"Divertimento No. 15," "Within the Golden Hour," "Fusion"
San Francisco Ballet
New York, NY
October 10, 2008
by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2008 Susan Reiter
The primary focus of San Francisco Ballet's nine-performance New York season is on the commissioned ballets from last April's New Works Festival, the highlight of the company's 75th anniversary celebrations. But it was altogether appropriate, and just as celebratory, that on the opening night, the curtain rose on Balanchine's luminous gem, "Divertimento No. 15." Not only is this a ballet whose serene and timeless mastery reveals new delights with every viewing -- how rare to find a ballet that can be both profound and witty --- but it is always interesting, and often revelatory, to see a Balanchine work from that era danced on the stage where it was first performed. SFB, for all its venturesome versatility, has maintained a high standard of Balanchine dancing in an ever-increasing range of his works, and offered a splendid, engaging performance.
"Divertimento No. 15" is a work of such jewel-like refinement and intricacy that dancers sometimes veer towards a preciousness that injects the ballet with stodginess. There were no such problems here. As refined and attentive to detail as the SFB cast was, they delivered this work with all its facets gleaming. Tempos were brisk, but no one looked rushed. There was a spring and vivacity to the ballerinas' attack, with the ever-wonderous Tina LeBlanc leading the way. Those of us who recall discovering this brilliant technician and exemplary stylist over two decades ago (as a Joffrey Ballet soubrette) on this very stage, may be forgiven for feeling an extra thrill at seeing her now, inhabiting the music with undiminished vigor, and attacking her petit allegro with such joy and a sense of discovery.
In the second movement's cascade of masterful variations, Frances Chung's exquisite phrasing, shaded with rubato, made the second one gleam with particular radiance, and Gennadi Nedvigin was a model of elegantly modest deportment as he bounded with velvety ease through his variation. Even the theme that launched these variations had a new sheen, as performed by principal dancers Ruben Martin and Taras Domitro (a Cuban newcomer to the company). The Andante -- surely one of Balanchine's most sublime creations, which emerges so effortlessly and inevitably from the music -- was beautifully danced all around, but might have benefited from a slightly slower tempo, to allow everyone to fully luxuriate in its many felicities. The eight women of the ensemble brought meticulous graciousness to the Minuet, which reveals new facets (a momentary image of carousel horses, in concentric circles) on the City Center stage. In the finale, which so ingeniously teases and chases the music, no one looked rushed as they swept along in two and threes until magically everyone coalesced into scintillating harmony.
Ballets by Christopher Wheeldon have been occupying the City Center stage in recent weeks -- his "Rush" was excerpted on one Fall for Dance program, and last week his own company, Morphoses, offered his newest work and two others. But "Within the Golden Hour" is something special even for this gifted and prolific choreographer. It glows with an inner fire, something Wheeldon has clearly heard - and translated with stunning confidence and imagination -- in the Ezio Bosso string compositions he selected.
Structurally, it is full of surprises. Three lead couples dominate, interspersed with a small ensemble of four women and four men. Two men -- Martyn Garside and Garen Scribner introduce the ballet's aura of quiet reverence and gentle mysteriousness, folding forward in prostration as if intiating a ritual. The three couples arrive gradually, as the stage fills, the lighting glows more brightly, and the music's gentle lilting accumulates more vigor and a gently churning pulse. Women seem to float overhead, carried in horizontal lifts. An air of antique solemnity is suggested, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, contemporary in style but accented gold or bronze, suggest a long-ago world. The colors -- turquoise, ochre, olive -- are surprising and stunning.
Bosso's music suggests a distant relative of Philip Glass. It often features a looping melody over an ongoing pulse, but never it never achieves the insistent, churning attack of Glass. It retains a melancholy delicacy, and is more evocative than assertive. His string textures, with a solo violin or viola often hovering above the rest, are exquisite.
