Saturday, August 18, 2007

San Francisco Ballet-Stern Grove 2007

Today ballet dancers are better than ever. In order to “make it” in this highly competitive market, it is necessary to have the whole package: technique, versatility, artistry and desire. But no matter how gifted and brilliant today’s dancers may be, not all of them can be stars. Ballet administrations cannot afford to pay all of their dancers top salaries so most companies end up with a hierarchical ranking of dancers: the prima ballerina, the principals, the soloists (which in some companies are divided into two tiers of first and second soloists), the corps de ballet and lastly, the apprentices. With the outstanding male and female talent present at all of these levels, ballet companies must get creative in how they provide audience access to dancers who may otherwise be hidden. For the New York City Ballet’s current production of Romeo and Juliet, artistic director Peter Martins specifically cast young dancers (members of the corps and even some from the School of American Ballet) to play the title roles, bringing these ‘unknowns’ to center stage. Another way is to move towards more egalitarianism in dance, focusing on choreography and repertory that highlight the ensemble, provide gender balance, and as a result gives more dancers the chance to shine.

San Francisco Ballet’s offering at the Stern Grove Festival this year had the promise of egalitarianism with three choreographic masters of the ensemble: Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, and Lar Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck. This promise, however, was only partly fulfilled. Two of these three works provided the audience with the true feeling of the company en masse, with the starring role being filled not by one but by many. What was disappointing was the piece choreographed by the late prince of parity, George Balanchine. For someone who prided himself on revolutionizing American ballet by introducing a more democratic approach to the dancers, he failed to illustrate this in Divertimento No. 15.

When Balanchine came to America, he brought with him his own philosophy of dance, which was greatly influenced by the Russian ballet master, Marius Petipa. One primary belief was this idea of egalitarianism amongst dancers, and he wished to introduce it into traditional American ballet. Balanchine suggested that anyone and everyone in a company could be showcased, which contradicted the historical role of ranking ballet dancers according to a perceived level of talent. In Divertimento No. 15, this inclusion of all the female dancers is palpable-most of them dance solos and are featured. There is not just one star; it really is an ensemble work, but clearly for the women. What strikes the eye in Divertimento No. 15 is the lack of male presence, aside from their obvious role as partners and facilitators for the women. In this small cast of sixteen dancers, the women outnumber the men thirteen to three. But, there are no rules that say ballets must have an equal number of men and women. What is more important is the distribution of choreography. Through this, the audience can easily grasp that men are second-class citizens in the world of Balanchine and largely ignored as solo artists. In fact, in the theme and variations section of this piece, there are six solos to Mozart’s Suite in B-flat major. Only one of these is danced by a man and although it was technically proficient, the choreography was wanting. The sequences for the women were simply more interesting and beautifully constructed, incorporating the use of second position, playing turnout against parallel in the legs, and executing perfection in the double pirouettes. The women stole the show, and not only because they were brilliant dancers. The choreography was made for them and not for the men. If Balanchine felt that equality for dancers was so crucial, does it not stand to reason that this should apply to the men as well as the women?

In Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds, images of nature, seasons, and the circularity of time were apparent within the choreographic structure, movement choices and costuming. Unlike Divertimento No. 15, the entire cast was given equal choreographic treatment, and in the several occasions where the seven women danced in unison and the seven men also danced together, the men clearly shone brighter than the women did. Some of the jump combinations appeared to be too fast for some of the women who danced on Sunday. It was almost as though they did not have time to land completely from one jump, and then plie adequately to give buoyancy and support in the next jump. But, this did not appear to be an issue with Taylor’s construction, more with the execution by the dancers. The men were able to execute the sequences with more accuracy and with much greater confidence.

Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck is a masterpiece, illustrating his wonderful quality of movement, which is like a strange combination of Fred Astaire, contact improvisation and quasi-Twyla Tharp. His choreography is cool and laid-back, a perfect match to the jazz music of Dave Brubeck. Some of Lubovitch’s inventive signature lifts were present, like the Walking Lady Lift, where the woman is lifted in the air so that she looks like her legs are walking through water. Without a doubt, a highlight of Elemental Brubeck was the solo danced on Sunday by Rory Hohenstein. It was a retro throw-back to dance of many different decades as well as snippets of Broadway dancing such as All That Jazz and Fosse. But the real draw in Lubovitch’s piece was the group dynamic when all the dancers performed together. Again, both men and women were given equal footing in the choreography, and the main group sequence was particularly striking in its energy and flow. It was like the gym scene in West Side Story without all the animosity and contentiousness.

The program on Sunday had potential. If not for Balanchine’s obvious bias against men in his choreography, the performance could have reached a democratic pinnacle. It could have represented pure dance egalitarianism by a truly ensemble company, which is important when there are such talents at all levels of rank. Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch may not perceive themselves as purveyors of consensus choreography, but they certainly embody this belief much more than the man who claimed that title for himself.

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