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Flash News & View, 7-19: "Who Cares?" It's just Balanchine
SF Ballet's Tomasson Slashes Mr. B

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Showing utter disrespect for the work of one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century -- and disregard for his audience -- San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson Saturday cut three numbers and songs at the last minute from a matinee performance of SFB's already shortened version of Balanchine's 1970 "Who Cares?," to music by George and Ira Gershwin.

Following the opening ensemble piece at the National Archives, "Strike up the Band," Tomasson cut another group number, "Sweet and Low Down," a women's quintet, "Somebody Loves Me," and a male trio, "Bidin' My Time," jumping straight and jarringly into the duet "The Man I Love," eloquently performed by Tina LeBlanc and Damian Smith. All three deleted numbers had been promised in the program distributed to the audience.

Asked after the performance why Tomasson had made the cuts, company manager Robert Russo cited "the heat." Saturday's Paris temperature was a seasonable 84 degrees Farenheit, tempered by occasional winds; the dancers' contract permits them to perform until the mercury reaches 90. (The matinee was a make-up for one of two performances cancelled because of weather conditions.)

When the Dance Insider pressed Russo by saying simply, "But it's Balanchine," he said SFB already performs a shortened version of "Who Cares?," as if this somehow justified Saturday's butchery, before hastening to add, "I can't speak for Helgi." At presstime, Tomasson had not responded to a request for comment submitted to two company spokespeople.

As originally choreographed by Balanchine, "Who Cares?" includes 16 songs. San Francisco Ballet promised 12 of them Saturday and, on the orders of Tomasson -- who danced for Balanchine for many years -- delivered nine, significantly changing the ballet and cheating spectators who paid from $30 to $72 per ticket to see the program as advertised. ("Who Cares?" not "Excerpts of 'Who Cares?'") He also deprived a precious Paris performing opportunity to Elana Altman, Courtney Clarkson, Erin McNulty, Brooke Taylor Moore, and Mariellen Olson, who were to have been featured in "Somebody Loves Me," and to David Arce, Brett Bauer, and Moises Martin, the trio for "Bidin' My Time." The corps, with "Sweet and Low Down" cut, appeared just at the beginning and end of the truncated dance.

The principals were not well-served either. Besides altering Balanchine's intended arc, the sudden jump from "Strike up the Band" into "The Man I Love" demanded an abrupt mood change into an adagio duet for which the audience wasn't quite yet ready. I was distracted for several moments just trying to figure out what LeBlanc and Smith were doing there, when the program told me three other dances came first. (No announcement of the change was made before the performance; maybe Tomasson was hoping we wouldn't notice?) Clearly the emotional center of the work, in being repositioned more or less to its beginning, at least initially the duet had to fight for our focus, despite its outstanding stars. LeBlanc and Smith did their best, but they (and we) should not have been stranded like this by their director.

More fundamentally, Tomasson had no right -- no right -- to tamper with the master. A running joke that used to be current among the SFB dancers a decade ago had it that Tomasson (aided by his wife) picked his music from "Best of" classical music discs. Well, Balanchine was a bit more particular. As any bunhead knows, he studied music (from the age of five) before he began dancing (at nine). (Both facts noted in "Balanchine's Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason and published by Doubleday in 1954.) His respect for music was absolute. Just because "Who Cares?" is comprised of 16 (or 12, if you like) separate songs does not mean it is merely a 'revue,' in the Broadway sense. No, like any Balanchine dance, it is a composition. Take away any of it, and you wreck the course of the story. Even being charitable and presuming that the 12-song version SFB regularly performs was at some point approved by the choreographer, who died in 1983, short of a miraculous cell phone call with the Other World, Saturday's improvised incision, which cut 25% of the remaining ballet, was not. As such, it is a black mark for what up until now had been, notwithstanding the mercurial weather, a largely triumphant SFB season.

But Tomasson has not shamed merely this tour and his company. Could you imagine the director of the Louvre cutting off one of the Mona Lisa's hands because well, there sure is a lot to see at the Louvre and visitors don't just don't have the time? Or the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company trimming 25% of the lines from "Hamlet" because everyone wants to get home? Marcel Proust's publisher hacking up his epic because "So many remembrances, so little time"? No, you couldn't, because these fields respect their artists and the integrity of their creations. As I've said before and unfortunately need to say again, dance already gets less respect than the other arts; how can we expect others to respect us if we don't respect ourselves? By not respecting the integrity of this Balanchine work, Helgi Tomasson has disrespected not just one ballet and one choreographer, but the field as a whole as an artistic endeavor that values its artists and their creations and esteems itself. Perhaps he thought he could get away with it; after all, the house was only one-third full and the hometown critics had gone home. I call on Sandra Jennings, who staged the work on SFB (under Tomasson's direction) to alert the Balanchine Trust, and on the trust to sanction him.

Tomasson's blithe butchery was not the only glitch Saturday. The printed program also renamed Gershwin's "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" "I'll Build a Stariway to Paradise," and renamed SFB principal Katita Waldo as Katita Long, apparently confusing her with fellow principal Kristin Long. (Subway advertisements for the season had renamed Lar Lubovitch "Lars" Lubovitch.)

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