Learning the ballet fundamentals

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday June 1, 2016
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San Francisco Ballet School students in John Neumeier's <i>Yondering.</i> Photo: Chris Hardy
San Francisco Ballet School students in John Neumeier's Yondering. Photo: Chris Hardy

San Francisco Ballet School presented their students in a brilliant showcase that displayed increased strength, precision, finesse, and sleekly sculptured physiques. The new director, Patrick Armand, working under the lead of SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson, aims to bring the SFB School back up to the prestigious position it had decades ago as one of the country's two great schools. The young dancers' clarity in moving through positions has advanced. It would be an exaggeration to say it's like the difference created by Blu-ray recording. They're not there yet, but that is the goal â€" to raise the level of production of the balletic way of moving. Arabesques are higher, clearer, the line of the foot is more elegant and unfailing, transitions are smoother and more interesting.

This sounds great, but I had mixed feelings â€" the emphasis on professionalism was strangely demoralizing. When it was all done, they were presented as at a job fair, ready for hiring. The dances they showed were all display pieces, with not one ballet where dancing to the music was the main thing.

But it certainly did not start out that way. The opening five minutes were thrilling, even the smallest children looking ready and eager to dance for us. It is tremendously exciting to see young children moving with precision and energy and clarity of mind. They know what they're doing, and they do it. "Look Mom, no hands!" They can do it, and they love it. From the bottom up, the 100+ students in the school cut their figures, many of them from "the hard book," and made them all look easy. Parrish Maynard's choreography fit them like a glove, and Tchaikovsky's brilliant Polonaise, the one from Evgeny Onegin, gave them reason to strut. Wei Wang, one of the stars in SF Ballet's corps de ballet, made a little ballet that gave senior students glamorous melancholy moves to dance in the dark, with a morphed-up Moonlight Sonata as mood music. They looked wonderful, but the music seemed abused.

Worse happened to Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, which has a hallowed place in dance history already as the score for Frederick Ashton's 1946 masterpiece. Those who've seen Margot Fonteyn dance to this music cringed to see Mr. Maynard set another display piece for the advanced dancers, with some skill but no inspiration, to this deeply stirring text. The ballerina, who looked like a million bucks, smiling broadly, appeared first in a tutu we all recognized from Yuri Possokhov's Reflections, and then returned in costume for Serenade to do some steps from that ballet in the slower section, while surrounded by vixens in long red satin dresses we recognized from an otherwise-forgettable ballet from 10 years before.

Ballet Folklorico Netzahualcoyotl dancers Juan Carlos Morales Esqueda and Angela Espinoza, coming to the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Photo: San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

None of the young folk are to blame. Perhaps it was a mixture of opening-night nerves and programming choices that were determined by diplomatic considerations: two of the ballets were prepared for collaboration in festivals with other companies, Houston and Hamburg Ballets. They're participating in the 20th anniversary celebrations for John Neumeier's Yondering in Hamburg, a sentimental, foolish ballet tricked out in idiot detail that does not deserve celebrating. For example, in "Jeannie with the light brown hair," every time the idea of Jeannie comes up, the boys beat themselves upside the head, beside their ears; it's a leitmotiv, the dancers do it very well (at the top of a jump, usually) without really hurting themselves, but it doesn't really make sense and just serves as idle decoration to a dance that is full of little lacy nothings that are very hard to do but don't add up to a hill of beans. The piece would not offend me so if it did not conclude on a trivial dance for naive young men, Union soldiers who romp off to the Civil War to one of Foster's few bad songs, "The rebels have to scatter, and that's what's the matter." If only Neumeier had not adopted so much of Paul Taylor's manner in the composition that you have to see the dying soldiers of Taylor's Company B falling in slow motion in the background, like a palimpsest showing through in a painting. Company B (1991) has no idiot detail. Though Yondering has two effective dances, the duet "Molly, do you love me?" and the bisexual triangle "Beautiful Dreamer," it is really a waste of the young dancers' time getting all those little head wags and finishing touches into place, for a piece so trivial.

Yes, a superb technique is a prerequisite for ballet. But great teachers like Danilova never encouraged technique for its own sake. "When the time comes and you're onstage," she famously said, "you throw away your technique and dance."

When it comes to dancing, the whole world opens up before you in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which plays next month at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. Second only to food, dance is the easiest access you'll ever have to a culture that's not your own. Our Ethnic Dance Festival is perhaps the finest in the world. New York certainly does not have its equal. African dance, the fountainhead of the way Americans have danced for a hundred years, is well-represented, including rich Caribbean and Brazilian variants, but also the classic dances of India, Cambodia, Bali, China, Korea, and the fairy-like dances of Scotland. Don't miss it. sfethnicdancefestival.org.