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San Francisco Ballet -- Opening Gala

Champagne Wishes

‘Tchaikovsky’ Pas de Deux
‘Two Bits’
Chi-lin’s dance from ‘Chi-lin’
Pas de Deux from ‘There Where She Loved’
‘Le Corsaire’ Pas de Deux
‘Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh' from ‘Company B’
‘Elite Syncopations’

by Mary Ellen Hunt

January 28, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet kicked off its 71st season on Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House with a gala peppered with the kind of pyrotechnics we’ve come to expect from America’s oldest professional ballet company.

I think it’s safe to say that SFB which now boasts one of the strongest rosters of principal dancers in America and some solid star turns by corps de ballet members -- strangely enough, most of the soloists seemed to be missing Wednesday night – promises a season sprinkled with some exciting casting possibilities.

As befits a glitterati event, plenty of guests were decked out and promenading with champagne glasses in the foyer before the show. They seemed so pleased to be “seen” that there was a palpable reluctance to actually go in and see the dancing. The ushers wandered among the crowd, plaintively ringing their mini chimes, some of them looking as though they’d like to drive people ahead of them with gongs if they could. But by 8:15, the orchestra section was still largely devoid of audience.

I was put in mind of a performance I saw at the Dutch National Ballet’s beautiful modern home in Amsterdam. The orchestra was empty at 7:58 pm, but at 7:59, a full house magically appeared, everyone filed right into their seats in a quiet, orderly manner, and the show began at 8:00.

In contrast, by the time the lights finally went down in the War Memorial Opera House with half the people still meandering to their seats, I sensed the desperate hand of the house manager finally deciding that, darn it, he WOULD start this show NOW!

Gonzalo Garcia and Vanessa Zahorian set the evening off at a furious pace with George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Although Zahorian’s cheerfulness seemed occasionally forced, she and the ever ebullient Garcia really clicked by the time they had gotten midway through. Garcia’s joie de vivre is infectious; he and therefore, by extension we, enjoy his every second on the stage. When he unveils a trick for us or starts a determined series of triple pirouettes a la seconde, his dancing invariably has a generous high-spiritedness.

Zahorian is technically solid, but she still seems young to be a principal – there was a certain grandness that was missing and that would have given the pas de deux extra dimension. She is quick-footed, although the darting sissonnes in her solo had a little too much of a hard punch to them. Still, her playful phrasing in the brief balances had just the right impulsive effervescence, and the final diagonal of turns were razor sharp and so “on” that she looked as though she was loathe to stop -- although she did, on a dime. Zahorian is nothing if not a turner.

The audience was still wound up from the cheering that followed Garcia and Zahorian, but Tina LeBlanc in top form took over the stage in Helgi Tomasson’s “Two Bits” ready to offer a textbook reading on "how to make an unmemorable ballet look perfect."

This is the kind of ballet which always makes me wonder if I’ve seen it before. A quick check of my notes reveals that I wondered that in 2000 when it was performed in the rep season and I wondered that again at Stern Grove in 2002. One thing I won’t soon forget, however, is LeBlanc’s pointe work, which had a security and extension of energy that was supremely legible in spite of the black-on-black effect of her costume on a dark cyc.

Nedviguine came onstage with a blast of a double saut de basque and this perfectly matched pair proceeded to give us a performance so precisely clean, and yet so bravura, that it almost hurt to watch it. They’ll do “Don Quixote” together for the first time next week (probably Wednesday night is the rumor), so look for me and probably a hundred other fans in the audience, champing at the bit.

In a different mood, Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov offered Tomasson’s “Twilight,” created the same year as “Two Bits,” and which I am almost certain I’ve not seen before. Feijoo and Possokhov make a romantic couple, attacking the choreography fearlessly and creating a thread of coherency from Feijoo’s rapidly streaming bourrees to Possokhov’s powerful lifts.

The last piece in the Tomasson trio was Yuan Yuan Tan’s solo from “Chi-lin.” I say “Yuan Yuan Tan’s solo” because clearly she owns this role, and I can’t really imagine anyone else in the company ever doing it. Just as clearly, Tan’s Chinese dance experience has informed the choreography, which features unusually angular and fluid port de bras mixed together with balletic renverses and balances. The solo, which is a highlight of the longer ballet, would probably be better off without the four men in their thankless but distracting business with flags; but as always, Tan continues to impress with dancing that goes steadily deeper than mere tricks and contortionism.

