San Francisco Ballet

Program 3: 'Allegro Brillante,' 'Concerto Grosso,' 'Polyphonia,' 'Damned'

by Toba Singer

February 15, 2003 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Last summer, when I was in London to see Pacific Northwest Ballet perform at Sadler’s Wells, some friends and I took some time to attend a concert at St. Martin’s of the Field. In the church basement, there is a gallery of brass etchings, and for a fee, you can make a rubbing of an etching. My inner child so wanted to stay and do a rubbing, but there wasn’t time…

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 more than made up for not having had time to do a rubbing at St. Martin’s of the Field. It was a perfectly exhilarating evening, and at its end, I felt as if the company had presented me with a rubbing of its splendors. For me, the evening represented a topography of its new generation of very gifted dancers. There was an element of that same feeling in Seattle a week earlier, when I saw PNB perform there, and it is a form of instant gratification that ought to be made available to everyone.

Like a cloverleaf of sea anemone, four pairs of dancers open “Allegro Brillante.” They are costumed in a chromatic swirl of aquamarine. Balanchine said of this piece that it “contained everything he knew about ballet in 13 minutes.”

Indeed, the opaque colors could romance you away from the physics laboratory of warp speed that the turns and remarkable complexities of tempo changes reveal, very much like those cutaway drawings in the Eyewitness series children’s books. Lorena Feijoo’s and Vadim Solomakha’s entrance (she’s in peach) sweeps us off our seat. Nothing ever seems to stop working for them: Her dancing limns a locus from her head to her feet that simply never falters. True to Balanchine prerogative, she lifts the air with her arms when she turns, while her heels never appear to rest on the floor. Even with her self-conscious placement, or perhaps because of it, I see a new gentility about Feijoo that obviously comes with the confidence that she has gained over the past several seasons. Solomakha matches her fluidity, and the overall effect is reverential. Piano soloist Roy Bogas enunciates every syllable of the choreography. The synchronized harmony of the corps fired by David Arce and sustained by the others grabs your attention and believe me, you stay tuned for the rest of the program!

“Concerto Grosso” is what audiences have been waiting for from SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson. It is a piece for five men--all of them new or new-ish, featuring soloist Pascal Molat, who blithely demonstrates 150 reasons to promote him--mid-season--to principal. Each bare-chested dancer wears a different Gaugin-hued pair of tights.

Jonathan Mangosing was put in for an injured Jaime Garcia Castilla, and what a stroke of genius that was. From the time he was a student, Mangosing fought against all odds to have a career at San Francisco Ballet--a struggle that he now appears to have decisively won. In pale blue tights, he evokes a sensual melancholy that changes before your eyes into something quixotically daring and brilliant. Rory Hohenstein, in green tights, has a kind of joyous, proprietary presence, where Garrett Anderson, in indigo, brings a little of the dark side into the mix with an intensity that comes bounding back onto the stage with his entrances. Hansuke Yamamoto confers strength, taking the piece to the off-balance places, as his momentum accelerates. I have never before seen the men of San Francisco Ballet work together as seamlessly as in this piece, with stirring music by Francesco Geminiani (after Corelli).

Right on the heels of “Concerto Grosso,” comes another very pleasant surprise, this one from Christopher Wheeldon, whose work up to this point has left me cold. In “Polyphonia,” the women dancers are wearing pink tights and leotards dyed concord grape. The men are in concord grape tights. A shadow of the dancers on the screen behind them threatens a quick descent into gimmickry, but the dancing is so pungent that we are distracted only momentarily, as we weigh the impact of the potential gimmickry against the quality of the dancing.

The unlikely casting of Lorena Feijoo with Yuri Possokhov, Lorena Feijoo with Gonzalo Garcia, Julie Diana with Ruben Martin and Nicole Starbuck (put in for Kristin Long) with Zachary Hench in this contemporary piece was (initially) like seeing someone naked in the shower at the gym who you usually see at work dressed to the nines.

Any discomfiting moments are nonetheless quickly forgotten when the second movement gives us Tan unfolding vertically, as Possokhov carries her across the stage. They are like sea creatures, and except for perhaps one awkward transition, give us clean, strong floor work. By contrast, Feijoo and Garcia are very much in and on their feet, with a stylized pitter-patter waltz, lightening the mood of an otherwise deeply exploratory piece.

When the three men and women are once again onstage together, there is a nice timbre, as they find ways to bend bodies at the same time that they execute intricate feet studies. They work in all dimensions, going from en dehors arabesque turns, to saut de basques, to rolls across the floor. Diana and Martin chart a gentle, now-precarious, now-careful course that gives itself over to the spaces in the music. Pulling away are Tan and Possokhov, then pulling together in a kind of boogie-woogie rhythm are Starbuck and Hench. It’s almost as if the piece speed dials through every number in the contemporary choreography directory. There are moments when Michael McGraw’s piano playing outdistances the choreography, as it gets more lively in the percussive finale.

Having seen the premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s “Damned” last year, it became for me a kind of next of kin to José Limon’s “Moor’s Pavane” legacy. Joanna Berman’s Medea convinced me that if this was the last role I saw her dance it would be enough. This year, I saw Yuan Yuan Tan positively glisten as the Princess. Muriel Maffre took us to places we didn’t know she or we could go. I left astounded at her dramatic range: having given us an ice queen Myrtha in last season’s “Giselle,” and now, a fiery Medea in “Damned.” How Maffre stays in her body and yet exquisitely gives ever fiber of it over to her role is quite amazing.

This was the best-crafted program with the most consistently well-danced choreography I have seen to date from San Francisco Ballet.

Bravo, Helgi Tomasson, and bravo to the new generation of SFB dancers!

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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