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Flash Review 1, 7-22: Remember (How to Spell) Their Names
Despite Stars, SF Ballet DQ Keeps Tilting

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- In light of my DI colleague Aimee Ts'ao's authoritative Flash of the initial San Francisco production of Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov's "Don Quixote," after Gorsky and Petipa, there were two principal reasons for me to check the Paris run at the National Archives last night. I'd be able to see whether, two years after the premiere, the San Francisco Ballet dancers had been able to overcome what Aimee called "a rather sedate production." And I could catch my favorite dancer (with SFB or any company), Tina LeBlanc, in the lead role, opposite Gonzalo Garcia, who gives brashness a good name. LeBlanc and Garcia, heading a mostly stellar leading cast in what remains an uneven production -- presented here without the key prologue -- did not disappoint, even if she was undercut by a sloppy SFB support staff.

You'd think that with both its company and general manager in tow on this tour, SFB could prevail on one of them to proofread the two-sheet casting and credits program. But this doesn't appear to be happening. After Saturday afternoon's errant program sheet created a new principal dancer -- "Katita Long" -- last night's introduced another: "Tine LeBlanc." For 13 years, SFB has been blessed with the good fortune to be able to feature one of the world's greatest ballerinas. Is it too much to ask that the administrators ensure her name is spelled correctly? There were also two problems, my French companion told me, with the French translation in the program. And why did it refer alternately to "Ballet de San Francisco" and "San Francisco Ballet"? These are not just an anal proofreader's nitpickings. Accompanying a class operation like San Francisco Ballet, in a class setting like the gardens of the Hotels Rohan-Soubise (home to the National Archives), in what has otherwise been a class operation directed by Valery Colin in this inaugural season of the Summers of the Dance, these mistakes stick out like sore thumbs. Or as my companion put it, "Ca marque mal," it does not reflect well on the company.

Perhaps less under SFB's control was the decision to eliminate a crucial scene from the ballet: the prologue with Don Quixote (Kirill Zaretskiy last night) and Sancho Panza which (in other productions I've seen) establishes who they are, particularly DQ's character and, well, his quixotic crusade. This is an essential scene as, dance-wise, DQ does not have a lot to do for the rest of the ballet. And yet, important for the spectacle as the dancing is, it should all take place within his larger story. (That's why it's called "Don Quixote" and not "Kitri and Basilio," after the lovers.) Meeting DQ and Panza (an over-stuffed, under-coached James Sofranko) for the first time with Kitri and Basilio and their friends, we, like them, regard him simply as a puzzling eccentric, provoking mild curiosity rather than sympathy. Yet without knowing the facts behind the excision of the prologue, I don't know that Tomasson, also SFB's artistic director, can be blamed here. Did the Paris presenters warn him ahead of time -- before the repertoire was selected -- that performances would need to start at 9:30 p.m., 30 minutes before nightfall, and be over by midnight, so spectators could still catch the last metro train? Regardless of who's responsible, the net effect is that an important element of the ballet's narrative center is emasculated. We're left with a standard, if charmingly performed, tale of two lovers' attempt to surmount parental challenges and get together.

The scene that establishes DQ as a dreamer having been cut, when his big dream scene arrives, it's hard to tell it's a dream. (My companion couldn't, until I told her, having glanced at the program.) The lighting, choreography, and Muriel Maffre's Queen of the Driads don't help. Dream scene lighting 101 would seem to dictate that you dim the background even as you highlight the dancers (particularly the corps) so that they glow, but Randall G. Chiarelli's illumination here is flat. The choreography for the corps is awkward to execute, leaving them, if hardly unappealing, hardly synchronized as a dream would seem to demand. And Maffre, who used to epitomize ethereality, is clearly off her game. If her legs still create amazing spaces when one rises into the stratosphere, they and she are otherwise brittle. LeBlanc is fine -- in fact it's a pleasure to see her dreamy etherealness, a nice contrast to the apt archness of her Kitri. But the scene is really stolen by SFB corps member Clara Blanco, a perfect, fairy-like Cupid, flitting, flying, soaring and darting across the stage.

