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San Francisco Ballet - 'Apollo,' 'Blue Rose,' 'Quaternary'

by Toba Singer

February 17, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

There is a famous reference to “blue roses” in Tennessee Williams’ play, “The Glass Menagerie”:

LAURA. When I had that attack of pleurosis – he asked me what was the matter when I came back. I said pleurosis – he thought that I said Blue Roses! So that’s what he always called me after that. Whenever he saw me he’d holler, “Hello Blue Roses!”

Even though the title of the second piece on the program “Blue Rose,” places the flower in the singular, I insisted on thinking of it in terms of Laura’s little speech. In my mind’s eye, it was going to be an innovative piece, derivative of the play. It was derivative, but not of “The Glass Menagerie.” It was more a creature of forties’ style ballroom dancing, which can make for great entertainment when performed by ballet dancers and buffed up to a high gloss by ballet technique. “Blue Rose” is essentially a not-glamorous, and far less urbane “Black Cake.” Three male/female couples and one male couple dance to music by the Uzbek-Australian composer, Elena Kats-Cherin. In the program notes, SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson mentions that he had a rare month at home, during which time he was able to listen to a shopping bag full of CDs. It was Kats-Chernin’s music that caught his fancy and inspired this piece.

Natasha Feygina (piano) and Roy Malan (violin) accompany the dancers in front of a backdrop of large swirling bamboo-like tubes. In the first set, with the full cast dancing to “Get Well Rag,” the dancing seemed tepid because it mostly went under the music. Tina LeBlanc was paired with Pascal Molat to “Backstage,” and initially, it was exciting to watch them discover each other in the context of this stylized choreography. The problem is that they are too similar. It would seem that their shared virtuosity would make for a good partnership, but the absence of contrast and complementary strengths made it like watching one dancer instead of two. It’s one thing to be able to tell the dancer from the dance, and quite another to distinguish between the dancer and the dancer.

Lorena Feijoo, costumed in a red, white and blue print ballroom-style frock, was very much the fuse-burning firecracker of the group. She held her head almost menacingly still as the rest of her body yielded, ribbon like, to the prompting of her partner, Pierre-François Vilanoba. Vanessa Zahorian gave the most engaging performance of the three boy-girl couples, and that was in no small part attributable to the filigree of choreography she performed with her partner, Nicolas Blanc. It was intricate and playful and had an Scottish quality to it, and its switchback steps were fun to watch. The duets were interspersed with solos and LeBlanc’s solo featured riveting, lightning-speed piqué turns en manège. Molat gave a clean, light, well-placed and yet storied solo. The “Brothers” duet by Blanc and Vilanoba while well-danced, was suffused with silly sentimentalism, and the high five sautés would have been better left in their “Quattro Stagioni” mothballs. As time went on, one of the couples choked on a lift, and then the choreography just degenerated into a formula of step, step, turn; step, step, lift; step, step, jump, until it reached gemütlichland. I expected the ushers to show up on the aisles at any second, bearing glasses of warm milk and Ovaltine.

By contrast, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Quaternary,” chooses a score consisting of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, John Cage, Arvo Pärt and Steven Mackey, and marries investigation with gymnastics and exploration, packages it in segments corresponding to the four seasons, and has it all come out looking pretty appetizing. It is layered in steel drum music that pops or clicks, there are circle games to a contrapuntal rhythm that break out into contrasting sweeps of the stage, and athletic adages that go so far as to tear a few holes in the fabric of the ensemble. Even though the costumes are color coded to denote the seasons, it is hard for me to get with the change in temperature. As someone whose life could be best described as a series of unreasonable deadlines, I sometimes wonder whether choreographers who choose the four seasons as a theme do so to gain more calendar time. “Let’s see, I’ll do this much from December 21 to March 22 (when it drizzles) and then stage something in Amsterdam. Then I’ll do this much from June 22 to…(when it sizzles)” In any case, imagine watching the work of Muriel Maffre as she lays down a rib at a time on the stage floor, and Yuri Possokhov’s partnering, placing her like a rag doll while she maintains total command of each muscle, then executes a promenade as she holds her working leg at 180°! Katita Waldo is a study in suppleness, her arms moving as though she has just discovered for the very first time what they are capable of saying to an audience. Maffre and Waldo, ranged against the men in black whose undulations punctuate the wild shrieking music, are exactly the right dancers to place Wheeldon’s work in its best light.

