A Land Before Time
One of the benefits of having enrolled in San Francisco Ballet’s Ballet 101, a six-part course aimed at developing a deeper appreciation of ballet among audiences, was gaining a more precise fix on George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony. Not only did the course offer a comparison between it and August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, but we had a chance to put on our practice slippers in a rehearsal studio, and learn a snippet of choreography that soloist dancer Courtney Elizabeth dances in the piece. Seeing parts of it under a magnifying glass may not completely change how one takes it in during a performance, but it does help to reconcile previously puzzling choices, such as why Yuan Yuan Tan is dressed in dainty pink and white flounce when the male ensemble wears dense velvet-accented black-watch or red plaid, or in the case of the women (except plaid-clad Elizabeth), black dirndl vests and white dresses.
In its second season, the SFB rendering has become a polished jewel, danced with a clever kind of (Look, Ma!) buoyancy. Elizabeth’s entrance presents her at her best, peppy and dexterous, as she enchants the audience with fleet-footed, speed freakish B-girl signature combinations and elevation that, outside of this oeuvre, one usually sees only during the grand allegro in men’s class.
These pave the way for fast fun slides and brisés danced by the duo of Steven Morse and Myles Thatcher. The women’s corps de ballet offers staunch support, especially evidenced by Koto Ishihara, Elizabeth Powell, Shannon Rugani and WanTing Zhao, and what a pleasure it is to see Charlene Cohen back, and leading the charge!
Davit Karapetyan leaps on a diagonal across half the stage and then Yuan Yuan Tan enters, pretty in pink. At the first sight of her, Karapetyan’s expression goes from disturbed to enchanted. The plaid color coding signals that they come from different clans, and given this gulf, she must speak to and win him through her steps. They dance together in a relaxed, companionable way, without any overly breathy anticipation.
Once the community at large discovers their mutual admiration, he is shunned by the Morse and Thatcher clique of two, and then shooed away by those who usher in the plaid. To him, she is as bewitching as the Sylphide is to James. Unlike the Sylphide, she is real, and so the Scotch Symphony is a happier story, mostly because the hero, though Scotch, isn’t drinking it, and so isn’t compromised by having sold his birthright for a fifth of Dewar’s.
The piece, staged by Maria Calegari of the Balanchine Trust, serves up charm and elegance, lightened by a touch of sweetness and derring do. As Tan lengthens and extends her arm invitingly, Karapetyan finds himself menaced by Morse and Thatcher.
The guard in plaid then sequesters Tan, twisting her this way and that. Once alone again, she is free of persecution by the marauding xenophobes, and celebrates her liberty with an airy openness and expansiveness of chest and back shown in arabesques, lifts and a frankly joyful countenance. The orchestra slows and there is a lovely turn to arabesque, as if bellows were kindling it.
The corps is back, maidens out on a lark, taking quick skipping steps. Cohen’s dancing is self-possessed and thoroughly ennobled. When Tan and Karapetyan return, their travails have turned them into a committed and self-assured couple who happily take cues from each other’s tempos: He is spirited and so she raises her feet in the air as if her toes could dot his every i and cross his every t.
The lofty lifts that announce the finale come with generous assemblés and arms extended along a diagonal: the man in black has now attained hail-fellow-well-met status in the estimation of the red clan.
Two women extend their arms and hands into a long reach to anoint the heads of the couple. In a ceremonial gesture, the women dancers form a corona around the pair, as deep bows and skillful turns inform that love conquers all.
It is always darkest before the dawn, goes the old saw, and reciprocally, there is a golden hour before darkness blankets the sky, and that is what Christopher Wheeldon has sought to show in his Golden Hour, which premiered in the 2008 SFB New Works Festival.
Three horizontal beams rise as two men crawl along the floor like crabs. Couples draped in the muted colors of Martin Pakledinaz’s museum quality costumes, arrive hue by hue. They rock back and forth, and pose with arms rounded, dancing side to side. This is a piece where the choreography is meant to tease the music, and arpeggios loop the loop through Ezio Bosso’s Antonio Vivaldi score. Damian Smith lifts Vanessa Zahorian; she rolls over deeper into his arms. Joan Boada lifts Maria Kochetkova into a slow circling half moon.
