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San Francisco Ballet

Opening Gala: 'Little Waltz,' Pas de Trois from 'Divertissements d'Auber,' 'Shogun,' Excerpt from 'Without Words,' 'Norwegian Moods,' 'Chaconne for Piano and two Dancers,' Pas de Deux from Act II of 'Giselle,' Pas de Trois from 'Agon,' 'Concerto Grosso,' 'Grand Pas Classique,' 'No Other,' Finale from 'Diamonds'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

January 29, 2003 -- War Memorial Opera House

The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" came to mind at San Francisco Ballet's Opening Gala last night at the War Memorial Opera House. It was an evening to admire the talent that is coming up through the ranks, as well as appreciate the virtuousity of the company's best dancers, who offered performances that elevated mere steps into artistry.

The actual program was, truth be told, a mishmash of standard gala fare, peppered with contemporary works, Balanchine favorites, and just some plain old showpieces. But the eclecticism of the evening is never really an issue at these kinds of galas. The opening night is a show-off, and gives us the opportunity to see the breadth of the repertoire and the depth of the talent.

The usual pre-curtain speeches included the presentation of the Lew Christensen Medal to Jocelyn Vollmar, who has been with San Francisco Ballet now for almost sixty-five years. Vollmar, who continues to teach at the San Francisco Ballet School, enjoyed a long international career that included sixteen years as prima ballerina at SFB under founding director Christensen and her contributions to the ballet stage have obviously not been forgotten.

The evening opened "Etudes"-style, with some twenty-nine students from San Francisco Ballet performing Helgi Tomasson's "Little Waltz." Coached quite expertly by Kathleen Mitchell, the young dancers, who ranged from perhaps six years old to pre-professional age, had a nice presence, and admirable composure, with especially notable alignment in their epaulement, despite a few dropped elbows. Whether they were charming, or perhaps merely cute, the audience was in the mood for it, and they received a deserved warm round of applause.

Nevertheless, we were there to see the stars come out, and with a single spring onto stage, Guennadi Nedviguine set the bar for the technical level of the dancing. Appropriately, for the seventieth anniversary of the company, the company chose to feature a trio of technical whizzes, Nedviguine with Katita Waldo and Vanessa Zahorian, in a pas de trois from "Divertissements d'Auber," a Lew Christensen ballet created on Jocelyn Vollmar.

Although Zahorian was securely on her leg as usual -- in a few of her attitude turns, she looked as if she'd gotten "stuck" on her leg -- a more extremely crossed soussous and pas de bourée would have added extra sparkle. Waldo, however, was all effervescence in her variation of fast piqués. A lightning-speed series of échappés with passés moving backward showed her at her most flirtatious and dazzling. Waldo is one of the unsung artists of the company, and I, for one, hope to see much more of her this season.

Nedviguine's talent, on the other hand, is seen so often that I sometimes forget how exciting and yet neat it can be. He opened his variation with a simple but taxing combination that included a lofty entrechat cinq with beats so clean you could count each and every crossing. But lest one think he is just a jumping machine, his manege of coupé jetés mixed with double tours in passé was not only tidy, but also gasp-inducing.

"Shogun," an Japanese-Brazilian modern vehicle choreographed by Ivonice Satie to the music of Milton Nascimiento, followed on the program. As danced by Peter Brandenhoff and Joan Boada, the sex appeal aspect was undeniable. Brandenhoff turned every small contraction into a seduction and Boada's low, hovering swivels on the floor were almost feral. Boada and Brandenhoff have rather different movement styles however. Each is a very fine dancer in his own way, but visually, they never appeared to meld together, and somehow the effect of the piece was less ritualistic than jazzy, with a manufactured drama.

Muriel Maffre and Benjamin Pierce offered a duet -- which later turned into a trio with Moises Martin -- from Nacho Duato's sublime "Without Words." It is hard to place this work into it's proper atmosphere when excerpted like this, but once again, there was the pleasure of watching two artists make a piece of choreography their very own. Maffre, for instance, even rolls on the floor differently from anyone else I've seen. With her attenuated thinness, you might think she'd bump and crunch as she revolved along the ground for her entrance, but somehow she insinuates her body seamlessly into the movement. In a trade-off of promenades, she and Pierce contrived to make each sweep of a leg in rond de jambe appear to push against the other person behind them. The mood was one of rapt attention in the house, and one could sense the question hanging in the air, "what will they do next?"

Next, however, was "Norwegian Moods," a playful pas de deux by Christensen, this time to the music of Igor Stravinsky. A Christensen-era danseur remarked to me at intermission that "Lew's work can be cerebral," and "Norwegian Moods" is certainly cerebral, while appearing to be deceptively simple. The pastoral setting and Gonzalo Garcia's ebullient quality gave the piece a liveliness that belied the technical complication. Clara Blanco, for her part, was up to the technical challenges, but her faintly pensive air was in contrast to Garcia's lighter temperament. As usual, one can't help but like Garcia's performing persona. He's delightful simply because he seems to relish being onstage. When he nearly barrels his way out of turns in seconde -- spotting front, back, up, down -- but manages to pull it off, the crowd goes wild.

