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Flash Review, 7-13: 'C'est Sublime'
Storming the Bastille with SF Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider
Photo copyright Chris Hardy

PARIS -- I tell ya campers, Paris is certainly nothing to shake a stick at -- we may not have gotten the Olympics, but we still have the Seine -- but San Francisco Ballet has me ready to move back to my City by the Bay. It may have been the American former Katherine Dunham dancer Eartha Kitt who sang "C'est si bon," but during intermission last night in the gardens of the National Archives, following crystalline renderings of work by Balanchine and Helgi Tomasson, it was a young French guy on his cell phone who was telling a friend, "C'est sublime!" I don't know that I buy into the generalized diagnosis that France is depressed these days, but if it is, Tomasson's high-spirited, technically pristine, collegial troupe of international dancers is the antidote.

I already had a bit of a chip on my shoulder before the curtain went up last night on Balanchine's 1957 "Square Dance," staged by Bart Cook, after hearing that Tomasson had cut the Caller intended by Balanchine for this ballet. As noted by Walter Terry in his "Ballet Guide," "This lively and ingenious ballet makes a series of witty parallels between the actions of classical dance and the steps and figurations of square dancing. Although the dancers use traditional movements of the ballet as they respond to the Corelli and Vivaldi rhythms, they are also mirroring the instructions of a square-dance caller, who appears on stage with a small orchestra placed on a bandstand." The Russian-born Balanchine maintained a lifelong fascination with many things prototypically American which the native-born can take for granted. Though he sometimes fell flat on his face when addressing popular forms (witness "Who Cares?," the ballet whose title provides its own review), it's always intriguing to see what a stratospheric genius comes up with when he mingles among the hoi polloi. It's also admirable that he does so. I've never understood how many in the general public can feel so disconnected from dance performance, when dance is the one art most of us have experienced, as recreation. Square dance was immensely popular as such in the 1950s; was Balanchine trying to leverage its popularity to bring its denizens into the classical dance hall? If so, the employment of the Caller seems crucial, and I'm not exactly sure where Tomasson got off cutting the part.

So this was my chip, but the dancers blew it to smithereens once they rushed onstage. This ensemble -- tightly prepared by Tomasson, thoroughly schooled by Cook, and precisely and eloquently lead by Tina LeBlanc and Nicolas Blanc -- reminded me of how SFB captures Balanchine like no other company I've seen. The Frenchies tend to over-dramatize him -- unaware that whatever dramatic dynamics there are in Balanchine emerge naturally from the geometry and musicality of his choreography and combinations, and don't need the assistance of artful mugging. And New York City Ballet -- for the six years I watched the company from 1995 to 2001, anyway -- often tends to the other, wooden extreme, at least in the corps. Those dancers don't look healthy or rounded, and it tells in a stiffness which can't help but restrain jubilance.
Tina LeBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia and San Francisco Ballet in George Balanchine's "Square Dance." Last night's performance featured LeBlanc and Nicolas Blanc. Chris Hardy photo © Chris Hardy and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

The SF Ballet dancers, on the other hand, are jubilant, leaving even a grizzled critic with no other choice than to employ words he's avoided for a lifetime: Effervescence, to describe their charming yet not aloof confidence, and goodwill; stormed, to describe how they've already picked this town up from its Summer lethargy, even as they've surmounted having two performances cancelled by in-climate weather. Refering to today's headline in the national sports paper, "The Return of Superman," I might quip that Lance Armstrong isn't the only American super-being touring France. And how about esprit de corps, to describe the almost egalitarian relationship between principal dancers and corps? If they don't try to steal the spotlight -- but then who could, when it's captivated by LeBlanc? -- these young ladies are hardly self-effacing. As a unit, they're a capable if friendly rival to her. And they... are... smiling! From where I was sitting last night in the third row, it would have easy to tell if the performers were faking those happy faces, and these were not. The women, in contrast to those of NYCB the last time I saw them, are happy to be there, while the men, unlike their NYCB counterparts, don't dance like fey boys with sticks up their butts, unmoved by their partners.

