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Flash Review 1, 4-2: Balanchine by the Bay
Mr. B. Lost & Found in the Details with San Francisco Ballet

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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Editor's Note: To celebrate the centennial of George Balanchine, the Dance Insider is providing international coverage of Balanchine's legacy.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like many dance companies across the country and throughout the world, San Francisco Ballet is celebrating George Balanchine's 100th birthday this year. It is performing a selection of his works in a small-scale Balanchine Festival of two entire evenings, six ballets altogether. On opening night, Friday, March 19, at the War Memorial Opera House, I find myself filled with expectation as the performance consists of three of my favorite pieces. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson speaks briefly in front of the curtain, saying that although he danced with Balanchine's New York City Ballet for fifteen years and could talk for hours about that very rich experience, at the moment he simply wants to acknowledge the profound collaboration of Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky by having the orchestra play the Russian-born composer's version of "Happy Birthday." How perfect for the occasion!

Then, to the Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra by another great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, we see "Serenade," which I had reviewed last fall when the Suzanne Farrell Ballet danced it in Berkeley. One thing I love about this particular ballet is that, with the choreography being the equivalent to a musical score, there is a lot of latitude for the performers' interpretations and I positively relish seeing how far the roles can be pushed, and in which direction. I am not disappointed. Lorena Feijoo, partnered with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in the waltz section, brings a more dramatic intensity and an earthier emotional timbre to the part than did Bonnie Pickard in the Farrell staging. (SFB's current production was staged by Sandra Jennings.) I love both renderings as they allow us to look at more facets and possibilities of this ballet, the first one Balanchine created in the United States.

Tina LeBlanc's attack and clarity as the Russian Girl leaves afterimages on my retinas. Every role LeBlanc has been given this season has been danced at such a high level it's difficult to believe that she just returned from having her second baby. The corps de ballet makes an indelible first impression in the opening movement, almost as stunning as their performance a few seasons back in the "Kingdom of the Shades" from "Bayadere." Unfortunately, the dancers can't sustain the sense of unity all the way through to the end.

There is conflicting information between the press kit's cast listing sheet and the program information booklet. I had always known the woman who leads the man on in the fourth movement as the "Dark Angel." In Nancy Goldner's article in the program booklet, she refers to the role by the same name, but in the cast listing handed out separately the Man is called the "Dark Angel" and the woman "Angel." And in Balanchine's "Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason, he refers to everyone as boys and girls without any labels! (There is a male "dark angel" in Balanchine's "Orpheus" to further confuse the situation.) In any case, the man is touchingly performed by Stephen Legate, who seems to be having a renaissance and is dancing better and more confidently this season than he has for a couple of years.

Often "Apollo" is performed without the prologue depicting the god's birth, apparently so edited by Balanchine in 1979, but SFB includes it this evening. I do like the stripped down set (no designer is credited in the program for me to acknowledge); the rocky ledge, usually looking like papier-mache, is represented by a platform reached by a flight of stairs in profile on the left. With Gonzalo Garcia in the title role, I think it's the first time I have seen the youth and inexperience of Apollo portrayed so genuinely. Garcia's boyish enthusiasm and coltish awkwardness come paradoxically through his perfect technique. The three muses, Sarah Van Patten as Calliope, Vanessa Zahorian as Polyhymnia, and Yuan Yuan Tan as Terpsichore, achieve a real esprit de corps in spite of being danced by a soloist and two principal dancers. Not that they look or move exactly alike, though they are together on the music, but they are all working to the common end of illuminating the same story. Individually, they each do justice to their roles and their variations. The program lists no costume or lighting designer, so I can't lay the blame for some badly lit moments on anyone in particular. And there are more inconsistencies. The world premiere is listed as April 27, 1937 -- in fact, the date of the American premiere -- in both the printed cast program and in the program booklet, two inches above where Goldner's article gives it as June 1928, and which I confirmed in Mr. B's book. I'm not being picky; it's important to be accurate.

