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