While we're on smiles, before last week's season-opener, reviewed here, it had been a while since I'd seen LeBlanc, as the Sugar Plum Fairy in a decrepit SFB production of "The Nutcracker" then on its last legs. LeBlanc's legs soared as ever, but I remember that her smile could have used more animation -- more naturalness. She's apparently taken care of that, bringing a new natural warmth to her visage. As a Balanchine dancer, where LeBlanc is such a relief -- and, believe it or not, a rarity -- is that she doesn't blur the edges. Every quick kick backwards, every slight incline of a palm is noted. Balanchine was a master and complete, meticulous craftsmen -- a detail man. What he designed for the arms and the hands weren't just adornments to keep them busy while the legs were working, but equally important parts of the effect he was going for. You don't do him -- or the music which his work is intended to express -- justice if you treat the extra-leg movements as after-thoughts. And yet too many dancers -- including some at New York City Ballet, when I was watching it -- do just this. Sometimes their hands even seem palsied, so little attention do they pay to them. But LeBlanc, living as she does inside the music, meets Balanchine there, and treats every single movement as an essential marvel.

If you read my last SFB review, you know it's hard for me to give fair attention to any other dancer when LeBlanc is onstage. I made an effort last night, and was rewarded: LeBlanc's partner for the evening, Nicolas Blanc, also showed himself to be what we see too rarely these days -- a partner who doesn't make us feel the effort of the task of supporting his ballerina by, for instance, nervously regarding her waist as he lifts her or she turns. So in tune with LeBlanc was Blanc, he seemed to be serenely regarding the stage as he turned her, eyes closed. She in turn gently lowered a hand into his palm, without waiting to see if it would land there before launching off; she knew it would. His solo was a tour de force -- of subtlety. Without over-dramatizing it, he caught the melancholy mood of the music as Balanchine seems to be trying to express it. A particularly poignant moment -- and this may reflect Cook's attentive staging as well as the dancer's thoroughness -- came when he softly scooped up a handful of terrain from the stage.

As for LeBlanc's footwork, it was its own ballet, a credit to choreographer and dancer -- what I mean is, a lot was packed into very short time spans, but LeBlanc didn't miss a beat. Balanchine gives the ballerina much to do here, and LeBlanc executed it all fleetly, not fleetingly.

Let's credit that fleet corps, with many new-to-me faces to watch. They included Clara Blanco, Maureen Choi, Courtney Elizabeth, Dana Genshaft, Megan Low, Joanna Mednick, Garrett Anderson, Martyn Garside, Jonathan Mangosing, Steven Norman, Garen Scribner, and James Sofranko.

I'd girded myself for Tomasson's 2004 "7 for Eight," and was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it's that since I left SF, I've had to endure the choreography of Peter Martins, the NYCB ballet-master-in-chief who should confine his duties to that. I can now appreciate that unlike Martins, Tomasson is at least musical; he exploits (in the good sense) his dancers, and doesn't waste them in embarrassing efforts. Where Martins's ballets usually perform a disservice to dancers and audience, Tomasson's are serviceable, often utilizing his dancers' unique skills and displaying them at their best. He has sometimes shown a talent for designing apt showcases for his female stars, and bravura ensemble movements for his men. "7 for Eight" highlighted Kristin Long's firey confidence, in a duet with Gonzalo Garcia. In his footwork for the men, sometimes dazzling, I was also pleased to see Tomasson paying more attention to the lower plane of the body, particularly for Garcia and Joan Boada. My non-dancer companion went so far as to call this piece more "creative" than the Balanchine. He also thought Yuan Yuan Tan beautiful and elegant, but in my opinion it's a cold elegance, all the more disappointing when she's dancing with the warm Yuri Possokhov. Rachel Viselli reminded me -- in her limpid demeanor and arcs -- of Joanna Berman, the legendary and recently retired SFB principal.

A couple of notes on the presentation: Neither Tan, Possokhov, nor the piece were well-served by the couple's being rushed onstage to commence their somber duet with nary a pause after the joyous finish of "Square Dance." And someone should tell the offstage dancers that they are not really offstage, at least to about a third of the first few rows.

This program, which also includes "Who Cares?" and Tomasson's "Concerto Grosso," repeats tomorrow night and Saturday afternoon, although these are make-ups for cancelled performances, so tickets could be tight.

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