Divergent showcases

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday June 7, 2011
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San Francisco Ballet School students in Myles Thatcher's <i>Timepiece.</i><br> (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet School students in Myles Thatcher's Timepiece.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

The big dance event this past week, Cal Performances' presentation of the first visit of the Royal Danish Ballet to the Bay Area in 50 years, came and went so strangely that I am still wondering how so many things could have gone wrong. Many of us were hoping it would be "the dance event" of the year. What were we all expecting, anyway? Meanwhile, the students of the San Francisco Ballet School gave a recital that looked better at their best than some of the Danish repertoire did at its worst.

It must be said, San Francisco Ballet, school and company, owe a great deal to the Royal Danish Ballet and its great school. Indeed, Balanchine brought a succession of great Danish dancers to New York (including Helgi Tomasson), where they ruled the roost as principal dancers. For three decades now, Tomasson has lived here in SF, where he's made the SF Ballet internationally famous using some of the principles he learned in Denmark: make the moves clear, honest, accurate, don't cheat the transitions, do it right, show finesse and personal modesty. Both SFB and the Royal Danish Ballet are men's companies, where the elegance and beauty of form show up, as in the bird world, most of all in the male of the species.

I saw the SFB Student Showcase on the last night of its run, when all the nerves were over, and all the kids could dance their hearts out. The only rough patch was the dance for the five guys from Tomasson's Ballet d'Isoline, which was way too hard for them, and even then they never whined or gave up but kept dancing throughout. Like in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," you'd have to say someone had blundered, but it wasn't them. The boys were brave, so bravo to them.

But the nine SFB trainees looked fantastic in Timepiece. It's got club-dancing attitude, snaky moments in the spine, huge, drastic changes of balance, and was set to music by Broken Social Scene (et al.) by the very cool SFB corps dancer Myles Thatcher. It made them look killer-good. It was great to see Alexander Reneff-Olson, who moonlights as a photographer and has taken pictures of many of us on Gay Night Out at the Ballet, looking so good himself at the center of this ballet.

The advanced students made Tomasson's ballet Beads of Memory look fresh, clean, better than the company did when it was introduced 20-odd years ago. Jeanette Kakareka looked a total diva as the ballerina; her partner Henry Sidford, soloist Emma Rubinowitz, the demis Margaret Tompkins, Danielle Peterfy, Christopher Warhuus, and Nicholas Losada danced flawlessly. Much credit goes to former ballerina Tina LeBlanc, who teaches in the school and staged the work for them.

Finally, a grand essay in symphonic ballet by former principal (now teacher) Parrish Maynard came off splendidly. Promenade was a huge success in the manner of Balanchine. Maynard's invention never flagged, and the dancers looked magnificent, especially the leads, Lauren Parrott and Wei Wang.

Stepping stones

The Danes, alas – suffice it to say, they're the Queen's own company in Copenhagen, they're established at home, and they don't have any experience touring. They need to do advance work. They underestimated difficulties of every magnitude: how to get over jet-lag, how to get their unwieldy sets onto and off the stage and out of the rain, 45-minute intermissions, strobe lights that got out of control, stages that felt slippery compared to the one at home, resulting injuries, little lectures to fill the gaps that told us nothing or gave misinformation. They are so used to showing their core repertory at home that they've dressed the famous pieces in costumes that make the steps hard to see.

The great glory of the RDB is the footwork. Danish dancers, men and women, have feet that are more articulate than most people's hands. Traditionally, they've worn white tights and special shoes, black-rimmed with a white diamond down the instep, which makes the pointing of the foot flash like a bolt of lightning. The optical illusion created when the knee straightens and the foot points completely makes the line of the leg look much longer than it is in fact, which is why a ballerina standing on pointe looks radiant, like a star. The pointe shoe allows a dancer to create that finished line that goes out to infinity, which otherwise can only be created by tearing the body away from the floor altogether by jumping. The Danish technique contains as many kinds of jumps as Inuit has words for snow: there are tiny jumps, medium-sized jumps, grands jetes. Furthermore, the style has many very small steps against which the jumps can stand out.

It was perverse of them to hide the men's gorgeous legs in black socks and black shoes in their most famous ballet, La Sylphide, set in a Scottish farmhouse – think guys in kilts, OK? Jumps, pirouettes, and the skirts fly up, got the picture? The stage was crowded, the scenery dark, the kilts ugly, the lower legs hidden in black socks. If you knew the ballet, you could see the fantastic lightness and intricate footwork of Ulrik Birkkjaer, who danced the young laird who falls in love with a sylphide and abandons his bride-to-be on his wedding day, This is not a gay fantasy of our boy running off with the guy he really loves, but it's very close, and indeed he dies, so does the Sylphide, when all the forces of conventional marriage get deployed, including the embittered older woman who does the dirty work of patriarchy.

It's a great ballet, one of the very greatest, and contrary to what their notes and lectures suggested, it is not their peculiar treasure, danced only in Copenhagen. Auguste Bournonville's Sylphide is danced all over the world, in SF, Moscow, St. Petersburg, New York, Atlanta, I could go on. The Danes don't seem to know this, nor what is great about it. They jazzed it up, danced everything slightly too fast, and with false modesty, hid the beauty of their legs, which is one of the great glories of the civilized world. The new rep they showed, which they danced very well, is ephemeral. Still, it is a great company, may they soon come back.