Supernatural beings & unearthly beauty

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday February 3, 2015
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San Francisco Ballet opened their season last week with two programs that are both fantastic evenings of dance. Both shows continue, alternating, into early next week. Go if you can. The cheaper seats upstairs will be well worth the price, since both Giselle (Program 2) and Serenade (the opener of Program 1) look magical from above, where the shifting patterns of the dancers open up into full bloom and actually gain in power from the bird's-eye view.

Ballet is one of those things that have to be great in order to be any good. It really is like rocket science: a near-miss is no good at all. Everything in these two shows was wonderful. Nothing was new, but everything held up to sustained repetition. The best of all was the almost-200-years-old ballet Giselle (new in 1841, not long after the birth of the pointe show), which on Saturday night made grown men gasp out loud. They could not believe their eyes. The great thing about the great ballets is they can conquer disbelief. If the ballerina can stop in mid-air and stay there absolutely still, well then, you saw it with your own eyes. If she can do that, maybe she is a ghost. You willingly suspend disbelief and give the story a chance.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson's Giselle. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Serenade and Giselle both ask us to believe in supernatural women of unearthly beauty. Of course, many of us would love to believe in such creatures, and it doesn't take much to get us to surrender our skepticism and go along for the ride, so long as, when the curtain comes down, we don't have to pay a price. The Wilis of Giselle, and the unnamed dancing princesses of Serenade, have their roots in ancient Slavic folklore, the same creatures that the Harry Potter novels called Veela. I was picturing Serenade, with its interwoven trajectories of dancing maidens, at the Veela dance in the half-time show of the Quidditch World Cup when I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If the movie version did not satisfy you, as it did not me, just imagine what George Balanchine could have done with it.

When Balanchine came to America in the early 1930s, he was summoned to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn, who thought him a genius. But not before he had choreographed the first version of Serenade as a demo for students at the brand-new School of American Ballet. He disguised his students' lack of advanced technique by having them show clarity of position and attack, and had them move like dominos falling down, in clear patterns that perfectly fit the music of Tchaikovsky's glorious serenade for strings. It's safe to say that the opening section of Disney's Fantasia owes everything to Serenade (1933).

And Serenade owes everything to Giselle and all the ballets blancs that came before, which showed Sylphides, Fairies, Peris, and other fantastic creatures in whom our ancestors may have believed, dancing their mystic circles in the forest, in the misty moonlight. During the early 19th century, young artists revolted against rationalism and insisted "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." They mined folklore for material that would give shape to their intuitions. Ghost stories came into their own and enjoyed a heyday with poets like Goethe, Wordsworth, Keats, and Scott, Victor Hugo and Gauthier, composers like Beethoven and Schubert, and choreographers like Taglioni, Perrot, and Peralli finding ways of making us feel the truth of "worlds not realized." For all his neo-classical technique, Balanchine was essentially a fantasist, and the ingredient that makes all his ballets intriguing is his rapport with music that evokes a world we can only imagine.

Serenade is one of those ballets that are more beautiful than can be danced. It shows a world of turbulence as it might be experienced by an immigrant forced by wars and tyranny to seek new worlds. Dancers rush in patterns like sand being blown into dunes, or waves dashing against rocks. It's all like a dream with ravishing moments along the way, resolving into a passage into yet another world as the music comes to its sublime end. Lorena Feijoo, Dores Andre, and Vanessa Zahorian were all wonderful in their ways, as were their cavaliers Davit Karapetyan and Tiit Helimets, but the ballet belongs to the corps de ballet.

The men of Lambarena drove the audience into delirium. Their jumps had such powerful, clear shapes, their attack and amplitude and rhythmic brilliance put the evening over the top. Val Caniparoli used music that layered African rhythms and chants on top of Bach cantata-music to electrifying effect. Lambarena premiered in 1995, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN Treaty in SF, and the ballet has since become one of the most performed throughout the country. It was magnificent to see how well our company can perform it now, when none of the originals are left in the company. Lorena Feijoo stood in for Evelyn Cisneros, on whom the ballerina's role was created, and made it into the same dance of joy Cisneros created. Ellen Rose Hummel gave her excellent support on the female side. But it was the men, all of them, who carried the day. The  three principals, Wei Wang, Daniel Deivison, and especially Joseph Walsh, gave a blazing clarity to everything they did. The African element, contributed by the great West African artists Naomi and Dr. Zak Diouf, who collaborated with Caniparoli and curate this aspect of every performance, has pride of place, and the men really made you see the basis of American popular dance in every move they made.

Also on Program 1, and immensely popular with the audience, was Raku, a Bolshoi-style exotic melodrama choreographed by SFB Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov in a Japanese style, to feature principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan. The audience adores this piece, though I do not. I must admire its stagecraft, since it gives Tan a tremendous vehicle to display her phenomenal gymnastic gifts, and she uses its Butoh-derived plastique to tremendous effect.

But when it comes to effects, nothing can match the sudden absolute stillnesses of Mathilde Froustey, our Paris Opera Ballet-trained ballerina who can seem to stop in mid-air like a ghost, in Giselle . She plays a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart when she realizes that the boy she loves is in fact an aristocrat in disguise. She's faced with the duchess who wanders with her hunting party into her village clearing �" and they're both engaged to marry the same man!

The scene at her grave in the forest, where the Wilis try to force her to make her repentant lover dance til he dies, depends on her ability to make us believe that she is a Wili but that she still loves him, and wants to save him from their vengeance. Froustey made me believe in all of this, and more. I've seen Giselle many times (first time in London in 1970), and this was one of the most beautifully nuanced and most convincing ever for me. I recommend giving SFB a chance to convince you.