San Francisco Ballet
'Square Dance,' 'Stravinsky Violin Concerto,' 'Who Cares?'
by Jeff Kuo
April 3, 2004 matinee -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
San Francisco Ballet has acquired that amazing work, “Square Dance.” At times ticking over like the finely-tuned engine of a Ferrari and at other times barging at us like a coal-fired locomotive, “Square Dance” is one of those ballets that rockets along at about a million miles per hour leaving nothing but dust devils and flying gravel in its wake. The Balanchine repertory is full of these high carb ballets: “Theme and Variations,” “Stars and Stripes,” “Western Symphony,” “Symphony in C,” and so on.
Originally intended to be performed with professional square dance caller (the original was Elisha C. Keeler), calling out the steps but danced to a strictly Baroque score by Vivaldi and Corelli, the ballet was intended to remind audiences of the formal debt owed by early academic dance as much to the social dance forms such as the fete and masquerade as to the court spectacles and allegorical compositions meant foremost as political theater.
Nancy Goldner’s program notes reports that when Lincoln Kirstein first suggested omitting the caller, Balanchine objected: “At the time, Balanchine didn’t want that, because without the caller, he said, ‘Square Dance’ would merely look like ‘an inferior ‘[Concerto] Barocco’.” Balanchine was wrong – Bart Cook’s staging (for whom Balanchine choreographed the Sarabande in the 1976 version) is performed without caller and the orchestra in the pit, with a spaciousness and clarity emphasizing the structural affinities common to both the classroom and the social dance floor.
At the same time “Square Dance” is one of those academic pieces that requires high intensity stage lighting so we can see every position and every beat clearly, it’s also satisfying theater. The momentum from its opening featuring 2 demi-soloists to its finale for the entire ensemble is break neck. This is more – and less – than just tongue-in-cheek “Concerto Barocco.” What it lacks of the spaciousness and spirituality of “Barocco” it makes up with sheer cheekiness. In the ballet there is even a kind of “Guerra de los Sexos” between Nicolas Blanc with the male corps and Vanessa Zahorian with the female corps – jetes versus echappes (or whatever the correct terminology is…).
If “Square Dance” is “Concerto Barocco” with a Looney Tunes cast, Vanessa Zahorian and Nicolas Blanc were sheer value for money as its Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote leads. In the rather non-Merrie Melodies interlude, Blanc was especially good in the majestically proportioned "Sarabande." Though Zahorian occasionally had difficulty projecting the de rigueur outsize ballerina personality during moments of stillness, at every other time her pointe shoes were smoking. The corps got especially high marks for precision, particularly impressive in their ability to land from multiple beats as one. Megan Low and Joanna Mednick, who opened the piece, looked especially smart.
Richard Bernas conducted the equally smart sounding orchestra featuring violinists, Roy Malan, Janice McIntosh, Marianne Wagner, Craig Reiss, and cellist David Kadarauch.
“Stravinsky Violin Concerto”
I think it was Pierre Boulez who identified Stravinsky as one of early modern music’s great ‘simplifiers’ (as Schoenberg was one of its ‘exaggerators’). Boulez said something like: Stravinsky’s music is situated in the place between violence and irony, which are the two faces of ‘simplification.’ [Classical music people out there, help me out if I got it wrong.] This might have been said of Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.”
In this dense and oddly proportioned work, there is a nervous tension between dancers and the music – unmistakably symbolized by the striking way the ballet opens with its five soloists standing completely still facing the audience. They remain that way while the violin soloist races on until we begin to wonder if Balanchine is playing one of his choreographer’s jokes on us. The rest of the ballet catches us up in such moments.
Though never boring to watch, it seemed to me Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov were spectacularly miscast. Their “Aria I” pas de deux seemed so intent on untangling the Gordian knot of the choreography, that their sense of the concerto’s high strung tension seemed diluted. Mysteries seemed to multiply. Julie Diana and Vadim Solomakha fared much better in their performance of the sexy and dangerous duet of “Aria II.” It may change the way I see their fresh young faces in the future.
The violin soloist was Roy Malan accompanied by Richard Bernas and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.
What “Square Dance” does for the American frontier, “Who Cares?” does for Gershwin. Only uglier – but that’s a fault only of the corps costumes, both men and women – something of a gawd-help-us – especially the tall girls corps' fluorescent yellow-green tutus with the faux cheerleader skirts.
The men fare little better in their dark slacks and red necktie belts which make them resemble cartoonish Lotharios swanking about some B-movie salsa room. Looking over Arlene Croce’s 1970 review in “Afterimages,” I believe that the costumes are accurate to the 1970s staging – but for all their allusions to Astaire and Chanel, I find that the only good thing one can say about them is that in a world of ignorance and uncertainty, I find them oddly bracing – they give you the feeling that not much really matters.
In the ballet’s first section, the corps look (in addition to bracing) quite smart in their dancing. Chidozie Nzerem, especially, in the all males’ pas de cinq, “Bidin’ My Time,” a sort of Gershwin-does-“Raymonda” Act III. I’d like to see Nzerem front and center more often. His compadres were Garrett Anderson, Brett Bauer, Steven Norman, and Pablo Piantino.
The soloists, who take over from “The Man I Love” to the finale, looked simply delicious: Tina LeBlanc was costumed in a pink-lavender tutu, Sarah Van Patten in a light pink one, and Rachel Viselli in peachy-orange. Ruben Martin did alright in his lavender shirt and salsa slacks.
As other have pointed out, from “The Man I Love” to the end of the ballet, the ballet features an Apollo-like cast of a central male dancer (Martin) dancing with three female dancers (LeBlanc, Van Patten, and Viselli). Though "Who Cares?" is not always staged with this reference to "Apollo" (for instance, it is not in the excellent Balanchine Celebration video), when it is, Balanchine's take on classicism is clear. The ballet “Apollo,” with its games and role playing, is almost tiresome in its sustained belief of the perfectibility of art. “Who Cares?” answers “Apollo’s” query from a different tack. Again quoting Croce: “To the question 'What is classicism?' Balanchine responds with a blithe shrug and a popular song.” More Croce:
The music is the same parade of Gershwin hits that has been going on ever since the beginning only now with the lights blue and the stars out, we listen more intently. If this is a musical-comedy world, it’s the most beautiful one that was ever imagined. (Croce 1970)
Tina LeBlanc was, as they say, pretty in pink (“Fascinatin’ Rhythm”), Sarah Van Patten was a charmer in “My One and Only,” and Rachel Viselli a convincingly Terpsichorean Adele ("I"ll Build a Stairway to Paradise") to Ruben Martin's Astaire-as-crooner (“Liza”).
Daniel Waite was on the piano and Richard Bernas conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra except, perhaps, for the trombones who sounded wa-a-ay out there.