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San Francisco Ballet: 75th Anniversary

by Kathy Lee Scott

November 12-13, 2008 -- Orange County Performing ArtCenter, Costa Mesa, California

America's oldest professional ballet company, San Francisco Ballet, celebrated its 75th anniversary with new works and a four-city tour.  It brought several of those new works to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, California.

Opening the Wednesday, November 12 show, "The Fifth Season," by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, featured six principals moving to Karl Jenkins' “String Quartet No. 2.” First on were Katita Waldo and Davit Karapetyan, both clad in grey leotards and tights. The music sounded out of tune and tinny until the entire orchestra joined in, at which point the lights brightened and the tempo increased.

Tomasson retained the basic ballet nomenclature but experimented with different lifts and carries. The men often supported the ladies by their wrists or hands, allowing them to twist and turn easily. The couples mimicked each other's moves, chased each other and then wrapped themselves together.  All the dancers matched each other in flow, size and technique. The work showcased the evolution Tomasson envisions for ballet without losing its inherent beauty.

Throughout the piece, the dancers seemed ever in motion. Individual interpretations became apparent when everyone moved alike. Lyrically exquisite, Yuan Yuan Tan reacted to her partner Damian Smith's manipulations with delicacy but strength. Sofiane Sylve showed her sauciness during the tango section. With strong arms and legs, she stalked her three partners (Smith, Karapetyan and Ivan Popov). Like the princess in “Sleeping Beauty,” she danced with each one before joining with the last in a short pas de deux.  The men exhibited superior control of their leaps, jumps and tours. Karapetyan's assemblé en tournant generated gasps.  Each section ended with a couple together in an off-balance pose.

For "Joyrde," choreographer Mark Morris selected John Adams' “Son of Chamber Symphony,” an atonal, monotonous piece, to create a modern-dance-imposed-on-ballet-dancers work. It included Morris' standards: walk on stage like a non-dancer, weave around other dancers, and turn legs in. The dancers appeared to be automatons dressed in metallic-colored unitards with a digital display on each one's chests.

Morris incorporated karate kicks in this work. He had the dancers windmill their arms and whip them across their bodies. One repetitive move had the dancers put a hand to their throats with the other out in seconde.  He also made them lower their backs in arabesque, so much so that they appeared leaning over instead of upright. They skipped; they flattened their hands; they bent their arms. Men lifted women; men lifted men; and women lifted men.

Because of the frantic pace of the music, the dancers seldom interacted with each other emotionally. So when principals Sarah Van Patten and Gennadi Nedvigin kissed each other's cheek, the audience chuckled..

The final work of the evening featured soloists and principals. The ladies wore tutus; the men wore jazz pants over sleeveless leotards. Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo used Phillip Glass' “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra” and Vladimir Martynov's "Come In!" for his "Double Evil."  Instead of modern, Elo incorporated jazz style in this piece. The women primarily used the ballet lexicon while the men stayed low to the ground in a jazz style.   Occasionally, the ladies would contract their torsos or lift a hip, which contrasted sharply with their classical style.

While soloist Pauli Magierek described the choreographer as "energetic," the end result felt more frantic. Following the fast-paced music, dancers would chainé quickly across stage. Often the ladies held their arms à la “Coppelia” before flinging their arms across their bodies to propel themselves around in fast spins.

Elo created interesting holds between the couples. One put the man on the ground to push his partner's thigh so she pirouetted around. Another dragged his lady while she extended her legs in a wide lunge on pointe. The choreographer had men clasp the ladies behind the their backs to promenade them around. The men would twist their hands over before grasping the ladies' arms.  The men executed barrel rolls with straight arms. They shot out their jetés en tournant across instead of up in the air. They windmilled their arms.

Because of the rapid tempo, the dancers had little time to emote or interact with each other. Their performance displayed their sharp technique and precise movements. The few adage parts allowed short exchanges of looks. Elo's relaxed back stances detracted from the dancers' grace.

