San Francisco Ballet

"Giselle" – Last Title Role Performance by Joanna Berman

San Francisco Opera House, CA

May 11, 2002
By Toba Singer

At 45 minutes to curtain, I was sitting on an upholstered Parson's Bench, just outside the press room at the Opera House. I wanted to clear my mind of the day's minutiae, the better to absorb the ambience that would soon collect around Joanna Berman's final performance with The San Francisco Ballet Company. As I had crossed McAllister Street several minutes earlier, flanked by corps de ballet members Aaron Orza and Pauli Magierek, we watched as a gray-bearded homeless man picked up a newspaper box and smashed it over and over again onto the sidewalk until every last coin came rolling out. At the very same time, lines of limousines were disgorging ballet patrons at the front steps of the Opera House. That moment couldn't have been better choreographed than the way in which it unfolded on its own. As I sat waiting, it was difficult to dismiss from my thoughts the parallel images of rolling metal containers emptying their contents.

Then Joanna Berman's mother arrived. The side door usher stepped out for a moment to greet her, and returned with a package wrapped in vivid colors and adorned with a bow. It turned out to be a gift from Ms. Berman to him, an autographed book. He was the first of many people I would see overcome by emotion over the course of the evening. He repeated over and over to anyone who would listen. "So nice of her to think of me. That's how she is. That's JUST the kind of person she is. I can't get over it." Four of us walked from the press room to our orchestra seats. I shared a riddle that I had heard at last year's Dance Critics Association Conference. "What do you call a gathering of reviewers?" "What?" asked the reviewer to my right. "A Shrivel of Critics!" We laughed, and proceeded to our seats. Then I was thinking: "What do you call women dancers, each of who has had a different professional or non-professional dance experience, before going on to become a reviewer?" Are we some strange sort of Wili-like creatures--or do we just get the Wilis at the prospect of attempting to review an evening that is destined to be much larger than even its monumental program?

Action onstage prior to Joanna Berman's entrance arrives for me in a blur. Random stage fright fills the entire theater on both sides of the proscenium until we see Giselle emerge. Ms. Berman is no exception: this Giselle is eager to get past the butterflies in her stomach, and it seems like she's putting on the brakes to avoid rushing to the end of this performance. But it is delightful when she slowly lifts her head and Yuri Possokhov, as Prince Albrecht, tweaks her chin. They find the right mood, and it is pure mischief. By the time Hilarion and Albrecht are fighting over her, we are convinced that it is really the scuffle between two favored partners over who she is saying farewell to tonight. The stage is warming up, and before long, Berman is bubbling with her own coquetry, having found the right pace for this performance. The balancés are deep and cordial and Possakhov's arabesques lengthen generously as the romance warms up. Ms. Berman's piqué turns are hand-turned embroidery--like a chain of cross-stitching on a tapestry. She responds to each subtle change in the instrumentation as if there was a bit of dance notation encrypted in her muscles. As she hides from her mother, she is Giselle/Joanna. Who will she be when her own mother finds her after tonight's performance?

[Please, please build Berthe a new costume. While she obviously must wear a white hat to show that she is a good character, Anita Paciotti's Berthe brims over with rectitude, and her costume needs more contour to fully enable that quality to emerge. Please, take the furry gray trim off the white bodice, and add some color!]

Sherri Le Blanc's entrance with the dogs establishes her as the ruler of all Bathildes. The halting, imperious stride adds a brilliant flourish to this role, rendering her the most pitiable specimen of noblesse oblige on the road to a marriage of convenience. We wonder, "How MANY kirshwassers did this character toss down prior to the garden party in order to get through it?"

