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San Francisco Ballet - 'Allegro Brillante,' 'Paquita' Pas de Trois, '7 for Eight,' and 'Rush'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

September 22, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

I had a friend tell me the other day that San Francisco Ballet did not impress him on Monday night. I then had another friend tell me she was not impressed by SFB’s performance in New York a few years ago. Embodiment, what the dancers do, and apprehension of that embodiment, what an audience member sees, can and does invariably contradict each other. Well, I will have to suggest to my friends that perhaps they did not see a program of works of their liking or maybe the dancers were a bit off those nights. What I saw 22 September at Sadler’s Wells was awesome.

One can only imagine what the differences were that I saw and what my friends saw, but one thing is for sure: most discussions of San Francisco Ballet remark on the eclectic repertory and the personality and technical achievements of the dancers,and indeed these were the most accomplished aspects of this performance. From the precision of Balanchine to the showcase piece of virtuosity of  "Paquita," to the neo classical expressions of Tomasson and Wheeldon, SFB gave evidence of its extensive body of work. The dancers' depth and breadth of technique set a standard of proficiency. Choice of music and design -- economical and stunning in its ability to narrow the vision or broaden scope to create a landscape of vibrancy -- defined the richness in aesthetic expression. All this characterizes what it means in 2004 to be a repertory classical ballet company.

Balanchine’s "Allegro Brillante" began with an ensemble of couples in blue and immediately recalled similar configurations and approaches to movement and design of other Balanchine ballets. When Lorena Feijoo and Vadim Solomakha entered, the first impression was that this ballerina seemed rather compact and was not endowed with the lushness in moves expected to match the music. This first impression was just a minor lull. Somewhere around one of those beginning piano solos in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op 75, Feijoo switched gears and navigated between spot-on pirouettes to lush balancés with the arms to match. Feijoo had transcended and added the length with dexterity most associated with Balanchine’s work.

Makarova’s staging -- after Petipa -- of the pas de trois from "Paquita" dating from 1980 has a history dating from 1846. It is this work that gives evidence of the eclectic vision of artistic director Helgi Tomasson. The vision is to choose a repertory supported by a school that provides the technical training necessary to underpin choreography, music and design that span almost two centuries. To have the dancers to perform this repertory is the other challenge. The pas de trois is a soloists’ vehicle to display technical prowess of line, beat and jump, meshed with personality. Frances Chung, Guennadi Nedviguine and Vanessa Zahorian were exceptional and representative of SFB's expertise with the classics.

The second half of the program demonstrated the company's expertise in performing the neo-classical. Tomasson’s "7 for Eight" presented the neo-classical, illustrating that there are yet more inspired interpretations to be made of the often heard and used Bach piano concertos. Handsomely played by Micheal McGraw this performance was simply stunning. This work was about sumptuous details. All the way down to the beautifully tailored “V” sculpted backs of the female dancers’ costumes designed by Sandra Woodall to the lighting design of David Finn, this work illustrated its pedigree extended from Balanchine. This work was also an indication of evolution. This work illustrated its 21st century inclinations in the elegance coupled with dramatic extensions of Yuan Yuan Tan to the spatial and musical counterpoint with classical and modern dance hybridity in the duet of Nicolas Blanc and Gonzalo Garcia.

It was this hybridity of classical, modern and minute essences of jazz also noted in Christopher Wheeldon’s "Rush" that confirmed the current benchmark in breath and depth for the dancers' technical skill in San Francisco Ballet and in the United States. Credit Tomasson for not just continuing the classical ballet legacy with the presentation of reconstructions and revivals. SFB also enriches its particular repertory of classical ballet by taking informed approaches from “neo” and contemporary innovations. In "Rush," offsetting the scenic and costume design of Jon Morrell’s vibrant orange, maroon, purple, ocean and royal blue costumes with Mark Stanley’s vibrant lighting design was an inspiration of visual art for the cyc that countered the dancers’ live visceral sculptures and spatial patterns.

Balanchine broke the line of ballet and added the angularity of modernity with which he was surrounded in America when he choreographed works like "Agon," works that pushed classical ballet into its "neo" era. Being non literal and non narrative, there were some of these approaches in "Rush" that hinted at the drama of movement taking place. Bohuslav Martinu music with its classical and bits of jazz marked its hybridity and this hybridity was echoed in the dance. Slight hip shimmies for soloist, modern dance approach to slipping into and rising from the floor, angularity in the arms and a sense of vast landscapes in some of the solo and ensemble work confirmed Wheeldon’s openness and American-ness to varied movement styles. This was the palette of choice to create the movement languages of Tomasson’s "7 for Eight" and Wheeldon’s "Rush." The temperament of the dancers was where the drama lay, bringing to line, gesture, and the transition from move to move their participation and contribution in making these works distinctive neo-classical ballets.

Edited by Jeff.

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