Critical Dance

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

San Francisco Ballet
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
August 14, 2001

Helgi Tomasson's "Quartette,"
Composer : Antonin Dvoøák
Cast: Katita Waldo, Loren Feijoo, Kristin Long, Tina LeBlanc
Pianist: Michael McGraw

Christopher Wheeldon's "Sea Pictures,"
Composer : Edward Elgar
Cast: Lulie Diana, Damian Smith, Joanna Berman, Yuri Possokhov et al
Mezzo Soprano: Diana Moore

George Balanchine's "Bugaku,"
Composer : Toshiro Mayuzumi

Cast: Yuan Yuan Tan, Cyril Pierre et al

Jerome Robbin's "Glass Pieces"
Composer : Philip Glass
Cast: Leslie Young, Vadim Solomakha, Tiekka Schofield, Damian Smith, Sherri LeBlanc, Zachary Hench, Muriel Maffre, Pierre-François Vilanoba and corps de ballet

By David Slade

Having only a week at the Royal Opera House to impress itself upon a relatively new audience, San Francisco Ballet have opted for three programmes of short pieces that illustrate the breadth of its repertory. The second of these, shown on Tuesday night, was illustrative of the importance of putting together programmes in a way that draws in those unfamiliar with the company.

Starting with Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's Quartette was perhaps not the best of choices. It is a sweet, rather inoffensive work that offers four of the company's ballerinas an opportunity to indulge in a contemporary reinterpretation of romantic lyricism. The high, steely strong leg lines create a contrast to the more fluid softness of some of the port de bras as the choreographic flow takes in the dynamic qualities of the music. Yet there is something rather unsatisfying about the piece. It is neither of particular aesthetic interest nor does it seem to give the dancers an opportunity to really impress themselves upon a new audience. Perhaps it is the lack of any major contrast between the various parts of the piece. The selection of piano music by Dvorák seems to have been put together in a way that exacerbates this uniformity. Only towards the end where it references the familiar idioms of folk music does it come alive as a suite of dances. The choreographic response is immediate and perhaps a little obvious, flexed feet with heels to floor, but within the context of the whole piece it creates a welcome break from the evenness by which it was proceeded. However the work seems trite, a self consciously balletic piece that appeals to many of the popular preconceptions of the art form as being attractive but without depth.

The Tuesday night cast, Katita Waldo, Loren Feijoo, Kristin Long and Tina LeBlanc, danced with a quiet restraint that never really imposed itself upon the viewer. At times in the opening section one seemed visually out of sequence, though subtle variation of canon and unison may have produced this apparent deviation. In general this, the four solos that followed and the finale were performed with precision, though not really springing to life until the aforementioned folk references appeared. The audience response was predictably polite but restrained, not boding well for the rest of the programme. Mention though should be made of pianist Michael McGraw. His playing was crystal clear and beautifully intonated throughout.

Quartette was immediately followed by Christopher Wheeldon's Sea Pictures. Set to Elgar's cycle of five songs and with a background of back projected sea scenes it unfolds as a series of dances in which the opposing forces of love and the draw of the ocean are explored. Wheeldon seems to section that any real narrative seems to emerge. The love story, unfolded in a single pas de deux, inevitably leads to loss as the man fails to return from the sea. The finale becomes an expression of grief that ends with a final suicidal leap of the woman from a cliff. Somehow it was too reminiscent of Tosca. The emotional yet beautifully restrained quality of Elgar's music, eloquently given voice to by Diana Moore, seemed at odds with this imposition of melodrama.

Choreographically the work has moments of exceptional beauty, lying mostly within the interactions of the male and female dancers. Wheeldon has a wonderful ability to create transitions between lifts and supportive movements that can either flow or come as an astonishing surprise. This sense of invention lifts parts of the choreographic line in a way that touches on the sublime. However, it dissipates in the more symbolic formulations he uses, such as the figurative boat formed by the male dancers. Nevertheless, the commitment of the company, the ballet having been made for and on them, gave the piece a resonance that overcame much of the less interesting aspects of the choreography. As a result the audience response was much warmer.

Balanchine's Bugaku, which followed the first interval, was a rather strange choice. It seems within the contemporary context a rather dated work that uses cultural references as decoration rather than exploring any synthesis between art forms from different countries. In this it has considerable historical antecedence, particularly in many of the works of Petipa. The scenery, a simple but strongly delineated space taking up only a part of the stage, confines the piece within the perceived formality of its Japanese setting. Yet other aspects, such as the tutus shaped like chrysanthemum flowers or the music which is squarely western with a mere hint at Japanese sound texture, sit a little uncomfortably now. Obviously this is a reflection built on nearly thirty years of expanded awareness of other cultures but it makes viewing certain aspects of the ballet rather uncomfortable.

