Monday, March 20, 2017

San Francisco Ballet - "Must See Balanchine"

San Francisco Ballet
Program 4 – “Must See Balanchine”
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
March 18th, 2017

Patrons at Saturday afternoon’s San Francisco Ballet performance were in for far more than the typical mixed repertory bill. In fact, the fourth program of the 2017 season, “Must See Balanchine”, is really a visual dance history seminar, dedicated to the choreography of seminal dancemaker George Balanchine. For a little under two and a half hours, students, fans and enthusiasts could truly immerse themselves in Balanchine’s choreography, seeing the work unfold live, performed by expert practitioners. And with ballets from Stravinsky Violin Concerto to Prodigal Son to Diamonds, this animated lecture more than succeeded at highlighting the choreographer’s extensive range and breadth.

A deconstructed, neo-classical work, 1972’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto opened the program – cast in practice clothes (one of Balanchine’s famed black and white ballets), no set, minimal lighting, nothing cluttering the artistry. Unencumbered, dance and music filled the space with full articulation and abandon, and the cast of twenty embarked on a neo-classical sojourn. First, they sought a conversation with Igor Stravinsky’s cascading score – not dancing choreography set to the music but instead, sparking an active engagement and vulnerable dialogue between the two disciplines. In addition, they communicated the diverse physical combinations that are synonymous with neo-classical choreographic form. A flurry of unexpected steps met traditional ballet vocabulary: long jazz runs and triple pirouettes; temps leveés and turned in piques à terre; flexed feet and huge jetés. And while Stravinsky Violin Concerto certainly speaks to these common neo-classical tenets (the relationship between movement/sound and innovative technical vocabulary), there is nothing common about this ballet. It is put together in a way that only a true master of the neo-classical style can imagine and achieve.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust
Photo © Erik Tomasson
Notable standouts included the men’s allegro sequence with its striking Russian pas de chats, and the tableaux imagery found in the ballet’s third movement, Aria II. After two featured duets, the ensemble returns to the stage in the Capriccio chapter, a joyful statement of connection and community, personified through stirring percussive phrase material. But the most compelling performance was found in Aria I, danced by Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham. With barely any lifts, Stahl and Ingham offered a true pas de deux, or ‘dance of two’. From Stahl’s promenades in attitude to her series of back bends to the duo’s mime-inspired port de bras, their pairing in this ballet was one for the history books.

And then, a complete turn to Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s adaptation of the ancient, biblical story into a one-act ballet. Originally choreographed for the Ballets Russes almost ninety years ago, this narrative touches on many aspects of the human condition – defiance, rebelliousness, temptation, self-realization, redemption, forgiveness and unconditional love.

Assertions of independence and willful desire mark the beginning of the Prodigal Son’s journey. Portrayed with gusto, fire and heart by Vitor Luiz, the protoganist proclaims his headstrong independence in the ballet’s first scene; his intention to chase a different reality from that which he had been living. This fierce individualism comes through loud and clear, particularly pronounced in the iconic jumps and thrilling multiple turns that comprise the Prodigal’s early variations.
Georges Rouault’s skillful scenery/costumes both elevated the ballet’s mystique and fittingly framed the action (and reminded me of Chagall). That is, with the exception of the servants’ costuming, which looked out of place with the rest of the design.

The Prodigal sets off with his servants and encounters a host of characters: nine rowdy ‘drinking companions’ (as the program calls them) and the tempting Siren, danced by WanTing Zhao. With serpentine turns, flexed palms and an acrobatic crab walk, Zhao exuded vigor and power. Open second positions were everywhere in her solo – sky high developpés and attitude turns. With every step and glance, she entranced the Prodigal, compelling him to join her in a highly sexualized pas de deux. On pointe and with the tall hat that completes the Siren’s costume, Zhao totally dominated the entire scene. For the second weekend in a row (after a brilliant Salome), she once again was a force to behold, capturing the elusive trifecta of technique, artistry and sublime characterization. Following his gluttonous experiences, the Prodigal is left literally and figuratively stripped of everything. Beaten down, broken and destitute, he begins another leg of his journey, and looks for a way back. Back to himself and back to his home. He is greeted by his father (Val Caniparoli), and after a lengthy, painful and dramatic crawl towards him, is accepted with joy and mercy, enveloped in his father’s arms.

For its final offering, Program 4 shifts forward in time, to 1967 and to Diamonds, the final section of Balanchine’s Jewels. Chandeliers and draped bunting encased this elegant dissertation that began with the corps women. Their graceful, billowy vignette brought a collection of balancés, chaissés, and boureés, all expressed through a variety of canon and unison. And the sparkly tableaux overflowed with luxurious épaulement. Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo Di Lanno took on Diamonds’ central pas de deux, approaching each other with stylized walks from opposite corners of the stage. This lengthy duet abounds with stately, regal balances (the subtle, yet powerful promenade in passé) and effortless soaring lifts that carve through the space.

In addition to the twelve corps de ballet couples, four featured pairings are also part of Diamonds’ huge cast. After the grand pas de deux, these four duos, Zahorian and Di Lanno engage in concerto-like exchange with multiple entrances and exits. First there is a lovely pas de quartre by Ludmila Bizalion, Thamires Chuvas, Elizabeth Powell and Ami Yuki, ripe with sprightly ballon and pas de chats. Next Di Lanno layers in giant assemblés and whirling turns. Then, a short, but musically complex variation for Zahorian, including some unpredictable and dynamic en dedans spins. And Diamonds closes with its grand procession and unison codetta, some of the choreography feeling very much like a class reverence. A farewell, yet not forever, only for this moment. 

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