B moving

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 17, 2012
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There is no more vexing question than 'what is a classic?' It's a question that the penultimate program of San Francisco Ballet's season raised in many fruitful ways. SFB's Program Seven, which opened last Thursday and ran through April 18 at the Opera House, shows three ballets from the early-middle period of George Balanchine, when he was still working on Broadway and immensely successful as a maker of hit shows. Balanchine, like Louis Armstrong, made work that was simultaneously great and popular -- his new works affected New York like new skyscrapers, everybody had an opinion.

Like Shakespeare, Balanchine made his shows for the poor folks as well as the rich. There are satisfactions for everyone, and there are splendid effects which can only be seen from the cheap seats.

I defer my own judgment of this show to my friend Tiff, who's a poet and has not seen a lot of ballet. She asked me if all ballet was like this. "It's like it exalts the music," she said. "Can that be right?" [Say more, I say.] "It's like the music makes me feel a certain way, and the dancing makes me feel the same thing, only more so. I feel so expanded, and opened up."

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Seriously, there is no better criticism of this show [Divertimento # 15, Scotch Symphony, and The Four Temperaments] than that. All the rest is commentary. When a work of art raises a sense of wonder at first sight, and begs for revisiting, and repays attention over and over agai, that's my working definition of "classic." When it turns out that there are many possible interpretations, which can be diametrically opposed to each other and yet each works [e.g., Hamlet, or Concerto Barocco], that's classic. When it's more beautiful than it can be danced, that's classic. No choreographer in the history of the dance art has created more classics than George Balanchine, who grew up in Tsarist Russia, trained in the Imperial Ballet School and also at the Conservatory of Music, escaped  after the Revolution, danced and choreographed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in the between-war years, and then was brought to New York by the founder of the Museum of Modern Art to start an "American Ballet." He worked for Goldwyn in Hollywood and later on Broadway until his big chance came, finally in the 1950s, when the New York City Center made his little 'Ballet Society' its resident dance company under the name New York City Ballet. He made a lot of classics before he died in 1983, and was honored worldwide as the greatest choreographer of the century.

San Francisco Ballet in

George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.

(Photo: Chris Hardy)

San Francisco Ballet dances these three works in a way that is its own, and acceptable, but if you've seen the ballets before they look distorted. The big difference is that SFB is a man's company, where the men are expansive and the women hold back. They "lower their voices." They smile a lot, soften their shoulders, repress their wilder ideas. Whereas Balanchine's company was a woman's company �" the women were strong, square-shouldered, high-energy, incisive, dramatic creatures, stars with the charisma of Katharine Hepburn, and a way like hers of being recognizably modern American women. Not all of them were as abrasive as Kate, but each was sovereign in her way.

In the Mozart Divertimento # 15, in which the men frankly outshone the women. Gennadi Nedvigin [who can admittedly do no wrong] ran away with the show, even though he tried very hard not to, rivaled only by Hansuke Yamamoto, whose darting footwork and dazzling batterie showed the kind of clarity that we should have seen from the dancer recreating the role set in 1956 on Patricia Wilde �" who created a sensation with her brilliant gargouillades back then.

Divertimento needs to be like the movie Stage Door (the Hepburn/Ginger-Rogers vehicle with supporting cast of Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, etc.) �" even the corps girls need to be distinctive (everyone gets a solo at some point), and in front of them there have to be five ballerinas. Mozart's second movement is a Theme and Variations, and Balanchine made six solos, each of which has to be danced as a spontaneous miracle. It's no good if the dancer looks overtaxed by the difficulties. This is one of those things which needs to be great to be good. SFB should have cast it up to strength, with, say, Tan, Sylve, Kochetkova, Van Patten, and Chung, and let the wittiest girl take the role created by Tannaquil leClercq. 

Granted, New York City Ballet on an ordinary night does not dance this ballet as well as our dancers did last Friday. But even my friend, who's not seen much ballet, could tell the girls were working too hard, while the boys were musical and totally on top of the game. When it's great, Divertimento is like an ideal Marriage of Figaro �" the girl gets to choose. That said, it's worth seeing.

Scotch Symphony is a paradoxical thing. It references old-fashioned Scottish lore. There's a backdrop showing a ruined castle, the boys are in kilts (yum yum) and kind of soldierly. There's a girl in red socks (the brilliant Dores Andre) who does very fancy footwork, and the ballerina looks like a Sylph out of Sir Walter Scott. But the steps are very modern, especially the pointe work and the partnering. It's set to Mendelssohn's symphony of that name.

Friday night, the toujours-gai, fairy-like Sarah van Patten flitted about the melancholy hero Tiit Helimets, who longed for more apparitions of her than he got. I've seen the ballerina danced, by the great NYCB ballerina Kyra Nichols, as a more mysterious, rather grave creature whispering secrets to him from another world, and I prefer that interpretation, though van Patten was entirely convincing, a miracle of lightness, exquisite in the role. And Helimets' demeanor, plus his feathery batterie, marked him as a poet, someone capable of insight and doomed to suffer for it. The Scottish style was best exemplified by Dustin Spero.

The show closes with the first of Balanchine's neo-classical black-and-white leotard ballets, The Four Temperaments, set to a score he commissioned in the early '40s from the refugee Swiss composer Paul Hindemith (at a point when Balanchine had Broadway earnings and Hindemith was hard up) which he desired as chamber music to play with his musical friends. Balanchine's friends were the likes of Stravinsky, W.H. Auden, and Nathan Milstein, whom I believe played first violin in the first performance of 4 Ts in Balanchine's living room.

The company do a great job of  Four Temperaments. Jaime Garcia Castillo and Vito Mazzeo were outstanding as the Melancholic and the cool, Phlegmatic heroes. Vanessa Zahorian was marvelously jazzy as the Sanguinic character; the soloist Nutnaree Pipit Suksun carved her variation with stunning clarity and wonderful phrasing. The whole ballet builds to an overwhelming climax, with the entire ensemble thrust into action at the end like a giant machine mowing everything down, and an exaltation of lifts at the very end.