San Francisco Ballet
by Toba Singer
February 2, 2007 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
In Jeannette Walls’ autobiography, “The Glass Castle,” she relates an episode in which her father made her aware of the barely perceptible halo at the top of a flame, explaining that it represented the “border between turbulence and order.” William Forsythe’s seminal piece, “Artifact Suite” can be said to occupy the same space as that halo. As the closer in last night’s program, it once again took the increasingly stouthearted San Francisco Ballet Company’s dancers to their leading edge.
The corps, dressed in ochre unitards, falls into a “U” formation around the periphery of the stage. In the dim light, the principal females in the Duet Couples, Muriel Maffre and Lorna Feijoo, are distinguishable by the black tights they wear with their ochre tops. All the dancers’ attention is focused on Elana Altman, the “Single Female Figure” whose back faces the audience as she leads the dancers in semaphore-like port de bras.
No sooner are you put in mind of a spooky warehouse of dancers with a sign in the window that reads, “Classical Ballet not spoken here,” than everyone breaks out into adroitly-tendered tendus. Feijoo sends up a volley of open ronde de jambs en l’aire that stop when her partner Pascal Molat chases her back-hopping sautés in arabesque across a vast space.
These glimpses into the artifactory of dance movement are aborted by thuds from a fire curtain that comes down just as the movements find their pitch – not as loud-sounding as in last season’s performance – and more effective that way because they strike you more as delimiters than distractions, like the frames around showcases.
After the third thud, the curtain opens on the corps in a “V” formation. Opposing feline moods are invoked by the work of Maffre, sinuous, stretched and full out expansive, as if she were pulling this choreography up from a trove of artifacts to integrate into an embodiment of muscle and mental memory; and Feijoo, who leaps quickly and cleverly like a sleek cat, changing her focus from moment to moment, as preparations and steps meet seamlessly.
The corps leaves the stage to the two couples, and blackness is the new framework until twin light trees stream blinding beams from their lowest rungs, and men in green advance on a diagonal. “Will audiences have the pleasure of seeing her dance another Forsythe work again?” is the question that persists as Maffre clearly holds back nothing, letting the full heft of the choreography carry her into a dimension we can and cannot see. Pierre François Vilanoba, while drinking her up, is also very much in command of his partnering, deft and large at the same time.
The corps work is where athletic meets balletic in the dispatch and deployment of modern arms with more classical placement of the legs and torso. Still, low-slung extensions that fire ronde de jambes á terre impressed into the floor take on Graham-like accents, and are rendered richly textured by Forsythe’s diffuse lighting.
Then there is Eva Crossman-Hecht’s musical arrangement of the Bach score, which opens the piece with an imploring bass violin. More instruments are added, and in the segment that follows a pause where the stage remains dark and the house lights come up to half, piano rills introduce the women, costumed now in grey and black, as rapid grand jetés fly in all directions. This is not to suggest that what we see is at all chaotic. On the contrary, where the dancer stops and starts is clear and unequivocal, and yet there is a feeling of released energy that is just as unambiguous.
A low rumble emerges as a tinkling etude-like piano accompanies leg cloches. Detailed work with the hands makes you think of water that starts with a trickle and whooshes throughout, as arms sweep bodies into a series of variations on a theme ending in pendulum swings leading into deeper water images. A phalanx of men infiltrate the women in a serpentine pattern, and then they clap one rhythm as the women clap another, a kind of primal call and response as the rain forestation of the piece slowly diminishes.
Five dancers remain onstage, skittering and jumping. As the movements come faster and more off-balance, you are thinking “Balanchine,” unless you’ve never seen Balanchine work, in which case you are just taking in monumental choreography. Possibly this is what Balanchine’s work would have said had it not been encumbered by his “ballet is woman” fetish and attendant denial mechanisms that pushed men and personality into the background or off limits entirely.
Molat’s spiraling, arching and slinky solo is cinematic in its gravitas and range. The women are invited back in. Feijoo is still poised to kill, and she does. The corps dancers shape up into a tableau, then arms begin to swing, giving up their leader, Altman, whose Xtreme ballet solo liberates her facility. There is the feeling that they are ringing in a universal body of contemporary dance – the last two centuries’ lexicon for this art form honed to a fine point.
Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” is a prodigious piece set to complex if not layered music by Mozart, which has me alternately thinking “I hate this,” “I love this,” depending on whether I feel that the dancers are corseted into steps that are unnatural or unbound for them to enjoy themselves. Staged by Elyse Borne, the opening white tutu allegro is danced a bit stiffly and at times unsteadily with planted pointe work that brings to mind a story recently related to me by Bruce Marks about a certain teacher at Royal Danish Ballet School: according to Marks, he forced the girls to bourrée as hard and as fast as they could and named that sadistic practice, “Thunder.”
In “Theme,” Ruben Martin and Hansuke Yamamoto, in denim-colored tights and appliquéd tunics, give us a virtuosic duet that serves to move the performance quality up several notches, with Elizabeth Miner and Frances Chung taking the stage to match them in the first and second variations. Rachel Viselli is lovely in the third variation, and Vanessa Zahorian takes to Balanchine like a duck to water in the perky fourth variation.
Davit Karapetyan is the hero of this piece as he gambols through the fifth variation, and Tina LeBlanc, America’s Sweetheart of a ballerina charms us in the sixth. As the dancers continue to warm up, we see more and more to “love” and less to “hate,” including adroit quarter turns, with legs extended à terre, soft bourrées, Chung’s off the hook assemblés, spirited folkloric-looking men’s dancing, and generous penchées by the women.
Upon reflection, perhaps the stiffness of the opening movement was conceived of as a platform for the virtuosity of the exquisite partnering by Miner and Yamamoto among others, in the “Andante” movement. It certainly takes audience and dancers alike through the paces of Balanchine maneuvers.
Most haunting in the evening’s program was “Aunis,” culled from the repertoire of the French choreographer Jacques Garnier, and staged rather brilliantly by Jean-Claude Ciappara, set to accordion music composed by Maurice Pacher. Dancers Garrett Anderson, Rory Hohenstein and James Sofranko, three superb movers, rolled up off the floor in Humphrey-Weidman propulsions to strike contrasting poses, dressed in 1930s-era white shirts, black ties and tights.
A mood of release dominates the piece – men, who like boys let out of school, are free of constraints and explore the space between and among them. They try on for size (and shape) a variety of tempi: flamenco, waltz and more modern swizzles and dizzles that have no names except the ones I just gave them, as they pump toreador arms horizontally and take us on a day trip tour of the European dance idiom. None of the men turn aside the many opportunities to show what they know, and recapture more than a glimmer of what set them to dancing in the first place.
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