San Francisco Ballet


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

March 12, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt

If San Francisco Ballet was looking for a vehicle befitting its talented roster, it’s certainly found one in George Balanchine’s Jewels. Just about every active principal and soloist in the company, and a hefty proportion of corps members had their moment in the sun in this tri-partite work, and three nights at the War Memorial Opera House revealed how well the company has taken to this ballet.

Balanchine concocted the three abstract ballets, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds around the theme of precious gems, but each is also a tribute to the Romantic French era, the American jazz style and Russian classicism, respectively. Created originally on New York City Ballet, Jewels has been in the repertoire of only a few major international companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, Miami City Ballet and the Cincinnati Ballet, each with its own particular interpretation. The defining quality of San Francisco Ballet’s version seems to be a youthful freshness that underlies each of the movements, along with strong technique and effervescence.

Emeralds is sometimes thought to be the least brilliant of the three ballets in Jewels, but many would probably concede that perhaps it isn’t dull but subtle, like the beautiful Fauré music that accompanies it. Both Rubies and Diamonds are fairly accessible: there's no plot and the style and moods of those two ballets are fairly straightforward. Emeralds is, however, more mysterious. I find myself wanting to ascribe a story to it, or at least to figure out what’s going on inside the dancers’ minds and all of the leads projected just the right Romantic sense of longing. In most of the solos there is an air of seeking, and in the pas de deux the partners dance with each other but always seem to be searching for someone else. It’s a reminder of La Sylphide, in which the feckless hero goes chasing after impalpable pipe dreams.

On Tuesday and Thursday, the "Fileuse" was danced graciously and with elegant deportment by Joanna Berman who was partnered by Cyril Pierre. A fileuse is also a spinner, sometimes the spinner of mens’ fates, and Berman’s famously liquid arms and back capture the essence of the idea with her twining, enigmatic port de bras. Her performance seemed to me to be more internal than usual, but the flow was seamless and the partnering from Cyril Pierre was thoughtful and caring. He supported Berman’s grands jetés croisé admirably, giving an almost invisible loft to an awkward lift. Their attention to detail throughout Emeralds brought interest to every moment. When Pierre offered his hand, and when Berman accepted, the exchange was both refined and intimate.

In the same roles on Friday, Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov were also polished, although Feijoo seemed hesitant at times and her expression was occasionally more blank than mysterious. Possokhov was very much the Romantic hero, rushing toward Feijoo, who would melt away from him before he could catch her and the two of them together displayed a beautiful sensitivity to the accents in the music. Berman has also that quality of making you see the music, which seems to come out of every inch of her right down to her fingertips, so that a simple thing like a soutenu turn begins to look otherworldly.

Otherworldly might also describe the other lead couple, danced Tuesday and Friday by Julie Diana and Damian Smith. Diana is a perfect type for Balanchine’s dreamy, slightly abstracted muses. In the “Sicilienne” solo to a beautiful flute theme from Pelléas et Mélisande, Diana wove peripatetically through a series of playful, meandering steps, sometimes seeming pleased at a particularly luxurious movement, and other times lost in thought. Her work was, of course, far more relaxed on Friday night when the obvious pleasure of moving showed clearly on her face and in the beautifully held arabesque at the end of her solo. Muriel Maffre, dancing the same part on Thursday was a little more etched and sure of herself, and the resulting performance was secure, yet still capricious. For his part, Smith seemed on the first night to be dazed, or perhaps shocked. As the nights progressed though, his approach became clearer and I began to see him more as the Poet from in Les Sylphides, in counterpoint to Possokhov’s impetuous “James” type, from La Sylphide. As always, his support of his partner in some complex moments was noble, even more so when he stepped in at the last moment for an indisposed Benjamin Pierce on Thursday night. The “walking pas de deux” likewise improved during the run. Diana and Smith on the opening night appeared not yet to have found the right personality for this strange piece of choreography, but Maffre and Smith developed the image of a trancelike dreamer walking beside a dream-creature, which seemed to have helped Diana’s approach on Friday.

The Emeralds trio was danced on opening night by Parrish Maynard, Catherine Baker and Sherri LeBlanc, all of whom were bright and energetic, but with LeBlanc especially standing out. She gives just that extra little push for a jump or leans a little more in her body so that she always looks to be doing more than anyone else on stage. Her solo had a coltish quality that was embodied in the careless inversion of her renverses. Vanessa Zahorian in the same part on Friday gave a genuine performance that was sprightly and vivacious. For his brief solo, Maynard danced cleanly. He doesn’t have a lot of elevation, but he makes up for it by getting quickly to a position so that you hardly notice the height of the jump and instead remember an expansive movement. Guennadi Nedviguine danced the same role on Friday with his customary easy-going technique, giving the part a sense of humour with witty phrasing.

In the frothy penultimate divertissement, Pierre’s solo work was the best that I have seen from him all season, although the vicissitudes of Balanchine’s quick battements occasionally eluded him. Still, he strove for more cleanliness into and out of his positions, and danced even better on Thursday night than he had at the opening. Both Feijoo and Berman demonstrated that hallmark of a principal, doing the same step as the corps of dancers behind her, but executing it with more clarity, amplitude and feeling.

The beautiful, faceted pas de sept that concludes Emeralds offered a luscious apotheosis. This kind of ending is quite usual in many of the older ballets, although in most of them the entire company poses in a final uplifted tableau, whereas in Emeralds, true to the Romantic spirit, the women float away and the trio of men sink to one knee and seem to gesture off as if they were still looking far away and beyond for their dreams.

