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San Francisco Ballet - Retirement Gala for Peter Brandenhoff, Stephen Legate, and Yuri Possokhov

by Toba Singer

May 5, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

There seemed to be no time for extemporaneous speeches, as on similar occasions such as the retirement of Christopher Stowell or Joanna Berman. Helgi Tomasson made very brief remarks at the top of the show during which he thanked the three dancers who were retiring for their artistry and dedication to the company.

Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night” opened the program, and with the first movement to limpid piano accompaniment by Roy Bogas, I was preparing to write that the best thing about it was the star-studded midnight blue backdrop that twinkled when the dancing didn’t. The dancing looked under-rehearsed and uninspired. Rachel Viselli seemed very nervous, and Stephen Legate was slow and off the music in the end phrases. As time went on, the dancers warmed up to each other. However, much of the choreography in that movement seemed dated, with fluttering hands and the couples dancing the same steps in parallel. It was so tentative at times that it almost looked like they were marking rather than dancing. The overall effect was stiff, like a pair of marzipan figures designed for the top of a wedding cake.

The second movement with Muriel Maffre and Damian Smith was quite different. These two dancers carried forward the quaint façade for which the first movement set the precedent. Wearing mauve period costumes, they looked very much like music box dolls. Unlike the previous couple, they revealed something that lay beneath the façade—a studious commitment to the work, giving a precise, carefully inflected rendering of the steps. There are several turns and steps done en dehors, and where Legate just barely managed to arrive, the second couple took up the challenge with dispatch and theatrical gusto. In a series of quick movements, including lifts, jumps and rapid directional changes, Maffre was right on time, her pirouettes ending in a held position (held by her partner, Smith) which she accented with a foot flutter. She clearly owns her body and goes on to appropriate the space it inhabits. We don’t say much about hair in our reviews, but this style perfectly suited Maffre, showing off her head and neck to its best advantage.

Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov danced the third set. It repeated the arm over arm lunges that were performed by the first couple, but took the conversation in a different and opposite direction. This couple wasn’t dancing in parallel: They were struggling with one another, pushing away, fighting against any temptation to find stasis, with Feijoo leading most of the time and setting the warp speed tempo. The piece ends with a lift, half a drop and then Feijoo’s quick departure.

The last Chopin Nocturne brings back all the couples, and the numbers must make couple number one feel safer; their edges are smoothed away and there is a hint here of a comedy of manners as the dancers’ stylized waltz carries them to closure.

In “Revelation,” Possokhov partners a chair. He’s looking more fit in a red top and black pants, as he shoots across the stage with raised shoulders, sending the message that his character is decidedly unfit for the habitat he has created for himself. He makes an effort to remedy his condition by addressing it directly. He assumes a semi-levitated aerodynamic position, raising his prostrate body from the floor in one piece, and indeed, he looks to be floating above it. Gravity and its opposite drive Motoko Hirayama’s choreography, with the chair as the platform for the piece.

A violin opens the musical accompaniment and Possokhov penchées over himself and onto the floor. He resumes the raised shoulder chase and, brushing his arm across his face, wipes a certain look off it. His leaps still have sufficient ballon to leave him hovering in the air after which he falls to his knees behind the chair, pokes his arms through the slats of its back, and gives us a kind of puppet master port de bras. The chair then becomes his burden, as he drags it behind him, firing off a couple of double tours, after which he mounts the chair. A few shoulder twitches follow, and then he slaps the floor with his hands as the rest of his body responds to the gravitational pull. Resignation is next (the least sanguine form of retirement), as he accommodates himself to the chair, then, with a change of heart (and plans), balances sideways on the chair back with legs extended parallel to the floor. He triumphs in the end, perched on the overturned chair.

“Solo,” with choreography by Hans Van Manen gave us Peter Brandenhoff, Stephen Legate and Pascal Molat in a friendly “anything you can do I can do better” competition, with all of them winning. Brandenhoff’s facility and sheer enjoyment of the challenges in the choreography was infectious. It was hard not to delight as he took his en dehors turns, coming out of them looking angelic and yet triumphant. “Molat” must be French for “fouetté mill” because Pascal Molat churns them out in boastful spirals. Legate’s feet look great even as his torso arrives a little late. The audience loved all three dancers, and I am especially fond of Brandenhoff’s work, wishing we could have seen more of it.

I assume that the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” was chosen because Possokhov has danced it with great success over the years. However, it seems a little incongruous to cast a principal dancer in the role of a star-cross’d teenaged lover in a program to celebrate his retirement. Yuan Yuan Tan was his Juliet, and though this is not my favorite version (Alun Jones’ is), Tan has a piquancy of facial expression that recalls Margot Fonteyn’s as Juliet, and that alone had me mesmerized. Both partners danced passionately, Possokhov still able to hang out at the top of his jumps and Tan delivering statuesque en dehors arabesque turns. In their pas de deux, when he brings her face to his, it speaks tenderness in a language that is universal. For me, the most authentic farewell moment of the evening came during the Reverence when Possokhov kisses Tan and she responds with a deep stage curtsey.

“My Funny Valentine” was danced by Legate with Tina Leblanc as his partner, and it reminded us of what fine contemporary dancers both of them are, especially when the music (Richard Rogers) turns bluesy or jazzy. On this night we got a real bistro hit off their well-manicured collaboration.

Seeing Christopher Wheeldon’s “Summer” movement from “Quartenary” for the third time this season, with Muriel Maffre as Possokhov’s partner, was like seeing it for the first time. Viewing this section excerpted from the overall piece made it very different. In the full version, the “Summer” couple enters almost surreptitiously, where here they begin center/center. Previously, I didn’t engage with the “heat” of the season, but this time I saw that it wasn’t a wet heat so much as a slow desultory temperature rise that finds its pinnacle right at the top of the piece with a knee hanging in the air: it belongs to Maffre. The dancers tuck into each other slowly and move together even as Maffre resists with every fiber. It’s kind of a bellows-begotten heat that builds until the dancers work themselves into a Gordian Knot. She frees her legs and lets them swing in front of her as she might on a porch glider on a summer’s evening. In a kind of “Summer and Smoke” stillness, the piano notes of the Arvo Pärt score, played meticulously by Michael McGraw, punctuate that stillness like the slow tinkling of a wind chime. I found the heat: it’s in the light, the music and the resistance of the bodies, spot-welded in time by the piano.

The evening closed with bouquets tossed stageward and presented by hand to the retiring dancers by such retiree predecessors as Joanna Berman, Leslie Young and Evelyn Cisneros. Snow rolled down from the rafters as white balloons floated upward, and the audience, which had risen many times over the course of the evening, rose once again for a last goodbye ovation.

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