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California Literary Review

San Francisco Ballet Offers Suite en blanc, Borderlands and In the Night

Borderlands, San Francisco Ballet


San Francisco Ballet Offers Suite en blanc, Borderlands and In the Night

Suite en blanc is a work plucked out of the archival past, cut and pasted onto today’s stage so that we may glimpse the oddest of baby steps taken toward breaking with convention in the name of purity. Arguments for and against tend to sidestep the nagging and disturbing fact that the modernist who birthed them provokes our outrage because his fascination with purity led him, eyes open, into the reactionary political camp of racial “purity,” the kissing cousin of The Final Solution.

Suite en blanc, San Francisco Ballet

Sarah Van Patten in Lifar’s Suite en Blanc.
© Erik Tomasson

Following Suite

Bringing Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to the United States has caused a little frisson to ripple through dance circles in two cities, New York, with Paris Opera’s performance of the work there, and here in San Francisco, more in an ideological framework, referencing both politics and ballet orthodoxy.

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1 featured the work, staged by Maina Gielgud, who actually learned it from Lifar and has staged it many times over the course of her post-performance career, during which time she was, besides an esteemed coach, the Artistic Director of Australian Ballet.

The program in which it appeared, featured the works of two other heavy hitters, In the Night, by Jerome Robbins, and Borderlands, a world premiere by British choreographic sensation, Wayne McGregor. For ballet audiences, In the Night is among the most beloved of Robbins’ works, capturing as it does the quality of the three very different relationships represented in the characters that make up the couples that dance it. In this performance, a genuinely tender and romantic Ruben Martín, who uses his back gorgeously to draw his beloved into a lushly intimate alliance, sweeps Vanessa Zahorian, in layers of soft lavender, off her feet. For both partners, this is their most uninhibited excursion into feeling, and it opens their duet onto a wholly breathtaking vista of emotion.

Borderlands brings McGregor’s no-fears trunk show of performance artifacts to the Opera House stage, the centerpiece of which is a black square that rises against a grey surround. Maria Kochetkova reiterates that this is the night of the spine, as she makes elastic and plastic work of hers, then caught after a loose run and lifted, all of it resolving in a quick splutter across to center stage. With typewriter clatter for accompaniment she skips backward as lights go down and all the dancers regroup into spine stretches and a foursome arrives in a brambly configuration at center stage again, moving into low-to-floor perambulations. When the squares rise out of sight, there are semaphore movements and sometimes music rules instead dance, where steps are not so much steps as units-in-motion, like mechanical toys.

Yet at other times, the coupling gets more complex and floaty, and the deeper the engagement, the more breath than music-driven it becomes.

Borderlands, San Francisco Ballet

Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo in McGregor’s Borderlands.
© Erik Tomasson

Between Vito Mazzeo and Sofiane Sylve there is a slow taffy pull of a duet, with high elegant extensions lit in absinthe hues. The lighting by Lucy Carter turns the grey leotards mossy, elucidating the earthy, spongy movement quality.

Pascal Molat lights up a wall, turning it blue with the raise of an arm. He Marcel Marceau’s through the open spaces on bent knee, landing silently, said silence resonates as he takes an arabesque parallel to the floor. His movements are always so beautiful because they are never tentative or ragged, but always complete, yet never “milked.” Koto Ishihara’s speed and ease with the space typifies an ensemble that is comfortable in what it has created in harmony with the colors. The full throttle pyrotechnics are so powerful that we’re never sure where they originate or dissolve, as a new square in a silver frame brings the piece to a close.

Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc has not been performed in the United States for many years, and Paris Opera’s recent interpretation of the piece in New York provoked a small tempest in a teapot which then was decanted into a somewhat smaller West Coast tisane when dance scholar Mark Franco presented a lecture on Lifar’s idiosyncratic choreography, and the choreographer’s nefarious role during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The informative lecture was part of Ballet 101, a six-part series for adult subscribers and ballet aficionados sponsored by San Francisco Ballet.

New York Times dance critic Alistair Mcaulay launched the opening East Coast salvo in a July 12, 2012 piece he wrote entitled “Right Bank Meets West Side.” Here is an excerpt:

The history of the arts in Paris is one of Right Bank orthodoxy versus Left Bank experimentation, of academy versus avant-garde . . . Seldom does one come across art so completely Right Bank as Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” (1943).

