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San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove

Ballet al Fresco

by Dean Speer

August 13, 2006 -- Stern Grove Festival, San Francisco

There is something delightfully delicious about getting together with a few thousand of your most intimate friends and watching a ballet performance from the safety of your picnic table some yards away.

So it was with this year’s edition of Stern Grove’s presentation – and return – of San Francisco Ballet in the newly reconstituted grove. The ambiance of this venue has only been enhanced by its changes: a new stage and backstage area, better lighting, more modern conveniences for the public, and a re-built seating area.

Unchanged was the quality of the ballets and of their execution by the dancers. With a something-for-everyone program, SFB presented a representative sampler of the variety of movement palettes extant within ballet today – from tutu and pointe shoes, to contemporary ballet, to Agnes de Mille’s historic and ever-fresh 1942 “Rodeo.”

Opening with a Balanchine ballet that’s never been out of the repertory since it was first created in 1956 for Maria Tallchief, “Allegro Brillante” is set to Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto, which is essentially one long movement. I always think of this ballet as the “lean and lunge.” There is one marvelous section where the corps men do just that, in canon, strongly and to different stage diagonals. I can hear the music in my head right now. Ta-toom, ta-toom, bah-toom! These wonderful, plunging cascading chords in the piano part are matched visually by the men on stage. “Brillante” is just that – a brilliant piece of choreography that was very nicely danced by its leads Vanessa Zahorian and Gonzalo Garcia. Fresh from her stint as “non-competing partner” at the USA International Ballet Competition, Zahorian is dancing with great energy, verve and authoritative ease. Garcia handled the challenges of the sautés into pirouettes quite well. Even though slightly shorter than Zahorian, they were good together and it was nice to see this paring. A perfect opener and one that said clearly to the gathered masses, “Ah, ballet!”

Very much saying “Ah, ballet!” was the second act pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” one of the most revered and well known classical dances on the planet. With her endless line, unfolding the bitter sorrow of Odette, the queen of the swan maidens, Yuan Yuan Tan led Siegfried (newcomer Tiit Helimets) through their tender pas .As he falls in love with her, he gives her hope of love and redemption (and of not having to shed white feathers everywhere she goes). The music (also by Tchaikovsky) is essentially a violin concerto that is simply exquisite and renders all the dramatic Russian emotion into a focused and discrete sound. Tan is ever fabulous and since the part for the man in the duet is mostly that of being a porteur, it will be fun to watch Helimets at future performances where he’ll really get to break out and dance. Clearly, he’s a good partner and a welcome addition to the already impressive stable of danseurs.

It’s an odd thing that seems to have migrated south from OBT’s “Swan Lake” in Portland, but I couldn’t help but notice that there were a few times that the conductor and choreography missed each other during the performance. There are certain landmarks where they need to hit each other just so, but were off a handful of times. It’s hard to describe in print but if we could watch it together and I could point and shout it out and say, “Right there!” I would.

“Reflections” is a fairly new duet (2005) by recently-retired principal dancer and now Choreographer in Residence, Yuri Possokhov. Created to the second movement of Mendelssohn’s first symphony, it is a sustained adage for Muriel Maffre and Damian Smith that has them draped over each other at times and rarely letting go. “Reflections” was probably the most “contemporary” in feel of the three duets on the program.

It was nice to be able to revisit Helgi Tomasson’s tribute to his company men, “Concerto Grosso.” When I use the metaphor of having a stable of men, I’m not kidding! These guys are as strong and well-bred as horses and just as beautiful to look at. This is the kind of work, while perhaps something of a pièce d’ocassion, which is a big hit with audiences, and it appears to also be something the dancers themselves genuinely like doing. Pascal Molat led his retinue in both ensemble and solo turns – Garrett Anderson, Jonathan Mangosing, Joseph Phillips, and Garen Scribner. We were left wanting more and, in my case, wishing that Tomasson had occasionally challenged his dancers a bit more. Some of the steps and sequences were of the advanced student variety – classroom effect – and it would have made the experience more compelling had he thrown in just a little more. I know it’s a tricky balance because sometimes “hard” steps can come across as appearing “easy” while “easy” steps can sometimes come across as really spectacular. Nevertheless, it would be fun to have an upgraded version, perhaps “Concerto Grosso 2.0.”

Richard Rodgers gave us many memorable show tunes, and Principal Character Dancer Val Canaparoli created a petite riens to “Beneath the Southern Cross” for a dance tribute to Rodgers four years ago. His duet, “No Other,” showcased Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba. With a hint of jazz and more than a dash of musical theatre, they gave us an easy turn through swoops and swirls that evoked a sense of the ‘40s.

De Mille’s “Rodeo” is her masterwork of stage dance. Certainly it’s one of her best-known, beloved and frequently performed works. Her stories of its creation and of its first performances are legendary. I recall an interview where she passionately recalled that some of its popularity was due to reminding people of why and for what we were fighting “back home” early in World War II.

What a treat is was for us to get the whole kit and caboodle. Christine Sarry, one of her generation’s best interpreters of The Cowgirl role, set the ballet as I like to see it – with the a cappella transitions, and with the square dance sampler and the real-live caller. Kristin Long was delightful in Sarry’s part, clearly etching out her spunk, character, intelligence, and sensitive feelings as she moves from innocent cowgirl to maturing young woman, mourning the loss of one but embracing her future. But it’s not a future with the man she’d grown up mooning over – The Head Wrangler – but instead with The Champion Roper, who makes it clear he’s in love with her and ‘re-directs’ both the Cowgirl’s attention to himself and states his proprietary claim to the Wrangler (who had already wrangled himself a girl from the city). Pathos, love, gleeful dancing and joy are all embodied in this gem of a ballet. When all hands come together for the hoe-down finale, we also get caught in this rousing spirit.

Each work was accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, let by maestro Martin West.

The Stern Grove experience is a fun way to enjoy the ballet, visit with friends and colleagues, and to live it up a little under the tent of the flora and fauna of this historic and cultural venue. I look forward to next year’s edition and to being able to say about SFB in the Summer of 2007, “I’ll take mine al fresco!”

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