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Flash Review 2, 5-19:
San Francisco Ballet School Student Showcase
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2000 Aimee Tsao
SAN FRANCISCO--I had
not seen a San Francisco Ballet School Student Showcase in at least
a dozen years when I attended the current one at the Palace of Fine
Arts Theater, Wednesday, May 17. The last time I went, it was done
in the Opera House and my four-year-old son tugged on my sleeve,
then whispered n my ear, "Mommy, this is terrible." I
missed the better years when Larisa Sklyanskaya set some of the
classics for the upper classes, but according to a former student
there, things have slipped back down to where they had been before.
The program notes proclaim "the country's oldest classical
academy offers a program designed to take students from their very
first steps through a full course of ballet study... For those who
wish a career in ballet, San Francisco Ballet School offers a training
program of unqualified excellence." Judging from the printed
program, in which the list of donors and volunteers exceeds that
of the students, what they really excel at is fundraising and organization.
As for the training, both technical and artistic, my rather low
expectations are easily met. How sad for these budding dancers and
their supportive families that they are not getting a solid dance
education given that they attend such a solid well-endowed institution.
Perhaps I would not have
felt the lack of excellence so acutely had I not been to see Marin
Dance Theatre's Springfest 2000 four days before at the Jewish Community
Center in Marin. Artistic Director Margaret Swarthout split off
from the Marin Ballet School four years ago and started her own
school. I was very impressed by the high level of the dancing and
variety of choreography including traditional classical pieces and
some interesting work by Julia Adam and Val Caniparoli (both of
San Francisco Ballet!), and Lawrence Pech, formerly of SFB and currently
director of his own company and Ballet master at the SF Opera. So
why doesn't SFB School take advantage of their in-house talent?
Despite the miniscule stage, rudimentary lighting and sound, Swarthout
is definitely doing something right if she can turn out such a high
percentage of good dancers. Even the younger girls worked cleanly
and confidently. In fact, only days before, Marin Dance Theatre's
own Stacey Klyce had signed a corps de ballet contract with SF Ballet,
which had not engaged any of its own graduating women.
But back to SFB. The
program opens with the lower grades presenting class work. This
might have been interesting with better choreography, but the students
have to contend with steps arbitrarily strung together in the most
unmusical fashion. That is certainly not a good way to show them
off, struggling with awkward combinations. All the groups of girls
has at least one, usually placed in front, who shows a lot of promise,
though they are not identifiable from the program which is an alphabetical
listing. The real standout is Anthony Huxley, an 11 year-old in
Class Five. He has everything: technique, musicality, expression
and something that cannot be taught, an innate sense of how to put
all those elements together.
Next the Level Seven
and Eight classes perform excerpts from Sleeping Beauty. The uniform
white costumes, I suspect from "Theme and Variations",
do not help distinguish the six solos for the fairies, or create
the festiveness of the Prologue. Amy Malepeai and Stephanie Orza
do a good job of the Fairies of Tenderness and Courage, respectively,
but in general, the dancers' arms lack any recognizable schooling
and the women's pointe work looks flabby, for lack of a better description.
As a best piece of the
evening, modern dance teacher Ellie Klopp's "rip" gave
eight men and Amy Malepeai a chance to cut loose and show some raw
energy and presence. I would welcome more original choreography
that allows the dancers to explore and exploit their own limits.
After a pas de trios
from the Kirov Ballet's "Nutcracker", with the talented
Huxley, and the Level Six Class in "Die Fledermaus Waltz",
the evening closes with Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations."
Malepeai is charming and exuberant, though should learn to nuance
her roles more, and Ricky Navarro, as her partner, tried to make
up for his lack of polish and technique with enthusiasm and focus.
In general, the men are not together much in the ensemble parts
and everyone's arms lacked uniformity.
One would think after
all these years that the SF Ballet School would have, by some Darwinian
process, figured out how to nurture dancers to fulfill their potential.
But from what I know, there is no set syllabus and the teachers
come from a variety of training backgrounds, two factors that diminish
the possibility of consistently turning out good dancers. The students
are not to blame, for there is a natural assumption that the longevity
of an institution guarantees quality. I am of the Margaret Mead
school of thought, believing that a small group of dedicated people
can make changes and I don't need to look farther than across the
Golden Gate Bridge at Marin Dance Theater.
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