"The Four Temperaments" closes the program. The soloists for each of the variations are all first-rate. Nicolas Blanc, new to the company this season, has been catching my eye, or more accurately, grabbing my attention in every role I've seen him dance; first in Yuri Possokov's "Study in Motion," then paired up with my other favorite, Pascal Molat, in Christopher Wheeldon's "Rush." Here he brings the same commanding stage presence and seamless technique to shape Melancholic, a part that has yet another flavor besides the other two previously mentioned. Julie Diana and Legate are blissfully happy in the Sanguinic pas de deux, and Damian Smith is his usual brilliant self in Phlegmatic. It's not until Muriel Maffre makes her violently angry entrance in Choleric that the corps de ballet, which up till that moment I had thought was doing a good job, suddenly is shown to be rather lacking in attack. Maffre has always shone in Balanchine's works, almost as if he had made the roles with her in mind. Had the corps been able to define their movements with sharper edges and nail the music with more precise execution of the individual steps, the overall effect from the beginning of the ballet to the end would have been stunning.

To have seen a program of three masterpieces, all well danced, with some very bright highlights, is so rare. I only wish that "Serenade," which was especially moving, could have been the last piece so that I could let its spell linger in my mind as I drifted home still in a daze.

Four nights later, on Tuesday, March 23, I'm back for more Balanchine. I am disappointed that "Square Dance" will be performed without the Caller. (Once again, Goldner in the booklet says that SFB will perform a compromise version with a caller who is less prominent than in the original version, and with the musicians in the pit. But this doesn't happen.) When I saw the ballet in 2000 at the Kennedy Center's Balanchine Festival, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago presented the original version with both the Caller and musicians on stage and used costumes that reflected this true America folk dance. Those elements certainly justified its title and I really enjoyed the dancers' enthusiasm. Balanchine himself reworked the ballet cutting both Caller and onstage musicians in a de-Americanization. But lacking any down home flavor, the women dressed in short pale blue tunics dancing to the music of Vivaldi and Corelli would make a name like "Concerto Vivace" seem more appropriate. The corps de ballet copes with going through the motions. Thankfully, Tina LeBlanc is utterly beyond belief. How she can move so quickly with such precision for such a long time and smile and infuse it all with delightful nuances is more than a blessing, it's salvation. Garcia, as LeBlanc's partner, dances well, and Elizabeth Miner from the corps stands out, occasionally rising to LeBlanc's level. Toward the end, the dozing dancers finally wake up and begin to show some spirit, but by then it's too late.

The best performance of the evening is "Stravinsky Violin Concerto." In the Toccata section each of the soloists performs against a backdrop of four corps dancers, first with a group of the opposite sex and then with one of the same sex. It's an ingenious way of comparing and contrasting. Anonymous is again the costumer, and I have a bone to pick with whoever it is. The two principal women, Muriel Maffre and Yuan Yuan Tan, are the most svelte in the company. Here they are dressed completely in black leotards and tights, and disappear against the dark background. And because black obscures the three dimensional quality of a body much of the sculptural beauty of their musculature is lost.

Maffre is again impressive in Aria I with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. The second pas de deux, Aria II, with Tan and Smith is exquisite, both choreographically and interpretatively. He is one of the best partners I have ever seen. He never appears to be doing any hard work, unless the role calls for it. He truly just dances with his women and that he holds and lifts them is all simply part of it. Tan is beginning to respond to him, whereas last season in "Jewels" I didn't sense a rapport or unspoken understanding between them. She now has moments of playfulness and at the end as he holds her from behind and points out into the distance, hoping her gaze will follow, and finally leans her backward, covering her eyes, she reveals more than a hint of blind trust.

The final movement, Capriccio, is disappointing in that the choreography loses steam. Too much time is spent in one large group filling the stage doing lots of little insignificant steps. It calls for something more sweeping and grand, more breadth and more breath filling the space.

Some people would call "Who Cares?" the most aptly named ballet in history. Others love it. You probably already have guessed which camp I belong to. Nonetheless, Legate really shows off Feijoo, Katita Waldo and Zahorian as his partners, as well as himself. Feijoo pulls out the stops in "Fascinating Rhythm" and Zahorian is so warm and moves so smoothly throughout that I feel positively soothed. But what does it mean when corps member Hansuke Yamamoto, from Japan, dances with the most pizzazz and jazzy swaggering of anyone? Why not? Balanchine didn't start out as an American either.

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