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San Francisco Ballet

Opening Night Gala 'Russian Treasures'

by Catherine Pawlick

21 January 2008 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

As tuxedos and evening gowns, diamonds and furs filtered into the War Memorial Opera House on Wednesday night, it was clear this wasn’t just any night at the ballet. On the heels of last year’s milestone celebration, the gala performance that introduced San Francisco Ballet’s 76th season this week began as the who’s who of San Francisco came dressed in their best to watch not only the ballet, but the other guests of the evening. Of more interest, however, was the program given the theme of “Russian Treasures” that oddly bore no noticeable relationship to the program and offered mixed caliber dancing.

Heralded as “one of the preeminent ballet companies in the world,” SFB’s status on the world stage must be questioned on gala evenings such as these. While the company espouses and enhances contemporary choreography better than many, it is, nonetheless, not a purely classical company of the traditional, old-world European sort. When one thinks of “Swan Lake,” the Kirov, Bolshoi, Paris Opera or Royal Ballet come to mind first, companies where the dancers have the same training and provide consistent approaches to the classical repertoire. A brief look at SFB’s roster provides further explanation: of those who danced on Wednesday night, Russian-born Maria Kochetkova, Cuban-born Taras Domitro and Lorena Feijoo, and Chinese talent Yuan Yuan Tan (trained in Shanghai and Stuttgart) provide the technical prowess needed to execute classical choreography on the program with refinement and accuracy. It is those trained in the European traditions who provide the backbone of this company, treating local viewers to international standards of dancing that are often otherwise absent from the stage. Without them many of the classical works in the repertoire would be left to gather dust. This evening, others offered adequate renditions of their respective pieces, but only those four had the requisite panache and fanfare that should mark an expensive gala event.

In addition to its foreign-trained imports, however, SFB’s strength lies in innovation and novelty rather than classical warhorses or reproductions thereof. With the gala's mixed bill full of short pas de deux and excerpts, there were a few promising moments.

Unfortunately the evening opener, Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” lacked the snap and precision that should accompany the piece. Frances Chung can clearly churn out the pirouettes and managed to emit an energetic aura, but for someone of her stature, closer attention to technique and utterly polished delivery would be expected in any European theatre. Her partner, Daniel Deivison, was an odd choice for a role that requires clean lines and pristine footwork. His role should be a show-stopper of magnetic exuberance; instead his footwork seemed ill-rehearsed. Dramatically, the couple invigorated. In their technique, they disappointed.

One step higher was Katita Waldo in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,” her long limbs and perfectly sculpted feet providing visual relief. With Ivan Popov to partner her, Waldo’s lean physique mesmerized as Popov moved her through a slow series of poses, turned her en pointe like a man molding wet clay, and balanced her on his own limbs while prone on the floor. Gyorgi Ligeti’s music didn’t necessarily match the movement or the mood, but the imagery intrigued, and the minimalist purple leotards were a needed respite from the distraction of the first piece.

Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” must be danced first with grace, and then with fire. Tina LeBlanc had one but not the other.  She was accompanied by Isaac Hernandez, a new Mexican recruit who was nearly half her age. Here was an example of a polished ballerina who seemed tired, accompanied by a young man with raw talent who needs to hone his skills. Despite her loose port de bras, and his crisp double cabriole, the couple’s technical levels and ages seemed mismatched. Age in dance matters less than talent, but here it distracted from the impressions meant to be left by the invigorating piece. Images of the Kirov Ballet’s Olesya Novikova, an expert in this role, came to mind.

Helgi Tomasson’s “Confidencias,” originally created for Evelyn Cisneros, was danced by Lorena Feijoo with Latin flair and intensity. If the step patterns were basic, Feijoo’s proud carriage and fire engine red dress merged with her own lyrical intensity to save the piece from cliché. Feijoo is a company treasure; a shame that she couldn’t showcase her talents in a more technically demanding piece.

Local favorite Yuan Yuan Tan danced the Second Act Pas de Deux from “Giselle” with the reliable Ivan Popov. Here, Tan displayed artistry as an elusive, waifish sylph defending her beloved even in death. The only minor snafu was the timing of the pair’s pleading to the wilis for mercy (in which the corps respond with an arm gesture of refusal) which was significantly late, musically. Nonetheless, the couple offered a brief glimpse into classicism that could provide an elegant full-length evening.

Among contemporary contributions on the bill was a pleasing excerpt from Finnish-born Jorma Elo’s “Double Evil,” a ballet premiered here in April 2008. Named resident choreographer at Boston Ballet in 2005, Elo’s work embraces classical costumes (tutus and pointe shoes for the girls) with modern, almost Forsythean movement. The excerpt begins with three men in tight blue jazz pants, spinning, bending and turning, in tandem and then together. Three ballerinas enter with electric split jetés, and then the two groups form couples that swivel and twist. Flat hands begin a circular movement that leads to a torso contraction; a ballerina wiggles her spine like a snake, her back to the audience; and men carry women through sweeping movements in various pairings. Clever, intriguing and innovative, “Double” is worth a double viewing.

After a brief intermission, the company’s latest glory opened the second half of the evening. Bolshoi-bred Maria Kochetkova joined Joan Boada in Yuri Possokhov’s “Raymonda Pas de Deux.” Based on the classical version by Petipa, this rendition carved new choreographic territory for the couple, giving fresh meaning to the words “classical ballet.” While not typically a classical choreographer, Possokhov’s efforts here are laudable. The pas de deux sections utilized the classical paradigm in new movement combinations that didn’t cross the line into modern or even contemporary movement. Kochetkova’s impeccable technique sets the ideal for every member of this company. Her performance was flawless and highlighted by the utterly controlled legato fouetté pirouettes moving downstage in her variation. Boada brings artistry and partnering skills to his work but appeared to be not quite in top form.

Having heard much about French-born Sofiane Sylve, more than a few audience members were curious to see her debut in Forsythe’s electric “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Sylve provided a monotone, nearly unmusical interpretation of this impressive piece. Forsythe’s choreography may seem complex, but it is highly musical, and the movements in “Middle” must be accurately timed to provide full shock effect. With Pierre-Francois Vilanoba accompanying her, one wondered what went wrong. Hopefully simply more rehearsal time is needed.

Vanessa Zahorian, a technician and former favorite of this reviewer, danced adequately if a bit stiffly in the grand pas de deux from “Le Corsaire,” her sharpness dulled with the passing years, her retire passé in the fouettés lowered to mid-calf level halfway through the sequence. Her partner Taras Domitro stole the show, however, with high-flying split jetés and multiple (if slow) pirouettes that awakened great enthusiasm in the audience.

Perhaps due to the previous day’s Inauguration festivities in Washington, the final ballet, “Stars and Stripes,” ended the evening on a patriotic note of invigorated faith. If there were a few missteps, the overall impression was nonetheless one of harmony, the dancers working together to present a unified impression of style, creativity and prestige in honor of our country. In that, San Francisco Ballet achieved what it set out to do.

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