“Divertimento No. 15” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” “Firebird”
San Francisco Ballet, Program Two
War Memorial Opera House
January 31 and February 2, 2008
by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2008 Rita Felciano
You can’t ask for much more. San Francisco Ballet’s second program showcased three generations of ballet choreographers with two first rate works and the third an almost success. Not the least of this evening’s pleasure was Helgi Tomasson’s deft placing of Balanchine’s “Divertimento No 15” next to Mark Morris “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”
Despite clear and obvious differences, Balanchine and Morris seemed to have drawn from similar pools of inspiration in the way they had handled the dual demands of permanence and evanescence. Structurally rock-solid, they worked with a similar number of dancers—sixteen for Balanchine, twelve for Morris—to create a vibrant sense of space through flurries of exits and entrances. Morris may have tweaked classical vocabulary, but his is still an homage to classical dance, and in both works the dancers’ fleeting relationships suggested a self-contained community celebrating itself with just a tinge of melancholy.
Transparent and musically reverent, “Divertimento” is achingly beautiful, never more so than at the end of the Andante when the dancers mingle to say good-bye. Or when they swear allegiance to each other, the men with upraised arms, the women hugging. But sparkling wit—Mozart’s and Balanchine’s—also inspires those grand unison penchées, with just touch of Broadway to them. The dancers acknowledge us, the audience, before doing the final reverences for each other.
Or consider the opening’s charm when the dancers introduce themselves in an elegant though straight-forward this-is-who are manner: eight corps women and two ballerinas, three men and three more ballerinas, one just a tad more equal than the others. The corps women’s retirés felt like girlish chatter.
With “Divertimento” SFB dancers—the piece re-entered the repertoire last year after a long absence — did themselves proud. Nicolas Blanc and Gennadi Nedvigine’s pliant stylishness—softest of landings, meticulous attention to detail—looked as natural as a birthright. Hansuke Yamamoto is still a little too edgy in his attacks but he has come a long way from the higher-the-better jumps he used to push so eagerly. In the second cast, new soloist Matteo Klemmayer, a little sturdy but with nice lines, replaced Nedvigine.
The first cast’s five women (Katita Waldo, Frances Chung, Rachel Viselli, Vanessa Zahorian and Kristin Long) were congenially matched. In the First Variation Waldo—who two nights earlier seemed so at home in vaudeville—delivered her bevy of turning hops like a bouquet of flowers. Zahorian’s fourth Variation had a lovely stretch and touch of languor to it while reliable Kristin Long kept her whirlwind Sixth Variation pristinely clean though a little dry.
If “Divertimento” had a setting it would have to be one of Le Nôtre’s gardens while Morris’ “Drink to Me” might be, let’s say, a ballet studio. But it too is a place for congeniality, elegance and common purpose.
Morris’s choreography matches Virgil Thomson’s smart Etudes seamlessly. The mix of tedium and exuberance in learning to play an instrument — whether from flesh and bone or wood and metal — will sound and look familiar to anyone ever engaged in the process. I couldn’t help but shiver at the touches of Czerny in Thomson’s score. Maybe that’s what Elana Altman’s slight ennui in raising her arms into couronne one more time was all about.
“Drink” is madcap place where dancers work out individually only to drop in on a prescribed exercise—like those plops into perfect fifth position or the switches of sequential port de bras, or the rushing into a line as if late for the opening barre. A male trio is followed by one for females, except that it turns out to be solo. (Balanchine had a similar moment in “Divertimento.”) Women raised like trophies in the pas de deux’s recaled the opening image when they were carried horizontally like mannequins. A circle of jetés around the pianist (a sturdy Nataly’a Feygina) acknowledged the music. Grand pliés sank into finality, arabesques melted into the ground, and echappés exploded like firecrackers. Even when a note of melancholy — or was is just fatigue? -entered with “Drink to Me” melody in the wittily named ‘Tenor Lead’, this is a work about dance as serious work that is joyous, difficult and fun.
Each of the two performances featured a different cast, all of them new two their assignments. They danced vibrantly. You didn’t want them to stop.
The return of Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” confirmed last year’s impression of this being a fine, though not completely successful re-interpretation of Stravinsky’s score. The choreographer chose to forego the imperial implications of other settings; his remains a folk tale. The “Prince” (Damian Smith) is a simple country lad; the “Princess” (Viselli) the Village Beauty; Kaschei (Pascal Molat) a story book villain, scary-looking but without bite. As for the Firebird (Yuan Yuan Tan) she is a magical creature but with a human heart that can be broken.
Possokhov’s concept fails him in the finale. Stravinsky’s sun-rise music demands grandeur, an apotheosis of some kind that this “Firebird” doesn’t offer. The folk-dance celebration is not enough to even suggest that these two lovers are anything but simple folk. Possokhov’s original, smaller 2004 version (for Oregon Ballet Theatre) had the lovers leave on a country lane with a vision of St. Petersburg in the distance. That at least suggested the possibility of transformation and a loftier future.
Long-limbed Tan’s soaring jetes powerfully suggested an airborne freedom much in contrast with the febrile intensity of her earthly encounters. In the Pas de Deux with Smith, her leaning into him felt almost like a settling down. At the end the humanness of her broken heart just about belied her being a phoenix.
Molat’s high-jumping, long-nailed Kaschei was a hoot, He stirred the roiling sea of his monsters and caressed his egg with almost obscene delight.
Smith, who imparts shine on any role he touches, brought nuances to the differences in his courting; elegant and delicate with Tan; robust and bucolic with Viselli. He gustily tore around with the “girls” in circles and serpentines, breaking through their rotating “wall” to catch Viselli into welcoming arms. At the climactic moment the friends averting their eyes with limp-wrist gestures recalled—intended or not—“Swan Lake.” During the “battle” Smith, in his coiled rope of a cage, looked like another fairytale character, Hansel.
In the second cast corps member Lily Rogers stepped into her assignment with great assurance, bringing a more of a touch eroticism and a concomitant fierceness to her confrontation with Kaschei (a fine Garrett Anderson). She also more clearly spelled out “I am a bird, I need to fly” mime.
Ruben Martín’s Prince was a touch feistier but not as nuanced as his colleague’s. This was no piteous Hansel; he rattled is cage like a weapon. Sarah Van Patten, she of the fierce technique but sometimes cool presence, danced the Princess with a delicate but girlish kind of abandon. Earlier in the evening, she had brought a similar openness of spirit in the second cast of “Divertimento’s” Second Variation. She’ll be a pleasure to watch for the rest of the season.
Top: Gennadi Nedvigine and Frances Chung in Balanchine’s “Divertimento No.15”
Middle: San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ “Drink to me Only With Thine Eyes”
Bottom: Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s “Firebird”
Photos © Erik Tommasson