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Programs 1 & 2

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I have been sitting in the Balcony Circle, and I don't know the dancers well enough to identify them without a scorecard -- with the exception of Muriel Maffre and Stephen Legate in Maelstrom. I apologize in for not being able to "review" the dancing where the cast is listed as an ensemble.

Program 2:

Maelstrom (Mark Morris) is a strange ballet with which to open a program: not only is the music the most serious of the evening, but it is neither the happy romp with an occasional dark cloud and melancholy, like the Mozart serenades Stanton Welch used for Falling, nor the happy music with serious undertones of the closing piece, Company B. It requires far more concentration than either of the other two works, for it's possible to enjoy Company B by treating it as an uplifting ending and ignoring the underlying anxiety of the piece.

While it has some underlying "signature" poses that are rooted in the modern tradition -- the most striking one is where the dancers plie in a position that looks like parallel fourth and hunch their shoulders down an into the movement -- the work on the whole is made from the classical ballet vocabulary. Particularly in the third movement, which is string of trios, duets, and the occasional solo, all of which could have come out of company class, and the root of which can be seen in, for example, the trio in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

The unifying signature phrase was a traditional fourth, like a Cechetti pirouette preparation, where the dancer reached forward with one arm, and then while closing in fifth, moved the arm to the side, while lifting the chest up and out a bit and shading the head to the side. What was most striking to me about the piece was how open, articulate, and expressive the women's upper bodies were in this piece, in constrast to the strictly classical Falling. I wouldn't call it Kirov, but I've rarely seen this quality in the women, and certainly not in seven women in the same ballet.

The second movement of the Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio is one of my favorite pieces of classical music, but it doesn't lend itself easily to dance. The walks to the opening strains were as perfect a match to the music and mood as the final walk for the men's trio in Emeralds. I thought the movement was strongest for the corps; I'm not sure where the duets were supposed to lead. Morris followed the staccato quality of the middle of the movement by having the until-then legato dancing "hit" several positions, but the choreography didn't reflect the reverb in the strings and the pedalling in the piano that is in the instrumentation. That also reminded me of the staccato movements in the Mimi Paul solo in Emeralds, which make me cringe when I see them.

I've heard the "Ghost" trio played by established trios (including three different flavors of the Beaux Art Trio) and soloists who play chamber music (Ax, Kim Ma, for example), and in every case, there are three clear, but separate voices. And when watching chamber music being played, it's hard to ignore the physicalization by the players. With the trio on a platform on one side of the orchestra pit, the players were out of sight. If I hadn't know this was a trio, I would have thought I was listening to a small string orchestra with piano accompaniment, so blended and vibrant was the string playing by Concertmaster Roy Malan and Principal Cellist David Kadarauch.

The somber quality of the playing was a great canvas for the dancers, who in parts seemed a little ragged. (For example, at one point, there was a striking stage pattern in which four couples formed a line stage right while three men made a triangle stage left facing the line. I wasn't sure whether the line of couples was supposed to be straight or on a diagonal, with the chevron of men aiming toward them.) I would love to see this ballet again; on first viewing, while I loved whole passages, I'm not sure I loved the whole ballet. I don't quite know how to interpret the title Maelstrom; while in parts serious, there was little sturm und drang. While in many of Morris' serious pieces, terrible things can happen, ultimately, the group survives. I find great heart in his sense of quiet optimism of survival. And in the final image, where the seven men fall on the floor outstretched in back [edited from "front"] of the seven women, and the seven women perform the signature move and close in fifth, I had a firm sense that they have come Home.

I was very interested in seeing Stanton Welch's Falling, because having seen maybe one other ballet of his, I knew that much of the Houston Ballet's repertory is his. I overheard several conversations around me about a previous piece he did for SFB, which was described as fluff. Falling is a very clever romp, made for five couples, who perform as couples -- including one superb movement for two men, who mirror each other -- and the occasional short solo and trio. The men were dressed in 18th century period "lite," while the women wore short tunics with waists. While there was the occasional plaintive passage, most of the women were the cheery, happy "sprites" that Mozart, personally, would have liked. The pas de deux were clever and the games between the sexes equal, and the ballet was a very welcome change from the angst and agony and dragging around I've been seeing a lot of in recent years.

Kristin Long, Elizabeth Miner, and Tina LeBlanc danced superbly, as did the two men who performed the "mirror" duet, in parts that fit them like gloves. LeBlanc displayed beautiful line and complete phrasing, and Long exploded like a cannon in her movement. Kudos for Morris for casting Miner in Sylvia; she's dancing with wonderful confidence.

There were two things I liked most about the ballet: the constant, surprising changes of direction, and the patterns on stage when all of the dancers were together. When all of the men and all of the women did the same movement, it was to support the stage pattern, not because Welch didn't know how to do anything else. It's not that often that I new ballets that are happy and joyful without cuteness, coyness, jokiness, or "wink-winks" (as in "we all know we're more sophisticated than what we're portraying.") The ballet requires precision, clean classical positions, and discipline in the ensemble made of the five couples. Despite its length (five movements), I think it would make a superb opener; Mozart's music sings right by.

SFB dances Company B like ballet dancers; the "groundedness" modern dance was no where to be found. Only one dancer caught the social dance nuances: from the program this is Sarah van Patten, and for me, in her ensemble dancing especially, she stole the show. She has a plaintive solo, "I Can Dream, Can't I?" that was quite balletic, but it was like the dream ballet sequence in a musical, in contrast to her everyday life. While Company B is clearly modern -- there were ghosts of Paul Taylor dancers throughout -- if SFB hadn't performed it, I don't know if I would have every found out what a deft commedienne van Patten is. In one group movement, the dancers bounce their head to one side in quick succession. In just about everyone else's physicalization, you could almost see the movement rooted in spines and abdomens and knees and toes -- the dancer's "motivation" -- while in van Patten's, no other part of her body moved: it was the fun part of the social dance that everyone waits to do, and she was the town dance diva.

