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San Francisco Ballet.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA JANUARY 28-MAY 9, 2004

It took o full-length world premiere by Mark Morris to draw the international press to San Francisco Ballet in 2004, but that choreographic coup was only the high-point finish of a landmark season.

Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson pulled out all the programming stops during his nineteenth year in charge, offering two bills in tribute to George Balanchine's centennial and one in recognition of Frederick Ashton's, and topping it all with well-crafted premieres by in-house choreographers. In the process he showcased a diverse company that, from the youngest corps members on up, can make a blinding array of classicism's facets sparkle.

With soloist and principal slots soon Io he vacated, it was a year for rising young talent but also the occasion of an important second flowering. Tiny Tina LeBlanc returned from maternity leave as though reborn herself, hot-blooded as Kitri in the encore of Don Quixote, spirited and precise in the company premiere of Balanchine's Square Dance.

Revelations abounded during the Balanchine Festival, not in the judiciously chosen "Mr. B 101" repertoire, but in the career-defining debuts. Twenty-four-year-old Gonzalo Garcia imbued the company's first Apollo with his impetuous energy, creating a boyish god of considerable charisma. The Four Temperaments and Serenade laid bare a new level of clarity in the corps, while Muriel Maffre and Yuan Yuan Tan leant lean lines and pathos to Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The expected crowd-pleaser, Who Gates?, missed the razzle-dazzle mark, but the nearly sold out audiences appeared too stunned by the masterworks to notice.

The Ashton selections were dispatched with less authority but equal respect. Symphonic Variations, rarely if ever seen in San Francisco, challenged both viewers and dancers with its restrained British style and attention to filigreed detail. Julie Diana and Damian Smith especially gave it regal aplomb. With the help of lugubrious conducting by new musical director Andrew Mogrelia, Montones I and II cloaked its hooded trios in mysterious ambience. But Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba lacked the chemistry to pull off a syrupy Thais Pas de Deux, and a once-in-a-century opportunity was missed in ceding the program's finale to a warmed-over encore of Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations.

Some of the happiest choreographic surprises of the season came from home talent. Principal dancer Yuri Possokhov created his third ballet for the company (he has also collaborated with Tomasson on SFB's Don Quixote), unveiled under the uninspired title Study in Motion. But this ensemble work for four couples is hardly academic. Possokhov mined Scriabin piano works for a quiet passion and vulnerability, sending the women, in their partners' embrace, skimming across a stage framed by Benjamin Pierce's fluttering, gauzy while panels. Telling choreographic details steadily coalesced, and fans of SFB's outstanding male ranks were treated to the total body lyricism of Nicolas Blanc and Pascal Molat.

As in last year's Concerto Grosso, simplicity proved winning for Tomasson's 7 for Eight. Two intimate pas de deux for Tan and Possokhov framed this elegant ensemble setting of Bach piano works. Sandra Woodall's chic dresses wrapped the women in fine black lace. The lighting design by David Finn used the spotlight to cast intriguing shadows, and Tomasson's choreography shunned gimmickry for nuanced musically. Both 7 for Eight and Study in Motion deserve to he seen on tour, soon. Unfortunately Christopher Wheeldon's cluttered Rush, an SFB commission set to frenzied Bohuslav Martinu, will also return to the rep next year.

And what about that Mark Morris full-length world premiere? Perhaps only this master of camp could play the nineteenth-century ballet Sylvia so straight with such heartfelt results. Drawn to the charming but uneven Leo Delibes score, Morris has reinvigorated the story-ballet genre with firmly rooted pointe work, narrative ease, and a message of sexual equality for our time. Martin Pakledinaz's shimmering costumes and Allen Moyer's lush scenic design outfitted Sylvia's three acts in nothing less than grandeur. In addition to principals Tan and Vanessa Zahorian in the title role, two corps members were given a shot: Megan Low was stilted as the spunky huntress, but an authoritative Elizabeth Miner danced with gorgeous line and old-fashioned charm. Her recent promotion to soloist was long overdue. The entire company, though, appears a tad too careful in respecting Morris's direction to the letter. Surely they will find greater freedom and relish with more performances, but alas, Sylvia is not scheduled for 2005. Tomasson appears to have programmed a breather season for next year. The break is well earned, and the memories of this seventy-first season's heights are sure to linger.

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Author:Howard, Rachel
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:769
Previous Article:On Broadway: the 2004-2005 season offers a Sondheim revival, a showcase for Jerry Mitchell's choreography, and, finally, Jerry Springer--The Opera.
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