I was more than intrigued when I found out that Muriel Maffre would be dancing the “Je ne t’aime pas” excerpt from Christopher Wheeldon’s “There where She Loved,” which he created on Royal Ballet dancers and which San Francisco Ballet took to the Edinburgh Festival last year. Several of the notices in the London papers mentioned her duet with Benjamin Pierce, and Maffre rarely disappoints. So it was a bit of a surprise to me how little I enjoyed this pas de deux, which she performed on Wednesday night with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. Part of it may be the matching of Maffre with Vilanoba, who, though tall enough for her, is not really the same sort of dancer. Pierce, who retired last year to study film-making, had a noble style of partnering that better suited Maffre’s temperament.

However, the real problem may simply be Wheeldon’s over-earnest conceit. Danced to a Kurt Weill song of the same title, sung by Elise Ross Rattle with Michael McGraw at the piano, the story seems to be of the Sheila Nichols, “you done me wrong, I want you, but---no!” sort. Having not seen the complete work, it’s hard to put the duet in proper context, but as a standalone, it read as angsty melodrama.

Apparently the orchestra, under Andrew Mogrelia’s baton, tuned out for most of the piece -- literally, because when they returned for the “Corsaire” Pas de Deux, the opening chords were wildly off-key. This gaffe, plus Joan Boada’s peculiarly un-slavelike black pants dusted with silvery glitter elicited a few titters near me in the orchestra. Nevertheless, they settled in, and the audience relaxed palpably for the pleasure of seeing Kristin Long and Joan Boada.

In the final analysis, whatever Boada is dressed in, it really doesn’t matter. His Slave hit all the right notes, deferential in his partnering, and yet seething with masculinity. It almost goes without saying that his jumps and turns were spectacular – the entire audience seemed to be waiting in permanent exhale, at the ready to draw in a gasp for his every pas ciseaux or double rivoltade.

It all played nicely against Long’s gentle glow, and for her part, Long was no slouch either, devouring as much space as Boada, and building her own excitement in the coda with quicksilver turns.

Following this stellar act, and closing the first half would probably make most dancers blanch, but Brett Bauer, a corps member who’s been featured in a few principal roles lately, was more than up to the task. Dancing the “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” excerpt from “Company B,” Bauer burst onto the stage with an immensely likeable performance, backed up by Dalene Bramer, Maureen Choi, Courtney Elizabeth, Pauli Magierek, Brooke Moore, Brooke Reynolds and Amanda Schull. The lanky Bauer has a pleasant, Tommy Tune sort of swing to his steps, and his boyish elation at having seven cute women smiling at him was charming.

The second half of the program was taken up with Kenneth MacMillan’s ragtime fantasia, “Elite Syncopations.” It’s a fun diversion, and the dancers seemed to enjoy it, although as a vehicle for the company, it was more frivolous than glamorous.

The best part of the ballet, as usual, was Maffre’s duet with James Sofranko to Scott Joplin’s “Alaskan Rag.” Sofranko was adorably funny throughout the piece, but was especially hilarious in his awe of the ravishing Maffre. This little cameo was the perfect antidote to the dour Wheeldon piece of the first act. The two of them navigated the delightfully tricky plays off of their height difference with remarkable ease without milking the joke too much. Even when the dance was over, though, Maffre and Sofranko remained in character -- him dusting off a chair for her with tender solicitude, and then planting himself in her lap. It’s a testament to their comedic talents that they were still getting laughs sixteen counts into the next piece.

Among other standouts were Pascal Molat, dancing “Friday Night” with so much gusto that the corps members on the sidelines started pulling back the chairs to give him more space. Katita Waldo dancing in the “Calliope Rag,” brought her usual beautiful phrasing to bear, and Julie Diana, who really ought to get hazard pay for having to wear that white unitard with its strategically placed stars, showed off spectacularly flexible lines in the “Stop Time Rag” and partnered by the ever suave Damian Smith in the “Bethena Waltz.”

It was all, in the end, exactly like a glass of champagne. The bubbly atmosphere gave us a few hours of giddiness, destined to fade soon. Still it also whetted the appetite for the real meat which comes next week with Programs 1 and 2 running in repertory til February 15.

Edited by Jeff.

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