The Thursday evening's program gave many corps members an opportunity to dance solo. Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov combined pieces by Indian composer Rahul Dev Burman and by Graham Fitkin for his "Fusion." Four men (Martyn Garside, Jeremy Rucker, and twins Benjamin and Matthew Stewart) represented the spiritual side of Possokhov's decision to abandon dancing for choreography. Dressed in white, Indian-style pants, tunics and turbans, they began on their knees while performing chest isolations.

They knee-walked in synch to the Indian music before rising and moving with bent arms and precise hands. Through a slit in the rear backdrop, four ladies (Clara Blanco, Frances Chung, Kristin Long, Vanessa Zahorian) entered wearing jazz pants over long-sleeved leotards. Four similarly dressed men (Daniel Deivison, Nedvigin, Smith, Hansuke Yamamoto) joined them for partnered moves. They supported the ladies by their wrists and waists in synch and in a canon.  One man stopped his lady with a hand to her stomach before she fell into his arms. The women alternated between the similarly clad men and the Indian men. One of the latter held a lady by her wrists above her head. In a squat, she moved a leg in rond de jambe, and he jumped over it.

In the adage, one man carried his partner with her lying straight on his hands. Then he folded her into a "V" before setting her down. They stretched toward and apart as far as they could reach. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself before a pirouette to deep penché. Her partner held her wrists while she grand pliéd in first position onto the top of her shoes.  The man kneeled, and she rolled to join him. A light melody brought with it a brighter stage. After a brief interaction with one of the Indian men, the pair left, he carrying her stiff. Before stepping into the wings, she relaxed over his hands. It would have been a perfect ending, but Possokhov needed to hammer home his point with a final section.

For the second piece of the evening, "Within the Golden Hour," Christopher Wheeldon used six pieces by Ezio Bosso and the andante from Vivaldi's “Violin Concerto in B-flat major.” Two corps members, Lily Rogers and Brett Bauer, danced one of the three lead pairs, along with soloists Dana Genshaft and Mateo Klemmayer. Principals Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada joined the others in this lyrical, emotional work. Wheeldon maintained the ballet artistry without destroying its line and style, unlike other choreographers who seem bent on extinguishing its loveliness.

While the featured dancers displayed technical excellence, LeBlanc and Boada blew them away with their pas de deux. They infused their moves with strong emotion, giving power to their work. Boada stroked LeBlanc's arms before lifting her. She stretched as far as possible, secure in knowing he would keep her safe. He grabbed her extended foot and guided her body. When he lowered her onto himself, the audience sighed.

Bauer and Rogers waltzed together to one piece, he lifting her up on his leg on occasion. The variation showed how a waltz can evolve into more beautiful movement. They wove around each other. He lifted her on his shoulders. She slid on her pointe shoes.

In another section, Wheeldon had the man lift his partner, and they beat their legs together in a shared cabriole. Another held his lady by her leg while she penchéd. In the presto final section, Wheeldon played with his dancers. The ladies formed rings from their arms and the men looked through them. The ladies twirled their bodies when they leaped into their partners' clasp.

The program ended with Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments." First performed 62 years ago, it changed how ballet was performed and dressed. The men wore black tights, white shoes and tops, while the ladies donned black leotards over light pink tights. Balanchine used Paul Hindemith's “Theme and Four Variations,” breaking the piece into four parts that each featured a solo dancer surrounded by corps.

The first lady, Dores Andre, threw her leg up to the side to get it high instead of controlling it. As the last thematic couple, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Anthony Spaulding gave a lyrical performance. In “Melancholic,” Nicolas Blanc fell but caught himself by an arm before he twisted to a low lunge. He alternated between flowing moves and dangling arms. He supported his ladies, then fell again to the floor.

Zahorian and Boada's synchronous moves to the minor-keyed melodies of “Sanguinic” showed their skill at working together. They had happier enchainement that included emboités, pas de chat turns and double ronds de jambe. Boada executed his multiple entrechats with ease. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba dominated the “Phlegmatic” part, controlled and precise. Elana Altman shown in her quick footwork and feel for the music in the “Choleric” section.

Music Director Martin West conducted the live orchestra and guest artists with aplomb.


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