Students in the spotlight
San Francisco Ballet School presents a showcase
by Paul Parish
The Bay Area Reporter has been covering the performances of the San Francisco Ballet School for nearly as long as the paper has existed. Some 30 years ago at the Opera House performance of the school, I met the B.A.R. 's superb dance writer Keith White, who was sitting in the row behind me and had come to cover the event. I was writing for Ballet Review, and like the critics of St. Petersburg, London, Paris, and New York, we both considered the talent rising in the major school to be part of the dance "beat" – it was important to see the stars of the future. That year the rising star was Katita Waldo, who went on to become a ballerina with San Francisco Ballet (she retired last year).
White set the tone for this paper's dance coverage – his column was like superb cocktail-party conversation aimed at the highest common denominator, knowledgeable, civilized, sparkling, generous, gentlemanly. He left me his videos and his shoes when he died (of AIDS); I sometimes wear his shoes to a performance I think he'd want to see, and try to mention him whenever the occasion arises.
I think he'd have enjoyed last Friday night's performances, which have become (like all graduations) more informal occasions socially, more oriented towards the friends and families of the kids involved. But the work presented onstage was more rigorous and better executed than any school show I've seen in years. It was also more fun.
Ballet is like figure-skating – it is very geometric, the simplest things are difficult, and any child can see if they are well-executed, and can easily and accurately rank those who did them better than others. This is the source of the popularity of the art – for the audience, the accuracy, skill, and momentum can be thrilling, and for the young artist, it's the ultimate test of co-ordination. Teenagers will go to bed early, they'll train til they're exhausted, and get up and practice some more – the potential for mastery is so appealing.
The choreography for even the smallest of the SFB children was a compliment to their intelligence. Their tasks required that they take responsibility for their own movements while also developing a group-mind, create a little world, and move in harmony with each other. It started to lift off with Level I and II boys, who were arrayed (by Jeffrey Lyons) like an orchestra in three banks, performing in counterpoint. It was uncannily like looking at a symphony by Haydn, since the older boys in the middle were doing larger phrases while the smaller kids were mostly jumping in place, but with different timings. They had to count, to know how to be still, when to go, and contain their anxieties. I was thrilled for them.
The whole junior division section was cleverly set to the Czerny Etudes (orchestrated by Riisager) that Harald Lander used for his ballet Etudes – a ballet Lander designed to show the exercises the Paris Opera Ballet used to achieve their perfection – so the demonstration built to levels of complexity and mastery in homage to the other great schools, and by the time we got to the higher levels of the school, the choreography (by Parrish Maynard) echoed and quoted Lander's fantastically exciting combinations, including perpetual-motion turns that were nailed right to the accents in the music. Nothing too long; the kids made their excellent impressions, looked very happy to have done so well, and rushed off, with new waves coming in turn.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)
After the compulsory figures came the dancing: first, a classic piece, the glade scene from Bournonville's La Sylphide, the great Romantic ballet, then a glamorous suite of dances, fluid, shifting, subtle, like the sand-dunes it was named for.
Lauren Parrott was lovely as the Sylphide – her dancing was soft, clear, gracious. It held up well against memories of performances here last year by the Royal Danish Ballet, for whom the ballet was choreographed originally, and where it has been in continuous production ever since. It is a Romantic tragedy and a great work. It is important for a school to give dancers great material to measure themselves against, and to inspire them. The artistry of the dancer playing the Sylphide lies in continuous motion, creating poses in mid-air that look foreshortened, as if seen from below (like the figures in Renaissance ceiling frescoes). It is a dance of light jumps with frequent half-turns, as if tossed in the breeze, with occasional poses on pointe that last longer than the visionary flashes. Suddenly a pose will be held and mold gently as she comes around the corner to face us, as if the sun were coming out. Then she's off floating again. They all danced it well, especially Max Cauthorn as the hero; Miranda Silveira stood out as a demi-soloist with exquisite batterie, ease and delicacy in her phrasing.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)
All the dancers in Francisco Mungamba's dreamy Dunas looked marvelous. They were Kathleen Dahlhoff, Lacey Escabar, Brett Fukuda, Lauren Parrott, and Mimmi Tompkins, with Devon Carbone, Trygve Cumpston, Max Cauthorn, Alexander Reneff Olson, Aaron Renteria, and Wei Wang. Mungamba re-used the fabulous scarlet-satin gowns designed by the choreographer Redha for SFB's production of Pavane Rouge some 20 years ago, to similarly hypnotic effect.
After an intermission, the dancers came back with a rip-roaring performance of Balanchine's immensely entertaining Western Symphony, which was fully staged in Karinska's costumes with John Boyt's set.
"My idea in this ballet was to make a formal work that would derive its flavor from the informal American West, a ballet that would move in the framework of the classic school, but with a new atmosphere." His success was so great, his cowboys and dance-hall girls dancing to old tunes like "Red River Valley" and "O, Them Golden Slippers" make the ballet so much fun, that its importance can be underrated. It is not just a romp – it's fantastically well-made, and it requires that dancers enjoy dancing the hardest steps in the book, and make it look like a new kind of fun.
The corps were uniformly delightful – of the soloists, the men outshone the women. Outstanding were Kevin Murdoch-Waters (who not only has the perfect stage-smile, he has the technique and stage savvy to back it up) and Christopher Warhuus, whose dancing in the first movement could be put on any stage anywhere and give great pleasure. Warhuus and Escabar have already had offers from professional companies for next year. I am certain more contracts will be made public soon.