The first half of the program closed with Helgi Tomasson's "Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers," to the music of George Friederich Handel. If there's any dancer capable of making a role her own, it's Kristin Long, who danced "Chaconne" with Yuri Possokhov. Long's special talent is to make choices of musical phrasing that are idiosyncratic, yet so effective, that you imagine a role as being made specifically for her. Relevés and descents from pointe are plush and spongy, while her turns and quicksilver manèges are precise and hard-edged. Possokhov, who may be the finest partner in the company, is always in a class of his own. A simple port de corps and arch of his back is enough to set the tone for the piece, and his graceful support, combined with Long's sangfroid, turned a serviceable piece of abstract choreography into something memorable.

The second half of the program began with the sentimental favourites Julie Diana and Zachary Hench, dancing the famous pas de deux from the second act of "Giselle." Diana has all the right qualities for this role, the tilt of the upper body into a pose, lovely arms, and a Romantic softness, but even so, she needs time to develop into the role. And it seems faintly unfair to orphan such a dramatic moment from its context and force the dancers to create a mystical mood of loss, regret, and longing for a crowd of people who have just battled through noisy hordes in order to wash down a quick glass of champagne and hustle back to their seat. Still, Diana and Hench have the beginning of a tender partnership. Although he seemed a bit undone by the time he arrived at the pirouettes at the end of his variation, he was composed enough to partner Diana delicately throughout and I particularly liked the way in which he took her waist before a series of supported sissonnes.

In a rather sharp change of pace, the moonlit forest was whisked away to be replaced by the sharp blue background of "Agon." The pas de trois was danced with attack by Leslie Young, Parrish Maynard and Catherine Winfield, although it was an energy not matched by the orchestra. In the hands of conductor Andrew Mogrelia, Stravinsky's music lacked the biting quality that helps to define Balanchine's angular choreography. Nevertheless, Maynard took advantage of the somewhat mushy tempos to give him time for some extra-flexible battements while Young and Winfield essayed the branle gai with an appropriately detached coltishness.

"Concerto Grosso" gave us a chance to admire the depth of technique among the male danseurs, and catch a glimpse of the considerable elevation of Pascal Molat, who joined the company this year as a soloist. With its never-ending parade of "men's class" tricks, "Concerto Grosso" seems more of a marathon than a ballet. Nevertheless, the five dancers, including Jaime Garcia Castilla, Hansuke Yamamoto, Garrett Anderson, and Rory Hohenstein, demonstrated a fluid grace and the kind of elegant, sleek port de bras that makes me wonder if they've all been watching Possokhov closely in class.

The fireworks began building to a frenzy as Yuan Yuan Tan and Vadim Solomakha took the stage with the ultimate gala showstopper, "Grand Pas Classique." At this point, it's almost impossible to see this piece and not think of either Sylvie Guillem's sky-high extensions or Cynthia Gregory's unbelievable balances. But as sky-high extensions and amazing balances go, Tan is a natural for the pas de deux. Solomakha, on the other hand, while advancing rapidly as a solo performer, is still weak in the partnering area. One can't help but notice that in supported adagios like this one, his partners look ... well, worried. Nevertheless, Tan seemed determined to ignore any concern, and no matter where she was, she hung onto her balances like grim death. Her variation, fraught with pitfalls, was the epitome of self-possessed, and after nailing the long diagonal of relevés, she whipped into a manége of piqués so fast the orchestra almost trailed behind her.

To follow this is a challenge, but one which Lorena Feijoo is always up for. In the San Francisco premiere of Val Caniparoli's "No Other," she and partner Damian Smith tore up the floor, with a tango-inspired duet set to Richard Rodgers's "Beneath the Southern Cross." It must be fun to throw back your head, knowing you're secure in Smith's arms, and Feijoo looked like she enjoyed every second of it. Although Caniparoli has filled "No Other" with tricky partnering -- with some of sweeping movements you might see in the Latin competition on Championship Ballroom Dancing, but none of the superfluous drama -- Feijoo and Smith made it look liquid and easy. Still, it wouldn't be Feijoo if she didn't find the places to connect with the audience and bring them along with a flirty shrug of her shoulders, and we were all too happy to go with her.

On your best day of dancing ever, to follow both Tan and Feijoo is a near unsurmountable task. A few of us debated about the wisdom of choosing Sarah Van Patten and Sergio Torrado to lead the finale of "Diamonds" to conclude the program. In the end, I believe it was a chance worth taking, since both dancers are obviously capable of doing more than just executing the choreography. In practice though, Van Patten and Torrado were simply not up to leading thirty-two dancers in a crashing Balanchinean closer. Lost in the crowd, they struggled to find the music, (which was, admittedly, still under a mushy baton) and Van Patten's nervousness got the better of her technique.

Even so, one can't help but appreciate that this is why some aficionados come back to the opera house, night after night, and to Sunday matinees, hoping to see that debut of a corps member that holds the spark of promise. If Van Patten and Torrado had another ten shows to do of "Diamonds," they would no doubt begin to find their way through it. Driven by experience, and the example of artists such as Long, Waldo, Possokhov, Feijoo, Nedviguine, Maffre, Smith and Tan, many of these talented younger dancers will certainly develop their own unique style, and the home audience will be privileged to see that evolution in the coming weeks.

The Ballet's regular season begins February 4 at the War Memorial Opera House.

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