San Francisco Ballet

Program 7: "Silver Ladders", "Damned", "Sandpaper Ballet"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

April 23 & 24, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt

To have one talented in-house choreographer is a wonderful thing, but to have two drawn right from the ranks of your dancers is almost a surfeit of riches, and in Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov San Francisco Ballet has just that. Possokhov's newest work, "Damned", which premiered at the War Memorial Opera House on Tuesday night, showed us a choreographer of not only sensitivity but imagination. For the penultimate program of the season, the company offered "Damned" on a mixed bill that included the perennial Mark Morris favorite "Sandpaper Ballet", as well as Helgi Tomasson's puzzling "Silver Ladders".

The abstract "Silver Ladders" opened the program. Tomasson's remarks in the program note that he had in his mind a depiction of a ritualistic gathering place such as Stonehenge. As I read this to my companion, he said, "It's "Spinal Tap!" referring to the infamous 18-inch Stonehenge incident in the movie "This is Spinal Tap". Sure there were dancing dwarfs, which San Francisco Ballet certainly did not have, but at least "Spinal Tap" had a sense of humour about it. To my eyes, Katita Waldo fared better with the musical dynamics of the Joan Tower score than did Lucia Lacarra, who performed on opening night, and Sherri LeBlanc and Vanessa Zahorian gave brave performances in the trio on each night, but ultimately there's really very little they can do with what they are given. Although Waldo and Lacarra attempted a kind of regal air, they seemed uncertain as to whether they were aliens or princesses, or maybe alien princesses.

Nevertheless, whatever might be said about Tomasson's own ballets, he has never had trouble recognizing a good choreographer when he sees one. Possokhov's second premiere for SFB, "Damned" was without doubt a rousing success. One can quibble about the details of the costumes or the dramatics of a death scene, but on Tuesday night, the audience at the Opera House was on its feet following Joanna Berman's stirring performance as the protagonist, Medea.

Berman was joined by Roman Rykine as Jason and Yuan Yuan Tan as the princess that Jason puts aside Medea to marry. To say that Berman nearly erased thoughts of all the other leads is no small thing. Tan's beautiful line never stopped throughout her opening pas de deux, set to Maurice Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" (the rest of the score is derived from Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand). Her delicacy and grace gave Possokhov's choreography its maximum range. Nicole Starbuck, however, was astonishing dancing the same role on Wednesday with Guennadi Nedviguine as Jason. With a glamorous presence that I have not seen before from her, Starbuck embraced the youth and innocence of the princess making a fine contrast with Lorena Feijoo's dark portrayal of Medea.

Both Feijoo and Berman are somewhat bound by Possokhov's direction. Specifically, he wanted them to use their faces less and allow the drama to originate from the rest of their bodies, through the dancing. Feijoo, however, is a facial dancer, and is not served by keeping that part of her expressiveness in check. Her movement is superb and sometimes eerie, as in the ripples through her back and shoulders when she straightens up from a contraction, but it was not until she began her final solo that she unleashed the full power of her eyes and face.

Berman's Medea was similarly constrained, but more successful at clearly outlining her feelings. Her pas de deux with Rykine quickly deteriorated into a frenzied violent tussle and Berman's sense of purpose and resolve materialized very quickly during their altercation. She emphasized the most delicate moments of her solos with as much ease and drive as she did the most earthy. When she emerged from under her cloak with a positively deranged look on her face, after murdering her two young sons, the deep contrast between Ravel's Pavane and her resigned walk away was riveting.

As with any new work, some things were more successful than others. The stark bareness of the single twisted tree, set in grass as a background, was effective, as was the red poisoned scarf that floated down from the heavens into Medea's hands. But the immolation of the princess in a flare of flame-like silk cloths was perhaps a little too theatrical and abrupt. And while the steps for Jason were wonderful, the development of his character was a bit thin. Rykine and Nedviguine both acquitted themselves well, but Jason's motivations remained unclear at the end. Still, Possokhov has an eye for iconic moments and creates undeniably gorgeous, thrilling choreography.

The loony "Sandpaper Ballet", a Morris homage to kitsch, closed the program. The company performs this ballet so often that for some of the dancers, it seems to be wearing on them a little. Smiles looked a bit forced on the corps, but nevertheless, there were a few standout performances. For the audience, there's always a light giggle even before the curtain goes up as the orchestra begins the first Leroy Anderson tune and this time conductor Jean LeRoux gave us an even more rollicking "Sleigh Ride" overture than usual. On Tuesday night, James Sofranko gave a light appealing performance in the "Trumpeter's Lullaby" section. Michael Eaton had more of a cruising breezy attack the next night. Gonzalo Garcia was irrepressible as always, and both he and Benjamin Pierce had an appealing way of inviting the audience in on their little dancing jokes.

During the "Jazz Pizzicato" though, I really started to think about the impact of Berman's retirement on this company. This section is strictly ensemble; there really isn't a principal in this group of twelve women, who all dance the same steps in tight unison block. Berman is front and center though, and you spot her immediately. Without question, she is the leader, hitting the music dead-on, and flirting joyfully with the audience the entire time. Dancers and audience members alike have noted that in this, her final season, Berman is dancing like never before. More than ever she is the kind of principal dancer that is the glue holding the company together. Her dancing is secure and yet she takes the risky chances that make watching ballet exciting and immediate. I can't imagine the company without her.


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Edited by Marie.

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