in “Company B,” though principal Pascal Molat did the best job, marrying Taylor’s references to World War II with the happiness of the Andrews Sisters’ songs. At the close of “Pennsylvania Polka,” Molat writhed alongside the other men, acting out the horrors of the battlefield in silhouette, then he slowly rose to his feet, ingeniously transforming the tortured twists into the spastic convulsions of up-tempo “Tico Tico.”
I’ve saved Lar Lubovitch’s “…smile with your heart,” for last because I did not find the superficial ballet, danced to instrumental versions of Richard Rodger’s songs, worthy of the company’s superb dancers. The constancy of Lubovitch’s movement must be difficult, but it does not plumb technical nor emotional depths. Miner and Molat romped through a happy duet to “The Sweetest Sounds;” Miner wearing an unfortunate costume, a small dress only a shade darker than her pale skin. Lorena Feijoo and Damien Smith fought with each other to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and “Where or When.” And, finally, I hoped Yuan Yuan Tan and Yuri Possokhov might show me a side to “My Funny Valentine” that I missed in Neve Campbell’s performance of it in last year’s movie “The Company,” but, alas, not even dancers as brilliant as Tan and Possokhov could make something out of a duet that includes the man drawing a heart across the torso of the woman.
In comparison to Lubovitch’s modern dance choreography, the contributors to the Saturday benefit shone. The benefit featured sought to raise the $23,000 necessary to buy a sprung floor for CounterPulse dance center, a long time San Francisco dance venue that will relocate to Mission Street in April. Benefits can take on the air of telethons, but Keith Hennessy, one of the CounterPULSE founders, kept the evening light-hearted, while articulately convincing audience members to part with the contents of their wallets. Given that all of the presentations were excerpts from longer works, I found it difficult to judge the choreographers’ talents in total, but almost every one made me want to see his or her full piece.
For me, Hennessy’s Circo Zero stole the show with “Two Anthems” (though perhaps the left-leaning city influenced my tastes.) Hennessy began, kneeling upstage, playing an accordion-like instrument while first reciting a quote from Mark Twain about the American occupation of the Philippines, then singing “The Star Spangled Banner” to a dirge-like folk tune. Never have I so thoroughly considered the lyrics of that song and their fascination with/ glorification of the throes of battle. As Hennessy sang, a clown, dressed in camouflage overalls, with a gas mask on his head, slowly pulled a bundle onto the stage. He ceremoniously unwrapped his package; the tattered American flag gave way to a petite Asian woman, dressed in a black and red unitard, her mouth taped shut with black electrical tape. Then, still in a mellow baritone voice, Hennessy began a beat-like homage, a liturgy riffing on Allen Ginsberg that pronounced a variety of places, acts and people “holy,” while the woman contorted herself into the most painful positions. The short piece mesmerized me and left me pondering its statement. In just a few minutes, the performers touched on so many aspects of the contemporary political situation, my mind was sent reeling. To make such eloquent political art is so difficult; the creator must work well on an abstract and a literal level at once, and Circo Zero did just that.
At the other end of the spectrum rested some excellent works driven purely by movement, particularly Seitler’s duet I mentioned earlier and closer Robert Moses company, Robert Moses’ Kin. Moses is a step beyond some of the more emerging artists on the program. His excerpt, from “Cause,” zipped across the space, his dancers versatile and his choreography complex. I could not capture the overall design, but found the material stimulating in its athleticism and speed.
More established than Moses, the Joe Goode Performance Group and AXIS Dance Company presented Goode’s 2001 “What the Body Knows” and Ann Carlson’s “Flesh,” respectively. Goode’s Marit Brook-Kothlow wowed me yet again, meshing vocal, acting and dance talents. Carlson struck a balance between drama and humor. Axis dancers rode atop the wheelchairs of their colleagues in the first section, slowly moving under the wheelchairs’ power, crossing the stage like sculpted statues. They returned in the second section, shaking and goofing to the comedic laments of Meredith Monk’s “The Tale.”
The program also included the amazing and funny 848 Improv All-Stars, Dance Brigade, Scott Wells & Dancers, Campo Santo and Sara Shelton Mann.
With Saturday’s full plate of modern coupled with the two evenings at the ballet, I am now in camp with San Francisco’s dance fans. What they feel for local dance may be partially civic pride, but I think a large part of it is just good taste.
3, No. 7