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San Francisco Ballet


by Becca Hirschman

April 25, 2009 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

George Balanchine’s “Jewels” is well regarded for its homage to modern ballet’s roots. This plot-less ballet, which debuted in 1967, is comprised of three abstract sections: “Emeralds,” “Rubies,” and “Diamonds” to represent France, the US, and Russia respectively. While the choreography may not be groundbreaking, dance aficionados still praise “Jewels” for its wide range of emotions and for being one of Balanchine’s timeless ballets. Often presented in parts, the ballet as a whole is rarely seen on stage outside of New York, but our fine city is sparkling this week with San Francisco Ballet’s superb take on “Jewels.”

Normally, I prefer the sultriness and pizazz of “Rubies,” but Sofiane Sylve’s take on the swan-like principal role in “Diamonds” has me thinking otherwise. Sylve danced the pas de deux with a pure, unaffected grace and fragility that left me gasping for breath by the end. Her partner, Pierre François Vilanoba, matched her as best he could, but in “Jewels,” as in most of Balanchine’s work, the majority of the focus is on the women. The demi-soloists shone brightly, including Lily Rogers and Jennifer Stahl, and Quinn Wharton, a tall sandy haired fellow, danced with a kingly presence. One of the things that differentiates “Diamonds” from the other two sections is the big wow moment when the corps enters, sweeping its feet across the stage with the stark brightness of the cream colored costumes radiating simplicity and elegance, and this time was no different. The only caveat I had was with Tony Walton’s white lite-brite/scatter plot effect across the back scrim (which continued in corresponding colors through the other two sections). Sorry, but I’m not a fan. Please bring back the Tiffany blue background and extravagant chandeliers, I beg of you.

Elana Altman devoured the stage as the tall girl in “Rubies.” Yes, Vanessa Zahorian proved she’s more than just everyone’s technically amazing whiz kid with her coy hip action and flirty romp with the compact yet powerful Pascal Molat, but Altman showed she’s got the chops to play with the big kids. At one point, she lunged into a deep grand plié in second (for all those non-technical people out there, a squat) with her arms held high above her head in a rising V, and all eyes were on her. This steely dancer has been refining this role for a few years, and her mettle showed.

“Emeralds,” as the opener, is velvety and supple, with wrists crossed at times like sylphs and a shy or demure quality lurking underneath. With a score by Gabriel Fauré, the dancers lightly skipped and waltzed. Early on, Lorena Feijoo, joined by guest artist Seth Orza (on loan from Pacific Northwest Ballet) made her slightly nontraditional mark on Violette Verdy’s role. Feijoo played the role as a young lover, displaying at times lust, sadness, grief, and contentment. It was an interesting interpretation, but I think I prefer the more aloof, non-narrative portrayals that I’ve seen in the past. Yuan Yuan Tan, however, looked spellbinding in Mimi Paul’s role, with her feet dripping under her as she quietly tip toed across the stage with her arms melting about in the air around her. Quiet and comforting, Tan seemed almost motherly, as if she were ready to wrap her arms around her partner, Damian Smith, and rock him ever so softly to sleep.

Elyse Bourne staged “Jewels,” and additional coaching was provided by several originators, including Mimi Paul, Violette Verdy, and Suzanne Farrell, and this high quality showed. However, Haydee Morales’ costumes (on loan from Miami City Ballet) were loud—the stone piece thumped and plunked as the dancers jumped and kicked--, and the added percussion was neither needed nor wanted. But I’ve got to wonder, if “Jewels” was choreographed now, would Balanchine have changed things? Perhaps the US would be sapphires to represent our blue collar history. Maybe he’d add a tribute to Japan or England or Spain. We’ll never know, but it’s fun to dream about, even for a minute or two.

The program continues with a wide range of casts, many of which should be impressive debuts for some of the company’s most promising young soloists and corp members. And if you happened to catch “Jewels,” you might just find a diamond (or a ruby or emerald) in the rough.

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