Ballet: a finale & a comeback

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 20, 2014
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San Francisco Ballet brought their 81st season to an end with a bittersweet evening marking the end of the SFB careers of several major artists. Since Louis XIV, ballet has been part of the ceremony of public service, and this program was put together using age-old etiquette, to put a brave face on final partings of dancers we've come to know and love, and to send them on into the rest of their lives with acclamation and blessing. Damian Smith and Ruben Martin Cintas, among the greatest partners the company has ever had, made it possible for their ballerinas to lose themselves in the expressive demands of their roles, with no fear that their partner would not be there to support them and lend all the strength necessary to float, soar, whirl, dart, melt, glide, to realize the music through the dance in its largest dimensions.

The first half featured some wonderful duets, including a farewell to the soloist Simone Messmer, who danced "The Man I Love" from Balanchine's Who Cares? with Martin Cintas as if he were the man of her dreams. Even more moving was hearing Roy Malan, for decades the ballet's principal violinist, who said goodbye by playing Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel from the pit while Damian Smith danced the awesome adagio After the Rain, which Christopher Wheeldon set to that holy music, with the ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan (and with Michael McGraw, piano). As the curtain came down, it was impossible not to reflect on the personal emotions of this great partnership, since both dancers were visibly moved, Tan especially.

The second half included video tributes to both dancers. I'd have liked to see once again Martin-Cintas' Boy in Green from Dances at a Gathering, one of the most poetic performances I've seen here. He's retiring young. But Smith has a long list of great roles wonderfully danced, including almost everything Mark Morris has choreographed for SFB, and ranging from the tragic samurai of RaKu to the foppish suitor of Don Quixote, one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Smith is openly gay (his husband was the first person to come out and give him flowers at the final curtain calls) and he used all his gay lore in creating Don Q's Gamache, drawing on scores of gay comics to add a touch here, a petulance there to that character. His gait would have won first prize from the Ministry of Silly Walks. He brought something different to every role; I'll remember him best in Morris' A Garden and Yuri Possokhov's Reflections, where his adoration of the ballerina (Muriel Maffre) had an exalted quality like the passion of a gay man for a woman who is completely his without sex.

After the intermission came one of the great works of Jerome Robbins, the four duets to Chopin Nocturnes called In the Night . Here we saw the future of the company in the second duet for Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve, who danced the second, "Polish" duet with austere majesty, while Martin Cintas and Smith danced the nostalgic and turbulent pas de deux (with Dores Andre and the fiery Lorena Feijoo). Robbins created this on his return from his Broadway career and triumph in Fiddler on the Roof; when he moved into the more contemplative reaches of ballet, he explored his Eastern-European roots in a series of profound ballets to music by Chopin, of which In the Night is the most sorrowful and the most resigned. It's danced against an array of stars on a black-velvet background, and the gathering of the three couples in the finale, in which they greet and briefly dance with each others' partners, as in a quadrille, but return quickly to each other, say "good night," and exit in pairs, perfectly expressed our feelings at the end of the season, of some careers. All I can say is "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Oakland Ballet Company dancer Sharon Wehner (left) with guest dancers from the Turf Feinz, Rayshawn "Looney" Thompson (center) and Garion "Noh-justice" Morgan (right), in choreographer Graham Lustig's Turfland. Photo: Christopher Dunn

Then at the end of the week came a delightful comeback performance by the Oakland Ballet Company, full of vitality and pride in their city, which is now home to more lesbians than any other city in the country and probably the bedroom community for most of the Bay Area's artists. Before the 1989 earthquake knocked down much of Oakland's downtown, the Oakland Ballet was an internationally important ballet company. Since the earthquake, Oakland Ballet has been struggling to maintain its grip. But they've got the community behind them, and this season's repertory shows last Friday filled the house at the Malonga Casquelourde Theater in Oakland for Oaklandesque, an entertaining evening that celebrated the vitality of this gritty city.

This year Oakland Ballet Company has used music by Oakland artists Earl "Fatha" Hines, one of the true greats of jazz piano; Joan Jeanrenaud, alumna of the Kronos Quartet, a real original; Graham Central Station, alum of Sly and the Family Stone; and others. The music was too loud, but otherwise created a wonderful floor for a world of quirky and catchy moves. They're building back up by partnering with Mills College, who are lending them rehearsal space and the help of their fantastic dance and music programs. Former department chair Sonya Delwayde made a casually sophisticated dance for them, using two guest dancers from Axis dance for an inventive jazz piece to Hines' music that used a lot of moves I'd never seen before. The ballerina Sharon Wehner sailed through it all, always fascinating, with Evan Flood whipping out moves with wonderful timing. Meanwhile Joel Brown, who looks like Superman in a push wheelchair, made sharp, smooth, controlled moves �" he's a virtuoso in a push wheelchair �" that were not just flashy bits of local color but profoundly integrated into the choreography.

Similarly, in the finale Graham Lustig incorporated the street moves of the Turf Feinz in a funky dance for the whole company that put the show over the top. Taking U p Room on the Floor is Oakland's unique and brilliant contribution to contemporary African-American street dance. The Turf Feinz are internationally popular through YouTube videos. This is the dance of the ghetto, and the dancers are, in my view, demigods.

There was also a wonderfully funky dance by Robert Moses, and a Cunninghamesque dance by Mills alum Molissa Fenley that the OBC dancers filled with strong shapes, to Jeanrenaud's Harry Partsch-like music, well-played by Nava Dunkelman and AnnaWray on gongs and drums, which gave a fine motor impulse to the dance.