Future stars of the ballet

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 20, 2008
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Ballet is a product of the French Renaissance. The first great ballet school was founded by the King of France, Louis XIV ("the Sun King"), to train professional dancers to perform for the court theaters. The courtiers themselves already had frequent dancing classes, since the king himself was an excellent dancer, and the quickest way to get ahead at Versailles was to recommend yourself by your dancing skills.

Every ballet school since then has modeled itself on that original, including ours in San Francisco, which was founded the year the Opera House opened, has been in continuous operation ever since, and has enjoyed a reputation as one of the premiere dance academies in the country. For decades, the graduation performances by the students of the SF Ballet School have been eagerly followed by balletomanes.

So it's a little sad to report that the 75th anniversary crop looked still-green at last Friday night's performance at Yerba Buena Theater. It was the last show of a three-night run, and perhaps they were tired, but though they are attractive young people, and they have certainly gone through a great deal of training and can perform dizzyingly difficult steps while staying in strict formation, I rarely saw anybody shine with that glow that means they own the movement and are ready for prime time. Only Suzy Spaulding, the ballerina in Helgi Tomasson's "Simple Symphony" (set to Benjamin Britten's score), showed star quality with a large-scale power of phrasing, the only way that a dancer can hold your interest over time. She has indeed already been offered a contract with San Francisco Ballet, bypassing the apprentice stage, and will doubtless be an ornament of next year's rep.

It's really not their fault. Indeed, the choreography they were given to dance in this year's program was strangely dreary, and sent mixed signals. After the compulsory figures, which were handsomely shown off by the younger kids (who do look like they feel the relationship between the strict geometry and actual dancing), there were only three featured ballets on the program. The longest of them was a mistaken attempt to feature their skills in the contemporary repertoire.

"Simple Symphony" is attractive enough, well laid-out to fit the music. Max Levy jumped high, turned great, and showed a lot of energy; the role does not call for much temperament, which he may possess in abundance (he's been hired by American Repertory Ballet). James Shee was a dreamy boy in the adagio, dancing nicely with Kristina Lind, Eline Malegue, Rebecca Rhodes, and Sylvie Volosov.

There was an all-girls classical suite drawn from the Dryades scene of Don Quixote. Unfortunately, the music is Minkus at his most insipid, and the steps are exacting but not very interesting. The corps moved elegantly in their mincing steps. But the soloists did not look so wonderful. The ballerina's variation is very exposing — she does a grand jet�, lands sharply, and immediately springs up into the FTD-logo pose; from there she executes another grand jeté and springs up into a tilted, fully-stretched arabesque; then she repeats that several times, traveling on the diagonal. If any of the positions is not perfect, any child can tell. She wasn't scared of it, thank God, but she wasn't perfect, either.

"Yondering" (choreographed by Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier) closed the show on a melancholy note. The ballet is an awkward mishmash of modern dance and neoclassical ballet that unfortunately falls between the stools and gives little of the satisfactions of either form. The ballet is set to Stephen Foster's Civil War-era songs.

There's a rousing hoe-down, and a lot of jumps for soldiers to a Yankee recruiting song ("We'll scatter the rebels, and that's what's the matter!"), which at least lets out a lot of energy, then a dirge to "Why should the beautiful die?" which strives for a profundity that it can't reach. Neumeier seems to have gotten lost in setting quirky steps. What should we make of the homoerotic beginning of "Beautiful Dreamer?" Two lovely young men, bare-chested, in trousers with suspenders, seem to be in communion somehow until a girl comes between them and executes some fussy pointe steps to lyrics about a treacherous Lorelei. Are they best friends, bunkmates, brothers? Is one dreaming of the other? Who is this girl? There seems no erotic charge to her, whose steps are too difficult and fussy to allow for any spare emotion.

The dancers are beautiful, but they deserve better than this material to show them off.