San Francisco ballet audiences can’t be all that different than those in other cities: We await a George Balanchine offering with great anticipation. Maybe the elders among audience members expect that it will recreate the excitement of the three decades that corresponded to when they witnessed Balanchine’s dancers repurpose ballet style to accessorize the American Century. For youthful ballet-goers it could be like visiting a mobile curio shop, giving them the chance to say, “I saw his work danced as he meant it to be!”
Symphony in Three Movements coincided with a special evening for San Francisco Ballet’s principal dancer Pierre François Vilanoba: his sudden retirement from the company. Villanoba, who is French, is a 15-year company veteran, and while his retirement was expected, that plan was fast-tracked by an injury during a performance a week earlier, and news of this, his last performance, spread mostly by word of mouth. Nonetheless, a shank of retired SFB dancers, as well as stalwart company members not scheduled to dance in this matinee, mobilized to offer support and participate in the moving if silent farewell at the close of the program.
Because of Vilanoba’ shoulder injury, he danced in the first half only of Symphony in Three Movements, and Vito Mazzeo, a principal dancer who believed he had danced his last performance with San Francisco Ballet just a few nights earlier, substituted for Vilanoba in the second half of the piece. Both partnered Vanessa Zahorian.
The work opens with women in powder blue leotards arranged on a diagonal. Garen Scribner, dressed in a white tee-shirt and black tights (as are all the men) makes a dramatic running entrance, followed by Dores Andre, who with and without him, dances side leaps with bent knees and off-balance extensions from relevé. The women in blue reconfigure into four lines that become the prancing spokes of a wheel. I find the spokeswomen’s prancing very satisfying, a kind of elixir from an era when Balanchine and Modern Dance innovators used this step to good effect. For the same reasons it speaks to me so directly, it may seem dated to younger observers.
More men in black and white arrive, along with women in black camisoles—the traditional costume of the Balanchine leotard ballet—and they dance alternating lunges to the Igor Stravinsky score, then partner holding both hands and pulling apart to form perfect hollows between them, toying with that negative space by striking a bent-knee off-balance stance.
Zahorian is the consummate Balanchine dancer, fast yet piquant in that breezy way that the inscrutable Mr. B favored. Here she dances her solo in a bubble gum pink leotard that stands out against the corps de ballet’s pastels. She does a combination of fast échappés and jumps with alternating arms as she pushes away with her hands. When she finishes, the women in powder blue return, not prancing so much as trotting this time. Zahorian responds with contrasting piqué turns in a manège. The women trot back, and the men enter prancing, and then go into high-bounding fouettés. Mazzeo dances a diagrammatic off balance solo before partnering Jennifer Stahl in a lively jeté propulsion. It is refreshing to see new faces dance old work, and rekindling old formulas. The women run off like fillies.
Vilanoba leads Zahorian in a promenade on bent knee. They exchange coy glances, and one surmises that the charged exchange is more about Vilanoba’s last moments onstage than the choreography. From plié he places a straightened leg behind her. He weaves over and under her extension, teasing out elements of quieting mime in an otherwise equine-inflected piece to rich orchestration studded with kettledrum and slide trombone embellishments.
Helgi Tomasson’s Criss-Cross, if not special, is certainly spatial. Five couples open the piece, the men in white shirts with brown vests, with the women in front of them. Taras Domitro and Maria Kochetkova dance the lead roles in place of Davit Karapetyan and Vanessa Zahorian. They open with a lively petit sauté-generated combination. Lifted extensions cross over and then are carefully placed. Each couple does serial steps in a line. Domitro steps across and behind, and the work then slides into precipité steps ending in lifts. Not intimidated by the gavotte music of a score mash up that involves Domenico Scarlatti (arranged by Charles Avison) and Arnold Schoenberg (after Handel), the women push their male partners back, sending James Sofranko, Hansuke Yamamoto and Lonnie Weeks into whirling tours and serial secondes, all bound by a buoyant esprit de corps. Kochetkova and Domitro do a circle walk in which she shifts hips and goes into an adagio-slowed en rond lift, dipping into a step, step, stop mid-lift sequence that works well musically, as arms wag into the slow turns, and the contrapuntal walk leads her to him stepping backward. Women arrive in new tunics and white-skirt tutus. The ghost of Michael Smuin haunts this piece, as steps that have met with success are repeated.
