San Francisco Ballet

"Opening Night Gala 2002"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude"
Nacho Duato's "Without Words"
Val Caniparoli's "Aquilarco"
Michel Fokine's "The Dying Swan"
Marius Petipa's Grand Pas de Deux from "Paquita"
Gerald Arpino's "Light Rain"
Mark Morris' "Later"
Helgi Tomasson's "Bartok Divertimento"
Stanton Welch's "La Cathedral Engloutie"
George Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes"

January 31, 2002
Mary Ellen Hunt

It's easy to believe that San Francisco Ballet has never been stronger. The diversity of its repertoire was only surpassed by the calibre of dancing from the impressive roster of principals and soloists at the 2002 Opening Gala on Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House. Although choreographically the show was a bit of a mixed bag, with a stronger first half than second, the depth of talent and artistry from these dancers was never in doubt.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, William Forsythe's showpiece of speed and pizzazz, led off the program. Unfortunately it seemed to take a while for the orchestra to warm up to it, and the tempo was on the slow edge, making it hard for the dancers to display the sparks that are their hallmark. Still, there was piquancy and a go-for-broke approach that was unmistakable. The impeccable Guennadi Nedviguine and Roman Rykine soared with precise musicality and an easy, "no problem" attack into the technique. The dancers seemed to be expecting a quicker tempo, which would have served the women's pointe work better. Nevertheless, Julie Diana's beautifully wide echappés to second and fourth were crisp and powerful and her push into the hip at startling moments lent beautiful sleek amplitude to her movements. Catherine Baker, whom I had not seen before in this piece, looked stronger than ever, tossing off quick multiple pirouettes with a solidity that was matched by that other famous turner in the company, Vanessa Zahorian. Zahorian, as always, worked with a spitfire speed. Her reliable turns were precisely synched with Nedviguine's tours en l'air to maximum effect.

Schubert was the composer of the moment, as we went from his Symphony No. 9 to his transcendent lieder. The next excerpt, from Nacho Duato's beautiful Without Words, was danced by a sensitive, yet contained Katita Waldo, who was partnered by a responsive Parrish Maynard. Whether for ballet or modern companies, Duato's work makes the most of the relationship between two bodies. His choreography is never composed solely of steps the dancers could do alone, but is always about the space they create between them. With their gorgeous, fluid lines and perfectly timed melding into one another, Waldo and Maynard succeeded admirably in creating an abstracted atmosphere of two lonely, lost figures and delivered arguably the most moving excerpt of the evening.

The hits kept coming with Aquilarco, created by Val Caniparoli for San Francisco Ballet's 1999 Opening Gala, next on the program. This light-hearted piece is probably best remembered as a vehicle for SFB ballerina Evelyn Cisneros and her husband Stephen Legate, who originated the roles. As danced by Kristin Long and Legate, it was perhaps less sexy and more just like a heckuva lot of fun. Though not as leggy as Cisneros, Long has a particular way of focussing her movement, which was well suited to the choreography and she combines a beautiful phrasing with lofty jumps and sharp attack for a polished look.

In a decided change of pace, Muriel Maffre offered a restive interpretation of Michel Fokine's The Dying Swan. This onetime vehicle for Anna Pavlova has been famously essayed by countless ballerinas, and it is an understatement to say that finding a new interpretation is difficult. Maffre's lines, though wonderfully grand, are somewhat angular and her approach was a touch violent and not a little disturbing, but in retrospect, I must say that I appreciate it more and more. Fokine once remarked that "the purpose of the ["Dying Swan"] is not to display [the] technique but to create a symbol of the everlasting struggle in this life and all that is mortal." In contrast to the dreamy serenity of the Saint-Saëns cello solo (played exquisitely by David Kadarauch) Maffre's swan struggled, a sadly broken creature in the final throes of its death. She danced with a certain abandon and an uncommon extremeness of position, particularly in the bend of her upper body to impossible depths as she bourreéd smoothly across the stage, and Maffre chose particular moments of stillness to highlight the forlorn undulation of her back and arms. It was an intelligent and considered reading of the classic, and alone out of all the stars at the gala she brought the audience to its feet.

To round out the first half, Lorena Feijoo and Vadim Solomakha presented the Grand Pas de Deux from Paquita. The entrada to this pas de deux (which looked rather lonely without the usual beautiful line of corps de ballet behind the lead couple) must be immaculate: the closing of the leg to fifth position must be absolutely clean, the poses in pointe tendu effacé must be precisely matched, and in the grand temps relevé the leg must come to 90° immediately. In this Feijoo and Solomakha were the picture of pure classicism. Nevertheless, Solomakha is still unsteady in his partnering, which seems to make Feijoo nervous. As an experienced ballerina, Feijoo projects assurance and elegance, but even she could not quite disguise the small breaks in the promenades and pirouettes that disturbed the otherwise seamless flow of the pas de deux. Still, she has a number of tricks up her sleeve. In her relevé to arabesque straight downstage at the audience, a rippling effect from across her shoulders to her fingers gave us a sense of magnificent generosity, and her entrance for her variation included a gracious glance over her shoulder that took just about every member of the house right along with her.