After the intermission it always feels a little startling to go straight into Rubies with the preoccupations of Emeralds still in the air. Not to say that the change is unwelcome, but if Emeralds ends like a scent on a breeze wafting away, Rubies is like a punch to the gut when you return. From the second the curtain went up, Muriel Maffre was the undisputed queen of the piece, dwarfing just about everybody on the stage with her elongated extensions, and putting them all to shame by moving twice as fast as dancers half her size. She can be occasionally a little hard in her facial expression, so the spark of gaiety in her eyes was refreshing. When she exited with the condescension of a queen, she took all the time she wanted with brazenly deep, controlled penchees in arabesque. The other dancers, the men particularly, looked like they not having nearly as much fun as Maffre. Yuan Yuan Tan, dancing on Thursday night was not as self-assured, but she did give off a sultry appeal.

The pas de deux was danced by Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia on opening night. It’s the kind of thing that they could both do in their sleep, although LeBlanc seemed uncharacteristically subdued. She exuded a pertness that was sweet, but not as spicy as Lorena Feijoo in the same role on Thursday. This is the kind of role that Feijoo lives for: fast, sexy, unexpected and with plenty of room for a knowledgeable, arch charm. With Possokhov to play off of, she flirted kittenishly, slapping his hand emphatically, drawing her foot into poses and then flashing a look that made me wonder if she was coming on to him, or to the whole audience. Garcia looks like he’s been shot out of cannon. It seems as though one can’t stop him once he’s started, and while the beginning of Rubies seemed studied, it wasn’t long before it became clear that he was planning to build to a frenzy by the end of the piece. Building to a frenzy is no small feat either. By mid-way through Rubies, there are no more breaks, the tempo picks up and the steps only become more bravura. There’s not a second for whiffling or even grabbing a quick hit off of an oxygen tank. He powered through the jogging section, chased by four men and tossed off a series of double character saut de basques almost without a thought, then whirled offstage in his emboités at breakneck speed. Yuri Possokhov was not quite as fast as Garcia, but the pleasure was in seeing him whisk through those steps with immaculate precision: during his exit, you could clearly see the “kick” backward on every other emboité turn.

For Kristin Long and Stephen Legate, who danced in the pas de deux on Friday, it was more about fun than anything else. Legate was, understandably, slightly frantic by the end, but both were still adorable.

As the closing ballet, Diamonds is meant to show the crowning glory of dance: Imperial Russian formalism at its best. The structure is strictly classical, with an introduction danced by the corps, brief variations for the soloists, and then the grand pas de deux, some divertissements and a final polonaise. While the corps could have been somewhat cleaner in their work (tendus were not quite crossed, and the torsos looked a little relaxed for such a formal “tutu ballet”), Yuan Yuan Tan and Roman Rykine were the epitome of classical purity in their performances on Tuesday and Friday. Tan has arrived at the point where she no longer merely dances a role, but rather takes it and makes it her own and to see her delineation of the style against Rykine’s superb support was a real treat. He took some trouble to match her glorious lines with exquisite results. In a headlong dive into his arms, she flipped over quickly in a swoon and you could feel the audience sigh. Tan seemed to inspire the lush Tchaikovsky music and to relish being on stage more and more as the pas de deux progressed, finding the idiosyncratic accents in the music and using them with supreme confidence. Julie Diana and Vadim Solomakha on Thursday night were rather serious and a little gentler in their approach, although the two of them danced beautifully together, with a strong sense of the courtesy that is inherent in a grand pas de deux. A particular moment that stood out for me in her performance was the sight of Solomakha on one knee before her, and her bemused smile as she glanced down at him.

The Russian theme which followed was performed on Tuesday by the four soloists, Catherine Baker, Sherri LeBlanc, Tiekka Schofield and Leslie Young, who were appealing, although they did not particularly evoke a “character” style in the carriage of their upper bodies, Leslie Young and Sherri LeBlanc stood out especially for their lovely quality of movement however. Rykine’s solo seemed all too easy for him, with perfect cabrioles and easy double tours that landed gently. The only shaky moment in the opening was during a series of turns in seconde and he staunchly kept going to the end. In Friday’s performance he was rock-solid and sailed through the turns with pristine technique. Tan’s variation was secure, and although she did seem a touch worried in a difficult manege of turns en dedans the first night, by Friday she seemed to have decided to just throw herself into it and make up for it with alacrity.

The polonaise was much better than the opening corps section although they did have some trouble staying in lines. Nevertheless, the dancers were neat and much more specific in their movements. The whole finale however, was about Tan leading thirty-two dancers with sheer charisma. Rykine himself couldn’t take his eyes off of her, and out of the thirty four people onstage, she was the only one I wanted to watch. The audience was in the palm of her hand by the end.

The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Neal Stulberg whose sensitivity to the needs of the dancers transcended style. Whether it was Fauré, Stravinsky, or Tchaikovsky, Stulberg made the most out of the music and brought the best out of the dancing. “Is it hard to conduct an evening like this?” I wondered aloud. “Oh, yeah!” my companion exclaimed, “You could strain something going from conducting Fauré to Stravinsky!” Like the San Francisco Ballet, Stulberg did it all with the greatest of ease.


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Edited by Marie.

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