Dancing in the dark

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday February 5, 2013
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San Francisco Ballet's first program was rather hard on the audience, aside from the Jerome Robbins ballet In the Night, which was glorious. These dancers could perform it their sleep, they know the idiom and the style of it so well, and they danced superbly, especially the corps dancer Jennifer Stahl, who had a triumph in the second nocturne. But aside from that ballet, the dancers were not at ease with the unfamiliar moves in two gut-crunchingly difficult ballets. They were clearly heroic, and at Friday night's performance they received applause for conquering the difficulties. But the sound of the applause was different for a dancer like Sophiane Sylve, who sailed through her difficulties with sovereign ease. Then the audience roared, and you could hear the sound of people who'd been relieved to have been taken for a wonderful ride by a dancer who didn't make you pull for her all the way.

In the Night is another of Robbins' ballets to Chopin's piano music �" in this case, four nocturnes (played well by Roy Bogas), with three couples dancing their romances against a starry background, coming together for a last dance in which they remain lost in each other. The dreamy pair (Vanessa Zahorian and Ruben Martin Cintas) float through their time together; the stately pair (Stahl and Tiit Helimets) have a magnificent tenderness for each other; the stormy couple (Sarah van Patten and Luke Ingham) can't live together or separately; at one point, both rush off the stage, in opposite directions. She comes back first; their making up is one of the great moments in ballet.

That ballet formed the emotional center of the evening. It was framed by a pair of high-energy, rapid-fire movements. First up was Serge Lifar's 1943 Suite en Blanc, a glow-in-the-dark classical ballet for a large corps and many soloists dressed in white. Suite has rarely been seen in this country, is new to the company, and comes in a style few of us are familiar with. It was made for the Paris Opera Ballet during the Nazi occupation, and showcases the strengths and style of that company. Many people today still condemn Lifar for collaborating with the Nazis (though he was tried in 1947, and exonerated). Some see a Nazi-placating militaristic cast to the display of technical strength that every dance in Suite requires. Others see it as the opposite, as an assertion of the gloire de France and the unbowed majesty of "the French School."

SFB dancers Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo in Wayne McGregor's Borderlands. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Lifar was a Russian �" he had been a star of the Ballets Russes, and had created the title roles of The Prodigal Son and Apollo Musagete , Balanchine's first triumphs. He'd entered the POB after Diaghilev's death broke up the Ballets Russes. Lifar became their new star choreographer. Suite en Blanc is certainly in the tradition of POB ballets by Clustine and Staats. But SFB's performance of Suite en Blanc was rocky at times. Some of the phrasing was harsh and descended into bathos. It was touch-and-go until the French-trained ballerina Sylve entered and made her section completely intelligible, poignant, and moving. The difference between the way she danced and everybody else did was so striking I found myself thinking maybe the rest just don't get it.

Namely, the French style involves a lot of work in the torso �" rib-cage, breast-bone, clavicle, shoulders, and spine �" so the neck is like a cat's, and the arms move with odalisque subtlety, like in Ingres. Most of SFB's women had very square torsos with arms trying to make exotic shapes but only reaching from the shoulders �" no intrigue, no softness in the collarbone. Their timing was square and metronomic, whereas Sylve's was full of rubato �" she stole time from one measure to pay back another. Her phrasing was idiomatic and creamy, the steps suited the music and never seemed out of place. Even the most difficult, as when she descended from pointe into a genuflection and rose again as if by magic, seemed to be the inevitable effect of Lalo's beautiful music.

I'm inclined to give Lifar the benefit of the doubt, and to hope that SFB will repeat the ballet next season and get a POB coach like Violette Verdy to work with the dancers on phrasing.

Wayne MacGregor's futuristic ballet Borderlands similarly only came to life for me when dancers with strong personalities like Sylve, Maria Kochetkova, and Pascal Molat molded their moves into phrases that you could believe they meant. MacGregor had been inspired, the program notes said, by the paintings of Josef Albers, and we did see a huge square floating center-stage, which floated back mysteriously, shrank and disappeared, to re-emerge in different colors �" but it was hard to tell why. The music nearly gave me a tonic-chord meltdown. I kept falling asleep, but when Sophiane came back on, I was alive to everything, though I can't say what she meant.

Borderlands had an interesting look �" the dancers were nearly naked, in pale blue underwear, but they were shrouded by the lighting, which, when the strobes started their flickering, created an effect like you were looking at a Xerox copy-of-a-copy, or an old video recording where the snow had eaten away most of the image. Strangely flattening. The effect could have been fascinating, but it wasn't. This is the sort of ballet in which casting and luck can make a huge difference. On another night, it could have melted the walls of the building if the dancers were on. I wish I'd seen that, but I didn't.