Here are my impressions:
San Francisco Ballet
Opening Night Gala
January 20, 2010
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
By Catherine Pawlick
On January 20, the San Francisco Ballet’s “Silver Celebration” gala took place, honoring 25 years of service from its current artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. Society’s glitterati came out in full force for the event which was preceded by dinner at City Hall, included a champagne reception in the main foyer before the performance, and an after-party to win over even the most diehard night owls. Balletomanes, students, critics, and the crème de la crème of the City by the Bay compared couture gowns, downed glasses of champagne, and then sat down to watch what would be, hopefully, some of the best dancing their local company has on offer.
Unfortunately, for an anniversary program of such magnitude, the evening’s dance selections left a bit to be desired. Mark Morris’ opening number, “Typewriter” from the Sandpaper Ballet, offered a sea of green unitard human “keys” who jump and shift, but do little in the way of real dancing. The piece requires no technique and only basic musicality. Following that, the pas de deux from “7 for Eight” picked up the pace only slightly, its repeat swivels and rotations performed by Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. The familiar Bach score gave Pipit-Suksun ample chance to unfold slow developpés in the air, but the choreography lacked complexity and depth. If it weren’t for Pipit-Suksun’s beautiful footwork, it would have been hard to remain focused on the piece.
Unfortunately a revision to what are, in every classical company, the gemstone fairies in Petipa’s original version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” sorely dissected the musical score with simpler, less expressive movement than the original choreography. With musical intuition pushed to the wayside, it might have been enough to simply watch the dancers execute the steps, but the outcome was instead distracting for here, instead of the requisite fairies, we had an additional 3 dancers crowding both score and the stage. Why must everyone meddle with a masterpiece? Petipa’s version is a classic for a reason.
The level of both dancing and choreography were redeemed slightly in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush,” performed by Katita Waldo and Damian Smith. Reminiscent at times of Alexei Ratmansky’s genius “Middle Duet,” “Rush” nonetheless includes simpler, legato-based movements that are, contrary to its title, never done in haste. Here are two dancers can be placed in any ballet and make it look professional.
Yuan Yuan Tan of the long, lean legs, was the first on the program to provide a European sensibility and visual indulgence in “Flute Moon” from the ballet “Chi-Lin.” Partnered by four men, she achieved a measured balance in exotic, sharp movements, forever accurate, reminding us that ballet is above all, a visual art form.
In sharp contrast, the significantly duller execution in “The Man I Love” from George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” seemed a surprise coming from dancers who are typically lauded. Sarah Van Patten’s lines were blurry, her emotional displays overbaked; Pierre-Francois Vilanoba’s utterly nondescript costume – black pants with a purple Cossack-type sash – gave him an overly grounded look, and seemed out of place next to his partner’s gossamer pink dress, though his own partnering efforts were blameless. Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz followed in a pas de deux from Tomasson’s “The Tuning Game,” which hardly impressed, due less to imperfect dancing than to repetitive choreography. By this point in the program, it seemed as if we’d already seen Tomasson’s full range of steps. And yet the dancers themselves had much to offer in polished delivery and adhesion to the piece’s overall mood.
Despite these low points, that Tomasson can sometimes hit the mark was the case with a singular ballet of his, “Concerto Grosso,” which has been rightfully praised for the occasion it affords five male dancers to display various bravura steps. If there is one thing that San Francisco Ballet has, it is strong male dancing. Most refreshing in this, Tomasson’s singular technique-driven work, was Diego Cruz, a new recruit with the calm certainty and fluid lines that make male dancing of the highest sort. Surprisingly, Cruz is an anomaly, perhaps the single company member who trained at the San Francisco Ballet School. A quick look at the roster reveals that of its 20 principal dancers, only four were trained in the United States, and of those only two spent some time, but not all of their training years, in the San Francisco Ballet School. This phenomenon –the inability to cultivate any significant number of quality principal dancers State-side -- is not new, but it does underscore the need for a more intense training system for ballet dancers in America. There is no reason we should not be able to cultivate the best dancers here, locally, but the pedagogical system and selection process must be improved in order for that to occur.
As if demonstrating what is possible with exquisite (Russian) training, Maria Kotchetkova’s rendition of Juliet in the balcony scene from Tomasson’s oversimplified choreography in “Romeo and Juliet” was by far one of the main highlights of the evening. This dancing selection not only better suited the framework of a gala evening in tone and genre, it offered the company’s prize principal dancer a chance to demonstrate her dramatic abilities. Even if the steps were watered down, as Juliet Maria Kotchetkova brought refined lyricism and an easily readable characterization to the passionate pas de deux. With Joan Boada as her Romeo, the two danced with soul-felt emotion that was unparalleled in the rest of the program.
One wonders if it is worth mentioning Sofiane Sylve in the “Agon” pas de deux, alongside Anthony Spaulding who clearly overshadowed her. Sylve would be an obvious choice if one were to choose a favorite ballerina – she has, after all, the glamour of coming from Nice, France -- but on the two occasions this reviewer has seen her, unfortunately, she has managed to disappoint.
That was not the case with the precision of Vanessa Zahorian in “Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers” with Davit Karapetyan. Here, speed, line, and technique merged into a delightful display of contemporary movement.
Poor Gennadi Nedvigin, given an excerpt from a ballet that undermines his vast technical skills and beautiful lines. Clothed in streetwear khaki’s and a regular shirt, with jazz shoes covering his feet, he danced “Bugle Boy” from the Paul Taylor ballet, “Company B.” For a Vaganova-trained professional, the selection seemed an obvious insult to his talents, its overly simplistic movements better suited to someone with less technique to spare. Perhaps one of the dancers in the pas de trois from “On Common Ground,” another oddly nondescript work.
Our eyes feasted a second time on Ms. Tan’s mesmerizing lines next to Damian Smith in the pas de deux from “Fifth Season.” She decorated the slow violin music of Karl Jenkins with romantic nuance; Smith’s partnering was impeccable. But the closing piece, “Winter” from “Le Quattro Stagioni” left question marks on more than one patron’s face, and felt anticlimactic on this momentous occasion. Its sole highlight was the chance to enjoy Taras Dmitro’s airborne lightness, but against the structured, nondescript presence of the group of male corps de ballet members, this piece closed the evening on a somber note. In all, San Francisco Ballet has reserves of talent that, when given the proper venue, can sparkle as much as a crystal champagne glass. Here is to hoping that they'll have ample opportunity to shine in the future.
Author, "Vaganova Today: The Preservation of Pedagogical Tradition" (available on amazon.com)