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San Francisco Ballet - 'Jewels'

by Jeff Kuo

March 15, 2002 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

I have read that Petipa often imagined his ballets set amidst the halls, salons, ballrooms, and gardens of Versailles. Certainly this is true enough of the great Tschaikovsky ballets. Likewise, this production of Balanchine’s “Jewels” also imagines palaces, though not pre-Raphaelite, fairy tale palaces behind lurking Hundred Year Forests. Perhaps, more like settings of Dumas père and roman feuilleton.

Miami City Ballet’s production seen in Berkeley in 1999 showed the ensemble before a black backdrop with a galaxy of stars—green nebulae for “Emeralds,” red for “Rubies,” etc. The dancers looked like they were dancing in space. Here, Tuohy gives “Emeralds” and “Rubies” palatial black curtains and sashes for the wings; “Diamonds” has pearl curtains with gold sashes.

In the palace of Susan Tuohy’s design, “Emeralds,” is the setting of medieval romance, nostalgia, and mystery; the middle ballet, “Rubies,” is romp-and-dodge amid neo-classical boulevards; and “Diamonds” is indeed all gloire. To see “Diamonds” is to see the truth of what one critic wrote (can’t remember who), that were all of Petipa’s ballets to vanish, “Diamonds” would tell us everything we need to know about the Imperial Russian Ballet.

Of the three ballets, “Emeralds” intrigues the most with hints of untold narratives. Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov dance the principal couple in “Emeralds” and their dancing is beautifully crafted. The hide-and-seek theme seems less important here than capturing a sense of impending separation, especially in the closing moments of the grand pas de deux of the “Epithalame” movement—Feijoo and Possokhovi step backwards out of our view, gazing upwards, their arms raised in a gesture of beautiful resignation.

The “walking” pas de deux (set to Faure’s “Nocturne”) is for two sleepwalkers -- somnambulisti -- Julie Diana and Damian Smith. As Croce wrote: “It [the pas de deux] wanders on, beat by beat, until, to a sudden sighing cadence in the music, it passes away into the night. Balanchine is not often given to such stylization, and for him to keep the dance so still is also unusual.” The “beat by beat” (pedantic) visualization might be the sleepwalkers tuned to the peals of watchtower bells.

However, there is a sense that the “Emeralds” is not quite ready. Either the company seems to have gotten shorter or the stage larger. Or, perhaps it is the tempi, slower than I remember. In the “Sicilienne” movement, Julie Diana executes the port d’bras a little too crisply though she always looks great. The entire ensemble seemed too solemn this evening. Or, its me—Friday evening at the ballet is the most difficult—coming away from the accumulated hassles of the week.

“Rubies” features the same black curtains as “Emeralds,” only now the green backdrop and faux ivory chandeliers have been replaced by a black backdrop with streamers of colored rhinestones of a patriotic red-white-blue scheme. The colored lines wiggling out of sight at the top of the stage reminds me of colored pennants flying from the tethers of balloons at car dealerships.

For this dance, which has been in the company’s rep for years, Kristin Long and Stephen Legate are the principal pair. Muriel Maffre characteristically dances the Tall Girl’s role, the soloist ballerina. She is even better than I remember. Better yet, her legs are even longer than I remember. Or is it only now all the dancers are at the right height and fill the stage.

Though many critics have called “Diamonds” the least interesting choreographically, it has also been called the “applause-machine” by Lincoln Kirstein. Of “Diamonds” Rachel Howard wrote in her recent review, “bravura dancing restores its spark” and “‘Diamonds’ requires a very special ballerina, a risk taking princess.”

For Yuan Yuan Tan, the steely glamour is all there. In the exquisite “Diamonds” pas de deux, she is partnered by Roman Rykine and their performance is larger than life and beautifully proportioned. Those lingering balances on pointe ... those deep plunges! –but without the sense that her unsupported foot is about to konk her partner on the head from behind. This is the “Diamonds” pas de deux imagined without Suzanne Farrell and it is stunning. My only observation is that Tan's big smile seems a little incongruous amid the grand scope of the dance.

Kathleen Martuza, Tiekka Schofield, Nicole Starbuck, and Leslie Young danced the soloists roles in the “Scherzo” with suitable panache though needing a quick check on stage placement; likewise Peter Brandenhoff, Michael Eaton, Steven Norman, and Chidozie Nzerem.

Michael McGraw was the piano soloist for “Rubies,” his performance a ‘jewel’ in its own right. Neal Stulberg conducted the entire evening.

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