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San Francisco Ballet

'Serenade,' 'Apollo,' 'The Four Temperaments'

The many faces of Balanchine

by Jeff Kuo

April 2, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

For this company, which has so many wonderful Balanchine ballets in its repertoire, a Balanchine Festival seems almost redundant. From the kitsch of “Western Symphony,” the brazenness of “Bugaku,” the refinement of “Liebeslieder Walzer,” to the high concept of “Agon,” the Opera House stage has shown Bay Area audiences the many faces of Balanchine. Balanchines rather than Balanchine.

The program began with that most sublime of ballets, “Serenade,” which never ceases to amaze me with its complete understanding of the balletic theater. “Serenade” is the direct descendant of ballets such as the “Dance of the Nuns” from “Robert L’Diable,” the “Kingdom of the Shades” from “La Bayadere,” the White Acts from “Swan Lake,” and Fokine’s “Chopiniana” (aka “La Sylphides”). “Serenade” is in many ways the summation of the ballet blanc. Critic Walter Terry put it best, I think, when he wrote that “Serenade presents that beauty that is the province of dance alone.”

As did the poet Keats, Balanchine understands the tenuousness of beauty, and “Serenade” reminds the audience of this time and again. Girls fall to the stage, tableaux form and dissolve, images of the funerary as well as the sculptural pass over the stage – the veil drawn over beauty is of the thinnest material.   Doubtless apocryphal, there is a story about Balanchine’s choreography of the ballet’s opening tableaux of 17 girls, each holding one arm upwards towards the light. Balanchine was describing the evils of a European dictator and demonstrated the tyrant’s salute: one arm held out stiffly from the body – the Nazi salute. So the story finishes that in the corps' opening pose, one hand held out to the light, Balanchine transformed the symbol of consummate evil into one of transcendent beauty.

From this performance, my favorite images were of Julie Diana, who not unexpectedly made a most serene and beautiful Waltz Girl in the Sonatina and the Waltz movements, and of Tina LeBlanc holding hands with a slowly evolving line of four corps dancers (Frances Chung, Elizabeth Miner, Megan Low, and Amanda Schull). Moises Martin and Vadim Solomakha danced the male leads in the Waltz and the Elegy movements. The company has Sandra Jennings’ staging where the three principal ballerinas' (Julie Diana, Tina LeBlanc, and Katita Waldo) hair falls loosely about their shoulders in the Elegy.

After the intermission came “Apollo.” Even among the most prized ballets of the canon, there are always some works that inspire love and others, primarily respect. “Serenade” is among the former, whereas, for me at least, “Apollo” is among the latter. Considered one of the touchstone works of balletic high modernism, through its story of the enculturation of the young god Apollo, the ballet provides a précis of the entire neo-classical project. Proportion, nobility, clarity, and restraint – these are the measures of the divine.

There is, however, to my eye, a sense of smugness in its carefully measured proportions.  If "Serenade" is Balanchine showing us his beautiful face, "Apollo" is Balanchine's pedantic one -- not so much Balanchine the Poet as Balanchine the auteur.  Perhaps it’s the diffusion throughout the medium of its essential images – the poses à la troika, the sunburst silhouette of Apollo and the muses, the quotation from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” etc ... Or, perhaps, it’s the susceptibility of its libretto to feminist critique (the ballet’s reduction of the feminine to essentially servile aesthetic categories, etc), but the ballet’s satisfaction in its own mythology tends to make me impatient.

But, it is better to be impatient than bored, and this company doing Balanchine is never boring.  Gonzalo Garcia’s concentration on projecting nobility and restraint seemed to hamper his projection of the unformed power of the budding deity; but in Apollo’s more athletic passages, Garcia projected the youthful energy recalling that Balanchine had choreographed “Apollo” during the days of heroic athleticism, which in those days meant the Olympian pursuits of running, swimming, etc.

Sarah Van Patten danced a restrained Calliope to match Garcia’s Apollo while Vanessa Zahorian’s Polyhymnia was something of a scamp. Yuan Yuan Tan danced a high concept Terpsichore which also had something of the Siren. At moments, I was afraid Tan’s Terpsichore was going to devour Garcia’s Apollo, leaving nothing but little shreds.

In this staging by Jacques d’Amboise assisted by Sandra Jennings, Leto’s delivery of Apollo and the final ascent to Olympus are restored. Pauli Magierek was Leto and the Handmaidens were Dalene Bramer and Joanna Mednick.

Paul Hindemith, much more accessible than many 20th century composers, still requires easing into, so it was shrewd programming to place “The Four Temperaments” as the final work. I wonder if perhaps more than Apollo and his Muses, the theory of human constitution by the four basic elemental types of material– melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguinic, and choleric – isn’t a better trope for the artistic process. Creativity and genius do not always come down clean, well-lit paths. “The Four Temperaments,” neo-classical to the core as it is, is also a self-organizing pool of textures from the dystopian bends and contortions of “Phlegmatic,” the girl spun like a jazz bass fiddle in the “Third Theme,” and the omnipresent pelvic thrusts of the women. Compared to this, “Apollo” is artifice to “Four Temperaments” organicism – Michelangelo to Gauguin, Bourbon to Plantagenet, Racine to Shakespeare.

The company looked to great advantage in this ballet, especially the corps, though this isn’t ordinarily considered a corps ballet. It’s important to watch the introductory 3 themes carefully as they provide the elemental movement vocabulary for which the remainder of the work is the grammar.  The theme dancers were worth the attention, particularly Leslie Young and Moises Martin in the 3rd theme (the one used by Ann Daly to trash Balanchine’s gender politics in a much taught critique). Emily Halpin Ambuul and Aaron Orza danced 1st Theme and Elana Altman and Brett Bauer the 2nd. Pascal Molat was terrific as  the lead of “Melancholic” and Yuri Possohkov turned in a very meaty “Phlegmatic.” Muriel Maffre was intense, maybe too much so, in “Choleric”; and the entire cast brought a fitting liturgical sense to the big finale.

This revival was staged by Sandra Jennings assisted by Gloria Govrin, the pianist was Daniel Waite accompanied by conductor Richard Bernas and the San Francisco Ballet orchestra.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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