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San Francisco Ballet Offers Raymonda Act III, Ibsen’s House and Symphonic Dances

San Francisco Ballet: Symphonic Dances


San Francisco Ballet Offers Raymonda Act III, Ibsen’s House and Symphonic Dances

It was a pleasure to see such a splendidly danced and produced Rudolf Nureyev version of Act III of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda. Nureyev challenged the dancers to aim for a perfectly stylized and detailed result, and they joined forces to sign, seal and deliver it in keeping with Nureyev’s demanding expectations.

San Francisco Ballet: Raymonda Act III

San Francisco Ballet in Nureyev’s Raymonda Act III.
© Erik Tomasson

Seeing work again that you’ve viewed in the recent past can serve to refresh the screen in your mind’s eye. Absent on second sight are the opening night glam getups, inducements of wine and chocolates, and the swirl of angst, flutter and patter. The intake tends to be more sober and sobering. Even if jet lag has you in its blunted vise grips, and the Saturday matinee ladies’ club seated next to you is annoyingly proprietary, as in “We’ve never seen you, before!” a steely clarity persists that enables seeing what eluded one before.

It was a pleasure to see such a splendidly danced and produced Rudolf Nureyev version of Act III of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda. Nureyev challenged the dancers to aim for a perfectly stylized and detailed result, and they joined forces to sign, seal and deliver it in keeping with Nureyev’s demanding expectations.

As the curtain rises, Barry Kay’s sets and costumes offer a breathtaking palette—a stage transformed into a series of marble arches, with magisterial chandeliers illuminating all. The tableau of dancers in crisp white Franz Josef-era costumes threaded with gold embellishments, accessorized with plush hats studded with plumes, adds a finishing touch of the Magyar to the unerring sense of place, but can the dancing sustain it? The double lines of Hungarian Cortege corps de ballet dancers dedicate every muscle to well-placed Czardas steps in perfect unison, signaling that, yes, they can!

The youngest and eldest of the company, Marie-Claire D’Lyse, as Countess Sybille, and Damian Smith, as King of Hungary, dance together brilliantly. Her modest yet well-formed ballonés are bookended by his gorgeously limned lunges. They carry forward the ceremonial grandeur that Nureyev surely had in mind, and trace the notes of the brilliant Alexander Glazunov score into a spit-and-polish display of fast footwork and petit battement.

The Grand Pas Classique entrance shows the ever-aggregating talents of the soloist layer of the company, as well as soloists-to-be, one hopes. These include: Dores Andre, Charlene Cohen, Sasha De Sola, Koto Ishihara, Wan Ting Zhao, Daniel Deivison, Steven Morse, Lonnie Weeks, Shane Wuerthner and Luke Willis.

The gallant Vitor Luiz as Jean de Brienne squires the stirring Lorena Feijóo as Raymonda. The couple brings with them what no ballet master can confect: a rich vein of mutual respect and admiration from their professional and private lives that suffuses their moments onstage with elegance. This can be glimpsed in his genuinely admiring glances as he lifts her and she bourrées to passé three times, and he lifts her three times on a diagonal and circles her with his arms. Even in its frosty majesty, their partnering is shot through with warmth and graciousness. I am reminded of a conversation I had just two weeks before with Feijóo’s teacher of long ago, Ramona de Sáa, who remarked on her capacity to work hard to achieve her goals. All that hard work is crystallized in this moment of virtuosic release, as she relevés to arabesque multiple times: The more she repeats it, the more fluid it becomes, as if primed by an inner source, and then she hits her poses with precision.

The Second Solo by Dores Andre is sprightly, gracious, open and academic in the best sense of the word. Sasha DeSola dances the Third Solo fully committed to the plethora of port de bras, held balances, and alternating lifted arms, coordinating all of it with curated épaulement and stop-on-a-dime balances.

The women’s Pas de Trois involves large, showy steps that, no matter how agonizing to achieve, must rise with the music. Two out of three dancers do. The men’s Pas de Quatre is well paced and spaced, with fine dancing by Shane Wuerthner and Lonnie Weeks.

Charlene Cohen’s confident, sturdy Fourth Solo is studded with heel-planted footwork, and mastery of enchaînements that comprise the shank of ballet—relevé, changement, passé, passé. She is so much the spine of this company, showing a natural bearing and “can do” salience, no matter the challenges. Moreover, this dancer can spot, and knows the value of using it to spirit her to her destination!

Lonnie Weeks is similarly gifted, offering amplitude, attentive use of the feet in his fouetté jumps, resulting in a secure bravura that is rare in U.S.-trained male dancers, all coming together in a living-large manège at the end of his solo.

Feijóo dances a piano-accompanied solo. Timed claps punctuate stylized arms in which she bends an extended elbow as the hand goes to the head, and a deepening intensity stokes her balances. Her foot flutters in petite battement and she slowly draws her arm across the front of her torso to announce changes in direction and weight shifts, all of it leading to a more allegro execution of the same steps. This is musically very difficult, but she is unfazed. As the soloists return for the adagio, Feijóo advances slowly downstage, increasing her speed as she goes, and finally, pushing her hands out in parallel at low-waist level with a most feminine sense of urgency. Four men carry four women in cloche lifts. Luiz re-enters dancing fast-paced, space-grabbing en dehors arabesque jumps. D’Lyse and Smith return, gliding through a reprise of Czardas steps, and this perfect harmonizing of academy and style closes with the Hungarian Cortege running through their chassé finale at lightning speed.

