Ambassadors of dance

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 8, 2008
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Sonia Rodriguez and Christopher Body of National Ballet<br>of Canada in <i>A Delicate Battle. </i>Photo:<br>Erik Tomasson
Sonia Rodriguez and Christopher Body of National Ballet
of Canada in A Delicate Battle. Photo:
Erik Tomasson

As San Francisco Ballet sails into the home stretch of their 75th anniversary season, they're taking a breather before the final push and presenting guest artists from around the world. It's like in Swan Lake, when ambassadors from other lands come to witness the Prince's betrothal — this week in the Opera House, dancers from the Dominion of Canada, the Principality of Monaco, and the Empire State have sent embassies to the party — and of course, they dance for us. It's a vivid, satisfying evening in the theater.

First off was admittedly a little dull. It's probably apt that the National Ballet of Canada performs during a continuous light snowfall. The most satisfying aspect of A Delicate Battle was the stage picture: the space is bathed in a slivery light, little white flakes drift down, dancing in the air, blissfully regardless of the human actions below, which are very contained, constrained, cool. The initial line-up of nearly nude dancers in silvery undies moves in clean geometries, while three ladies dressed like Mary Todd Lincoln (the silhouette is the same) get menaced in various ways by three men in grey flannel suits. The ballet's like a frozen tempest in a teapot — it must matter a lot to them, and they're dancing with impressive exactness and no false moves. The big blonde guy is very sexy. Perhaps on another night I'd have cared more.

Next up was hotfooted, cat-like, buoyant dancing in the edgy New York manner. On Wednesday night, we saw the second cast of New York City Ballet's embassy. The rising star Sterling Hyltin danced Balanchine's Duo Concertante with the darling virtuoso Robert Fairchild, who cut his figures with the finesse and quick wit of a kid on a skateboard. He made me laugh out loud, his feet were so witty, sure and responsive to the weird little Stravinskian jig that the violinist was playing.

The stage picture is real time: The musicians are on stage (Cameron Grant at the big black Steinway, and Arturo Delmoni stands with his violin), and the dancers hover around them like singers at a Schubertiad, occasionally venturing out into the middle to cut the rug. This piece is in the repertoire of San Francisco Ballet, and we see it a lot. But Fairchild's dancing makes you realize what a classic is for: to present a fixed set of challenges, technical, stylistic and personal, to be conquered and turned to playfulness by the kind of talent who needs to be given something difficult and wonderful to do.

You can't lose when a talent meets a classic; but more wonderful is something completely unexpected. That's what we got from the closing ballet, Altro Canto, choreographed by the Director of the Ballet of Monte Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot. The ballet created a state of continuous wonder, and has a reverent, almost holy feel to it — it's set in cathedral darkness, lit by candles which descend from the flies. It's bathed in the passionate sound of Monteverdi's Magnificat, and the worship with which the dancers partner each other can approach that expressed in the music.

There's nothing fundamentalist about it, but occasionally there's a real shiver (as when the ballerina blows on a candle and its flame goes out, you see its smoke flutter up, and from Row L you could even smell the beeswax.) Many of the ballet's most striking moves have been seen before: the girl who never touches the ground, Balanchine did that 50 years ago in "The Unanswered Question"; the girl who walks on men's outstretched hands has been done by Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown; dancers whose costumes are modern on top and antique on the bottom, partners who support each other without actually touching go back at least to Merce Cunningham. The casually same-sexed partnering is very 60s contact improv. But the whole of it is greater than the sum of the parts; what's most wonderful is the dancers' sincerity, right to the end, where the girl moves the guy from inches away, with her breath.