Lifar’s vision of classicism is formalism as a mere facade: stylish and empty at the same time. . .Your eyes feast on the proudly erect columns of necks and spines, the debonair turns of heads, the firm arcs of outstretched upper arms, the urbane swishes of wrists, the cool charm of facial expressions, the clean lines of legs. These dancers wear arabesques and entrechats and cabrioles — the language of ballet — the way that models wear haute couture.

So why doesn’t this inventory of virtues add up to more? Lifar’s choreography keeps making its dancers say, “C’est moi!” The organization of the stage world is intensely hierarchical; but when you compare it to the full-bodied classicism of other similarly tiered works, like George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” and the Shades scene in Marius Petipa’s “Bayadère,” Lifar’s universe looks hollow.

. . .The standard forms of ballet here are assembled with no organic connections. When an arm position is added that’s not part of standard classroom exercises, it’s tacked on as an exterior effect. No meanings spring from the dancing. The choreography seems at pains to create a guarded, polished world where nobody ever demonstrates impetus or belief or spontaneity.

Worst of all, this is choreography that doesn’t help you love its dancers. . . really I just want to see them in other material.

Franco points up both known and lesser-known academic and political facts and speculates in instances where the evidence is nearby but not yet in hand, drawing on film clips of the choreographer’s dancing to drive certain points home.

Lifar, born in Kiev, ended up as Artistic Director of Paris Opera Ballet from 1930-1944. (The period pictured in the film Cabaret.) According to Franco, he was like “George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein rolled into one,” except that unlike Kirstein, Lifar hired Modeste Hoffmann to ghost write the many tracts published under Lifar’s authorship, and supported his factotum while Hoffmann discharged his faux-pedagogic duties. Franco contends that like Balanchine, Lifar sought to make a name and career for himself by tweaking classical steps and poses such that they took on a mannered appearance, cobbling together a brand of sorts, by virtue of unscrupulous methods, also making the point that if Lifar hadn’t ended up paying for his academic violations, he did pay for his political endorsement of the Vichy government when, at the end of the war, he was subjected to censure by the Gaullist French government. At the Palais Garnier, technicians and crew confected their own, less remote brand of censure. Thanks to a strong and supportive union, they were able to make their sentiments felt by refusing to take direct orders from Lifar, and would shut the lights off whenever he presumed to step on stage.

Lifar made Suite en blanc one year after Jews were forbidden by the fascist occupiers to appear on stage in France, at which point 30 Jewish dancers were summarily dismissed. Franco cautions that one should not indulge in blanket judgments, because some collaborators used their positions to save Jews, suggesting that the ultimate decision to censure Lifar therefore carried even more weight than it might appear if simply taken at face value. Today, there continues to be pressure to remove Lifar’s engraved name from the lobby of the Palais Garnier, as if excising it could alter the facts pertaining to what that stunning piece of architecture once harbored.

As an émigré from his homeland and not an itinerant choreographer, but rather, a newcomer who was seeking to establish his credentials, Lifar wanted to emulate Jean-Georges Noverre, seen as the originator of the ballet d’action, the precursor to the narrative ballets of the 19th century, and add his own enhancements to the expressive possibilities in the established ballet vocabulary. Noverre read, but Lifar preferred circular arguments to reading and study, and when he retired at 58, with published treatises to his credit, he did so with the self-view that he was the spiritual heir to Serge Diaghilev, who had hired him to dance with the impresario’s Ballet Russe.

When today’s dancer prepares to present Lifar’s work, he or she must marshal an intensity and exaggeration that has no underlying story to tell. As in Balanchine’s works, the purity of movement speaks for itself. Of course, Balanchine had the advantage of an astute musical ear, and was not on a mission to create a ballet about a ballet with good manners, featuring a desfilé of contorted technicians, a piece that overall would present a facture to future generations of dancers, paid out in indenture to rehearsal hours, with much sweat, though little light shed by the work itself on its raison d’être.

Practically speaking, the apologia for the many rehearsal hours has to do in no small way with Lifar’s use (or abuse) of sixth and seventh positions, artifacts that presented themselves as inventions of Lifar and Lifar alone: When the dancer jumps, she must lift her elbows. A chaîné turn is to be done as if fifth were a step with a beginning and ending, rather than a position. Lifar adds an arm flourish to fifth position port de bras, emphasizing the “breathing” of the lifted elbows.

