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San Francisco Ballet

Program 1 - 'Divertimento No. 15', 'Aunis', 'Artifact Suite'

by Katie Rosenfeld

February 4, 2007 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

February 4th may have been Super Bowl Sunday for most of the US, but at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, that afternoon was all about dancing. In a program designed to highlight the 20th century break from traditionalism that Balanchine started and Forsythe perfected, the real pleasure was in getting a sneak peak at the dancers who will shape the 21st century for ballet.

It was the corps de ballet that really dazzled in all three pieces. James Sofranko looked right at home sharing the stage with Rory Hohenstein and Joan Boada in “Aunis.” The eight corps women in “Divertimento No. 15” seemed more present with their dancing than some of the principals, and the show-stealing second half of “Artifact Suite” revealed the incredible technical prowess, cohesion and musicality of the 30-member ensemble made up of corps and soloist dancers.

There is a scene in the movie “Amadeus” in which Salieri comments that Mozart’s composition has too many notes. “Divertimento” at times seemed to have too many steps. Balanchine’s choreography is the perfect match for Mozart’s complicated, exacting music, but even a perfect match can have an off day. The dancing was technically correct, there weren’t any huge bobbles to detract substantially from the stately nature of the piece, but there was something missing throughout that can only be described as exuberance. Only one of the principals, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, danced with joy and ease throughout. She tiptoed elegantly through both the Allegro and Andante sections, all topped with a serene smile. It was the smile that stood out; while her peers adroitly managed the difficult choreography, the challenge was made too apparent with tense shoulders here, clenched jaws there. It must also be noted that some of the partnering work appeared to be a struggle for dominance instead of a collaborative effort between equals.

That said, it would be unnecessarily harsh to suggest that the soloists and principals featured in Sunday’s matinee were somehow not up to the Company standard. It is precisely because of the incredible talent of this group that near-perfection was expected. Molly Smolen’s curvy legs and curvier feet are impossible to ignore, especially when they are so well balanced in relevé that she is almost in danger of being late for the next steps. Sarah Van Patten’s nimble dancing was well suited to the second variation. Elana Altman was built for Balanchine, with her unbelievably long limbs that she stretches even further into each piqué, each arabesque. Lorena Feijoo dances with a precision and raw energy that made the wickedly fast pirouettes and footwork of her solo sparkle. The three men, Tiit Helimets, Moises Martin and Pierre-François Vilanoba, each brought a little magic to the mix, Helimets with his beats, Martin with his extensions, and Vilanoba with a little of everything. It is too bad that the eggshell-blue tunics belied the suggested ease of their dancing with ever-spreading sweat stains creeping across all three of their backs. Last but certainly not least, the corps of eight tutu-ed women were all coltish legs and coquettish épaulement. Technically speaking, this “Divertimento” was nearly spot-on, if slightly lacking in artistic serenity.  

Based on the reactions overheard in the ladies lounge at intermission, the three men in “Aunis” would have no trouble finding a date. They certainly provided a little something for everyone – Joan Boada’s compact, muscular frame lent an earthy, mature quality to the movement while Rory Hohenstein’s lankiness was more dreamily poetic and James Sofranko exhibited the never-ending energy of pure youth. Jacques Garnier’s choreography hints at all aspects of the Everyman experience – work, play, lust, friendship, fighting and reconciliation – all connected by the playfulness of puppies frolicking on a sunny day. “Aunis” was a perfect choice for separating “Divertimento” and “Artifact Suite” because, while it is another hybrid of classical and modern dance, the steps are weightier, more connected to gravity than Balanchine would ever have permitted, and more immediately accessible to the average audience member than Forsythe’s work. The audience loved every minute – and who wouldn’t?

“Artifact Suite” feels so immediate, so earth-shatteringly new that it’s almost surprising to remember that in fact William Forsythe originally developed the piece more than 20 years ago. It’s not just the crashing fire curtain that sends ripples of surprise through the house, nor is it the stark lighting or the seemingly random arm patterns initiated by the Single Female Figure and echoed by the dominating corps of statuesque bodies that line the stage. There is something terrifying and yet entrancing about the way it all comes together, the Duet Couples framed by and interwoven with the ensemble, the music continuing as if unaware of the rising and falling of the curtain, the Single Female Figure a god-like puppeteer operating in the half-dark of her secret laboratory.

Sunday afternoon’s leading cast included three perennial favorites in the female roles. Muriel Maffre was majestic and commanding as the Single Female Figure, conducting the wild arm patterns of the corps with an intensity that kept them on their toes. Katita Waldo threw herself into the partnering work with an electric abandon that Ruben Martin reigned in just enough to make their dancing radiate power. Tina LeBlanc’s legs seemed twice as long as her tiny frame could possibly contain, Gonzalo Garcia doing his part to provide the foundation she needed for the leg-whacking frenzy of the choreography.

Just as Part 1 reached its apex it was suddenly over, the energy collapsing in waves over the shell-shocked audience. The Pause was just long enough to allow the magnitude of the piece set in. Part 2 started at a lower frequency, the port de bras of the assembled corps clicking through second, forth, fifth positions as tendus begin to build a rhythm that becomes the framework for what is some of the most intricate, demanding corps work in modern ballet. Just as Balanchine tended to elevate the Woman of ballet above the men, Forsythe’s female corps is given more stage-time than the men. But while Balanchine’s work sometimes feels lopsided for the lack of strong masculinity to balance the femininity, Forsythe finds balance by using the men to underscore, echo and provide counterpoint to the women. The compelling rhythm of the clapping, weaving the patterns of the men and women into one tapestry, kept the audience’s collective pulse rate elevated through the final second.

If Program One is any indication, San Francisco is in for a wild ride at the ballet this season. The corps as a whole is challenging soloists and principals alike to bring their top game to the stage, which should make for exciting and inspiring performances from all.  

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