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San Francisco Ballet

'Maelstrom,' 'Falling,' 'Company B'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 8 and 9, 2005 - War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

On Tuesday night, I went for a look at Program 2. With some time to kill beforehand, I had a rare (for me) opportunity to have a drink and relax before the show, and it occurred to me how civilized the idea was. And wouldn’t any critic be even more positive about a show if he or she didn’t have to run through the opera house doors just as the house lights were dimming?

As it turned out, I was seated in front of a former teacher of mine, who once danced with SFB and was a ballerina with the Marquis de Cuevas company. She coaches other dancers around the world now and we caught up on what she was doing, although we didn’t speak much about SFB’s current crop of dancers before the curtain went up on Mark Morris’ “Maelstrom.”

I had had a vague memory of “Maelstrom” being more energetic and lively, but must be at least ten years since I had seen it and it looked, frankly, somewhat enervated. Clad in their lovely wine colored costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, the seven couples ebbed and flowed across the stage to Beethoven’s melancholic “Ghost” trio, played with thoughtfulness by the estimable Roy Malan, David Kadarauch and Roy Bogas. But I was sorry to see that despite the presence of some of my favorite dancers, the piece hadn’t stood the test of time well. The atmosphere, though beautifully created, was almost too gentle … lulling us into … And there my notes ended.

Stanton Welch’s “Falling,” a world premiere this season, was far livelier by comparison. Set to music by Mozart, this abstract-ish series of interludes took a lot of its energy from the ever-resourceful combination of LeBlanc and Legate, whose deft partnering at the start elicited a not-too-quiet “Wow!” from someone in the audience behind me. Welch can’t resist some quirks, it seems, although his 2003 “TuTu” was far more idiosyncratic. This time he manages to restrain himself to a few flapping arms, and keeps the action moving along with good pacing. His partnering is tricky, with visually interesting transitions that sometimes work – a supported trio with Katita Waldo in the middle – and sometimes doesn’t – as in Yuan Yuan Tan’s duet with David Arce.

In fact, throughout the ballet, Tan’s almost sullen expression quite surprised me. As a dancer, she has grown so expressive in recent years, that I half-wondered if Welch had specifically directed her to create a dour mood. It seemed terribly out of character for this lovely dancer, who had so joyfully thrown herself into Yuri Possokhov’s arms as Juliet in the gala, and I spent the entire second intermission trying to explain to my former teacher that she really wasn’t that way all the time.

“I have never seen her any different,” was her reply with an elegant emphasis of her head.

“But did you see her in ‘Diamonds?’” I asked, “In ‘Chi-Lin?’ I promise you, she is far more expressive than this.”

How difficult it is to convince someone of what you’ve seen, when their experience has been totally different.

The night finished out with Paul Taylor’s bit of World War II, bobby-soxer nostalgia, “Company B,” danced to songs sung by the Andrews Sisters. The company looks most relaxed with this revival, although the edginess of the humor eluded them that evening. Even with a slew of fine dancers, from Peter Brandenhoff in “Tico-Tico” to Blanc in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” the magic seemed subdued. Rory Hohenstein and Dalene Bramer had a terrific chemistry in the “Pennsylvania Polka” and indeed, Hohenstein was great fun to watch in all the small cameos scattered throughout the ballet’s ten numbers. But by the end of the evening, in the back of my mind, a little voice was nagging me to come back …see the show again…different night …different energy.


So it was that on Wednesday night, I decided, I would have to come back. I just had to get a look at Muriel Maffre in the Welch piece and see Pascal Molat in “Company B.” I would definitely be very disciplined, I thought. I’d run over to the opera house just in time to catch “Falling” and leave right after “Tico-Tico,” because there were a lot of other things I needed to do that evening.

As it turned out, I arrived early enough to chat for a moment with Tom Taffel and Bill Repp at the theater’s entrance. Tom mans the Intermezzo Lounge upstairs and Bill takes care of the Grove Street entrance, and they don’t miss a trick – among the patrons or the dancers. In the off season, they also organize opera cruises and their knowledge of everything to do with the Opera House and beyond is legendary. Tom is abuzz with the news that Brett Bauer will be stepping in to partner Maffre – on a moment’s notice, he says – in “Falling,” so it’s a good thing you came tonight. It should be very exciting!”

Bill rushes up to us breathlessly and says, “Good evening, good evening, Mary Ellen. Did you see that? Oh, there was a fall.” He means in “Maelstrom.” Apparently David Arce and his partner slipped badly, but was alright. I begin to feel like I should have come earlier – now I’ve missed a dramatic moment.

We chat a while longer, but when intermission starts, I wander off and immediately run into friends, dancers and SFB fans in standing room and I think “how different does this night feel from last night and last Tuesday?” It’s not just that I’m hanging around standing room, or that there are cast replacements – there is a definite, palpable change in the energy in the house.

One disappointment is that Tina LeBlanc is not dancing this evening in “Falling.” I had looked forward to watching her and Legate again. Her little precise pinprick footwork and leisurely supported arms were a high point of the piece. Nevertheless, Maffre is there, dancing with Bauer instead of Ruben Martin, as was apparently scheduled originally. Bauer’s partnering shows no sign of having learned the part in a hurry, and if he looks a little careful, it’s exactly right for the slow adagio of their duet. At one point, Maffre contrives a peculiar roll up across Bauer’s thigh and unfolds herself in such a way that there is an audible gasp from the audience. It’s a strange and effective moment, and I would have sworn that no such maneuver was in the choreography the night before. Later, when two men bring her back onto the stage and deposit her upside down on the ground, she opens her legs into a chiseled and impressive diamond shape, and again, I would have sworn the position wasn’t there in the last run.

Replacing LeBlanc and Legate are Vanessa Zahorian and Guennadi Nedviguine, who lead the ballet with bright charm. Soloist Rachel Viselli stands out with one gorgeously placed foot as she rises into a perch in fourth on pointe in dead silence. And Tan, whose face so bothered me the night before, looks positively girlish this evening. I wish my teacher could have seen her.

As I’d hoped, Pascal Molat was a space-devouring delight in “Tico-Tico.” That solo alone would have made it worth the trip back, but even though I planned to go right afterward, I couldn’t help but stay to see Bauer’s lanky wolfishness in “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” one more time. But how was it that I found myself still there, caught by Brooke Moore’s “I Can Dream Can’t I?”

And I was still standing there for Katita Waldo’s pensive and eloquent “There Will Never Be Another You,” but when she lifted her head up to gaze after Moises Martin as he exited with the troops, I had to go. Somehow, I wanted to hang on to the memory of her staring off in the distance.

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