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Being a Good Sport...

San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove

by Dean Speer

August 12, 2007 -- Stern Grove, California

During her pre-performance remarks, San Francisco Ballet Principal Character Dancer and Ballet Master Anita Paciotti unintentionally gave me the theme for this review. When asked what is the most important characteristic of being a Character Dancer, she observed that it was "being a good sport," embracing what is in front of you, and being a cheerful team player.

This is certainly true – not only for those finding themselves in the position of being a "boss" and also a peer, but also those of all rank and file. It's a matter of knowing and learning how to become part of the artistic vision of the choreographer and of the process it takes to get kinetic art on stage.

Sometime this process takes dancers and performers to venues outside  – literally – of their comfort zones or into places that are not necessarily arts palaces. Some of these might include tours to schools, different cities, community events, and yes, the annual appearance at the Sigmund Stern Grove Arts Festival.  The presenters told me that they are “thrilled to present San Francisco Ballet in their only summer appearance in San Francisco!  (Admission-free!)”

Ever since Sophocles and the Greeks, the vox populi has enjoyed outdoor spectacles, except of course, when they were being thrown to the lions.

Dancers however – as a species – tend not to like outdoor performing.  Yet, as an al fresco venue, the re-envisioned Grove is as close to being an outdoor palace as you can get in the Bay Area and is a welcome change to this kind of venue. The stage is now attractively and functionally covered. Lighting for the stage takes what shadows there might be off of the dancers, and there were industrial-strength heaters strategically placed in both downstage corners. Presumably the backstage facilities are also much improved; certainly the public spaces are – freshly landscaped with the seating areas re-terraced and replanted, improving the sightlines for most viewers.  It’s become an attractive and elegant place.

Tossed into this mix came three ballets: two made for the out-of-doors for SFB's 2005 tour and season in Paris, France and one 1956 Balanchine nugget, "Divertimento No. 15." Live accompaniment for the first two pieces was provided by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the mighty baton of maestro Martin West. "Elemental Brubeck" was danced to a tape by this jazz composer's Quartet, recorded in 1963.

Solid, Good Opener

Paul Taylor is a virtual Modern Dance icon and I have to publicly admit that I'm in the legion of Taylor fans. I admire how he works to not repeat himself, truly trying to make something new each time he makes a dance.

His "Spring Rounds" establishes itself as a classic Taylor work right away. Vanessa Zahorian and Garrett Anderson walk in holding hands and as they separate, kneel, lean off-kilter and he puts his head into her lap, Taylor has given us the motif framework of the dance. He divides the women and men into groups, each having their own section. The men's is filled with Taylor-esque jumps - sissonnes in double attitude, circling sautés and scooped out and under-curved arms.

This section for the ladies has quick allegro and sharp movements - light and fast. When the two groups do come together, it's in communal circles where they are making virtual polka patterns, lunges with shifting arms and more jumps. (Taylor would be in trouble - as so many - if jumps off of two feet, specifically, sissonnes were not available in the jumping palette!)


Delightful Middle

I may be a Taylor fan, but I'm really a Balanchine devotee. It was fun being treated again to Balanchine's paean to one of his ex-wives and New York City Ballet ballerinas, the exotic Maria Tallchief. After 51 years, "Divertimento No. 15" still seems fresh, inventive, and fun , filled with great steps, patterns, variations for the women, a couple of good solos for the principal men, and even a charming pas de trios.

Cyberspace doesn't permit mentioning everyone who deserves accolades, but outstanding to me were Lorena Feijoo, Frances Chung (keep your eyes on this young talent!), Katita Waldo on the distaff side and Ruben Martin among the platoon of strong men.

The entire cast seemed of a single spirit – buoyant, radiant and sincerely expressing the lift and bright cheer this ballet can evoke. My only very minor fuss would be that I would have liked a little more "edge" in some of the variations. The technical niceties were delicious [Feijoo, for example, finished one of her variations with a solid triple pirouette] and our crowd ate it all up and was hungering for more.

Also made for Paris en dehors, "Elemental Brubeck" ends up being slightly out of Lar Lubovitch's mileau. We all wanted to like it and it does have some really fun moments and steps, but I believe a jazz choreographer would have been a better choice for making a dance to jazz music. Certainly Lubovitch tried – and made an attractive work – but the piece never really breaks loose.

For example, the red-hot Rory Hohenstein, as the epitome of jazz itself ,is given some very athletic stuff to do but it's all new movement (new thing, followed by more new things).  Lubovich  in this piece never really takes a single motif and develops it .. He needed to riff and jam. We wanted it to go to a "wow" moment but it never quite got there. This character serves, however, as the catalyst for the others.

Concluding Conclusions

The entire San Francisco Ballet enterprise is to be applauded for being good sports about performing in a venue that has a long-established tradition and where many ballet fans, from near and far, gather to enjoy themselves and to drink in the joys and wonders of live ballet in what is to many, a user-friendly environment. People do love this kind of stuff and the “sports” (all 7,500 of us) on this side of the footlights felt like we got to enjoy and know the ballet better – and that family, friends and colleagues (and a few well-behaved pooches on the outskirts) all had a rollicking good and joyous time under the cool sun.  We all look forward to returning to the Grove in 2008!

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