The penchée is Xtreme, with an arched back: You dive in from wherever you were, and hold it. He takes the arabesque and lifts the leg five times, then codifies all of this into a syllabus. With sixth and seventh position done with forced arch pliés, he takes ballet onto the horizontal, issuing more dispensations than the Pope marketed to kings for what can be allowed in partnering.

How does it look to the audience when all of this is unleashed? The corps de ballet uses appropriate gestures, but there are intentional counterpoints introduced into the mise en scène, where the men are seated on the floor with the women standing behind them as background accents so that the background remains independent of the foreground. He is reaching for his version of the 20th Century modernism represented by ballets that place classical characters such as Apollo and Icarus in a more in-vogue setting than say, Ancient Greece or Rome. Now, one has to really sing for his supper to become a premier danseur, which Lifar did not himself have to do in order to win that title. Of course to break with the past, he literally broke the gestures that arrived from bygone eras, introducing a nervous, even spasmodic muscular tension into the steps, more like modern dance than classical ballet, including leaden landings. Franco showed film to demonstrate this in a most graphic way. The film clip shows Lifar partnering Yvette Chauviré or Olga Spessivtseva, and then doing brisé volés during which his entire upper body is shuddering, when normally it would be held. He lands with a thud.

One must carefully read the program notes to make sense (if sense is to be made) of Suite en blanc. Its distinctive solo titles: serenade, cigarette, and flute are taken from the names of the accompanying excerpts from the score by Édouardo Lalo to the ballet Namouna.

The piece opens with an orchestra overture featuring a long adagio, measured crescendo, and coda that resolve into a thunderous finale, a pause, and then harp notes, presaging something really momentous such as the opening of the Gates of Heaven. Instead, the curtain opens on “sieste” a tableau from which three of the company’s most promising corps de ballet dancers, Marie-Claire D’Lyse, Kristina Lind, and Jennifer Stahl, begin a series of penchées. For me, seeing three women dance classical vocabulary without male partners brings to mind a shadowy adolescent memory of how lonely it felt in the ballet studio. The boys were somewhere else, not part of this world, and eventually the girls began to peel off in spite of the many years they had invested in their training. They left in deference to the boys, who were always more “present” for their absence, to pursue what would turn out to be even more frustrating than perfecting their ballet technique: finding the boy who “saw” them for who they were. Owing to that remote memory sparked by the female triad, the slow and deliberate gestures that were all about the long arms of Lind and the two dancers flanking her, seemed even sadder—that those generous and impassioned arms would embrace nothing more visceral than air! The three are in profile. They circle, dancing identical steps, rocking back in forth, with arms in high third position.

As if Lifar had anticipated my faraway and long ago puerile stirrings, Tiit Helimets and Shane Wuerthner arrived with Vanessa Zahorian, to dance “pas de trois.” The men bring their limpid double tours to the party, and compared with what I had seen of the choreographer’s own dancing, they would be veritable exemplars if we’d had a time machine that could have brought Lifar back to the future.

In her own words, in an aside during the interview I had conducted with her a week earlier, Maina Gielgud confessed that the talent of this company was overwhelming, and yet some of the dancers’ confusion in their approach to the choreography had left her with the sense that casting changes (which would continue nearly until opening night) were nothing if not experimental. According to Gielgud, you had to know who you were to dance this piece, and even then, take a few chances with what you thought you knew. Of course, that is always the case, but would seem paradoxical when the dancer in question is confronted with a piece that contains so many built-in idiosyncrasies. In the end, casting would be largely a function of Gielgud’s matching the template in her mind’s eye with the embarrassment of riches before her, and mostly to good result!

Zahorian moved into center with her arms behind her head, deliberately overstepping into a bourrée out of an en dédans arabesque. She clearly knows who she is. Sasha De Sola is the first of the women to arrive miming musical instruments, then striking well-placed poses, and transporting us momentarily to Balanchine’s Apollo.

One of the simplest and most beautiful moments is when the women dancers, seated in V formation on a staircase, extend their arms, and we see that the arrangement is a platform for elegant side to side port de bras, which looks more inviting than when done in the way we are accustomed to seeing it, with dancers standing on a single plane.

Frances Chung arrives with Myles Thatcher, Hansuke Yamamoto, Daniel-Deivison Oliveira and Steven Morse. In the movement called “pas de cinq,” the men, wearing white shirts and black pants, dance a petit sauté around Chung.

The women take their places on the upper level, and the men sit below them.

