Critical Dance

The following is an article from our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London.

San Francisco Ballet
Jerome Robbin's "Fanfare," Mark Morris' "A Garden," Yuri Possokhov's "Magrittomania," and George Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements"

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
August 13, 2001

By Stuart Sweeney

As one can imagine on San Francisco Ballet's opening night of their 2001 tour, there was an atmosphere of great excitement. Nevertheless, I should confess to a few pre-performance concerns that the very positive first impressions from two years ago might have been overstated. It's analogous with a second date, which is always more significant than the first.

In the event, the company came up trumps with a number of the ballerinas making their mark and the men showing that that SFB has a depth of talent that many leading world companies would envy. My interest in the choreography varied from piece to piece, but it was a pleasant surprise that it was the new works that made the greatest impact, rather than those by Robbins and Balanchine. So there is life after the American Greats.

Programme 1 opens with Fanfare by Jerome Robbins and is a rare tutu ballet from the US maestro. One of the attractions of having SFB in town is the opportunity of seeing more of the infrequently seen Robbins repertory in the UK, apart from The Concerto. Fanfare is a visualisation of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, choreographed to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Although the same choreographer's The Cage from the previous visit was a revelation, this piece is not one that will make me want to pencil a future date in my diary because of it's inclusion. The series of short instrumental sketches are picked up by 34 dancers who all have their moment in groups of one, two, three or four, as well as the opening and closing ensemble scenes with all the dancers, about half the entire Company, on stage. I wonder if this is the reason that Fanfare was brought into the repertory as recently as February this year as it does provide a mini-Gala which serves as an opener on a tour like this one which takes in three cities.

The choreography and the designs made little impression on me and seem dated. Nevertheless, there is some fun with the brass and the timpani dances, which the performers made the most of, without quite going over the top. Julie Diana with some sprightly dancing did make her mark as Viola, but otherwise the work drifted by, albeit in pleasant fashion. The final contrapuntal section provided the chance for some good ensemble dancing, although I'm sure it looks less cramped on the wider San Francisco War Memorial Opera House stage.

Choreographic standards rose sharply with A Garden by Mark Morris. This calm, elegant work is performed to an arrangement by Richard Strauss of keyboard pieces by François Couperin. It shows Morris firmly in ballet ballet mode and opens with two ensemble sections and there can be few choreographers of the 20th Century who can match Morris in this respect. There is a delightful sequence where one group of dancers weaves complex patterns at double speed in contrast to their colleagues on the other side of the stage. Various combinations of dancers follow and we see phrasing and a precise finish that give the work much life. The highlight of this performance for me was the Minuet pas de deux for Joanna Berman and Damian Smith. Seeing Berman's refined movement and beautiful feet reminded me why she remains one of the jewels of SFB.

There are folk dance motifs, which we see regularly in works by Mark Morris, but as usual they have the freshness and wit that help to make him one of the foremost ballet choreographers of today.

After the interval, we saw another London premier, Magrittomania by Yuri Possokhov, a Principal in the Company. This ex-Bolshoi dancer showed great flair and confidence in this innovative work, which is all the more surprising as his previous creations appear to have been on a much smaller scale than this 26 minute piece for 13 dancers. Based on the paintings of Belgian surrealist René Magritte, the ballet melds the visual world of the artist with a subversive score by Yuri Krasavin using familiar Beethoven tunes and dynamic and often beautiful choreography. The designs and projected images bring Magritte's world to life. The one jarring element are the false breasts on the otherwise beautiful swirly mauve gowns of the women dancers, but even this aspect is true to the spirit of the artist.

Possokhov certainly has a way with his robust choreography for the men. Roman Rykine danced with precision and verve. The pas de quatre, in which he was joined by Stephen Legate, Guennadi Nedviguine and the exciting young dancer Gonzalo Garcia, was some of the finest ensemble male dancing I have seen. Nevertheless, the star of the piece was the brilliant Yuan Yuan Tan. In a ravishing full length red dress (sans plastic breasts) she takes Possokhov's mix of traditional and radical movement and makes it her own. Magrittomania received rapturous applause from the audience.

The final piece in Programme 1 is Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements from 1972 to the Stravinsky score. I was looking forward to this ballet as I enjoy the jazzy Jewels greatly, but I have to say that this work is not in the same class. The corps have a striking opening image, drawn up in a line with one arm raised, but the choreography which follows with sporty jogging steps and show biz hip movement seemed dated and dull to me. The central pas de deux was danced with a sexy expressive quality by Lucia Lacarra and the powerful Yuri Possokhov. The final section has dynamic drive, but overall this late work is not one of Balanchine's strongest in my view. Perhaps I'll be turned back by immigration next time I try to visit the US.

Throughout the evening the Company looked great and in particular showed off the depth of fine solo dancers in its ranks. London ballet fans can look forward to a delightful and instructive week with this wealth of talent in often unfamiliar ballets.


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Edited by Basheva.

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