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San Francisco Ballet in an All-Balanchine Program
-- "Serenade," "Prodigal Son," and "Symphony in Three Movements"
San Francisco, February 4, 2000

by Azlan Ezaddin

This is a satisfying program of Balanchine works, beginning with the familiarly emotive "Serenade" and ending with the sexily slinky "Symphony in Three Movements." It is however the triumphant return of Joan Boada, in "Prodigal Son," that is the most stirring. Seeing Boada, recovered from surgery to his left knee, performing one of the most demanding roles in ballet is heart-warming indeed. The lead role in this ballet requires a youthful and not-too-tall male dancer with Olympian physique. Boada certainly qualifies. He tackles the famously unnatural and arduous combinations of leaps and turns with such exuberance and passion that it is easy to forget how difficult they can be.

Unlike most other Balanchine ballets, "Prodigal Son" calls on its male lead to act, first as an impetuous and rebellious boy and then as a repentant cripple. Here too Boada excels, from the intoxication of a young man in salacious desire of the Siren, danced with the right mix of come-hitherness and calculating callousness by Muriel Maffre, to the anguish of a man robbed and stripped naked (As an aside, this is one of a few ballets that partner a shorter man with a tall woman).

Balanchine created the original "Prodigal Son" for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes on a score by Sergei Prokofiev. This production -- staged by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who danced the lead role for Balanchine, and Ballet Mistress Elyse Borne, with additional coaching by Gloria Govrin, who also danced this ballet for Balanchine in the role of the Siren -- retains many of the elements of the Ballet Russes style, treating SF Bay Area audiences to dramatic acting and imagery, including a memorable sailing sequence, with Maffre as a ship's siren and her long red cape its sail.

The opening image of "Serenade" is also exquisitely memorable. I must confess that, at each performance of this ballet, I wait for bated breath for the "oohs" and "aahs" of the audience as the curtain opens to the harmonious arrangement of dancers under soft lighting, reminiscent of an orchard in moonlight. Almost every dancer I know who has performed Serenade claims the music of Tchaikovsky's "Serenade in C for Strings" is the reason why this ballet is their favorite to dance. The music is certainly very romantic and the movements, though abstract (even if Mr. B didn’t like this description), hint at romance and love. The way the dancers moved in tonight's performance indeed seemed to indicate that they were propelled by the music, but none more so than Joanna Berman as the Waltz girl. I still have fresh memories of Jenifer Ringer's penetrating gaze in last summer's performance by New York City Ballet but Berman made her own mark on this role with her incredible sense of momentum. Waltz is partially about a balance between inertia and momentum; Berman brilliantly captures this, especially as she dips and propels herself out of each turn around partner Stephen Legate. Tina LeBlanc, Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba also impressed in the other principal roles.

The intended sexy slinkiness of "Symphony in Three Movements," danced to Igor Stravinsky's composition, is apparent immediately; the women's costumes resemble white swimsuits and the men are in tight white and black gym/dance outfits a la "Agon." In all the sexiness of this work, the most sensual to the eyes is the "Balinese" pdd between School of American Ballet graduate Julia Diana and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, formerly of Paris Opera Ballet, in which the pair approach each other with outstretched arms fluttering gracefully like soft-winged birds and then, with Vilanoba behind Diana, move their arms and legs in syncopation somewhat suggestive of a multi-armed Balinese goddess. In my estimation, the corps was also excellent, in their execution of the subtle feline movements, just expressive enough to suggest innocent sexual awareness without going over the top.

 

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