Triumph, Tragedy & Confusion
Classical ballet will never die. — Ninette de Valois
In a season peppered with contemporary world premieres and dramatic works, it is easy to forget that San Francisco Ballet is first and foremost a classically trained ballet company. With Program 6 and Raymonda Act III, the company re-stakes its claim as a classical company to be reckoned with.
A one-act extract from the full-length ballet of the same name, Raymonda Act III celebrates Raymonda’s wedding — and this is one grand party. Based on the version Rudolf Nureyev choreographed for England’s Royal Ballet in 1966, it is an elegant and refined showcase that challenges the best a company has on offer. Luckily for local audiences, the best in San Francisco is at the top of the dance food chain.
All gold, white, and crystal, the sets and costumes by Barry Kay, on loan from the Royal Ballet, provide a sumptuous backdrop for the romantic, Hungarian-influenced Glazunov score. A master technician himself, Nureyev remained true in spirit to the Petipa war horse, while reinterpreting each section and adding tremendous difficulty (and a few extra solo variations) at every possible point. Character and classical corps, quartettes, trios, and solos, and a stunning pas de deux for the wedding couple all were polished and refurbished.
Starting with the character work of the Hungarian Cortege (love the boots) and moving on to the classical bells and whistle of the solos, it all works. Elana Altman and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba opened the evening by leading the elegant Czardas, followed by the Grand Pas Classique corps. By the time Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets as Raymonda and her groom Jean de Brienne enter, the audience is primed for the fireworks to follow.
One of the great joys of the large-cast classical works is the opportunity to see various corps dancers step out of their usual group roles and into the spotlight. Four solo variations (three of which are new to SF Ballet) and a trio for the women are performed, plus a quartette for the men in addition to the two separate corps — this is a massive undertaking. Spread this out over seven separate performances in repertory with another series program, and it’s a good thing SF Ballet has a deep bench. The dancers are all so terrific that without referring to the program, it is difficult to ascertain who are the principal, soloist, or corps members.
Opening night, the first three ladies’ variations were performed by principal dancers. In the first, Sarah Van Patten was a revelation of control coupled with grace; for the second, Frances Chung gave a clinic on fleet, quick jumps; and a gracious and warm Vanessa Zahorian offered the difficult turns and balances in the third variation as a gift to a grateful audience. In the small group category, soloists Dores Andre and Courtney Elizabeth, accompanied by corps member Nicole Ciapponi performed a sparkling Pas de Trois; and corps dancer Steven Morse joined soloists Daniel Deivison, Isaac Hernandez, and Hansuke Yamamoto in the athletic Pas de Quatre. This was all capped off by the fourth solo variation, danced by corps member Charlene Cohen, who captivated the audience with her dazzling technique and pure joy of dancing.
Sofiane Sylve, partnered by Tiit Helimets, followed with the wedding pas de deux. Helimets has the rare ability of displaying his partner without subsuming his own personality. Always attentive, always secure, his elegant line comfortably matched Sylve. The two also aced their solos. Helimets’ clean footwork and strong, yet light jumps were completely in character with his princely role. Sylve countered with a regal and increasingly intense rendition of the demi-character solo, stylistically in keeping with the Hungarian-themed choreography.
The ballet concluded with all hands on deck for one of the fastest-paced czardas of recent memory. In a number of companies, it sometimes appears during performance that the dancers are attempting to keep up with the orchestra tempo. Due to the SF Ballet dancers’ speed and attack, this was one time where the roles were completely reversed. Breathtaking.
For whatever reason (and a happy one), this seems to be the year of Sofiane Sylve. And the audience loves it. Over the two-program opening this past week, Sylve thrilled the audiences, first in Edwaard Liang’s Symphonic Dances and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces in Program 5, then finally in her Raymonda star turn. Possessed of an elegant line and secure technique, Sylve’s musical phrasing and lovely rubato elevates her performances far beyond mere virtuosity.
Although it didn’t seem possible, Possokhov’s impressionistic ballet of love, obsession, and loss has improved since its debut. Set to a symphonic score by composer and ballet orchestra member Shinji Eshima, and underpinned by the innovative theater design and technology by the team of Alexander V. Nichols (sets and projection), Christopher Dennis (lighting), and Mark Zappone (costumes), all the bits and pieces flow better than before, as the crew, musicians, and dancers have become more comfortable with the music, stagecraft, and choreography.
Yuan Yuan Tan, Damian Smith, and Pascal Molat now have a deepened emotional commitment to their respective roles. Smith is more noble and more loving, Molat more menacing, and Tan more devastated in this outing. This was carried through the small corps of Warriors (Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, and Quinn Wharton) who reprised their roles as the military elite in support of their leader (Smith). Their care for the distraught widow, coupled with their own personal sense of loss, is now more focused and demonstrates the extension of their loyalty and caring for the family of their fallen leader.
As it did last year, RAkU brought down the house.
Guide to Strange Places
Created by Scottish Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Page and set to Bay Area composer John Adams’ music of the same name, the world premiere of Guide to Strange Places concluded the program.
Dressed in jewel-toned tops and shorts by designer Jon Morrell, the dancers looked great — when you could see them. Unfortunately David Finn’s lighting design was murky, and the dancers were frequently in such deep shadow that it was often difficult to see what they were up to. Morrell’s backdrop, although attractive, also did not fare well when compared to the sophisticated projection work in RAkU, which immediately proceeded the Page ballet.
While individual sections were successful, the piece was disjointed, missing in the transitions. Frances Chung and Pascal Molat zipped through the complicated opening choreography, followed by the pairings of Vanessa Zahorian and Jamie Garcia Castilla, Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin, and Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding, all wonderful dancers. Unfortunately, there were limited character or musical definitions between the duets, so it was hard to find the central logic of the piece. It often appeared as if the steps were created in a vacuum, totally unrelated to the music, which can be a valid artistic choice if pursued. However, other times, the music and the dancing hooked up, seemingly at random.
In a season full of hits, this one is a bit of a miss.
The orchestra, conducted by Martin West, navigated the stylistic and technical challenges of the evening with its usual skill and commitment — Glazounov to Eshima to Adams — pretty tricky stuff. San Francisco Ballet audiences are fortunate to have an ensemble of this quality accompanying the ballet.
San Francisco Ballet
Program 6: Raymonda Act III, RAkU, Guide to Strange Places
In repertory through April 3, 2012
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House