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Symphonic VariationsSan Francisco Ballet

'Monotones I and II,' 'Thaïs pas de deux,' 'Symphonic Variations,' 'Elite Syncopations'

Funky hat day at the ballet

by Jeff Kuo

April 17, 2004 matinee -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Despite harsh words at the time of The War of the American Rebellion (as the American Revolution is incorrectly called in Britain), it is generally agreed that Americans like things British -- e.g. the Beatles, the late Princess Diana, fish & chips, etc. What is less certain is what sort of case this all British program (ballets by Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan) would make for the less securely Anglophilic. However, the dancing was accomplished and at times beautiful and led to an overall pleasing impression.

The program began with Ashton's "Monotones I & II" choreographed in 1964 to orchestrations of the Trois Gnossiennes and the Gymnopédies 1-3 of Erik Satie and staged by Lynn Wallis. Each of its movements is brief, only a few minutes, but Ashton does not underestimate Satie. In distinction to the "serious" music of the time (Germanic, mythopoeic, etc, meaning 'loud'), Satie wrote the original piano compositions to champion melodic clarity rather than orchestral sonority. "Monotones I" is for corps dancers, Dana Genshaft, Hansuke Yamamoto, and Joanna Mednick, in pistachio green unisex unitards and vaguely elfin headgear. Quiet, sinewy, and almost sullen, their movements are like slow exhalations after full, deep breaths. Genshaft, Yamamoto, and Mednick's combined lines are sleek, indeed, but occasionally lacked that unison necessary for the correct unblinking effect.

"Monotones II" is for the taller trio of Brett Bauer, Muriel Maffre, and Moises Martin costumed in astronautically white unitards and Teletubby-ish skull caps. Folding and unfolding motifs expand the ballet's theatrical time from the score's metronomic paces into infinity. Rotated by Bauer and Martin, Maffre's body blossoms out into an arabesque pose in a way that is literally indescribable. Passages of rhythmic subtlety and compressed visual planes suggest the oriental dreaminess of "L'Après-midi d'un Faune." If "Monotones I" is Matisse or Picasso's Blue Period, then "Monotones II" is Ingres or Velasquez or Delacroix. Bauer, Maffre, and Martin's fluid, flowing lines seem like they could go on forever and justify Arlene Croce's description: "the continuity of Ashton's line is like that of a master draftsman whose pen never leaves the paper."

After a pause came Ashton's "Thäis pas de deux" set to the tone poem, "Meditations," from the opera "Thäis" by Jules Massenet. Unlike "Monotones," which also began as a gala piece, the "Thäis pas de deux" does not travel well. Julie Diana and Vadim Solomakha look resplendent and in every way like ill fated lovers, but the choreography is just sort of there. Best are the beautifully rendered costumes -- think "La Bayadere" but in bright orange: a positive relief from the vaguely menacing headgear of the "Monotones" pieces (though there was a moment of unplanned tension while Diana and Solomakha dealt with a pesky veil). Diana and Solomakha had been coached by Sir Anthony Dowell along with the alternate cast of Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba.

Following the interval came the momentous "Symphonic Variations" choreographed by Ashton to the score of the same title by Cesar Franck .  There is a by now familiar story of how the unplanned 5 week postponement of its premiere in 1946 allowed Ashton to refine the ballet, paring away narrative, design, and costumes until the ballet was left in its current pristine state. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece at its premiere, one critic held it as no less than the 20th century's "third great monument to classical choreography," writing "This ballet satisfies exactly the same conditions as do 'Les Sylphides' and 'Apollo' and is dependent to a lesser degree than either of them on plot, setting or musical reference" (A.V. Cotton in Ballet Today).

I'm afraid my mud-stained ballet goer's pedigree shows, but I found "Symphonic Variations" looking unfortunately dated. I saw the Royal Ballet dance "Symphonic Variations" at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and it looked sort of dated then -- so it's not the dancing or the repetiteur (Wendy Ellis Somes for this production). In their circa 1940s bathing beauties costumes with white bathing caps, the women (Rachel Viselli, Nicole Starbuck, and Elizabeth Miner) looked like aquatic chorines straight from an Esther Williams water spectacular. And, the men (Jaime Garcia-Castilla, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, Guennadi Nedviguine) in their semi-togas, one shoulder bared, and with their heads topped by silvery beanies looked like fraternity pledges from a P.G. Wodehouse comedy. Or, perhaps, the dated quality stems from the formally stylized movements -- the anachronistic, stiff arms and the equally stiff partnering.

Commentators have made much of the ballet's use of stage space and how the 6 dancers never leave the stage. Yet, rather than a triumph of ingenuity, to my eyes, this means that when not dancing, the soloists are forced to stand at attention in various, stiff poses with a species of determined expression. The ballet seems to take such relish in its agoraphobic denial of theatrical space and to take its neo-classical heroism so seriously, there are times when I wonder if "Symphonic Variations," one of the most British of ballets, isn't aesthetically closer to such similarly heroic works as Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" or "Olympia." Naturally, it would be absurd to place Ashton in a tradition that includes Josef Goebbels and Albert Speer; but, periodized or not, the dancers seem more trapped by the choreography than otherwise.

Funky headdresses and proto-fascist stage space aside, the dancers did their best. Thank goodness for Nedviguine, who as a veritable Teutonic youth made his athletic variations of truly Olympian dimensions. Among the women, Elizabeth Miner, particularly, with her calm demeanor made her time just standing around seem less like a domestic waiting on the aristocratic dining table and more like a moral virtue. The conductor for this, the "Monotones" pieces, and the "Thäis" was Andrew Mogrelia.  The piano soloist for "Symphonic" was Michael McGraw.

MacMillan's bright and brash "Elite Syncopations" closed the show. If Americans concede that they generally like things British, could this be MacMillan admitting the reverse? Who wouldn't smile even a little at the sight of Brits mimicking Americans?  It'd be like seeing yourself in one of those zany fun house mirrors. Whichever may be the case, this comic book, ballet fantasy of ragtime America confounds questions of post-colonial discourse by seeming so dated that it becomes timeless. Does that explain the funky hats? Ragtime America never looked like this, I suppose, but then historical accuracy was never the issue. The key is Ian Spurling's over-the-top costumes of kaleidoscopic leotards painted with all manner of funky ties, bows, flowers, and, of course, the strategically placed stars on Tina LeBlanc's "Stop Time Rag" costume.

In "The Alaska Rag," Elana Altman and Pablo Piantino were audience favorites as the comically mismatched but head-over-heels in love tall girl and short guy.  In the context of Spurling's costumes where subtlety is not a virtue, Peter Brandenhoff's ability to overact was actually something of a back handed achievement ("The Golden Hours" where he partnered a sweet Sarah Van Patten). Pauli Magierek was plenty sassy, sashaying about in "Calliope Rag," sporting a Victory Garden sized flower pot hat. In a tantalizing bit of casting, Tina LeBlanc was the "Stop Time Rag" gal.  Looking gorgeously sleek like a greyhound in her white unitard, sporting a ruby red Bowler, and with bright red stars on her you-know-where, LeBlanc looked as cool and as delicious as vanilla ice cream. Is the disco globe ("Ragtime Nightingale") an underutilized part of the ballet choreographer's technical armamentarium? Perhaps. The finale, "Cataract Rag," was for the entire ensemble with high kicks, big smiles, and good cheer.

Michael McGraw led the band decked out in more of Spurling's cartoon-deco American costumes from the back of the stage.


Edited by Lori Ibay.

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