In the Pas de Cinq, Sergio Torrado was put in for Guennadi Nedviguine. This pas de cinq cast worked better as an ensemble than did the cast on opening night. Torrado's elevation and slicing split grand jetés tend to diminish the work of everyone else dancing with him, but his seriousness was out of character with the lightheartedness called for by the variation. Gonzalo Garcia does not loom as large as Torrado, but as a relaxed, more experienced dancer, invites your eye to stay with him thanks to his generous ballon, and engaging smile. They are a well-matched pair in the duet, each with a distinctive, but complementary stage personality. It looked like Garcia was keeping a watchful eye on Torrado: When Garcia moved to drop to his knee and Torrado seemed to forget to, Garcia covered by not dropping down to his knee. That is the kind of instant-response teamwork that counts.

By the time Ms. Berman does her rond de jambes hops, she has let go of all thoughts of this being her last roundup. Her concentration is in the moment, and it shows in the placement of her pirouettes. There is the eloquent use of head and back as she moves into a manege of pique turns. She is stricken when Hilarion returns to the stage intent on spilling blood, and pulls out all the stops to implore him to do no harm. Sherri Le Blanc, turns Bathilde into a moving epistle to the audience, revealing what this ballet is all about. The danger of the moment is written all over her character. There are a number of such interesting little surprise nuggets in tonight's performance!

Ms. Berman wields the sword in the mad scene with more attack than Ms. Feijoo displayed on opening night. Berman's madness progresses logically, and it becomes easier to understand what is usually a chaotic scene that tends to leave the audience behind in the dust. For the past week, a number of us have been wondering whether we missed Giselle stabbing herself, or whether she died as her mother warned--of over-exerting her weak heart, or of her own madness? Berman made me see for the first time that it is the frustration of her danced pleas falling on deaf ears that actually causes her to collapse. She finds that she has lost the power of artful persuasion: Her heart breaks in despair, for neither being seen nor heard in her appeal to lay down the sword, as her suitors persist in the mutual blame game until the curtain comes down on Act I.

Muriel Maffre, as Myrtha, looks more ethereal than ever. She strives for, and achieves perfect placement and character throughout. Tonight, she is ever much the ghoul next door who has ascended to absorb the seriousness of purpose appropriate to her station in death. Her arms float, even as she causes Hilarion to surrender to her command. Her rank-and-file Wilis are the embodiment of feminist political correctness, en pointe. They show no compassion for Hilarion--even when they're not completely pulled up, and are perhaps thinking as they stand there, about the pack of smokes buried somewhere in their dance bags, so awfully far from the stage. Ms. Berman's attack in her assemblés shows great determination to be a Croix de Guerre- ranked Wili. Tonight's voyagé moved maybe a tad broader and faster than the music, but was overall pretty steady. Maffre is nothing if not scrupulous in her stewardship. Would that the dancers were similarly scrupulous in breaking in their shoes. Their exit made it sound like there was a bowling tournament in progress backstage.

Yuri Possokhov's entrance with the lilies was more austere and filled with foreboding than on opening night. Ms. Berman affects a beautiful line with her arms as her body inclines forward toward the grave. Maffre gives the signal that it is now Albrecht's turn to step up to the proscenium, and we see a continuity of three extended arms--Giselle's, Albrecht's and Maffre's as the violin solo opens and the adagio begins with Giselle's effort to placate Myrtha. It is an elegant moment. The Albrecht variation is satisfying, but not as clean as we would have hoped for, and Mr. Possokhov is off the music on his first drop to the floor. The port de bras where Giselle enfolds Albrecht as he is failing signals the end, and the collective heart of the audience follows Ms. Berman's offstage for all time.

A post script to this review should mention that the curtain call evinced a picture we rarely have an opportunity to witness. With every able-bodied member of the audience standing and cheering, dozens of bouquets were tossed onstage, followed by each of Ms. Berman's principal male partners, and Helgi Tomasson, crossing the stage to give her a farewell kiss. The entire company amassed behind her as glittering confetti and balloons in all colors descended from the ceiling, and the moist eyes of the audience looked on with great admiration and love. Everyone wishes her only what she has given every last person in the house – the very best.


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Edited by Marie.

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