San Francisco Ballet programs 1 & 2
by Paul Parish
All ballet in the English-speaking world is rooted in the Russian Diaspora after the Communist Revolution. San Francisco was one of the first cities after London to harbor fleeing talent: there has been a continuous tradition of teaching and performing here since 1933, when Gaetano Merola hired the great Adolph Bolm, Nijinsky's rival, to train dancers to perform in the Opera.
So it was no surprise to see major critics from New York in town for the opening of the 75th anniversary season, with two mixed bills playing on alternating nights. Both shows are well-balanced, well-mounted, well-danced, beautifully accompanied by the musicians, and well worth seeing. Both continue this week through Sunday. If nothing amounted to greatness, the concerts aced the first test: you could have shut your eyes and listened to the music, and still have had a wonderful time. If the stars did not inflame us with a performance to last a lifetime, still, the company dances so beautifully altogether, it's like watching the waves come into the shore: profoundly satisfying, restful, awe-inspiring.
The choreography ranges from the witty, vaudevillian Filling Station through the postmodernism of Mark Morris, by way of a fabulously danceable night-piece set to keyboard music by Bach, culminating in two "great" ballets by the 20th-century master, George Balanchine.
It must be said right off that we don't have a ballerina who can make sense of Balanchine's Diamonds, except maybe Sarah van Patten, as yet unseen by this reviewer. This important work is set to an entire symphony of Tchaikovsky's, and it rises or falls on the pas de deux which makes up the entire slow movement. The dancers who can pull it off must know where the stepping stones lie in this river â€” it's a secret not given to many. It's a courtship duet Balanchine created for his muse Suzanne Farrell; it emphasizes her mystery. The many pauses suggest fluctuating inner states: at times she turns and nearly leaves the stage, but stops, a thought strikes her, she touches her hand to the back of her head, then reaches out, turns around, and re-engages, without "explaining" why. This requires a dramatic ballerina who can invent the back-story, the motivations for these changes, and make us believe in them without having an explicit narrative to pin it on.
Unfortunately, since Julie Diana left the company in 2004, we have not had a ballerina who can reach these depths. Both Yuan Yuan Tan and Vanessa Zahorian danced as if they'd been handed a paragraph by Gertrude Stein to read and were determined to keep us from knowing that they did not understand it. Tan takes every pose as an opportunity to flourish her charm, and frequently smiles a cat-like mysterious smile, but still, she's faking it; and Zahorian is more frankly at a loss. Each of them was fine in the technically difficult scherzo, but that's no help â€” in Farrell's day at New York City Ballet, this movement was often omitted on nights when she wasn't up to it.
The company, on the other hand, is marvelous in Balanchine's Divertimento # 15, set to Mozart and to be conducted this week by the distinguished Mozartian George Cleve. Guennadi Nedviguin and Tina LeBlanc could hardly be equaled anywhere in the world in these roles, which are intricately difficult but must seem easy, casual, and gay. The dancers are elegant, every last one: Elizabeth Miner, Frances Chung, Vanessa Zahorian, Rachel Viselli, Nicolas Blanc, and Hansuke Yamamoto.
Three great queers had a hand in Filling Station, the grand-daddy of all Americana ballets from Billy the Kid to West Side Story. It was a huge hit in 1938. We should be proud of the painter Paul Cadmus (who designed the show in his high-hormone style, which influenced Tom of Finland) and the composer Virgil Thompson, whose mix of church hymns, cowboy songs, and show tunes gives dancers plenty of reasons to turn, kick and cut up. Above all, we owe most to Lincoln Kirstein, who wrote the story of Filling Station as a vehicle for the noble dancer Lew Christensen, with whom he was in love, and who choreographed and starred in it (and eventually became director of San Francisco Ballet). Kirstein also hired and backed the company, commissioned the score and designs, and ran the whole enterprise as a way of guaranteeing a living for Balanchine, whom he'd enticed to come to America and create an American ballet. Filling Station was a potboiler, a guaranteed draw, then and now. It's still a damned good show, depicting a parade of American types coming to a service station, culminating in a robbery and shoot-out with a happy ending. The drunken debutante steals the show, and the duet for the pair of inebriates is a brilliant study in well-crafted partnering.
Mark Morris' delightful Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes (a piano ballet set to etudes by Thompson) is very classy entertainment, as are Helgi Tomasson's gorgeous Seven for Eight (piano and orchestra music by Bach) and Yuri Possokhov's rousing version of The Firebird.
Programs alternate through Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House.