San Francisco Ballet

Stern Grove Festival: 'Allegro Brillante,' ' In the middle, somewhat elevated,' 'The Waltz Project'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

July 26, 2003 -- Sigmund Stern Grove, San Francisco

Dancing outside in the summer has its hazards.   In New York last year, a friend reports, Merce Cunningham performed in the rain, their dancers dodging puddles backstage in their bare feet.   Another Critical Dance reader wrote me that at Trisha Brown's show at Damrosch Park (also in NY), a police helicopter circled overhead scanning the crowd with spotlights until the dancers had to stop.   And in San Francisco, it's always about the fog.

Sigmund Stern Grove, where the San Francisco Ballet gives a highly anticipated free performance every summer, can be burning with sunlight or shrouded in fog, or sometimes both in an hour.   Last Sunday though, the fog rolled in overnight and kept the mercury fluctuating at the Grove above and below 60°F, which was where the dancers' union had set the tipping point between show or no show.

One can't blame them at all. Three years ago, the dancers voted to give a dance-what-we-can performance to a grateful crowd.  They were in extra layers, we were in extra layers, everyone was freezing, but happy to see dance, and so it was this year.

Happiest of all this year, was getting to see Muriel Maffre rock the Grove once again in an excerpt from William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated."  Maffre electrified the audience with this pas de deux in 1995 and her interpretation has only gotten edgier and better since then.  Partnered by a solid Pierre-François Vilanoba, Maffre took their industrial-themed contention to new heights by bringing the audience into the game.  Sharp whacks of the leg from front through seconde, exquisitely phrased little rond de jambes and or off-balance balances would be followed with an unnerving glance out to the audience, as if to say, "Whose side are YOU on?"  Vilanoba worked with an elegant groundedness, stalking around her, acting as a both a counterbalance and a motivator of her movements.  But with each extension of her knee, or hip thrust off to the side, Maffre filled the spaces he created and solidified her control.

Peter Martins' "The Waltz Project" could only suffer by comparison.  Where Forsythe's phrases are filled with anticipation ("Where will she put that foot next?"), Martins' choreography is filled with puzzlement ("What is he trying to do?").  SFB showed only seven out of the eleven waltzes that make up the piece, but I'm willing to bet that only a few people noticed the piece had been cut.  As always, Julie Diana gave a coolly sophisticated reading of her adagio pas de deux with Brett Bauer, and Amanda Schull gave a winning performance as the cheerleader to David Arce's bored James Dean in "Dejavalse."  Catherine Winfield compact technique served her well in a duet with Steve Norman, and Pauli Magierek and Zachary Hench lent a nice playfulness to both the "Red Garnet Waltz" and the "Minute Waltz."

Hench was particularly fine in "Allegro Brillante," which opened the afternoon.  Although he and Vanessa Zahorian seemed imperfectly matched -- her hard-edged brilliance just never melded with his lanky noblesse -- it was a pleasant enough outing of the George Balanchine romance. Zahorian is still developing her sense of musicality, and has yet to unravel the quirkiness of Balanchine phrasing, although technically speaking she was on fire, dive-bombing the steps and hitting her combination double-triple pirouettes.

Musicality and phrasing was what I had been anticipating, no, salivating over, with Kristin Long cast as the lead in "Paquita."  Long hit some tantalizing turns during the warm up at intermission, but as the dancers voted, and the thermometer was consulted, the temperature continued to drop and the company finally had to drop their closing piece.  It was a shame, because it would have been a first look at Long's "Paquita," and I've no doubt it would have been filled with small gems, but perhaps next time.

The company travels to Edinburgh for the festival in August and then will bring two programs, including Yuri Possokhov and Helgi Tomasson's "Don Quixote," to Los Angeles after that.

Edited by Jeff

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