Yamamoto dances a pas de chat pas de trois with Jillian Harvey and Emma Rubinowitz. This is followed by a pas de quatre with Madison Keesler, Francisco Mungamba, Elizabeth Powell and James Sofranko. The women withdraw and Lonnie Weeks and Sofranko dance a joyous duet loaded with swift chaîné turns. Kochetkova and Domitro return to remind us that everything good comes in threes except when it comes in fours. Next up is a sequence of exaggerated Minuet steps stately yet off-balance Balanchine-esque poses. What a pleasure to glimpse Vitor Luiz as he reaches for the summit of his leap before opening his legs into a split. He partners the slinky and stretchy Dores Andre in a pas de deux, which includes flexed-footed pirouettes to developpé. The other women return in pants and new tops, now crossing over into a modern-style Minuet. Luiz opens his generous arms to close the piece.
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery” Dante instructs in the Fifth Canto of his Inferno. Inspired perhaps by this irony, Piotr Tchaikovsky wrote a score that leans, if lavishly, on the tone poem form famously invented by Franz Liszt. Following in the multiple footsteps of Michel Fokine, David Lichine, Nikolai Kolfin, Boris Asafiev and William Dollar, Yuri Possokhov has created a work to show the impossibly grim fate of Francesca da Rimini and the men that love her. The piece bears her luckless name, and opens shrouded in a net scrim, a cloud of fog, with men walking through an opening in the net wearing what appear to be no clothes. Frances Chung dances the unhappily married Francesca. Standing sentry to those who abandon all hope at the Gates of Hell are Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza and Sebastian Vinet. These flexible devils pose in classically sculpted stances, and then push into and off of the floor to standing. From tour jeté, they launch labored gestures. Francesca suffers through her marriage and misalliance costumed in white, the bodice of her dress embroidered with gold. Daniel Deivison dances the role of Giovanni, her unpleasant husband. Deivison has become a stronger and more substantial dancer over the past two years, and much in the spirit of his work in Petrouchka a season or two ago, he brings an aggregation of talents to dancing Giovanni. Carlos Quenedit is Giovanni’s rival, and Francesca’s lover, the dashingly seductive and attentive Paolo. Chung and Quenedit stand back to back, both in white. The Court Ladies and Guardians of the Inferno dance in the classicist style. The paramour couple is off to the side and move into a kiss. Its high impact has Chung drop counter-intuitively into a back bend. Quenedit lifts her, and they dance larger-than-life steps that correspond to the ceremonial demands of the brass instruments accompanying them.
Bold orchestration heralds big events, but both the music and choreography offer no runoff for the ever erupting catastrophes in what is after all, a downer of a libretto. A rakish character, Quenedit dances Paolo’s manège with savage machismo, so much so that the Court Ladies respond by falling backward and then forward to the floor, serially. The bass-range string accompaniment takes the energy down yet another notch. Chung rises, and then in the spirit of a true chorus, other women follow. Chung walks into their “box,” sucked into the vortex of those whose role it is to augur ill and admonish. Paolo rises as they leave. With this minor league victory for the patriarchy, the oboe plays an elegiac adagio melody, and Quenedit pulls Chung toward him. With one hand, he lifts her from the floor by the small of her back, and with two, up into the air, stepping forward and back. A plush pas de deux follows, in which Chung is uninhibited and sensual. He angles her in his roguish way, his face as expressive as his body. Both are light on their feet and well suited for this partnership. She has speed. He is more phlegmatic, but they mesh like the gears of a perfect machine, albeit one that is doomed to self-destruct. A study in opposites, he steps up while letting her down to floor. Possokov has a way of having dancers ‘be” the instruments. His robust musicality sometimes leads to excess, but we’d rather that (because you can always turn down flame) than unmusical choreography.
The Court Ladies emerge one at a time in the center spot (Lighting: Christopher Dennis.) The devil’s men burst out of Hell, with Deivison leading the pack. Chung and Quenedit dance a second pas de deux, less in the discovery realm and more passionate, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet in its signaling of tragedy in parallel. The pair clutch at the crescendo as if they see where the diminuendo will leave them. We are offered the haunting view of Chung looking over Quenedit’s shoulder, as he gazes up at her.
This serene moment is interrupted as the Court Ladies run in with Deivison. As cymbals crash, Deivison also looks up at Chung from a knee squat that is bound to launch the most dreadful revenge. Deivison drags her off, and then confronts Quenedit, and kicks him. Quenedit rescues Chung momentarily, and then the spurned Deivison whips himself into a frenzy of multiple tours and attacks, stabbing both lovers to death. The men from Hell arrive with ropes and pull him into the fog.