Ibsen’s House, a work created five years ago by Val Canaparoli, was reprised in this program, and there were new dancers in the cast, all of whom danced the work exquisitely. The Sandra Woodall set is a fascinating panorama of light and dark, with an oversized window triangulated by white translucent curtains in the Victorian style, brightly lit to show that the outside world is the locus of freedom and enlightenment; the inside world—the remainder of the stage—is a very dark place where life’s most bleak moments occur and repeat themselves. Does Caniparoli’s choreography capture the drama of the ten Ibsen characters he chooses to represent? It very much depends on the dancers’ comfort with the work, and this cast is clearly frisky to make it theirs.

The curtain opens on the “V” of window light where a female dancer stands in silhouette. It is red-costumed Frances Chung as Hedda Gabler. She walks downstage determinedly, and begins circling in a fiercely intentional way, with occasional breaches to allow spurts of self-revelation or auto-confrontation. Next we meet Nora Helmer, the Doll’s House heroine, danced by Sarah Van Patten outfitted in teal. Her entrance is sprightly but distracted, as if blown about by the will o’ the wisp. Her pacing is starkly beautiful, much like the set. She’ll land in an assemblé forward and stop short. She dances with arms flying, and then comes another agonized caesura, when she raises her hand to her head and straightens her dress. She doesn’t feel presentable, and “presentable” is the Victorian watchword for women in society. Marie Claire D’Lyse dances Mrs. Alving. She is consumed, and the bleakness that is all about her is inside her as well. Her movements end with her fists at her chest. Like the other dancers, there is lightness in her feet but drama in her face and upper body. Her assemblés are also abortive efforts meant to stop from going too far. Kimberly Braylock is next in green as Ellida Wangel, the Lady from the Sea. Her torso swings left and right, impelled by concerted épaulement. The Antonin Dvorak music is underscored by long reaching piqué arabesques. Chung returns, seizing large hunks of stage as she moves. Then she reverses herself, stepping back slowly to gain perspective, assessing what she sees with arms crossed, taking her measure of the dish she will serve cold. Van Patten re-enters with swift changes of direction, her head moving savagely. All dancers step lightly, but use their backs vigorously, fast in flight, second thoughts betrayed by over-the-shoulder glances. Braylock dives into her steps, slicing the air with her shoulders and arms.

Shane Wuerthner, Daniel Deivison, Myles Thatcher and Steven Morse dance their male partners, George Tesman, Torvald Helmer, Oswald, and the Stranger. Deivison enters wearing a long, formal grey coat. He does a slow pas de deux with Van Patten, encircling her as he lifts her. He remains formal, yet he is passionate, grabbing her with both hands as she pushes against him. Her cambrés are luxuriant. The two dance circles around each other, and when she appeals with her arms, he pushes them aside and uses his to restrain her imprecations.

Braylocks’s partner, Steven Morse, pulls her into him and lifts her into a cloche-like lift, from which they reach forward together, with him enabling her to reach for the heights. Wuerthner stewards Chung, who is again taking long swatches of stage. He is tender, romantic, and they are a dynamic duo, but there is no relief from the intensity of their dancing, and Chung exhausts herself, slumps, and regains the dancing at a slower pace as he falls to the floor, spent.

Ellen Rose Hummel as Rebecca West appears in the window with partner James Sofranko. As they dance fast steps in parallel that end in lifts, the light fades and darkness falls. Braylock and Morse return, and dance with Hummel and Sofranko. D’Lyse and Thatcher return, weaving over and under each other, locking and pushing in and out of their pas de deux, gasping spasmodically in and out of unison, with him seeming to die when they are done.

Daylight returns to the window on the free world. Deivison dances with the other men, a manned-up trio of Wuerthner, Morse and Sofranko. They dance large circling jumps, as Van Patten passes by with a raised umbrella and stops to pose with leg en arriere. Braylock does the same. All men are loose-limbed, clean and strong.

As engaging and well-danced as the piece is, it can feel as if it runs too long, and since this is the third time I have seen it, I tried to focus on what makes it seem so. It may be that the rebounding score invites redundancy in choreography, and where there are so many characters to account for; the loop de loop of steps can be wearying. It reminds me of a comment that someone once made to me when I mentioned that I was writing a book about 15 ballet dancers of international renown. He said, “I bet you’ll wish you’d chosen only five instead.”

San Francisco Ballet: Symphonic Dances

San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s Symphonic Dances.
© Erik Tomasson

In its second season at San Francisco Ballet, Edwaard Liang’s Symphonic Dances seems to have lost the initial enthusiasm of the dancers. I have reviewed it before here, and while it offers some interesting shapes that excited me on first viewing, this time it seems to stop short of challenging the dancers to do more. At each premature stopping point, they end up looking hungry for more. Overall, the verve of the music doesn’t find an echo in the continuity of the steps. The men’s section offers the most promise. The exception that redeems it is a sensual duet danced by Dana Genshaft and Tiit Helimets. She touches his chest and he falls at her feet. While it goes stagey now and then, the back-to-back poses leave us hungry for more—but in this case, we get fed a most sensual and sexual pas de deux that lifts the choreography to the rafters. The involvement of Genshaft and Helimets as partners is unbroken, committed throughout, as they move together into otherworldly shapes. Genshaft is dramatic, sensitive, open and giving. Helimets is wholly responsive to her. They are an inspired match. If the piece consisted of just this pas de deux, it would need nothing more to succeed.

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,", "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.

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