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Out of the Fog, 5-31: Swan's Way
Maffre Bids Adieu to SF Ballet

By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2007 Aimée Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- Recently everyone I know, myself included, seems to be experiencing loss of one kind or another. I've come to the conclusion that distraction is a necessary survival mechanism to cope with it. On Sunday, May 6, help arrived in the form of Muriel Maffre, dancing her farewell performance with the San Francisco Ballet. For the past 17 seasons, she has bourréed and jetéd her way across the War Memorial Opera House stage at a level that few members of that company have ever attained and this evening was no exception. It was a bittersweet event, marking the end of a rich stage career that is indelibly etched in the minds of many and the beginning of a life with new interests and goals for Maffre. It was also a glorious evening, obliterating my personal sadness for a brief time before I had to reflect that in the future I won't have the guaranteed escapes into the riveting interpretations of this matchless artist.

San Francisco Ballet's Muriel Maffre and Yuri Zhukov in "Swan Lake." Marty Sohl archival photo courtesy and copyright Marty Sohl.

The program opened with the 2nd Movement from Jerome Robbins's 1983 "Glass Pieces," with Maffre partnered by Pierre-Francois Vilanoba against the backlit corps de ballet of women, followed by the pas de deux from Balanchine's 1957 "Agon," with Tiit Helimets, then "The Alaskan Rag," from Kenneth MacMillan's 1974 "Elite Syncopations," featuring Maffre in hilarious cahoots with James Sofranko, to close the first half.

After the intermission she danced Michel Fokine's "The Dying Swan" (1905), then the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon's 2002 "Continuum," with Damian Smith, before concluding the evening with Part 1 from Willaim Forsythe's 2004 "Artifact Suite," in which she was joined by a cast of 28 dancers, including partner Vilanoba.

San Francisco Ballet's Muriel Maffre and Tiit Helimets in Balanchine's "Agon." Erik Tomasson photo copyright Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

The excerpts and ballets chosen didn't accurately reflect Maffre's enormous range, as four were pas de deux in much the same vein. Interestingly, "Agon," now 50 years old, and danced superbly on this program, made the other three look like cheap choreographic knock-offs. Just seeing Maffre on stage triggered a deluge of memories of many of her roles. Two that I would have loved to see again were her otherworldly presence in Frederick Ashton's "Monotones," a trio for two men and a woman, and the intensely emotional solo from Yuri Possokhov's "Damned," in which, when I saw her in the role, she delivered an exquisite, utterly seamless performance where technique and interpretation were completely in service to each other.

Perhaps the long pauses between numbers, to give the etoile time to change costumes and catch her breath, could have been filled with video clips of Maffre in other ballets or being interviewed, or even just the orchestra playing the music from these works, to help sustain the momentum of the show. The stop and go format had a very deadening effect.

There is no doubt that the dance audience in San Francisco has lost one of its most versatile performers. I was frequently in Alonzo King's class with Maffre starting in 1990, when she first arrived in town from France, and now often find myself with her in classes given by Yuri Zhukov and Joanna Berman -- both of whom danced with her in SFB. Not only was I able to witness her artistic development on stage over the span of her tenure at SFB, but I continue to observe the keen intelligence and diligent work ethic that she applies to her daily class work, which in turn informs her performances. I cannot imagine that she will be any less successful at what ever she tries her hand at in the future.

To read more about Muriel Maffre in performance, click here, here, here, and here.

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