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The Buzz, 5-4: The 3 Amigos
SF Ballet's Farewell on the Cheap to Legate, Possokhov, & Brandenhoff

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

When it came time to plan a farewell gala for star Daniela Buson, Tulsa Ballet director Marcello Angelini did it right, securing not just one but four legendary ballerinos to squire his reigning ballerina -- for just one segment of the evening. As previously reported here, for her Rose Adagio, this Beauty was partnered by Frederic Franklin, Bruce Marks, Ivan Nagy and Ben Stevenson. It was a gesture of respect on the part of Angelini that was multi-levelled: In addition to the esteem it demonstrated for the honoree, it showed other Tulsa dancers that their director appreciates their contributions; it showed the Tulsa audience that he recognized their love for Buson; and -- most critically -- it told the wider world that we respect our artists and, by extension, our art. If there is a leitmotif in my 'rants,' it is this -- the wider world will never respect dance if we don't respect ourselves. I believe that Angelini gets this; by feting Buson in such glorious fashion, he was not just honoring a dancer but honoring Dance.

Contrast Angelini's attitude with that of Helgi Tomasson, his counterpart at San Francisco Ballet. Tomasson, who famously came out on stage after Evelyn Cisneros's final "Swan Lake" sporting a leather jacket, is now clumping the retirement performances of three of the company's most important male dancers of the past 15 years together into one poorly publicized, subscribers-only evening, tomorrow at the War Memorial Opera House, where Yuri Possokhov, Stephen Legate and Peter Brandenhoff each really merits his own 'night' for all they've given to the company and to the art.

Added together, principal dancers Possokhov and Legate and soloist Brandenhoff have devoted more than four decades to realizing Helgi Tomasson's vision for San Francisco Ballet, arguably the best ballet company in the United States and one of the best in the world.

Tomasson's 1994 acquisition of Bolshoi and Royal Danish Ballet veteran Possokhov was positively brilliant. It's not just that he's Russian, or has that magical Bolshoi pedigree. Possokhov is that all-too-rare (these days, anyway) Russian ballerino who dances not just with bravado, but with heart -- with spirit and soul -- a dancer of rare emotional depth. Russia, after all, is the land not just of brio but of tragedy -- of cossacks and Chekhov. Possokhov reminds us of this, and has injected this quality in a variety of leading roles at SFB over the past 12 years, from Romeo to more modern Tomasson ballets, which he has elevated by his presence.

Legate, by contrast, has been perhaps easy to take for granted in an SFB universe where his peers over the past 15 years have included, besides Possokhov, Tony Randazzo, David Palmer, (briefly) Rex Harrington, Gonzalo Garcia, Nicolas Blanc, and Pascal Molat. But don't mistake his unassuming disposition for a lack of lustre. Nor his classic all-American lightness with a lack of weight. If Legate has been a devoted support/partner to some of his generation's leading ballerinas, he has also revealed that he can own the stage -- indeed mine it -- with heart-rending solo turns in, for instance, Christopher Bruce's "Sergeant Early's Dream." He also displayed the true artist's gift of being able to surpass his type with a haunting solo turn in Val Caniparoli's African dance-inspired "Lambarena."

If Brandenhoff is the soloist among the three, his contribution to San Francisco since joining the company in 1992 has been no less unique nor valuable -- indeed it has been perhaps more singular. Challenging as it is to find and cultivate principal dancers, it's even rarer, these days, to find dancers who understand the importance of -- and how to execute -- lively, dare I say organic-seeming character dancing. I don't want to dismiss his pure dancing abilities; Tomasson's choreographic strength reveals itself in movement for the male corps, and for the better part of a decade, Brandenhoff was at the heart of an SFB male corps that helped Tomasson mature there. But where the Bournonville-trained dancer's really stood out -- not just at SF Ballet but in the whole ballet field -- is in his character acting and dancing.