The tempi for Paquita revealed Paul Hoskins's problematic conducting again. He and the dancers never quite seemed to be on the same page, and the music for Feijoo's variation began with such an erratic phrasing that it took her at least eight bars to recover her estimable musicality. Once she settled into it though, there were more delightful details, from delicate pas chevals on pointe to triple pirouettes and a neatly executed pas couru to finish. Solomakha's variation was solidly performed, and with his natural buoyant effortlessness. His work always moves beautifully across the stage and he can cover a long diagonal swath with just two rivoltade passes. In the coda, he came out with impressive pas de ciseaux, which began almost like a cabriole, but continued with a huge pass of his legs. Not to be outdone, Feijoo began her fouetté series with a double turn on every fourth fouetté, demarcating a nice fiery finish to the piece.

After the intermission, we began with Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre in Gerald Arpino's salute to flexibility, Light Rain. This sinuous, exotic piece is often called a showstopper, rather than a sideshow, and it largely consists of Pierre assisting Lacarra in and out of insane contortions. My companion leaned over to me and remarked, "Ballet porn." Not because of any sexual content, but because this performance features all those details that people seem to crave so much in ballet: outrageously arched feet, curvy hyperextended legs, stratospherically high extensions, etc., etc. Set to Douglas Adams's world beat-inspired music, Light Rain exhibits impossible poses one after the other, Lacarra with her leg to her nose, Lacarra with her leg to her ear, Pierre gently tugging Lacarra's delicately arched foot up over her head and toward her chin in what might loosely be described as an attitude derrière. It's quite a display, but is it dance? It seems a shame. Lacarra has a distinctive, sinewy way of moving, a fine dramatic quality and she can be almost dogmatically musical; she doesn't have to dance a piece like this to be a star.

In a major loss to the stage, Joanna Berman will be retiring from San Francisco Ballet after this season. Predictably, choreographers seem to be rushing to work with her before she leaves and one of the most prominent among them is Mark Morris, who created a solo for Berman last summer (also to the music of Franz Schubert), entitled Later. One might waggishly wonder if he was referring to "when we might actually see choreography." Given a dancer of exquisite musical sense, steely technique, a finely-tuned dramatic instinct and infinite intelligence, Mark Morris gave her … nothing. The piece began with Berman onstage with her accompanist, Roy Bogas on the piano. There were some very simple phrases of port de bras, which Berman executed with a sensitive feeling, some walking, and some arabesques. We waited for the piece to take off, for it to break out and show us her range, her quicksilver abilities, but it was not forthcoming. Berman, being the kind of dancer she is, inserted shards of brilliance through sheer artistry to what was ultimately a choreographic void.

The premiere of Helgi Tomasson's Bartok Divertimento took the stage next, and it was relief to see rangy movement. The quartet of Tina Le Blanc, partnered by Peter Brandenhoff, Gonzalo Garcia and Zachary Hench made for a pleasantly upbeat abstraction. Le Blanc shot through the piece with her customary aplomb, ably supported by Brandenhoff's secure partnering.

Better and better, Stanton Welch's La Cathedral Engloutie, to the music of Claude Debussy, followed. Created for another ballet gala in 1997, the roles were originated by Elizabeth Loscavio and Yuri Possokhov and taken here by Possokhov and Yuan Yuan Tan. In 1997 the piece made no impact on me. I can't even remember what it looked like. But after this gala, I'll always remember the passionate abandon of Yuan Yuan Tan recklessly throwing herself toward Possokhov. Tan continues to add depth to her dancing and in Welch's work; she was profoundly eloquent and moving against Possokhov's stoic command. It was a perfect pairing: his flawless dancing and gravitas grounded but also intensified her extravagant ardor.

The evening closed with two sections from George Balanchine's American paean Stars and Stripes: the Men's Regiment, led by the infectious and ebullient Gonzalo Garcia, and the finale, with Tiekka Schofield and Benjamin Pierce as the Liberty Bell and El Capitan. The men's regiment showed off a strong, if not particularly regimented, corps of dancers, and it was impossible not to love the sheer joy and enthusiasm that radiated from Garcia as he barrelled through his manèges in perfect time to the Sousa music and with a natural joie de vivre. The coda to the pas de deux for Liberty Bell and El Capitan, which immediately followed the men, was quite a bit beyond Schofield though she worked hard to be charming. She appeared not to know what to do with her arms and this hindered her attack into the steps. By contrast Pierce pushed all of his steps to the leading edge of the music and never looked like he was rushed or at a loss. By the time the other cadets and majorettes had joined them onstage for those final familiar grands battements and the red and white striped backdrop had risen from the floor, one could only marvel at Balanchine's genius in building such a perfect closing ballet.


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Edited by Marie.

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