The problems with this corps arrive when it's not the center of attention and is called upon to act as the immediate audience for a soloist. Here little seems to have changed in the two years since Aimee wrote, "As Gamache, the effete gentleman suitor, Damian Smith is hilarious. He bustles about constantly and I find myself watching him instead of the insipid corps de ballet, which should be just as engrossed in their own stage business, instead of standing around like a flock of English aristocrats at a tea party." This time out we got Peter Brandenhoff in place of Smith, and the difference between his engagement with his stage business and the corps' with theirs is telling. Even though it was 11 years ago, I can still remember Brandenhoff flapping his arms excitedly as Gurn to indicate he's just seen the "Sylphide" in SFB's production of the Bournonville version. But -- in a lesson the corps would do well to heed -- he doesn't let up when he's not center stage. It's the throw-away moments that often signify good acting, and Brandenhoff fully invested them all, as when he sagged after someone handed him DQ's heavy sword and shield. But I suspect the corps is not completely at fault here; whereas Brandenhoff has the benefit of Royal Danish Ballet training, this corps continues to suffer from insufficient coaching. There are many scenes where Tomasson and/or Possokhov appear to have told the dancers, "When we haven't given you anything to do, just bat those fans."

Making their leadedness even more striking is the comedic acting of Garcia. What he is is loose. He's having fun here, and including us in the game. When Kitri's father Lorenzo (the energetic Ashley Wheater, also an SFB ballet master) finally catches up with the lovers at a tavern, persistently denying them the right to marry, Basilio stages his own suicide to try to hoodwink Papa one last time. His timing is perfect: After presumably stabbing himself, while Lorenzo isn't looking Basilio lowers his cloak from his face to peer out at us conspiratorially, drops the cloak on the floor and then faints on it, but not before a quick funny glance to make sure it's there to pad his landing. This sequence produced something I rarely observe at the ballet: An audience actually laughing robustly at pantomime!

LeBlanc and Garcia perfectly capture the essence of Kitri and Basilio, both as individuals and as a couple: They are not just consorts, but cohorts, continuingly and amusingly plotting ways to evade Papa and stay together. Even moreso with DQ's own story eclipsed thanks to the excision of the prologue, this story becomes their odyssey, a sort of road picture. As much as intimate moments, it's experience that makes lovers true companions de la route, and this is the effect of LeBlanc and Garcia's adventures in flight from her father. If they were merely infatuated flirts of a kind at the beginning, by the end they've grown together and truly bonded.

One of those adventures occurs in a gypsy camp, and this is also where the weaknesses of Tomasson and Possokhov's choreography (it's unclear who was responsible for what) are the most glaring. Tightly coiled in his solo, Hansuke Yamamoto's Gypsy King seems strangely immobile when his queen, Pauli Magierek, gives hers. But that could be because what she's given is far less compelling, mostly involving grovelling on the floor and reaching out her arms imploringly to her subjects, no doubt begging them to rescue her from the unimaginative choreography. As Aimee noted, this character is further hindered by a long skirt (designed by Jens Jacob Worsaae) which obscures her legs.

After a stiff first-act appearance (opposite a stiff and remote partner, Moises Martin), Sarah Van Patten fares better than Magierek, loosening up for the penultimate tavern scene in what's very loosely referred to as the knife dance. Besides LeBlanc, she's the only female dancer who really seems like a 'Spanish dancer,' achingly arching her back in the flamenco style. Though what they're given to do isn't particularly Spanish -- nor original -- Frances Chung and Rachel Viselli, as Kitri's friends, function as a vital sort of glue throughout the show, always impeccable and joyous (particularly Chung), and always together. I should mention here that like all the soloists, they are working against another severe handicap, particularly for a story ballet: the Minkus score is not played live -- SFB and/or the presenters not wanting to spring on an orchestra for this engagement. Instead, they and we get a recording by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gary Sheldon. If it does its job in moving the story along at a breakneck pace, the absence of a live orchestra nevertheless cuts out a major pleasure of the ballet -- observing the interplay between soloist and conductor/orchestra.

LeBlanc, though, still manages to get inside the music. I've saved her for last not because she's the least important here but because it won't surprise you to learn she continues to surpass herself. If the ballet is fun to watch, it's largely because she sets a tone of play from the moment she enters, in which Garcia soon joins. What she's doing isn't child's play, of course, but, as my companion pointed out, she makes it look easy -- the mark of a great dancer. And this even though she constantly dances on the edge of the third rail, purposely throwing herself just slightly off balance when she's in the air, so that the rote suddenly becomes perilous. In my review of SFB's first program here, I noted how her smile had improved. Apparently, you don't need to be a LeBlanc groupie to notice it; my companion of last night didn't need any prompting to marvel at her sourire. But it's more than this that brings an audience in. Ballet alienates some people because it seems so unnatural. Notwithstanding the decades of constant training that she's put into her craft, LeBlanc makes dancing look a natural expression. Seeing her and Garcia dance their love, I'm reminded of how ballet -- principally in the person of LeBlanc, dancing another love (Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet") in another company (the Joffrey) got me enlisted on this journey in the first place: They dance the way we'd like to express ourselves when words are not enough.

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