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San Francisco Ballet

Swan Song: A Reluctant Farewell to Muriel Maffre

by Katie Rosenfeld

May 6, 2007 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

On an unbelievably warm and sultry May night in San Francisco, the ballet community came together for a truly bittersweet event: Muriel Maffre’s Farewell Gala, commemorating her 17-year career with San Francisco Ballet and celebrating the success of that career with a sampling of pieces that perfectly showcased her unrivaled elegance, calculated precision and astounding length.

Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” opened the show, the pre-techno syncopated music (Philip Glass) creating a grid that was echoed in the backdrop and maintained by the line of corps dancers who traveled slowly across the back of the stage as Maffre and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba danced a crystalline, exacting pas de deux. The very-80s costumes, complete with shiny Lycra unitards and sporty headbands, might have distracted from the dancing – except that the dancing in this case was distractingly exciting. As the tension built to a crescendo, Maffre and Vilanoba performed a series of promenades with their supporting legs so close to each other it seemed impossible that their working legs wouldn’t get tangled up on the developés and ronde de jambes. The precision of each rotation and the placement of each leg and arm were technically brilliant and completely effective. 

Maffre was stunning in “Agon” with Tiit Helimets matching and challenging her every step. The two of them looked like undercover agents attempting to infiltrate the School of American Ballet, their student uniforms (she in pink tights and black leotard, he in white leotard and black tights) not concealing their mature, fully developed musculature. Both dancers are long and lean, with very broad shoulders, and their bodies moved as though connected by invisible wires, their individual balance points blending into one. In the famous penché line, with the woman bent over the man with her leg shooting up into the sky, Maffre’s leg seemed to be extending directly out of Helimets’ back, their two bodies welded together.

The evening had a rather contemporary slant to it, the most classical of the pieces presented being Maffre’s entirely unique and incredibly birdlike “Dying Swan,” which opened the second half and earned her a resounding standing ovation. Maffre is probably most recognized for her legs, which seem to comprise all of her 5’10” frame. But her “Swan” is all upper body, those wing-like arms fluttering and stiffening as her hollow bird-bones seem to crack under the strain of her final, unsuccessful attempts to fly away. As the Swan labored through her last breaths, collapsing and folding her magnificent wings over herself as though to shelter herself from the cruel wind, the taut silence in the house (punctuated but not broken by a just-a-second-too-soon yell of “Bravo!”) spoke volumes about how much this particular Swan means to San Francisco, and how unprepared we are to say goodbye.

In perfect balance with the sadness of “Dying Swan” was the first act closer, the “Alaskan Rag” from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Elite Syncopations.” While Maffre can usually be described as lissome, regal, not-of-this-world – she’s not exactly the first dancer you’d think of as a comedienne. But in “Alaskan Rag” she is deliciously silly. The three-piece band sets the mood, very jazzy and cheerful. Maffre is a vision in pink, her sweet face peeking out from under a huge wide-brimmed hat as she sits demurely, legs crossed. James Sofranko bounds out in his jester-like unitard and the game is afoot: he asks her to dance; she smiles in acceptance, and then pulls herself beyond her full height, up onto pointe, with his head barely reaching to her waist. This is the worst nightmare for any girl who was tall in junior high – you finally get asked to dance, and you spend the whole song looking down at the top of his head! It was pure bliss to watch the ballerina who is the idol, the muse of tall girls everywhere make light of the very trait that shaped her career. Sofranko was the perfect foil for her, doing his utmost to make the lifts and partnering work, even as Maffre hovered mere inches from the ground, her legs dangling helplessly. The pair nailed every comedic moment, and the audience was totally in on the joke.

Four of the pieces spanned nearly 50 years of choreographic exploration, from George Balanchine’s weird, bug-like “Agon” (1957) to the Swiss watch precision of the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” (2002). It is clear that Maffre is one of only a handful of women capable of controlling incredible extension with such clarity that instead of just being wowed by the height of her leg in each position, we witness her length seeming to stretch and fill the stage, her body shooting beams of energy out of every finger and toe.

In “Continuum,” with Damian Smith providing both strong support and balanced energy, her clarity of movement was electric. Once again clad in pink tights and dark leotard, Maffre’s gorgeously muscled, slender frame looked inhumanly perfect, the ideal of ballet beauty on a grand scale.  The red neon line slicing across the backdrop seemed to hum with the white noise of electronics, the continuity of the choreography carrying us forward into 21st century intensity. Tick-tock, time is always moving forward, and it shall continue to do so even without Maffre’s presence on this magnificent stage.

The evening closed with the piece everyone hoped Maffre would perform one last time: William Forsythe’s astonishing “Artifact Suite,” with its movements that could have been designed with her in mind. Everyone on the stage seemed to know that with each passing note, each slam of the fire curtain, we were all traveling towards an end none of us was prepared to face. Kristin Long and Pascal Molat had the potentially unenviable job of dancing opposite Maffre and Vilanoba, but instead of fading into the backdrop they both punched it up to full force, dancing like their lives depended on it. The corps, led by Elana Altman as the Single Female Figure, surrounded and protected the two couples from the bare stage.

At the first bow, two lines of dancers crossed the stage leaving Maffre standing alone at center. With only a slight hint of the emotion that must have been raging inside, she stood there as graceful and peaceful as though this was just another curtain call, one more night at work. As the audience jumped to its feet, yells of “Brava!” and thundering applause rained down. After Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson presented her with an almost-absurdly large bouquet and kissed her hand, each of her partners came out with more flowers, more kisses, hugs, laughter and tears. During the curtain calls for “Artifact,” instead of accepting their applause with a bow towards the audience, each time Long and Molat came forward they graciously turned and aimed their bows to Maffre. With the stage filled to capacity with company members, she remained regal and poised, even when having to step over the pile of flowers to accept further applause. Maffre has done what no dancer can dare to hope for: she is closing this chapter of her ballet career while still dancing at her best, leaving us wanting more.

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