San Francisco Ballet

Program 5: 'The Waltz Project,' 'Nanna's Lied,' 'Connotations'
Program 6: 'Jewels'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

April 4, 5, 2003 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

In a way, this pair of programs typify the SFB season for me: filled with anticipation and high hopes, which were rewarded with some truly wonderful dancing, but at the core -- I fear there's no other way to say it -- to me, there was a lack of inspiration programmatically in No. 5 and a lack of inspiration stylistically in No. 6.

Maybe it's getting to be the end of a very long season, maybe I'm just turning into a crotchety old lady. I often joke that on my grave will be written, "Loved the dancers, but not the choreography." Never was it more true than in Program 5.

Everyone seems tired these days and with worries hanging over everyone's heads from finances to health to war, it's been hard to get in the mood to enjoy much of anything. The overall gray feeling that has dominated my world seeped into a viewing of San Francisco Ballet's Program 5, a collection of rather gray works which included "The Waltz Project," "Nanna's Lied," and "Connotations." Of all the programs thus far, this was probably the least glamorous and most modern of SFB's offerings: a curious collection of what I think of as "… and then there was that other ballet" ballets. You know which ballets I'm talking about: that third piece on a roster which serves to fill out the evening, but which isn't quite memorable enough to make a strong impact on its own. Except that this was an evening of them.

Program 6's "Jewels" on the other hand, is an evening filled with sublime choreography. However, without a carefully coached distinctiveness in the styles that separate each section,--- Emeralds," "Rubies," and "Diamonds" -- the evening threatens to become a long mush of pretty dances to music of varying tempi.

Nevertheless, the dancers gave it all they had in both programs, and there were certainly moments to appreciate because of that.

Peter Martins' self-consciously off-beat "The Waltz Project" gave us the kind of interesting and angular contortions that he first experimented with in the "Calcium Night Light" era. Benjamin Pierce and Julie Diana lent their duet a sureness that put them a cut above the others; something about Diana's "Who, me, do something weird?" glances at the audience was pleasantly witty. And in a romantic waltz to music by Robert Moran, Pierce and Diana contrived to make the extreme choreography look entirely tasteful while still using technique to serve the dance.

This pert character was in contrast to the coolly serene Diana that played princess to Vadim Solomakha's cavalier in "Diamonds" the next night. Through the season, Diana seems to have been working on creating different moods for each character: slightly diva-ish in "Elite Syncopations;" young and warm in "Dances at a Gathering." In Diamonds, she was graciously and expansive, not in the manner of Yuan Yuan Tan -- whose "Diamonds" has the quality of a headlong rush -- but with a very refined elegance.

Tan, whose depth has increased ten-fold in the last two seasons, tackled one of (in my humble opinion) the most thankless roles in the entire run, that of Nanna in Helgi Tomasson's depressing, Weimar fable "Nanna's Lied." Her intelligence and resolve sparkled, even in the curtailed space of John Macfarlane's drab monolithic set and the manufactured drama concocted for the ballet.

"Nanna's Lied" somehow brings out a prudish streak in me. I find it hard to see interest in the unrelenting ugliness and oppression of her story or the choreography, which sketches out the degradation of an innocent a little too literally and tritely for me. The wonderful singer, Francine Lancaster, did justice to Kurt Weill's songs, but the ballet did not do the same for the kind of life and complex mix of emotions and motivations that Weill sought to express.

Yuri Possokhov, as Nanna's faithless lover, Johnny, was suitably indifferent, even brutal, but as his role has only a single note to offer, there wasn't much else for him to do. Much more enjoyable was his turn in "Rubies" in the Edward Villella role. I dare say that I haven't seen him have that much fun all year. Partnering with Lorena Feijoo, he gave her the solidity that allowed her to be her flirty self while his own technique --I'm thinking of his brilliant emboites offstage after the "chase scene" -- was fast and stylish, as usual.

SFB's queen of "Rubies" though, is Muriel Maffre. From the opening line-up, we're not sure if she's so much smiling, or smirking, but either way, she has us all in the palm of her hand. As the four corps men skitter around her, manipulating her limbs, she fixes this one then that one in her gaze and seems to assess the nerve in each.

Maybe SFB should have "In Muriel We Trust" engraved above the entrance to their building. As I've noticed before in other programs, her carefully thought-out, but very unusual work -- in Program 5 it was with Pierre Francois Vilanoba in Val Caniparoli's "Connotations" -- was the one thing that really made me sit up all evening. Of all the dancers, the choreography seems to be etched most clearly on Maffre, perhaps because her length makes it all the more legible onstage. But it's not only the technical aspects of her dancing that draw attention. In Maffre we clearly see how each step and impulse comes from within. A leg thrown upwards from nowhere somehow looks like a cry ripped from her gut.

Katita Waldo has something of that same "work from within" feeling about her dancing. Her role as the interloper/searcher in "Connotations" revealed a steely control, which was in sharp contrast to, say, her gentleness in "Dances at a Gathering" earlier this season, or her sexy turn as the street dancer in "Don Q." In "Emeralds" she gave us a playful interpretation of the Sicilienne. It was a reading that had less of the physical amplitude that Maffre or Diana have given the role, but was inviting, like watching someone wander in a garden on a sunny day.

Waldo has the breadth of experience though, to color her roles, giving "Emeralds" a quite different flavor from the other sections of the ballet. Only a few others (Maffre, Possokhov, Feijoo, Diana) seemed to understand that the key to "Jewels" was in the attention to style, that each section is differentiated, not by the steps alone, but by their approach to the steps and their bearing and attitude within each part. Given the modern economy, no doubt, few of the dancers have had the chance to wear a jeweled necklace of the dimensions to be found on their costumes, but even so, I wished that they could have convinced me that they were more accustomed to wearing emeralds around their necks.

Even so there were several good moments from the cast I saw of "Jewels." The more I see of Pascal Molat the better I like him, and I liked him a lot to begin with. In the trio of "Emeralds," his springy jumps and soft easy landings drew the eye away from his very respectable partners, Nicole Starbuck and Vanessa Zahorian. And as a soloist in "Diamonds," Dalene Bramer hit a solid balance in textbook perfect arabesque on one of her exits, that she held for what seemed an eternity. Perhaps no one really noticed it, because there was so much else going on onstage, but I found myself riveted.

Amanda Schull, who stands out when given a role that suits her, made a saucy, sneakered tomboy in "Dejavalse." Partner David Arce was a steady straight man to her boppy all-American girl. And the usually cheerful pair of Pablo Piantino and James Sofranko, gave the men's duet in "Nanna's Lied" a disturbingly predatory spin.

In the end, as always, I left impressed with the level of the dancing, but dearly wishing that the programming and coaching of the company were stronger. Then I mentally scold myself. Are these minor quibbles? Can any company really be expected to bat 1.000 all the time? Is it really all that important? The company is doing well, dancing stronger than ever, with an enviable international reputation. But it is important, I think, because these dancers, like all top-notch talent, deserve to be shown at their best at all times.

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