The show must go on

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 16, 2013
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Enormous changes at the last minute.

At Saturday night's performance of Francesca da Rimini, Joan Boada went in to dance the major role of Paolo with (according to one rumor) only five minutes' warning. (The ballet repeats, centerpiece of a triple bill that alternates with Program 6, through this Sun., April 21.) Boada had danced the role before, but not with that evening's Francesca, Frances Chung. Another less breathless report (from a SFB ballet mistress) said that the word came down in the middle of the preceding ballet, which means they may have had 10 minutes' warning, and that they ran upstairs to run through their duets. In any case, Chung and Boada had a triumph together. They went for it: in this downright Baroque ballet �" which is, in fact, a setting of a story from Dante's Inferno, with Rodinesque plastique and overwhelming music by Tchaikovsky �" there'd be nothing to gain theatrically from playing it safe, except that the dancers might live to perform another day. As it was, they took their chances �" Chung has always been a fearless dancer who could do anything, and Boada is a valiant, brave, immensely strong, and generous partner who, despite having suffered from long-term injuries in the past, held nothing back and gave Chung all the support she needed to release herself into a passionate performance.

Ballet is, after all, like football �" it's fantastically dangerous. The dancers practice and practice. But onstage anything can happen, and it sometimes does. Dancers destroy their knees, they get concussed, they slip and fall (a corps girl fell in the last ballet that night, and hopped right back up and carried on just fine), it happens all the time. The spectacle of such bravery is thrilling to see �" not as a blood sport, but as grace under pressure, the kind of heroism it's life-affirming to see.

Boada, indeed, danced one of his solos with wild abandon �" he never landed where he should have, but took off from that place into his next step nonetheless and hit all his marks, turned all his turns, finished all his jumps like a cat righting itself in the midst of every fall. It was a heroic performance; the audience cheered him to the skies and still probably has no idea how extraordinary it was, since the dancers never paraded their difficulties.

Chung was no less wonderful. Indeed, the corps girls who played ladies in waiting at the nightmarish court of Rimini took fantastic chances in their brief solos, diving into their arabesques, attacking the movement like a hungry man going after a steak. And Vito Mazzio, dancing the monster-prince her husband, gave no hint of whining that he was the principal dancer in every ballet all night, but took every opportunity that the choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, former star of the Bolshoi Ballet and SFB and now SFB's resident choreographer, gave him to create a gnarly, repellent snake of a prince.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Vito Mazzeo in Helgi Tomasson's Criss-Cross.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

Even better on that program was Balanchine's neo-classic Symphony in Three Movements (1972), which starred Jaime Garcia Castillo, Sasha da Sola, Vito Mazzeo and Yuan Yuan Tan, Lonnie Weeks, and Clara Blanco, five pairs of demi-soloists, and 16 corps girls who wear leotards and tights �" the women are in ponytails, and their moves come as if they were musical instruments in an orchestra. SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson starred in this ballet in 1972, when it premiered in New York City Ballet's Stravinsky Festival. Unlike Possokhov's Francesca, which wears its heart on its sleeve, Balanchine's work has more than meets the eye. Though the moves are edgy and clear, the effect is that of Polanski's film Knife in the Water. I have a desperate desire to see it again. It's a great ballet, and it was danced as well as can be imagined, right down to the corps. Hansuke Yamamoto stood out among many others who danced well in Tomasson's Criss-Cross, which opened the program.

Program 6, I think, is more interesting than it looked last Wednesday. Edwaard Liang's Symphonic Dances, set to Rachmaninoff's score, was well-danced but does not appeal to me. There are some beautiful lifts and there is sensitive partnering, but I have no insight into the piece.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Sofiane Sylve in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Val Caniparoli's ballet Ibsen's House, set to Dvorak's Piano Quintet, was the great event of that night. It roused the audience to a passionate response. Ibsen's House is a shrewdly contrived dramatic piece: the ballerinas' gestures reveal the strictures their characters endure, while their whirling trajectories, their stabbing feet protest the fears they barely manage to keep down, the rebellion they are not allowed to demonstrate. Caniparoli also reveals sympathetic dimensions in the men, who, though they are the beneficiaries of the patriarchy in some ways, are as much the prisoners as their wives. Vanessa Zahorian, Ruben Martin Cintas, Clara Blanco, Luke Willis, Shannon Rugani, all had vivid success in this ballet.

Raymonda Act III, in Nureyev's handsome but unmusical staging of Petipa's 1898 classic, had only intermittent success. Lorena Feijoo and Davit Karapetyan danced their star roles extremely well, but despite Glazounov's wonderful music, the effect was stilted and unmusical.