Luke Ingham offers a secure armature from which Sarah Van Patten swings to and fro. These are lovely shapes, and one can imagine them as emblems of a gilded afternoon. Yet, when pressed into a more counter-intuitive tempo they can read as though they have been forced through a die-cut mold.
Zahorian and Smith waltz through steps elaborated with lifts and Katha-like flourishes. Zahorian really lets loose without sacrificing fluidity. She brings a clarity to the piece that buys her license to try new things, and those “things” work to brighten and add sparkle as she shifts direction sharply and does little loose-footed runs. Smith squires her joyfully.
Ingham and Smith dance a playful duet of quick pulls, swivels, and jetés that set hands alternating as they reach to the floor, and then that switch-off theme is picked up in leapfrog steps and syncopated turns.
In her pas de deux with Smith, Van Patten does slow upper body stretches. She’s elasticized along the floor when he steps around her and lifts her halfway up and into a long extension. The score is violin-Celtic, with bagpipe-ish tones. The duo falls in and out of a kiss. She sits into his bent legs, stretches up until she drops, goes to a simple passé and then again drops, this time successively lower into a port de bras front.
Four silhouetted women enter and sweep side to side. One behind the other, Boada and Kochetkova fall to the floor. He pulls her in and out of stretches and then into lifts. They knead their way through them as if working with clay, pushing through it to reach beyond, but it can be unsettling because nothing offers the challenge of resistance to the movement, and so the dancer is more the instrument instead of the body that responds to it. When Boada swings Kochetkova around on the floor, it looks like she might more easily than not melt into it.
In the World Premiere of Alex Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, men in knickers and vests over white shirts with rolled sleeves, enter and move toward center stage to the accompaniment of silence. Women come from the wings in skirts with ragged-edged layers of muted blues, beige and mauve.
Four dancers, Gennadi Nedvigin, Davit Karapetyan, Vanessa Zahorian and Maria Kotchetkova, dance a vorspeise of little runs and jetés, and the foursome differentiates into a pair of boys and a pair of girls. The girls are gigglers and the boys, showoffs: Oklahoma crenulated into the Russian steppes.
The girls turn and open a balloné leg, then zigzag into more turns, falling into the arms of their male partners who lower them to the floor. It’s in and out from men to women, with halting little triplets that take on a quaint folksy lilt.
But not for long, because in “Italian,” Pascal Molat springs into action bounding straight up and down like a jumping jack. Mauve-skirted, Dores Andre, Dana Genshaft and Sarah Van Patten, dance spunky or sprightly solos. Molat and Van Patten dance with abandon. Molat’s smartly flanged á la seconde turns draw cheers. His and Van Patten’s duet is full of lovely yet fun folkloric steps with high five leaps, yet not quite the Italianate Tarantella. Instead, it feels like you’re at a barn dance, and at any moment one of the dancers could be your partner.
In “German,” a trio of fellows in knickers, Luke Ingham, Vito Mazzeo and Garen Scribner, are the entourage that accompanies Sofiane Sylve. These steps offer the schmaltzier vocabulary of Hessian courtship. Vito Mazzeo partners Sylve. Ingham and Scribner fall at the couple’s feet. Heinrich Heine is in the building and annexations are just a howitzer away.
“Spanish” has Kochetkova and Molat, Van Patten and Nedvigin offering Iberian surety, along with a gentle humor that may have been tempered over the course of a long journey on the Orient Express. Molat blocks his partner from switching partners and joining Nedvigin. He doesn’t succeed. Van Patten waits petulantly, and then Molat pulls her out of her pout and into a series of very funny dance floor power plays.
In “Polish,” Andre, Genshaft, Sylve and Zahorian, engage in grandiloquent dancing as Karapetyan and Ingham dive around them, Karapetyan parallel to the floor in what appear to be levitated inventions.
“Hungarian” is an ensemble finale that brings all the couples back, now dressed in purple. The women study their feet, and the men crisscross the stage in canons. Quickstep dancing to Hollywood sitcom music in a score composed by Moritz Moszkowski, closes the piece on a note of bustle, if not strictly speaking Hungarian, then perhaps, urban Roma.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.