San Francisco Ballet
Program 1 (All-Robbins)

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

Jerome Robbins' "Fanfare", "Dances at a Gathering" & "Glass Pieces"

February 15, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt

For its first program of the season, San Francisco Ballet has chosen to highlight one of the great American choreographic masters, Jerome Robbins. The program that I saw last Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House was composed of solid selections that whetted the appetite for more of Robbins's work.

An appropriate lead-in to the program, indeed to the season, is Fanfare, which Jerome Robbins choreographed to the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten. Although a little dated-looking in the costumes (which probably looked pretty smashing in 1953), Fanfare is nevertheless an entertaining piece and notable in showing off the wide range of dancers in the company. It's important to remember that this was made for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England, and although it has a grandeur Robbin's sense of mischief slips in as well. The dancers take the work, for the most part, as a serious ballet, and this helps to lend weight to a well-constructed but essentially fluffy piece. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to see the beautiful mix of influences in the way that Robbins puts steps together. He tosses in brief quotations from other ballets (the four little swans from Swan Lake, the Chinese dance from The Nutcracker), but then also adds some square dance and folk dance steps amidst the neo-classical pomp. Notable among the performers on Friday night were Catherine Baker, who turned in a sweet performance as the piccolo; Tina Le Blanc, whose quick work as a clarinet was playful and light; Moises Martin with memorable clean, high changements Italienne; the magisterial Muriel Maffre as the harp, dancing with her usual security; Chidozie Nzerem, whose expressions injected a note of fun into the horn section, and the delightful pair of Pablo Piantino and James Sofranko as the trumpets. The main hindrance to the performance was that ironically, in a piece designed to showcase the orchestra, the orchestra seemed not to be "with" the dancers. Conductor Paul Hoskins really could look up more often to see whether or not the musicians are coordinating with the dancers.

Dances at a Gathering seems so perfect for the San Francisco Ballet that it comes almost as a surprise to realize it's never been in their repertoire before. This introspective series of solos and pas de deux for an ensemble of five couples is one of Robbins's best-known and best-loved works. Set to the music of Frederic Chopin, Dances abstractly depicts young people wandering in and out of dances, sometimes moved by the music, sometimes by mood. Although Robbins was absolutely adamant that there was no plot, atmosphere is everything. The phrases that he puts together are beautiful, but the work is nothing without the personalities of the dancers. In Friday's performance, despite a strong cast, expertly coached by Susan Hendl and Victor Castelli, there was still a perfume missing in the air.

Individually, each of the ten (a nice mix of corps, soloists and principals) danced well. Gonzalo Garcia, as the Boy in Brown, set the stage with a limpid solo that was oddly unemotional for him. As the ballet progressed he seemed to settle more and more into the role and though his partnering lacked romance, some of his customary exuberance began to show in his duets. As the Girl in Mauve, Julie Diana seemed also tentative, although she was engaging in her duet with Ruben Martin as the Boy in Green. Katita Waldo, in Blue gave an easy playful performance, and of the group, only she and Joanna Berman, in Pink, seemed to have the easy camaraderie that Robbins sought to evoke. Berman was partnered in her duets by Ben Pierce in Purple, who replaced Yuri Possokhov at the last second that evening. Despite the change, the two of them danced delightfully together, and set an example for the kind of ease and rapport that the others appeared to struggle a little with. Their second pas de deux had a longing that was palpable, and the way in which Pierce presented and cared for Berman as a partner was touching. Peter Brandenhoff was solid as the Boy in Blue. Kristen Long as the Girl in Yellow was fleet-footed and partnered well with Hansuke Yamamoto, who took on the role of the Boy in Brick. Her bubbly running backwards and general effervescence showed off a sense of humour that was charming. The trio for Berman, Diana, and Waldo began dreamily, but the great pleasure of it was watching the three of them respond so consciously to Michael McGraw's playing. Wandering in from another village it seemed, Lorena Feijoo as the Girl in Green was one of the only ones to put a particular stamp on her role. Her coquettishness and sunny indifference were particularly right for the role of the girl who didn't care if the men passed her by or not.

Although long, Dances at a Gathering is obviously the sort of work that can transport an audience given the right set of conditions. Without a doubt, it's worth seeing on these dancers again; one has the distinct sense that after a few performances, it will be an entirely different animal.

In a bright, argon-coloured change of pace, Glass Pieces closed the program. If you felt sleepy after Dances, you were awake when the curtain went up on Glass Pieces. Created late in Robbins's career, it has all the liveliness and invention of his jazz works, and it is driven hard by the Philip Glass score. Crowds of people fill the scene and then dissolve into the sleek duos of Leslie Young and Zachary Hench, Tiekka Schofield and Kirill Zaretsky, and Nicole Starbuck with Parrish Maynard. This has to be the least offensive use of Glass music, excepting perhaps Koyaanisqatsi. The alien look of the dancers amidst the rush of the crowds is provocative and before you can get tired of the dance phrases being repeated and added on one by one, the section is over. For the "Facades" section, Yuan Yuan Tan danced an even more alien-looking pas de deux with Cyril Pierre (who replaced Possokhov in this piece). Tan is developing a keen sense of what is effective in a line, and she used her hyper-flexibility to her advantage, contrasting with the isolinear work of the corps de ballet who sidled past in the upstage shadows. The "Akhnaten" section looked crisp although the positions were not always matched well among the corps, and the coupe jeté section looked like chaos. Nevertheless it was a good finish to an enjoyable diversion. One senses a kind of programmatic irony in that the piece which felt the most repetitive and faintly dull was the Chopin work, while the piece set to the famously repetitive and dull music of Philip Glass turned out to be the most fun.


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Edited by Marie.

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