The seven sections include three major duets. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith begin theirs in a ballroom stance, doing a simple box step with angled arms and flexed feet echoing the crisp plucked strings in the score. Wheeldon moves them in wonderfully witty and unexpected ways, but wihtout a hint of gimmickry. It all feels organic, and underneath the lighthearted deftness of it all, one can feel the undercurrent of something deeper. They vanish, but they'renot quite done; after four couples suddenly take over, they're just as suddenly gone. Waldo and Smith return to waltz their way leisurely across from one wing to the other.
Garside and Scribner dance an engaging, fleet duet that offers a nod to the witty male duet in "Agon." Then Sarah van Patten -- whose long, luxuriant line Wheeldon taps into with gorgeous results -- and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba dance an astonishing, rapt duet that unfurls like one long sigh. They begin rooted in place, siveling slowly, as the music is barely audible. With infinite calm and all the time in the world, they explore an array of unexpected and riveting shapes and grasps. The effect is hypnotic, right up to the end, when he holds her by her foot as she slowly tilts forward, arching her back, before they find their way to the floor, and she finds her resting place, lying on her back atop him.
In the interlude for the four ladies of the ensemble that follows, they flick their legs with sensual sophistication and suggest a kinship to the ceremonial figures of Robbins' "Antique Epigraphs." Then Maria Kotchetkova and Joan Boada enter from opposite corners to begin their stately duet, the only section set to music by Vivaldi -- the andante from a violin concerto. Meeting in the center, they acknowledge each other with formality, and their duet is one of mutual respect and harmonious exchange. There are fewer surprises than in the other duets, but the fluid logic and straightforward beuaty is no less captivating. And in the gnely pulsing continuo of the Vivaldi, one can hear a connection to Bosso's more contemproary rhythms.
Wheeldon sustains the adventurous beauty of his work in the finale. The music is bold and shimmering. Each couple briefly recapitulates a few signature moves, before the entire cast finds its way into a wedge-shaped cluster, and we last see them in perpetual motion, the curtain falling on their swiveling, swaying bodies. "Within the Golden Hour" offers so much rich discovery, it begs for a second viewing. The confidence with which Wheeldon fills the stage with so much striking imagery is matched by the organic flow and musical sophistication of it all.
Yuri Posskhov's "Fusion," which closed the program, not only had a hard act to follow. It also had an aborted start; after the curtain rose on four men seated in prayerful poses, something apparently went awry in the pit, and the curtain came back down for the breifest of moments before things got started for real. The four men, in white costuems evocative of the Whirling Dervishes, moved with pulsating intensity and ritualistic fervor -- they were both warriors and mystics. As four sleek women in muted shades of blue entered and positioned themselves downstage, the men sat with one knee raised in front of each of them. But they were relieved of their devotional duties as four men in more appropriately matching contemporary costumes took over.
What followed, as Graham Fitkin's bracing contemporary music alternated with tabla-accented music by Rahul dev Burman, was often eye-catching but rarely involving. The dervish men sometimes reclaimed their rightful place, briefly partnering the women, who moved with brisk purposefulness and athletic vigor. The contrast Posskohov aimed for felt more schematic than enlightening. Even with four of the company's true ballerinas -- Lorena Feijoo, Krisitn Long, Yuan Yuan Tan and Zahorian -- involved, too much of "Fusion" came across as an interesting exercise. In a concluding identity switch, the four non-dervishes (Boada, Nevigin. Scribner and Smith) ended the ballet in the same devotional seated pose as the others began it. But the only time "Fusion" really attained a higher plane and achieved something memorable was in the duet for Tan and Smith, accompanied by an eerily uneasy piano section of the score.
Musically, the evening deserved high marks. The orchestra, conducted by Martin West and David Briskin, met all its challenges with exemplary panache.
Photos © Erik Tomasson:
Top:Tina LeBlanc in "Divertimento No. 15"
Middle: Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Wheeldon's "Within The Golden Hour."