Starring the corps de ballet

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 13, 2014
Share this Post:

San Francisco Ballet closed their run in the Opera House on a heroic note. They made it to the end of their season battered and tired, but gallant and flying the flag to the finish. Indeed, Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces, the last thing on the last show, is one of the best things they've done all year. It stars the corps de ballet, and SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, brilliant manager that he is, may have considered when he planned the season many moons ago that whatever else happened, "that ballet will be a sure-fire finale, and will send them home happy." And he was right.

Many dancers were on the benches, injured; one principal dancer has been out since the gala opening night, when she tumbled as she ran onstage and hopped up to dance the rest of the piece on a broken foot. There was much shuffling in the last week, and Agon had to be cancelled for the Wednesday night show (replaced by Tomasson's Fifth Season), though by Friday night's show it was back on the boards, the undisputed masterpiece that anchored the evening.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in George Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

When it was new in 1957, Balanchine's Agon was a blockbuster in every way. Sixty years later, it still peels your eyes, though it's been copied so much by lesser choreographers that the overlay of its astringent, feeble-minded offspring have made it seem if not patronizable, at least something you can decide you didn't like. But really it's like The Waste Land's timeless "unreal city" �" mid-century critics cried, "Fourmillante cite" ("city teeming like ants,") a line from Baudelaire that Eliot cited in his notes. In 1957, its 12 dancers in their black-and-white tights, articulating all their joints in such arresting ways, and with its biracial principal couple (he black, she white), looked like the future when it packed the City Center whenever it was announced. Not just the intelligentsia �" it was a popular sensation.

Agon's appeal is immediate but not simple. Despite the futuristic, desolating look of it �" with no softening of the edges �" the ballet is chock-a-block with Charleston, shag, popular social- and folk-dance moves, and rhythms that keep the material familiar. Despite the Olympic-scale athleticism of the articulations, what that guy just did was put out a cigarette with the ball of his foot. The "castanet girl" is doing Suzy-Q's.

Then there are the dance metaphors. If a pas de deux is a dance of love, in this one, the boy falls to the floor onto his back, but he leaves his hand where it was and still manages to support his ballerina, who was standing on toe in a totally cantilevered arabesque with her back leg lifted straight to the ceiling �" in effect, in the splits. That's "I will be there for you" translated into kinetic terms before the era of encounter-group "trust-building exercises."

Both ballerinas were off their game last Friday night, though Frances Chung seemed to be happy in her dancing despite everything. The corps and the men kept it alive, and delivered a wonderful performance. Gennadi Nedvigin hit his rhythms like a great jazz drummer in the Sarabande, and showed the inner structure of that wonderful dance cleaner than I have ever seen it before. All four demi-soloists danced wonderfully; they were Sasha da Sola, Dores Andre, Jaime Garcia Castillo, and Hansuke Yamamoto. Kimberley Braylock, Shannon Rugani, Kristina Lind, and Ami Yuki also danced wonderfully in this piece, and in everything else that night as well.

San Francisco Ballet in George Balanchine's Agon.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

The great strength of the San Francisco Ballet lies in its versatile corps de ballet. All of these dancers are brilliant movers in their own right, and any of them could jump in to hold down the fort if something happened and a ballerina forgot to make her entrance �" as happens sometimes, show business being what it is. 

After the rather drawn-out Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, which really only sizzled in the Hungarian-Gypsy rondo of its finale, where Sarah van Patten and Davit Karapetyan seized their moments and tore up the stage with dancing of great wit and rhythmic flair, the evening belonged to the corps as they charged about the stage in Robbins' brilliant answer to the post-modernists, his Glass Pieces. In the first section, dancers rush across the stage like commuters in a subway station, walking at a furious clip in stylized patterns that nevertheless make you notice the John Cage-like way you've been reminded that any ordinary thing can be seen, in the right light, to be wonderful. The last uses a myriad of folk-dance steps to echo the pounding drums of Glass' Akhneton in geometrically exhilarating patterns. This somehow has the effect of reminding you of the Charlestons and shag steps in Agon, the deep motor impulses that lie in the dances we don't think about, we just do.

Dance is an art we share with other species. Do birds think about their dances, or sea-horses? The art lies so deep inside us, it's forever nourishing to see it done by those who can really reveal its wonders.