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San Francisco Ballet

'Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers,' 'Allegro Brillante,' 'The Fifth Season,' 'Sandpaper Ballet'

by Toba Singer

March 31, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

As this reviewer is currently writing about the dancer Gelsey Kirkland, in anything Balanchine, I am imagining her. And so it was with Vanessa Zahorian as she measured her paces through the piqués, ports de bras and tour jetés of “Allegro Brillante,” first on the evening’s program. She was “put in her place,” in what might pass for Balanchine parlance, by her partner, Ruben Martín. The couple danced smartly or languorously, depending upon what the tempo of the music, or conversely, Balanchine’s interpretation, mandated.

The four-men/four-women corps work was in some ways more impeccable than that of the two principals, but then that is where the [men’s] Allegro of the work’s title really makes itself apparent. All of them were clean, elevated and strong in their dispatch of the steps. The women displayed a complementary Brilliantine polish in their sprightliness, and rat-a-tat-tat fouetté-to-arabesque flip-book bravura.

The adagio pas de deux offers a quietudinal respite from all the drilling, as Zahorian leans into long cambrés back, cradled expertly by Martín. The couple is so diligently neoclassical that you’re inclined to want to invite them and the corps over for a well-balanced meal. The more deeply committed you become to finally “getting” Balanchine, the more tempted you are to wonder whether what he was really after was a bevy of invitations to dinner at the tables of New York’s West Side balletomanes, who may have believed that, with a winning menu and sparkling conversation, they could restore equilibrium to whatever was out of balance in his outlook.

The “Spirit of the Americana” he is said to have captured, seems to have confined itself (and I’ll exempt “Western Symphony” and “Apollo” here) to the real estate west of Lexington Avenue and east of Hoboken. Who Cares? The dancers worked against their natural instincts to deliver his package, stylized and presented prettily, and that’s what you’re primed to expect when you’re on the audience side of a Balanchine piece.

The second and third offerings were works by Helgi Tommason. The first one, “Chaconne, for Piano and Two Dancers,” a tribute to choreographer Jerome Robbins, was danced evocatively by Kristin Long and Davit Karapetyan. Karapetyan is new to the company, and the last time I saw him perform was at a Boston Ballet summer school showcase, soon after he had won the Prix de Lausanne. His dancing has matured so completely that I had to suppress feelings of maternal pride as I watched him squire the expert Long.

Each dancer appears spot lit in solo combinations. They are dressed nearly identically, in gray leotards and black tops, and dance to piano accompaniment by Michael McGraw, who substituted for Roy Bogas. Steps that at first seemed almost-musical soon mused their way into a lovely, spare tempi, with Long’s precision honing a haunting gravitas, even as she illuminated what becomes a great vehicle for her fleet athleticism.

The grown up Karapetyan is commanding, and yet genial, and dances with a sweet gentility that cannot be achieved without first letting go of all self-consciousness. The contrast between Long’s rapid, placed style and Karapetyan’s grandeur and legato make them perfectly suited as partners.

Tomasson’s “The Fifth Season” is a world premiere. It’s a curious title choice, and I wonder if it is intended to convey something about the choreographer’s maturation “beyond” seasons in time, related to his own “seasoning” as an artist, to a quality that rests on a plane above the four seasons or “quattro staggioni” of his previous attempts.

In its six movements, it brings together Katita Waldo and Gonzalo Garcia in “Fifth Season and Romance,” Sarah Van Patten and Sergio Torrado in “Tango” and Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in “Largo,” with the two final couples dancing together in “Waltz.” Eight corps dancers come in at the end in a segment called “Bits,” which while well danced reads like a separate work at best and feels gratuitous at worst.

The curtain opens to a series of scrolls showing giant charcoal-like smudges of varying shapes. The scrolls hang in front of a larger panel of a peach hue. Waldo establishes her dominion with held piqués and her trademark expansive arms, which must be seen from the back to be fully appreciated. In the beginning, Garcia seems a little disengaged but soon double clicks on his role rather deftly as the two dancers exchange épaulement-driven, sweet and low-down passé relevés.

It gets pretty hot pretty fast, gray smudges and costumes notwithstanding. Waldo and Garcia return later in “Romance,” an adagio with lifts that include upper bodies folding around each other and the folding parallaxing into lunges before the eye has a chance to notice a change in level. It is as if Tomasson has at last discovered what audiences have seen for years in Waldo and set work on her that shows the full range of her artistry and virtuosity. This is epitomized in the intimacy she is able to realize with Garcia.

The Tango segment is the least successful of the six movements because it sets classical steps to tango music. That works sometimes but fails in this instance. For example, I enjoy doing frappés at the barre to “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina” from “Evita” but I don’t think I’d be thrilled to see my favorite combination elevated to a strategy in a performance piece. It’s important to be able to distinguish between a tactic and a strategy—in life as well as in art.

When Torrado is partnering, he frequently seems a little put out as if he’s on a blind date that isn’t going his way. This places his partner (who often happens to be Van Patten) in the uncomfortable position of having to relate to someone who is more of a cipher than a human being and since there’s nobody but them onstage in this duet, she is caught in the nightmarish maws of inappropriate choreography and an absentee partner, most "seen" when he's falling out of the turns he over-torques. What if he put a scintilla of his pirouette energy into an affectionate glance at his partner now and then?

Smith and Garcia join Torrado for a threesome with Van Patten but this choice comes off as wholly inorganic in the context of her having been not very popular with her first partner to begin with, and then, having finally managed to locate his pulse, finding herself confronted by a reserve army of two—in a kind of last ditch effort that bugles “too little, too late!” As the tempo increases, the rationale for the quartet becomes completely incoherent and might as well be renamed “Six Temperaments” or maybe, “One temper tantrum and four dancers attempting to dance over it.”

The piece is rescued by the partnering of Tan and Smith in “Largo.” Here, a simple rise to relevé by Tan into the attentive hands of Smith opens up a flank to an emotional range belonging to Tan that has never before dominated her work so poignantly. Now the mega extensions occur in a context and are put in the service of her passions instead of being offered up as laboratory specimens. It is a privilege to witness this exposure and it comprises a “fifth season” all unto itself for me when anointed by Smith’s sensitive exploration of it. I am convinced that Waldo and Smith can partner with anyone because they have such a vast professional vocabulary to share.

“Sandpaper Ballet” by Mark Morris, with its wacky score by Leroy Anderson, is always a welcome if exhaustive reminder that comedy is a measure of artistry too. Have the costumes changed? It looks as if the greenery has risen up to empire level, and the white-with-blue-clouds block has become more abbreviated. I think I prefer the white part coming all the way down to the waist.

Still, it’s so much fun to have the one person who’s off kilter, out of line, or doing his or her own thing finally getting some long overdue recognition by being memorialized in a choreographic work: so much nicer than having them run off to the dressing room in tears! Thank you Mark Morris for ceremonially marrying Human Folly with Ballet in Joyce Kilmer costumes with choreography set to Spike Jones-ish music! Now that’s what I call “The Spirit of Americana” and I’ll pledge allegiance to it anytime!

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