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San Francisco Ballet

'Ballo della Regina,' 'Paquita' Pas de Trois, 'The Four Temperaments,' and 'Rush'

Grooving in the grove

by Dean Speer

August 8, 2004 -- Stern Grove Festival, San Francisco

Stern Grove weekend is always a heady experience for me, made even more so this year by the exciting works San Francisco Ballet brought to the urban wood, Sunset District setting this round. [Not to mention it was also my birthday weekend.] And, what a way for this balletomane to take delight in celebration of things wondrous and beautiful. Near the ocean, enough fog and atmosphere to remind me of my Seattle roots and a few thousand of my closest ballet friends, all there to cheer on and enjoy the ballet and its resident orchestra.

Tantalizing us with pre-performance tidbits were former SF Ballet star and local dance heroine, Evelyn Cisneros, and current principal dancer, and French dreamboat, Pascal Molat, giving us the “inside” scoop on this program’s works, "Ballo della Regina," "Paquita" Pas de Trois, "The Four Temperaments," and "Rush." The moderater was Stern Grove’s Executive Director, Corrina Marshall.

Being an outdoor venue, if the ambient temperature drops below 65 the dancers have the option of not performing – something they rarely do, although the last piece of last year’s bill was dropped for this very reason. However, this year, heartier minds and bodies prevailed and for Balanchine’s 1978 work made first for Merrill Ashley, some dancers opted to wear leg warmers, which was okay for the ballerinas but less so for white-tighted Sergio Torrado who regaled us with black warm-ups. Sir, if you’re going to wear warm-ups, please don white ones! Gently stated, this spoiled his line. Some of the dancers at our table also thought he needed to at least comb his chest hair so it all flows in the same direction. Gloria Govrin was overheard to exclaim, “Kids! They’re all kids!” – I think for some of the choices made.

This was my first outing with seeing "Ballo" live. One of Balachine’s mature works, I’d put it into the category of one of his “dessert” ballets - certainly challenging to do, interesting, and an audience-pleaser. “4-Ts,” on the other hand, would definitely fall into the “main course” platter.

Lorena Feijoo made an impressive foray with the role created by stager Merrill Ashley. The ballet really “awoke” for me with Amanda Schull's solo. Corps member Schull’s attack and sense of doing the ballet full-out with bravura was eye-catching. She did her job as a performer; relaxing us and drawing into the choreography. She was truly magnificent. Her jumps were exciting and her elevation really wonderful. A lovely dancer who has been fun to follow and see develop as an artist.

"Paquita" Pas de Trois was a bon-bon that delighted our eyes. Each dancer was “on” and the trio (Frances Chung, Vanessa Zahorian and Guennadi Nedviguine) really brought this short excerpt to life. Tight ensemble, clean, clean lines and powerful work. They also seemed to understand the charm of this Petipa work. Each danced as if from the same school of thought; the same ballet school. Nedviguine was wonderfully amazing. Elegant, the right amount of energy in the right places – well-paced. His work reminds me of the late Erik Bruhn. That kind of grace. [As a personal side-note, I had learned this pas from dance notation in college but had never performed it, and it was interesting to realize that it was still “in my feet” as I recognized it right away and kind of did it internally along with the performers.]

"The Four Temperaments" gets me every time. I just adore this piece. One of my own ballet teachers at Cornish College in Seattle, Noel Mason (herself a former Joffrey star), once commented that this was the one ballet that has ever made her want to go back to performing. Compelling indeed. From the opening motifs to the amazing and soaring conclusion with those continuous lifts, it is just one of the best ballets ever constructed. Yes, no "narrative" but one of the most dramatic ballets ever written. It was fun seeing San Francisco’s rendition of this 1946 nugget. I particularly enjoyed Gonzalo Garcia’s foray into the challenging and expressive “Melancholic” solo of the first variation. He really let himself go with this one and got under the skin of this aria. While still retaining his classical elegance, he nevertheless moved freely and fully and showed us the drama of this almost modern dance-like solo. I mentioned to table mates that he moved like I like to move: totally into and immersed in the moment. Nothing else exists for him except the dance.

Yuri Possokhov was good in the “Phlegmatic” solo variation. He needs more speed in his thighs, as when making développé to arabesque for example, which was more evident during the finale when he was along side the other principals. This may be just a need to fine-tune his adjustment to the American way of moving and of the speed required in Balanchine works. His line ended up not being as turned out and “extended” as the others. While he kept up, his way of moving is heavier. More speed and a sense of being more streamlined and lighter are needed.

Speed is not a problem for Muriel Maffre. If Molat is the company’s French dreamboat, then Maffre is its French perfume. She bores into each step and pattern and makes the movement “read” right down, into, and beyond her fingertips and toes. The aura of her movement perfume stayed with us and lingered as beautiful, fresh and spontaneous.

"Rush" by ballet’s hot property choreographer, Englishman Christopher Wheeldon is a competent construct. I might be tempted to sub-title it, “Breathless.” Interestingly enough, it came across to me as having an English sensibility. Partly for his movement ideas and for the lifts and shapes I saw; some reminded me of Ashton or other UK dance designers. It’s also an inventive and busy piece. I liked many of his movement ideas, shapes, and poses. My only suggestion would be for him to give us more development of these ideas, instead of thinking he has to keep giving us new, new, new. Even new, new, new becomes distracting in itself after awhile. Some of us dance-lovers agreed that the work sometimes lost visual interest to us and we found ourselves beginning to think about other things like the costumes rather than paying attention to the piece itself.

This was particularly evident in the pas de deux for the lovely Katita Waldo and her sympathetic partner, Damian Smith. Wheeldon himself realizes it is too long and tries breaking it up with the entrance and exit of a small ensemble. What he doesn’t do however is develop his movement motifs enough. As we said among ourselves, you can only have – and tolerate seeing – a ballerina upside down so many different ways for so long. Choreographically, he could have (and it’s not too late!) broken up the duet by having them move apart and away from each other for a little while (they are in physical contact with each other during the whole duet) and to have given Smith something more to do than just to partner. We used to joke when I was being trained, that male dancing consisted of “The Three L’s” – Lift, Lean, and Lunge. Wheeldon could make what is a nice duet stronger by breaking up the couple, developing his motifs, and giving the guy some variety. Building and making a good ballet even better.

Conductor Andrew Mogrelia must be lauded for his leadership of the ballet orchestra and for his clear support and love for the ballets and of the dancers. And Hooray! for live music! (Having a live orchestra for an outdoor venue may surprise some first-time goers.) "Tom Terrific!"

Indeed a heady and fun ballet experience among about 8,000 (the number reported to me later by the Stern Grove staff) ballet friends. Next year marks the re-development of the Grove with a new stage and seating areas, with new amenities for all. I look forward to seeing what the Festival and the ballet exalts us with next Summer.  Note: the executive director, when talking about next year's plans, also told us that they hope to open the season with SF Ballet on 19 June.

Edited by Jeff.

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