Critical Dance

The following is an article from our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London.

A Diary: Friday, Day 6 – Looking Back Over the Week
by Emma Pegler

San Francisco Ballet has performed all three of its programmes now. The newspaper critics have found some things that could have been done better, but not many. There have been murmurings in the Floral Hall (where the Royal Opera House’s champagne bar is situated) that it was ambitious of SFB to bring ‘mixed bills’ to London – it is well-known that the British ballet-going public avoids them like the plague but turns out ‘en masse’ for full-length tutu extravaganzas. Without doubt there would have been a taffeta-clad bottom on every seat for Sleeping Beauty, but that’s not the point.

Helgi Tomasson (Artistic Director of SFB) was ambitious in his programming, staging many different pieces by different choreographers and even bringing works by two of his own dancers. He treated the London audience as a mature bunch of discerning but open-minded individuals, and it paid off. When we were unceremoniously ejected onto the street on Thursday while one of the dancers was baking his or her potato in a manner that threatened to turn the Opera House into one big microwave oven, I was able to take stock of the week and listen to the animated voices around me, eager to get back to their seats for Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet. (By the way, who was that dancer? Own up. Britons love a little tabloid journalism however ‘well-heeled’ they are.)

The first thing I thought whilst dodging taxis was, why did I leave my front door keys in the bag I put in the cloakroom? The second thing I thought as fire engines raced round the huge edifice that is the Opera House, was exactly how many opera houses have we managed to burn down in the last couple of hundred years? (At least three, I think.) And then I began to absorb the comments being made around me. People were expressing their views on their preferred choreographer. They were able to make a choice because even if they had only attended one night, they had at least three choreographers to choose from.

With exposure to such diversity, the British ballet public will come of age; in one week, I saw works by Mark Morris, Jerome Robbins, Helgi Tomasson, Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov. Ross Stretton, newly appointed Director of the Royal Ballet, is expanding the repertoire for London, and for those for whom ballet begins and ends at the Royal Opera House, SFB’s visit will have been a sweetener. I am sure it will push them, at the very least, to want to see more Balanchine because they will have seen that Balanchine did not create just story-less works, with dancers in simple practise clothes or dressed as jewels. Perhaps they thought they knew Balanchine because they had seen the Royal Ballet’s staging of Agon and the Kirov’s staging of Jewels this year. I hope that Bugaku, Balanchine’s sensuous composition based on a Japanese marriage ritual, made them think again.

Bugaku has been performed by the Royal Ballet, but thirteen years ago. The ballet is dated – the costumes are part traditional Japanese marital garb and part space-age futurism typical of the sixties, and the music is reminiscent of a James Bond movie shot in Shanghai – but the cool undemonstrative white face of Yuan Yuan Tan, maintained throughout while her body submits and surrenders to her mate in sensuous pirouettes and arabesques woven around him, is timeless Japanese ritual. She turns her head away from the imposing, emperor-like figure of Cyril Pierre to express her pain of surrender, her emotion, and then turns back, bows demurely, her composure restored, indicating her surrender. And the standard was so high. My guest on Tuesday evening, a former member of New York City Ballet, thought Yuan Yuan Tan danced every bit as well as Allegra Kent on whom the ballet was created (and who had advised on SFB’s staging of the piece).

I doubt London has ever seen such a bevy of excellent male dancers (except when SFB was at Sadler’s Wells a couple of years ago). On Monday I was totally bowled over by Roman Rykine, the protagonist in Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania, particularly the interaction with the other men, Gonzalo Garcia, Stephen Legate and Guennadi Nedviguine, all wearing pin-striped suits, braces and bowler hats. I was reminded of male tango dancers in chalk-striped suits practising together in Buenos Aires in the 30’s, in order to perfect their technique to impress the ladies in the salons – the effect is strongly masculine but sensual. I thought the whole piece reminiscent of the integration of the arts into a ballet perfected by Diaghilev through the Ballets Russes, with its elaborate backdrops extracted from Magritte’s paintings and costumes based on figures from his works such as the faceless bare-breasted women (depicted by women in long flowing dresses, their faces covered with translucent scarves, cups over their breast and one arm behind the back). Plus, there is the careful use of lighting – Yuan Yuan Tan dressed in red, was further distinguished with red light, giving her a spectral, other-worldly look. The majority of critics derided the adaptation of Beethoven by Yury Krasavin (“not for lovers of Beethoven’s music,” said Clement Crisp of the Financial Times) but I confess that I thought it apposite.

The other work by a company member, Night by Julia Adam, held the audience spell-bound. Again, the boys excelled. That doesn’t mean that the girls didn’t. It’s just that I am not used to seeing guys dancing like that – six of them moving as one body, effectively a ‘corps,’ and then dancing with each other. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of more men than women. Damian Smith came into his own in this piece. He dances with a ‘contemporary edge,’ using the floor well, in a way few ballet dancers do. Falling backwards and on to his knees, he exercises a delay, hitting the floor as if slow motion, slightly behind the music and the effect is totally sensual. Peter Brandenhoff also shone – one to watch. The audience gave a standing ovation for this piece.

The audience was also enthusiastic for Christopher Wheeldon’s Sea Pictures. It had received a luke-warm reception from San Francisco critics last year and I had prepared myself for disappointment even though I was curious about the manner in which this young Briton is seducing American audiences and artistic directors (he was recently appointed resident choreographer with New York City Ballet and has composed several pieces for SFB). I was not disappointed at all. I found his use of the floor superlative. I am not used to seeing ballet choreographers use the floor effectively – any attempts normally look gratuitous, but Wheeldon heightened the emotion between the couples saying their goodbyes as the men go to sea, by rolling them across each other, the pauses and exchanges of glances intensifying the drama. There is considerable lifting in the pas-de-deux but little repetition of the movement – each lift is different.

Other highlights: Lucia Lacarra’s long dramatic legs in Symphony in Three Movements; Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba’s electric athleticism in Robbin’s Glass Pieces (neither danced very much this week but I am sure I would be devoted fans if they had); Gonzalo Garcia springing from the floor in Tomasson’s Prism as if his patch of the stage concealed a trampoline; and, of course, the absolutely superb masterly dancing of Joanna Berman and Yuri Possokhov, SFB veterans. San Francisco, you are very lucky to have the Company.


Go to the previous day's diary.

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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.

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