George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” set to the music of Igor Stravinsky and staged for the company by the Balanchine Trust’s Jacques D’Amboise, glistens with the polish and authenticity of its immaculate conception in 1928. Watching it is like visiting ruins: You feel privileged to be in the presence of the bleached bones of something very old and sacred, though so spare that a shiver runs through it. You can stare, transfixed, see very little, and fight off sleep, as with James Kudelka’s version. Or, in the case of this evening’s “Apollo,” you can stare transfixed and feel the resonance of nearly 80 years of dance history—timeless in these moments— between the ribs of the work. It starts correctly with the Mother, Leto (Pauli Majierek), giving birth on high to her son, Apollo. She stretches as if awakening, loosens her hair, and rolls her head around and around. Before we know it, Apollo (Gonzalo Garcia) appears before us in swaddling clothes, and is unburdened of them and his infancy, by Handmaidens Joanna Mednick and Brooke Moore. His life begins with a startling volley of pirouettes, and then the muses walk into it.

To understand his apparent need to teach these ladies a thing or two, it is important to know that the rise of Greece and Rome represents the triumph of the patriarchy over a polyglot of social relations through which a matrilineal thread has previously run. Once the clans and gens stopped digging, hunting and bartering, they ceased to be nomadic, settling into trade and agriculture, as Barbarism gave rise to the City State. Primitive accumulation finally develops into something called “private property.” The property owners die and leave inheritances to their children, and now it is necessary for the Familus (the male owner of a collection of slaves, which include his women and children) to be able to identify his heirs, and so women must now become the property of men, and subordinate to them. It is no coincidence that around this time certain barnyard terms became taboo as “swear” or “curse” words.

So, even though Zahorian’s Polyhymnia presents herself with a very deliberate walk, her glory days are numbered, and Apollo has been born so that she may lose. She is joined by her sister muses, Calliope (Sarah Van Patten) and Terpsichore (Yuan Yuan Tan), and with Garcia, they beckon the dawn of civilization with raised and rounded arms. In the spirit of professionalism with which many of us have coached those who will soon replace us, the muses show Apollo how to hold his instrument properly. Apollo is a godling whose future on Olympus is assured. Garcia’s career has run a course not dissimilar to the story line, and he slips into the role is as if it were a second pair of M. Stevens tights. It isn’t long before the muses are making every Balanchine-exaggerated effort to put their best feet forward for Apollo, spilling into their arabesques as he yanks each of them into their new off-balance lives. As the guardian of rectitude (with property and inheritance, comes the inevitable Law), Apollo chastens the hasty poet-scribbler, Calliope, and then the unbridled mime, Polyhymnia, who just can’t seem to get a grip on herself. He saves his praise for the gestural Terpsichore, whose deftness and tinkling bourrées place her in a league of her own, which is what polygamy giving way to monogamy is all about—discovering that you are history’s very first Desperate Housewife. Lonely, but Stately, with a capital S.

Entrusted with the Lyre,
Terpsichore thenceforth becomes
The Keeper of the Fire

The muses give us their very best work. Van Patten sparkles, Zahorian is a sprightly gabber, and Tan’s long-limbed pas de bourée en tournant and precise placement of her jutting hips, offer a glossary of modernist flourishes that fully captures the Balanchine oeuvre in its musical design. Garcia matches her with lyric lunges, squared off side-to-side jumps, and falls to the knee that end in classical poses. Their pas de deux, with her extreme extensions, birch-branch arms, and slow over-the-shoulder lifts, is Balanchine at its best—better than any of the centenary pieces shown two seasons ago. She renversés in a snap. They cambré back into profile, and as she builds to the rapid échappés, it is easy to see the masterful hand of D’Amboise at work. As they ascend the ladder that leads to Mount Olympus, with the now-hegemonous god at the summit and the outstretched hands of the muses linked to his destiny, a light shines on Apollo and the curtain falls.

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