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San Francisco Ballet

Program 7: 'Monotones I and II,' 'Thaïs pas de deux,' 'Symphonic Variations,' 'Elite Syncopations'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

April 13, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Although it's been largely overshadowed by the centenary celebrations of George Balanchine's birth, this is also the 100th anniversary of Sir Frederick Ashton's birth. Consequently, there are celebrations planned all over the world, not the least of which will be a summer extravaganza at New York's Lincoln Center Festival with participation from the Joffrey Ballet, the Royal Ballet, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Coming first though, is San Francisco Ballet's tribute to the beloved British choreographer, which had its opening on Tuesday night with SFB's first go at two classics: "Thaïs pas de deux" and "Symphonic Variations."

If I were to describe Ashton, I would say he is what Americans stereotypically think of when they imagine Brits. Often reserved, given to vast understatement at times, but then also capable of biting, quick wit and clever, very clever. Perhaps a little too clever for me. I am not a big Ashton fan, although I try very hard to appreciate his work.

To my jaded modern eye though, pieces like "Monotones I and II" and "Symphonic Variations" look dated, and well... fey.  The unforgiving pale unitards of "Monotones I and II" (coupled with kind of "schlock sci-fi" studded skullcaps) only serve to highlight how static and ploddingly self-conscious the choreography is, even if both sections look as though they've been coached to precision by Lynn Wallis. The first "Monotones," danced by Lorena Feijoo, Rachel Viselli and Ruben Martin, to Erik Satie's "Trois Gnossiennes," lost much of its impact simply from a thick and heavy-handed orchestration of the music by John Lanchbery, which dragged its feet, even as the dancers strove to make something interesting out of each abbreviated phrase of movement.

Claude Debussy's scoring of the Satie "Gymnopedies" gave a little more musical support to the second trio, which on opening night was danced by Muriel Maffre partnered by Brett Bauer and Moises Martin.  It's hard to imagine that this piece -- which looks like so many posed contortions -- was created almost four decades ago.  On Maffre the slowness looks grounded and expressive, but nevertheless, with the knowledge in the back of my mind that "Monotones II" was made as gala fare, I still find it hard to take it all that seriously. 

In "Symphonic Variations," Sophie Fedorovitch's bright, lime-green tinged backdrop with faintly Art Nouveau whorls riding across it, and her "World of Tomorrow" headpieces seemed comical rather than bold. But perhaps we need to see the whole work in the perspective of its time, as the product of a hopeful, post-World War II society, finally able to emerge from a decade of shadow.

In any case,  San Francisco Ballet gave the work a good go, with an opening cast that featured a regal Julie Diana in what I believe was the Margot Fonteyn role, partnered by an almost grim Damian Smith.  It was Tina LeBlanc, however, who really caught the eye with pert phrasing and a physically alert performance that showed all the cleanliness of technique without ever looking forced.  By contrast,  the technically secure Vanessa Zahorian seemed too conscious of the steps and oddly serious, rather than offering us her usual cheery, free-wheeling correctness.   The three men, Smith, Nicolas Blanc and Joan Boada gave the ballet a kind of masculine elegance, and their well-matched creamy pirouettes added to the feeling of stylized classicism.  To me, however, Ashton's choreography looks so often to be about making patterns and pictures, that the dancers looked hindered, perhaps even a touch stilted and overly careful as they navigated into and out of these moments.

That cautiousness also marked the "Thaïs Pas de Deux," which was danced on Tuesday night by Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba.  With its flagrantly exotic overtones and romantic luxury, "Thaïs" is one of those roles for which Tan would seem to be a natural.  Yet although everything looked pretty -- this version has been impeccably staged by Sir Anthony Dowell -- the duet came off as more elaborate, occasionally awkward, rather than mysterious and enticing. 

Dance Theatre of Harlem's Duncan Cooper and Melissa Morissey -- who danced the "Thaïs Pas de Deux" last January at Cal Performances -- gave this brief diversion a kind of breathless, sweeping quality, and a consonant flow between the two bodies that Tan and Vilanoba have not yet found.  It's the kind of thing that I suspect comes from whatever that indescribable chemistry between partners is, because one sees it with Tan and Yuri Possokhov.

In fact, Tan and Possokhov led off the crazy quilt of characters in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's larky "Elite Syncopations." The role of "She Who Has Stars on Her Bum" doesn't quite sit easily for Tan, although I would be at a loss as to how one would go about making this showy, above-it-all, vampish and knowing, part comfortable. As her sly-devil partner, though, Possokhov worked the crowd, punctuating their complicated duets with louche, sidelong glances, and blowing a gently rouguish kiss at Tan during her "Stop Time" solo.

"Elite" has the virtue of being a heckuva a lot of fun when you see it for the first time, but like most goofball pieces, you don't want to see it too many times, lest it become predictable. Still the Joplin rags which make up the score are guaranteed to put you into a toe-tapping mood, even if, as my musician friend fretted, the band under Michael McGraw's direction played the music as square as a box-step.  Maybe they were just lonely in the back of the stage.  After all, the only dancer who ventured upstage to hang out with the band was Stephen Legate, who apparently hijacked the drums for a moment on Tuesday night.

One of the highlights of the ballet is always the "Alaskan Rag" with the leggy Muriel Maffre partnered to perfection by a diminutive James Sofranko.  Sofranko really relishes his role throughout the ballet though, playing up small moments from the start.  In the middle of one of his turns during the "Hot House Rag" someone behind me said in a not-too-sotto-voce tone, "Watch him -- this guy is really good!"

So he is.  But then, so is the company -- "World of Tomorrow" costumes, or no.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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