Putting on the Ritz

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday January 29, 2013
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Big-time dance is back. The San Francisco Ballet launched its 80th season last Thursday night with a gala that lasted, in all its outlying festivities, well into the next morning. It's a unique civic event, attended by everybody who's anybody in SF politics, society, civic or cultural life, with dinner parties before the show and dancing after in the great courts of City Hall. The spectacle of ball gowns in the aisles and in the lobby rivals the parade of costumes onstage (trains are short this year). I saw Nancy Pelosi in the lobby; perhaps she did not boogie afterwards, but the late-night dance floors were packed.

SFB galas were instituted by Helgi Tomasson at the beginning of his tenure here as artistic director �" in part to ensure that our ballet would never be faced with bankruptcy again, and to make the case that SFB is an ambassador for our way of life. This kind of event goes back 300 years to Louis XIV, who used ballet among other fine arts to display the glory of France, frankly as an instrument to put his rebellious barons in their place �" they had to "dance attendance" on him at Versailles �" and to impress foreign diplomats.

It's been an instrument of diplomacy ever since. During the Cold War, the State Dept. countered Russians by sending American ballet companies abroad. SFB has grown into an internationally important troupe celebrated in London, Paris, Moscow. The new ballets SFB has shown there have sold out the houses and have shown what I'd have to call our values �" a high-spirited, good-hearted, multiculturalist, gay-friendly, highly-skilled, casually sophisticated culture, and a beacon to young people who'd like to make a good life for themselves.

SFB's intriguing galas are like no others: what's usually a parade of brilliant bravura items, the �hit tunes" of the rep, here is a sampler of every mood, style, and epoch that suggests the full range the art can express. Nowhere else would you see the broken-hearted solo from L'Arlesienne that ends in the hero's leap to his death �" danced with great feeling and restraint by Pierre-Francois Villanoba �" which came up second on the program. The gala had begun happily, with Balanchine's sunny Tarantella (1964, to Gottschalk). The dancers, Sasha de Sola and Pascal Molat, had characterized their roles in great detail; he had the charming manners of a plausible Italian working guy whose way of flirting with his girl mixes a little swagger with a wry sense of humor. In case you missed the point, another duet followed in a completely different style, The Flower-Festival at Genzano (Auguste Bournonville, 1858), showing Danish young love with lightness, clarity, delicacy, and charm, danced by Gennadi Nedvigin and the exquisite Clara Blanco. He threw off an unbelievably quiet pirouette, the most beautiful I've seen in a long time, turning five or six times and then subsiding into place with casual ease.

From one of the oldest ballets still in the rep, we went into a brand new one, for two contemporary couples, made for them by the very gifted SFB corps dancer Myles Thatcher and set to music by Wojceich Kilar. Dana Genshaft was especially telling in the abstract, slightly spiky piece. Somehow we knew exactly how she felt about Joan Boada, which was emotionally complex but not at all overwrought.

For the first night back, not all the stars were shining their brightest, though most were. Frances Chung was magnificent in the Wedding Pas de Deux from Don Quixote. It was danced with unusual finesse and clarity in the moments of stillness. Chung has become a subtle, musical wonder who knows when to stop and when to go, and when she's still, she's achieved a sculptural majesty that will sustain all the attention you can give. She was coached for this by Felipe Diaz, a former SFB dancer who's returned as ballet master, and much of the credit must go to him �" for these are poses with the eyes downcast, where the ballerina could not use the mirror to correct herself.

Other highlights were the duet from After the Rain, and the two dark Romantic dances from Tomasson's Trio (Sarah van Patten, Tiit Helimets, Vito Mazzeo) and Onegin (Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz). In the first, a deathlike figure comes between the lovers and deftly extricates her from him in a series of increasingly authoritative separations; the joinery of the partnering is very fine, and van Patten makes the human loss a tremendous thing. Onegin's pas de deux is a translation into dance terms of one of the greatest scenes in Romantic literature �" the night Tatiana poured out her hopes and fears in a letter to Onegin in Pushkin's great Byronic poem. Choreographer John Cranko turned this into a scene in which Onegin steps through the mirror into Tatiana's bedroom, almost like a vampire feeding on her longings, and as he lifts her into ever-more astonishing trajectories up onto his shoulders and sweeps her back down  to kneel on the ground, created a new 1960s swooning, sexualized romantic style that has not got old. SFB will perform the complete ballet in March.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's After the Rain.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

Also in the house was Ashley Wheater, a former star here, who's now Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, who just happened to be performing the same weekend across the Bay in Berkeley at Zellerbach Hall, where they filled the house to capacity with a mixed bill that included the complete version of Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain, set to austere mystical music by Arvo Part. SFB's Damian Smith gave his ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan more subtle and reliable support than the Joffrey couple mustered, so the SFB pair achieved a greater trust and intimacy.

The great thing about the Joffrey's program was their powerful dancing of the great 1932 anti-war ballet The Green Table . Kurt Jooss, its choreographer, was a German Expressionist who had to flee the Nazis because his dances told it like it was. The ironic "Dance of the Diplomats" with which this ballet begins and ends has not lost one iota of its power. The ballet is an allegory of great political and economic forces  �" Imperialism, Inflation, Death.

Thirty years ago, the Joffrey Ballet used to perform here every year for two weeks; it's been 10 years since they were here last. It's great to see them dancing so well, and bringing such a great ballet, to remind us how universal a language this is, and how deeply it can move us.