Reviewing him in Tomasson and Possokhov's staging of "Don Quixote" in 2003, my DI colleague Aimee Ts'ao wrote, "Peter Brandenhoff transforms himself so well into the leader of the Gypsies that I don't recognize him for quite some time." I faced the same challenge when I caught the dancer in a different role, that of Kitri's foppish suitor Gamache, last summer during SFB's stunning Paris season. The difference between Brandenhoff's investment in his character's stage business and that of the SFB corps was marked. But the way you knew he wasn't just mugging -- but really acting -- was that he didn't just step up when he was the focus of the action, but kept it up whenever he was onstage, as when he sagged after someone handed him Don Q's heavy sword and shield. And I can still see -- 12 years after catching it -- Brandenhoff flapping his arms excitedly as Gurn to indicate he's just seen the "Sylphide" in SFB's production of the Bournonville version.

Indeed, given the rarity of this particular gift, I don't quite understand why SFB isn't retaining Brandenhoff as a principal character dancer. (The current crop of three have been there for at least a dozen years.) Does Tomasson understand that 'character dancer' can mean so much more than simply dancers who can't dance anymore so one keeps them around to play the Mr. & Mrs. Montague and Capulet, with the occasional Drosselmeyer thrown in for good measure? I would argue that it's character -- whether in the person of a 'character' role-player or the credible acting of the dancing stars and corps -- that helps put the story in 'story ballet.'

I've laid this out in some depth so that if you've not had the pleasure of enjoying these men's performances, you'll get a flavor of their gifts. But really, their greatest gift to San Francisco Ballet -- indeed, to San Francisco -- has been their sustained dedication to the company and to their art, which they've elevated by their talents and high standards. Along the way, they've helped Tomasson fulfill his vision; it's consequently at the least ungracious that the SFB director is giving them such inadequate recognition on the occasion of their retirement.

When I asked an SFB spokeswoman why Possokhov, Legate, and Brandenhoff were not each accorded their own night to say goodbye to the San Francisco audience, she said that "there's a lot that goes into adding a performance since the Ballet's time at the Opera House is limited. We also have to coordinate the orchestra, crew, etcetera, depending on the changed programming."

Who said anything about changing programming? When Marianna Tcherkasskky retired as principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre after 26 years, ABT director Kevin McKenzie cast her as Juliet in a performance that was part of that season's repertoire, and made that her farewell evening. Tomasson could have simply taken each of these extraordinary men who have given so much to his company -- and to him -- aside ahead of the season and said, "Here's the rep. Tell me if there's a role here you'd like to dance for your official farewell tribute, and we'll make an evening around it so that you can say goodbye to your peers and fans in style." Why didn't he? The easy answer would be to say that he doesn't have the class, nor expansive vision, of a Marcello Angelini. But a look at the classy company Tomasson's built up over the past two decades refutes that. Is it a willful lack of respect? Maybe not willful; I think it may be just that he just doesn't think. This is not a company that dances like they don't have the respect of their director. Unfortunately, the result is the same, evincing if not disrespect for these dancers, at least insufficient appreciation, gratitude, and recognition for their accomplishments and how they've complemented the company (and him) over most of his reign -- and, by extenstion, a deficit of respect which does nothing to augment respect for dance in the larger community. It reflects poorly on the art.

For Friday's star-studded, subscribers-only tribute, Possokhov will dance Motoko Hirayama's "Revelation"; the balcony pas de deux from Tomasson's "Romeo & Juliet," opposite longtime partner Yuan Yuan Tan; and, with Muriel Maffre, the Summer section from Christopher Wheeldon's hackneyed "Quaternary." Legate will squire Tina LeBlanc for "My Funny Valentine" from Lar Lubovitch's "...Smile with my Heart," and join Brandenhoff and Molat for Hans van Manen's "Solo."

PS: Speaking of class acts, if there's one thing to be thankful for, it's that Maffre chose not to retire this season -- knowing Tomasson, he probably would have just added her to the billing with the Three Amigos and made it the Four Mosqueteers.


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