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San Francisco Ballet - All Robbins Program

Robbins' Wondrous Works

by Dean Speer

March 11, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

What a treat to see a number of significant ballets by Jerome Robbins all compressed into one show! Not only do we enjoy a chronological range of his output, we also experience the spectrum of his artistic vision.

These works went from the small and intimate 1953 “Afternoon of a Faun” to his 1983 full-company work “Glass Pieces.” The in-between years were represented by the Kabbalah-laden “Dybbuk” of 1974 and the showcase duet of 1976, “Other Dances.”

Probably the strangest of the half dozen or so of Robbins’ balletic fare I’ve seen over the years, “Dybbuk” can sometimes border on the inscrutable and is a cross between the Gothic, Jewish legend, and “The Exorcist.” I’m a firm believer in what I believe to be a holy and divine saying as it pertains to visual art forms: “If I can’t see it, it’s not there!”

Now that I’m keying in a review and really studying the program notes and casting insert, I see that movement four is subtitled, “The quest for secret powers.” Who would have known?! If a piece needs program notes to explain itself, then somehow -- in my lexicon -- it hasn’t been entirely successful. Sure, I can agree to the value of notes to amplify or to give background, but those of us lurking in the audience shouldn’t have to have score cards to keep track of what’s supposed to be going on.

Now that I’ve gotten that off of my chest, I think this bears analyzing. I believe one of the challenges that Robbins faced when working and re-working it is, he’s made a dance with 10 sections or scenes that don’t always seem to exactly relate to each other in a logical flow -- kind of a musical review structure but with ballet vocabulary. Now you may think that I’m dumping all over poor, deceased Mr. Robbins, yet it may surprise you that I also like the piece. It’s just not your “father’s Oldsmobile” kind of ballet, and we have to be prepared for something a little different.

It’s also a showcase for the dancers. Robbins throws in lots of allegro steps -- jumps, sharp jètés from static positions. The male trio, aka “messengers,” of Jaime Garcia Castilla, James Sofranko, and Matthew Stewart was a particularly nice and kinetically satisfying movement. Gonzalo Garcia and Yuan Yuan Tan were the lead couple. Tan’s role was that of the one possessed and Garcia’s part was a showcase for his considerable masculine ballet talent.

It’s been noted elsewhere that Robbins fussed and tinkered with this ballet over the years, and was never completely satisfied with it, partly blaming the music. I believe Bernstein’s score to be a good one and with production elements by some of the de rigeur greats of the time -- Rouben Ter-Arutunian for scenic design, and lighting by Jennifer Tipton.

His reinterpretation of “Afternoon of a Faun” is like looking into a glass globe with intimate glimpses into the sometimes hothouse ballet world -- a world of mirrors, reflections, and the hot burnishing of dancers and their craft. From the moment the prone Moises Martin lifted his leg and flexed his foot, we knew we were in for a treat. When Sarah Van Patten trots in en pointe from the left upstage wing and enters the white clad “studio,” the center of this balletic universe visibly shifts.

One hallmark of this work is that the dancers never really make eye contact and stay abstractly distant, yet partner each other. When the male breaks this spell by turning his head and tentatively giving her a kiss on the check, she retreats back to her mirror gazing and soon exits, leaving the “Faun” to reflect. “Faun” is a perfect ballet miniature and it was great to see it again after last viewing it many years ago at New York City Ballet

While I had seen many photographs of “Other Dances,” I had not seen the ballet performed live before. This pièce d’occasion was first made on two greats -- Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov for a gala in 1976 to some Chopin mazurkas and waltzes. It was a joy and great fun to watch. My only reservations would be that the “turning” male solo where Baryshnikov got cutesy with a fake “I’m so dizzy” just doesn’t hold up.

I also found myself thinking that male dancers are better these days than 30 years ago and are eager to do more than the Misha vocabulary of steps. Joan Boada was great and did his best with the material, but again I found myself being embarrassed for him during the cutesy stuff. Fortunately, both Robbins and Makarova had the good sense and taste to not devolve into “sell,” and the material for the female is quite delightful. Tina LeBlanc was a bright powerhouse, punching out steps with easy élan.

“Glass Pieces” ranks first among works I’ve seen to “minimalist” compositions, and here Robbins really shows his mastery of the choreographic and presentational craft. He gives us a snapshot of people on city streets which begins with a woman coming in from downstage right who strides purposefully in, heading to the up-left corner from which a man pops out with the same purposeful stride and soon, the stage is filled with people busy about their business.

In the second movement, “Facade,” Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Vilanoba find each other for an extended pas de deux. Their respective strengths play off of each other, and I enjoy how Maffre makes use of every inch of her beautiful gams -- more than just a lovely développé, she unfurls her limbs with an awareness that says, “I know what I’m doing and how it expresses and shows the intent of the dance.” All the SFB Company men are very strong and among the best, Vilanoba being a leader among the pack.

Movement three, “Akhnaten,” returns to the motif of striding, and the piece ends just at the right time; Robbins knowing when to conclude and not extending beyond what he had to say choreographically.

The SFB Orchestra was led by Gary Sheldon and the Chopin for “Other Dances” was played by pianist Michael McGraw.

All-Robbins, all terrific ballets, and all balm for my eyes.

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