"Stravinsky Violin Concerto," "Prodigal Son," "Diamonds
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
March 7, 2017
by Rita Felciano
copyright Rita Felciano © 2017
Seeing an all Balanchine program is always a treat. Revisiting Balanchine offers multiple treats, particularly when they are as beautifully balanced as Helgi Tomasson did in this season's fourth program. The evening opened with the 1972 "Stravinsky Violin Concerto", followed by the 1929 "Prodigal Son" and concluded with "Diamonds" from 1967 which entered the SFB repertoire only in 2002. The program also welcomed debuts byJoseph Walsh and Sofiane Sylve in "Prodigal" and Luke Ingham in "Stravinsky." If there was one shadow darkening these performances it was "Diamonds'' under-rehearsed finale where the jewels sparkled more than the footwork.
San Francisco Ballet in "Prodigal Son." Photo © Erik Tomasson
Shining throughout "Stravinsky" is the grace and ease that Balanchine brought to his task. There is something high-spirited in the meticulous way he played a game of numbers and gender while introducing the soloists. The two contrasting Pas de Deux are followed by the exuberant, Russian-infused 'Capriccio'. Four such different movements, yet the whole held together through and yet different from the music. The Hindu Lila (divine play) comes to mind.
In 'Aria I' a radiant Sarah Van Patten allowed herself to be partnered by the attentive Ingram but never gives in to him. Even holding hands creates distance as they pull apart or turn into pretzels. Face-to-face, she quickly turns her head or drops towards the floor. Sometimes her splayed fingers look like shields. Limbs connect, though with little intimacy. Neither is there any competition, just distance.
The tenderness with which Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets infused the second Aria suggested an intimacy that seemed too private to watch. Unison walks spoke ooneness. Her extraordinary limbs stretched longingly beyond the physicality of the moment. For Helimets extending a hand and her accepting it became a love declaration. Leaning against Helimets' shoulder as his arm cupped her just may be one of Ballet's most erotic moments. Helimets and Tan, very different classicists, so often find common ground.
In the final Capriccio we reenter a more prosaic world. This sprightly and rhythmically intrinsic scherzo abounded with echoes of social and folk traditions. We get a multitude of slides and strides, pearly runs, swinging and crossed arms. Even a circle dance for the soloists. For anybody who thinks that, outside the story ballets, folklore in classical ballet is relatively new might take a look at Balanchine's "Stravinsky."
Some of "Prodigal Son", introduced into SFB under Lew Christensen in 1984, looked of its time. Prokofiev's score, excellently played by the SFB orchestra, under Martin West, is probably the composer's finest contribution to ballet. The choreography for the Drinking Companions, both the mechanical and the debauched one, lustily performed as it was, seemed either too stylized or too naturalistic. I couldn't decide. Walsh's fine debut in the role created a character both well known, and yet so modern. His longing for that big world outside pulled his huge leaps just about off-stage; yet his-fist throwing tantrums showed him as childish: a young buck hungry for adventure. Hanging on that make-believe cross, he recalled less a Christ figure than a tortured human being of whom we have lately seen too many pictures. Yet crawling towards the Father (Ricardo Bustamente, both compassionate and rigid) remains timelessly moving. The music rises towards the eventual outcome, but watching the son and his father, you are not quite sure.
Sylve's stalking Siren had plenty of steely malevolence with well-placed pointe work and devastating limbs. That hand crawling up behind her crown became a grabbing claw. She handled the cape with a degree of auto-eroticism; descending on the Prodigal she just about tore his heart out. The moment when iciness turning into murderous passion still hits like a punch. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and James Sofranko's servants look good in the leaps and uniformity of attacks.
Today "Diamonds," classical ballet at its purest, can also be seen as a leisurely ballet, informed by formality and familiarity. So perhaps this is also a way that Balanchine paid tribute to the imperial tradition whose audience might have known the language while New York's ballet aficionado's might have seen that kind of purity more often in 19th century story ballets. SFB's women danced the opening waltz 's kaleidoscopic trio formations with uniform grace. Just at the point where one sensed the need for something besides shifting lines of bobbing tutus, the entrance of Lauren Strong and WanTing Zhao re-energized the set up.
"Diamonds''" heart is the exquisite pas de deux, danced by Vanessa Zahorian, who will retire at the end of the season, and the Italian Carlo Di Lanno, who made Principal last year, in "Diamonds," "Ballet is Woman." A little mysterious in the two walking diagonals, the ballerina then both seeks and welcomes her suitor in the supported leaps, turns and lifts. Di Lanno's gently offered hand and his presenting her to the audience was elegant and yet modest. I could have wished for a little more of a sense of discovery in Zahorian's trajectory but she made up for it through the sheer joy and gratitude with which she probably said farewell to the part. The audience understood
Supported by four couples -- to a lovely windblown part of the Tchaikovsky score -- Di Lanno's tours en l'air and turns a la seconde were well timed and, above all, offered perfect finishes. Hansuke Yamamoto and Strongin stood out from the ensemble.
The last movement's Polonaise started with impressive vigor but ultimately the multiple cross-sectio patterns got the best of ensemble. That finale needs almost military type precision (but a free spirit). Given the reality of today's rehearsal time, that is probably asking too much. Even for a company as good as SFB.