To their great credit the dancers perform the piece with a straightness that keeps it from slipping into pastiche. The motif development, mostly in flexed feet and knees, courus and heel walks, is given a clarity that reveals the intricacy of much of the choreographic line. This is after all a Balanchine work and stripping away the frippery of its references reveals a strongly aesthetic response that is made visually striking, particularly in the dancing of Yuan Yuan Tan. She achieves the usual extremes of movement with a wonderful fluid grace. This allows her to revel in the central pas de deux with Cyril Pierre, which retains its erotic potential despite the passage of time. The couple alone on stage fill the space with a sensuality that is almost tactile, his strength matching her suppleness. The rest of the ballet seemed almost anti-climatic, as it once again took on the aura of rigid formality overlaying a typically balletic choreographic text. The audience reaction was quite cold.

With the programme seeming to have fallen rather flat it was both a relief and a joy to see and feel it spring to life with the final piece, Jerome Robbins Glass Pieces. Starting in an almost painful light it opens to an insistent and simple movement of the corps walking in mass around and across the stage. Their rhythmic energy picks up that of the music, intensifying the sense of an emotional distance that contrasts with their physical proximity. As in turn three couples emerge the simplicity of their initial choreographic statement, a jump bringing the feet together in a natural position, forms an astonishing contrast to the movement of the group. Each duo has an almost geometrical quality, the bodies shaping the space around them like lines drawn on the graph paper backdrop.

The second section begins with a repetitive movement phrase that leads a line of dancers across the back of the darkened blue-lit stage. This acts as a counterpoint to the pas de deux, exquisitely performed by Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Vilanoba. The constant repetition gives the work an almost fractal quality, where overall form of the work reflects the form of its parts. The effect is wonderfully mesmeric.

The final section commences with the intense energy of the male corps de ballet in movements almost mechanical in their repetition. Joined by the female members it was wonderfully revealing of the ability of the company to absorb and display the fusion of balletic and modern idioms inherent to the piece. Within this, probably the most intellectually challenging piece of the evening, they connected with the audience in a way that had not really happened throughout the evening and the warm final response was well deserved.

Despite the expressed reservations about the programming, San Francisco Ballet is a company that clearly has considerable depth of artistic understanding and commitment. It is to be hoped that they become a familiar visitor to the London dance scene after this present season concludes.

By Petra Tschiene

San Francisco Ballet's second programme opened with Helgi Tomasson's Quartette, a gala type piece showcasing four ballerinas. Tuesday night's cast Katita Waldo, Lorena Feijoo, Kristin Long and Tina LeBlanc, dressed in beautifully simple costumes of orange, red, violet and blue. They danced wonderfully in their contrasting variations but I have to say that despite the sweet and charming choreography, Quartette is not strong enough to work as an opener. It probably would be better in a gala setting with more contrasting works before and after. Nevertheless, last night it was politely received.

The evening continued with Christopher Wheeldon's Sea Pictures. Set to Elgar's song cycle it tells of the lure of the sea and the heartbreak of the 'Mourner' that follows the loss of her lover at sea. The background set uses various projections of a calm and storming sea which places the action in context. Wheeldon's expressive and elegant choreography clearly betrays the fact that he has been brought up with lots of MacMillan and Ashton. Elgar's sketch characters within the piece yet it is not really till the fourth songs are full of emotion and were sung with beautiful restraint by Diana Moore. Unfortunately, the dancing although stretching and coming close, never quite reaches the same intensity. It is probably an unfair comparison, but MacMillan's "Song of the Earth" proves it can be done. This work was a pleasure to watch though it seemed to me the spark that would have illuminated was missing. Joanna Bergman's performance as the female lead was spell binding and the entire cast impressed with the emotional expressiveness of their dancing.

Balanchine's Bugaku was next. This work, showing a Japanese ritual in which the lead couple are prepared for a private ceremony by five male and five female companions, seems rather dated. The set, costumes and choreography are quite cliched in what they try to pass off as Japanese. Although it might not have been taken that way in 1963 when the work was premiered, in my opinion, it is disrespectful of Japanese culture. The ballet's saving grace is the sexy central pas de deux for the lead couple. Yuan Yuan Tan with her amazingly flexible body and Cyril Pierre took the audience by storm.

The programme ended with Jerome Robbins's Glass Pieces which, in my estimation, was the highlight of the evening. Choreographed to various pieces by composer Philip Glass it captures the energetic pulse of life in a big city. The first section has a 'rush hour' feel about it with a large ensemble of dancers rushing past each other without ever paying attention to anyone else.

In contrast the second section is calm with the corps entering one by one from the right and moving in a slow repetitive pattern to the left where they finally disappear. The effect is very soothing and hypnotic with an unobtrusive background for the slow, elegant pas de deux which was skillfully danced by Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. The final section is buzzing with life once again and starts with strong, dynamic patterns for a group of male dancers before building up to the full corps and coming full circle to the rush hour feeling of the first section. Even the sudden stopping of all movement that ends the work leaves you with the thought: yes, this is how it was meant to be. Glass Pieces really showed off the entire company and it is my favourite work in this season so far.


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Edited by Basheva.

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