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San Francisco Ballet

Ballet Program - Classical, Contemporary, and Comical

‘Paquita,' '7 for Eight,' and 'Le Carnaval des Animaux'

by Catherine Pawlick

February 26, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Thursday night's opening of Program Four by the San Francisco Ballet was a well-balanced bill of classical ballet, comical fun and a serious contemporary ballet.

The year that has passed since the company's premiere of this version of "Paquita" on their home stage has benefitted not only the audience, but apparently the dancers, too. The corps de ballet appeared more settled, more confident and more appropriately accented, without the jitters that came with last spring’s San Francisco debut. Heads and arms were more in line, and less affected, but the elegant, Spanish flavor of the ballet came through unhalted.

As last year, Yuan Yuan Tan danced the lead, this time accompanied by Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. Together the tall and lean couple were an impressive presence although Tan was clearly the stronger of the two in both presentation and delivery. Vilanoba was a noble partner, the -– in this case French -— prince, supporting Tan's long lines, but slightly weak in some of the partnering sequences, and failing to connect the dots in some of his own steps. To his credit however, was a unique set danced en diagonale: a series of double tours or sautés en dehors with the retire passé behind his knee rather than in front of it, finishing in a plie fondu then into developpe en releve ecarté. The sequence wasn't easy but he accomplished it with finesse.

Tan is a perfectionist, and it showed in "Paquita": her arms are ever-fluid, her placement always schoolbook perfect. In this performance she smiled more than other times, adding a welcome warmth and relaxation to the role. While not a spitfire, she achieved the noble imperial elegance needed in "Paquita" but that can be easily overlooked in less well-trained dancers.

The stars of "Paquita," however, were neither the corps de ballet nor the lead couple, but were found in the bodies of Katita Waldo, Guennadi Nedivguine and Vanessa Zahorian during the pas de trois. Nedivguine stole the show with his bottomless plie, silent ballon and crystal clear beats. Amidst all of the sparkle he also managed never to miss a partnering minute with either Waldo or Zahorian. For her part, Waldo impressed with the jump-and-turn variation that demands an inordinate amount of energy. Zahorian has a grace about her that, coupled with her long limbs, makes her very pleasing to watch, but a strange curling of her hands was distracting throughout.

Other variations were danced by Julie Diana, Rachel Viselli and Tina LeBlanc. Diana, whose impossibly long neck suggested more swan than Spanish girl, was as elegant as always, but finished her variation slightly early, which the audience seemed to notice. LeBlanc was impressive in her jetes and turns, a powerhouse of allegro. Viselli was smooth in the temps de fleche variation, and although she may need polishing, she may well be another diamond in the rough. The only distraction to these ladies was the strange fur at the tips of their yellow tutus that drew attention away from the steps and onto the fabric.

The corps was a pleasure to watch, which says a lot in the aftermath of last falls' onslaught of Kirovian uniformity. This ballet suits the company and allows them to showcase the classical talent that so often gets lost, or simply buried, in more modern works.

The second ballet of the evening, Helgi Tomasson's world premiere of "7 for Eight" impressed in spite of this reviewer’s initial skepticism. For those former fans of SF Ballet who may have left the Opera House along with Michael Smuin, this ballet is actually a reason to consider reentry. Set to four of Bach's keyboard concertos (but in this case played on a piano rather than harpsichord for all but one of the seven), "7 for Eight" is a cross between a romantic Grigorovich adagio (à la "The Golden Age") and something from Balanchine. The opening couple, danced by Tan again, along with the lovely Yuri Possokhov, are clothed in simple black: he in a t-shirt and pants, she in a knee-length dress. The curtain opens on them bathed in a stream of light from above, and they begin a series of slow promenades. It is beautiful and complex. It is classical, and then suddenly a bent elbow appears. Possokhov made some complicated partnering look effortless, his strength notable as he carried Tan offstage in a fetal position wrapped around his one arm.

The second concerto opened with Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia, slightly faster, less romantic, and more Balanchinean. Garcia was an essay in controlled, centered energy emanating from someplace in the middle of his torso. So pleasing to watch was he that this section melted into the third concerto before one had even blinked.

Elizabeth Miner and Rachel Viselli danced along with Joan Boada in the third movement, and Tomasson gave them, as with each set of dancers, a new theme in the choreography to follow. He pulls his themes from the music, of course, but the interpretations are not always as literal as one would imagine. One set of steps here stood out: a cross between a brise devant and a low sauté developpe en avant.

The fourth movement began with two men. Garcia and Nicolas Blanc perform the same steps one count apart and then dance separately. The step pique a la seconde to passee en dehors (pirouette) into a plie arabesque series was a nice development of the music. When the two ladies entered, they were floating in lifted jetes, and the couples took turns on the stage.

The fifth movement was Joan Boada's chance to shine alone, and shine he did. Thinner than the last time I saw him, his was the harpsichord concerto, accompanied by his controlled turns, low cabrioles and jetes derriere moving backwards en diagonale. Impressive is too banal a word for this section.

The sixth movement is a continuation of the first. Tan and Possokhov reenter the stage just as they left, with her draped over his right arm in a fetal position. They resume their romantic dance, but the somber violins in this movement lend a more somber air, which is reflected in the choreography. Possokhov sweeps her across the floor, or supports her in a promenade en pointe but in plie. In sum, "7 for Eight" was a coherent piece of contemporary ballet and one that deserves repeat viewings in order to fully grasp all of its rich nuances. Mr. Tomasson has reason to be proud.

The performance was balanced out by the last ballet's light-hearted comedy. Choreographed by the Bolshoi Ballet's new artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, "Carnival of the Animals" is set to Saint-Saens' well known score. Ratmansky imbibes his choreography with the humor detectable in the music itself, thereby bringing to life the notes of Saint-Saens in the bodies and steps of the dancers.

Of note in this section was the gem of SFB, Muriel Maffre. Somehow always managing to stand out from the rest of the ballerinas, her jellyfish was adequately jellied, and her dying swan adequately… well, dying. It is hard to imagine either role being danced as effectively with any other ballerina, as her clean lines lend a definition necessary for the humor to shine through. Hen and Hens, Nicole Starbuck, Caroline Loyola and Elizabeth Miner were also quite cackle-y, scaring off the poor lion with flighty feminine assertiveness. The two horses, Pablo Piantino and James Sofranko were dressed as jockeys but danced and leapt more as equine creatures would. In sum, this was an entertaining end to a well-rounded evening of dance.

Edited by Jeff

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