Sarah Van Patten is stunning in the most interesting solo in the piece, “cigarette.” The enchanting preparations make one think that this may have been the flower that opened fully when Lifar’s modernist bouquet first began to assemble itself. From piqué to arabesque, Van Patten takes curious spindle-like double pirouettes, like a cigarette upended and twirled on a flat surface.

The formation assumed by the corps de ballet creates a neatly beveled frame for Van Patten, as she steps into a waltz of en tournant bourrées, using stylized épaulement to slice it along a modernist bias.

“Mazurka” is danced expertly by Davit Karapetyan, featuring a slow, Slavic-inflected solo that ends in an uptake of men’s bravura incorporating a pastiche of styles and tempos.

As four dancers cross the stage, Yuan Yuan Tan is carried on the certain shoulders of Vito Mazzeo. They dance the “pas de deux ,“ beginning with an embrace that then moves into slow pas de cheval steps, long and elegant, to prepare for a regally classical duet with facing arms opening and closing as the couple moves about the stage with slow repetitions of moonlit classical steps. It is a showpiece for its time, though latter-day choreographers might find it excessively pretty. This reviewer found it appropriately so.

Suite en blanc, San Francisco Ballet

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vito Mazzeo in Lifar’s Suite en Blanc.
© Erik Tomasson

A big improvement in this opening night performance compared to the excerpt that we saw during the gala the week before was that the corps de ballet, led by Kimberly Braylock, was more on target, with a clearer sense of mission and delivery. The work was less fussy for the nervous movement Franco prepared us for. It is softer in a welcome way, without going into squishy, and the men’s strengths can be seen in the grand jetés that circle in mini-manèges.

As “flute,” Maria Kochetkova is carried in by a quartet of men, and ends up with Karapetyan as her partner. He presents her as majestically as a crown on a silken pillow. Their work is well paced, as she maintains her aristocratic stature throughout. He then leaves her to dance on her own in semi circular patterns, while the women’s corps with arms folded, takes its place above the men, who sit on the floor with legs in a Graham-styled fourth position.

The difficult oversteps that we first saw in Zahorian’s “pas de trois” come back again in Kochetkova’s “flute.” As she does them, we can see her listening for the subtle changes in tempo, coming into them with a slowed Vaganova musicality. Her quick manège of piqué turns carries brilliant phrasing.

In “final (fête foraine)” the trio of women who opened the piece return. A quartet of men plus Zahorian joins them. It consists of Daniel Deivison, Hansuke Yamamoto, Myles Thatcher, and Steven Morse. They bring on the brio with arms out and opened during their jumps and flying cabrioles. Karapetyan gives us a wing’d manège, the wind seemingly at his heels, and Kochetkova shares her unfailing fouettés, as the corps girls shift from front to back.

The company has poured its time and resources into this piece. Knowing that the choreography is pure but often stilted, and now more aware of the unconscionable role of its choreographer, Lifar, a million ghostly thoughts push artistic considerations to the sidelines. Does Lifar pose the “Leni Riefenstahl” dilemma in sheep’s clothing? Must today’s U.S. ballet presenters demonstrate their moral superiority over the erstwhile fascist supremacist occupants of France and Paris Opera? Does a “museum” work merit this much in resources, time, attention and scrutiny? The way in which these questions pose themselves invite answers that oscillate between the ever-equivocating “Yes and No.”

Suite en blanc is a work plucked out of the archival past, cut and pasted onto today’s stage so that we may glimpse the oddest of baby steps taken toward breaking with convention in the name of purity. Arguments for and against tend to sidestep the nagging and disturbing fact that the modernist who birthed them provokes our outrage because his fascination with purity led him, eyes open, into the reactionary political camp of racial “purity,” the kissing cousin of The Final Solution. These are among the many consequential contradictions of the polarized times we live in: Our perturbation about the future leads us to allow ourselves a protracted backward glance to study where our art came from, and how it changed in the crucible of not only its own atelier, but the larger political world. That was a world where an inexorable process had begun in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the burghers began taking the reins (and reigns!) from the landed gentry. Just as inexorably, they dragged along in their wake a thin but thickening and memorable stream of blood, which in modern times, with fewer ebbs and more flows, has swelled into a turbulent sea. Who honestly believes it will ever disappear on its own, hemorrhaging as it persists in doing in an atavistic way? We mustn’t forget that it issues from an antiquated social system that valued real property more than human rights and lives, regardless of the cost in time, repetition and backbone, not only to dancers, but in its legacy to the future of humanity.

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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