With Bart Cook, Maria Calegari, and Elyse Borne overseeing staging, an all-George Balanchine evening launches assays revealing that more than a few San Francisco Ballet dancers carry the Balanchine gene: SFB can boast some of the very best dancers of the neo-classical style who today dance the legendary choreographer’s works.
Divertimento No. 15 presages the excitement of the two pieces that follow it. Karinska-style blue and yellow pastel tutus and men’s costumes evoke a subtle glamour, and if the audience is prepared to forgive a few unsubtle placement adjustments, we have an exhibition piece that nonetheless resists exhibitionism. While they have been differently trained than their diverting predecessors, these dancers are entirely “in their bodies,” and the music is in their hearts. Courtney Elizabeth establishes herself as the dancer who “gets” and sets the tempo in her First Variation solo. Sasha de Sola is every moment the seasoned trouper in her Fourth Variation solo, and Vanessa Zahorian shows a zest for the Balanchine Kool-Aid, captaining swift changes in direction, and sidling up to the Sixth Variation as if it were a date with destiny. Gennadi Nedvigin’s work is practically a workshop on how one who is classically trained can perfectly dance in neo-classical style. His placement, musicality, limpid landings, and stewarding of cloud-like lifts all read “Balanchine spoken here.”
Scotch Symphony to a Mendelssohn score, comes as close as Balanchine will venture in the direction of a story ballet. The highland theme was inspired by the romantic poetry of Sir Walter Scott, as well as New York City Ballet’s first visit to the Edinburgh Festival, where the Searchlight Tattoo was performed with marching pipers, drummers, and the dancing of reels. Men in kilts are under especially heavy manners to summon as much masculinity as traffic will allow, and traffic is heavy here, with girls in white dresses with black laced bodices infiltrating the military lines, as they counter with dirndl-esque country rounds to the men’s high dudgeon. Here again, Courtney Elizabeth in plaid meets them on their own terms, shattering the glass ceiling with an androgynous version of the women’s corps “bring it!” energy. Except during moments when Yuan Yuan Tan looks like she is holding back, the pas de deux she dances with Davit Karapetyan is a light and wispy refreshment.
Top honors for the program go to the company’s interpretation of The Four Temperaments, to music by Paul Hindemith. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Kristina Lind open the work, each offering an unfolding hand to the other. As she recreates the off-balance pas de deux, Lind carries the very texture of the Balanchine line—long-limbed, with generous extensions—inviting comparisons to Patricia Neary. Lind, is un-self-conscious, and her dancing is informed by a denser dramatic archive than Neary’s. The second couple, Elana Altman and Quinn Wharton, turns up the flame as Altman pets the air a bellows-like movement. Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun arrives with the striking Anthony Spaulding, and their modernist shapes, and profiled forced arch pliés remind us that ‘twas not always thus, but then Balanchine began designing ballets the way architects of the same era designed buildings. Arabesques swivel off center, and pliés fold in a layer of depth that tempts the rest of the body to bend into the longer phrases.
Was Balanchine winking at us when he announced that “Ballet is woman”? Taras Domitro, Tiit Helimets, and Vito Mazzeo convince me that he was. Domitro’s lunges, contractions, and the resilient strength he harnesses to work around the spine, demonstrate that his Cuban training gave him all the tools he needs to combine those movements, as well as the more classical galloping runs and batterie that the first variation, Melancholic, requires. The women who surround him as if they were his accusers, especially Clara Blanco, Dores Andre and Madison Keesler, fire up the stage with air-scooping chassés, fast footwork and lunges that end in razor’s edge stops.
Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets are the second variation Sanguine couple. And after several seasons dancing together, they have become a piquant pairing. Her coltish but daring exploits meet with sheltering arms in his deftly technical, but sanguine bearing. This is best seen in their Patineurs-like side-to side chassés ending in arabesque. Van Patten delights with a series of mini saut de basques, answered by Helimets’ fleet-footedness and guileless lengthening of arms to caress invisible tangents that extend floorward.
In the third variation, Phlegmatic, Vito Mazzeo demonstrates a mastery over space. He calls up a gravitas so intense that it scares off losses that a dancer with such a handsome face could suffer should such mastery go missing. He earns rather than simply invites a comparison to Balanchine’s Apollo, especially considering the ministrations of the attending women, the standout among them being WanTing Zhao.
In Choleric, the fourth variation, Sofiane Sylvie is nothing if not flash paper, that silvery stuff you ignite as you throw it into the air. As the ensemble joins her onstage, there is the satisfying sense of a work having captured an era that began with art deco and ended in the 1960s New York skyline; Four Temperaments is to Gotham and ballet what Gershwin’s American in Paris is to The City of Lights and music.
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.