Another highlight was Pascal Molat's "Tico-Tico" solo, which was the younger sibling to Baryshikov's performance in Push Comes to Shove. This solo may have been rooted in ballet -- if it wasn't, I never once envisioned someone from Taylor's company doing it -- with stops and changes and humor, but with some softer passages, beautifully expressed by Molat, that weren't in Tharp's work. It must have been a cultural challenge in every way for Guennadi Nedviguine to do "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)", because to me, this had Patrick Corbin written all over it.

What was missing from these fully balletic interpretations was the sense of social anxiety underlying the songs, which were performed by the USO poster girls, the Andrew Sisters. The young people doing these social dances were children during the Depression, and their political landscape went straight from the Depression to World War II, both of which had serious impact on the social fabric, and it was a time when personal insecurity and questions of identity could be considered frivolous. (There's a war on, don't you know? People are being killed. Be strong or you're playing into the hands of the enemy.)

What Company B does give San Francisco Ballet is the challenge of creating character. That most of the dancers didn't quite meet it was actually a noble failure, in that they didn't cross the line to parody or over-acting, and treated it as a dance challenge. While the general spirit was the same as what NYCB attempted in the one-time Ray Charles special (was it Fool for You?), the choreography was a lot better, and with time, the underlying tone of the piece may come through.

In light of the recent discussions about whether ballet companies should let modern dance and modern choreographers into their reps, I think this program should be considered in context: none of the pieces were cross-over, none were "the latest thing" -- former enfant terrible Morris is considered venerable at this point and he takes his ballet assignments seriously -- SFB repertory consists primarily of classical and neoclassical ballets, and having $25 of $35 million of the endowment raised shows, if nothing else, that the money in the city supports the direction of the company, which is firmly rooted in the classical tradition. In this sense, and looking at the rep for the remainder of the season, I think that Tomasson is feeding his company well.

Edited by hockeyfan228

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Thanks for the detailed review, hockeyfan. I especially enjoyed reading about how you felt about Maelstrom; I remember being kind of bored when I saw it a few years ago, even though I could tell it was fairly well-choreographed, and not just another trendy crossover piece. Of course, it's probably much more interesting to watch when Maffre is in it, she has a tendency to make everything interesting. I would agree that Welch's previous piece, Tu Tu, was "fluffy" indeed--not unpleasant, but I don't remember a thing about the choreography, just some bizarre metallic spandex costumes.

I for one am glad that SFB has largely stayed away from crossover, and that the few crossover-ish ballets they do perform are treated as novelties, and not the backbone of the repertoire, or, worse, the Future of Ballet.

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Program 1:

I had high hopes for 7 for EIGHT, Helgi Tomasson's year-old ballet, which were brought to Earth when the curtain came up on Yuan Yuan Tan and Yuri Possokhov, dressed in black, and they began to dance a rather intimate adagio to a middle movement of a Bach keyboard concerto. Had the entire piece been a pas de deux, this may have worked, but as the opening part of the opening ballet, it didn't make structural sense to me; it was rather like coming an hour into a movie. And like many of Bach's second concerti movements, the music ends with that little bridge that turns into the third movement. The emotional ending as the pair exits to a conclusion and the lights go dark runs counter to the musical transition, which makes it clear that the music hasn't concluded.

It was hard to watch the 2nd movement, because the part looked to me like it had been made for the ghost of Elizabeth Loscavio; in this performance, it was danced by Vanessa Zahorian (with Guennadi Nedviguine), and the fit was a bit off-the-rack. Nicole Starbuck replaced Elizabeth Miner in the 3rd Movement, and danced well, but Frances Chung was the one who really shined. She has a big jump, with the ability to go high quickly, with a little "poof" of hang time, and a descent that is as soft as the ascent is immediate. She has the same quality on the ground: the ability to strike a position and create a shape, but come out of it softly with complete control. I believe it was Starbuck who danced the second pas de deux in the 4th Movement, which was far more interesting to watch than the first, because the phrasing wasn't as perfunctory, and there was a bloom to her dancing.

The keyboard until this point had been the piano. In the program notes there is an explanation for why a harpsichord is used for the male solo in the 5th Movement, but I'm a firm believer that the audience should have a fighting chance to understand without reading the program notes. The piece used was the adagio from the Bach transcription of the Vivaldi concerto used in Square Dance -- another "fake" ending... -- and while there was a nod to Bart Cook's great solo at the end of the movement, I didn't quite see the stylistic impetus for the change of instrument. (This selection would not have worked with two pianos. It's usually performed with four harpsichords.) It proved that Tomasson can choreograph wonderful pieces for men that require the fastidiousness of technique that Tomasson had as dancer, combined with a more outgoing, virtuoso quality, but the choreography didn't reflect much in the music except the beat.

Tan and Possokhov returned for the 6th Movement, in a pas de deux that I found a lot more interesting than the first, because it seemed far less note-for-note literal. I happen to be a sucker for the structure of the 7th and last movement, which was the same in Maelstrom and Falling: various duets and solos and trios following one after another, when the music finally picked up and had a proper ending.

The music was extremely frustrating to listen to -- too many different adagios from different concerti strung together, and there didn't seem to be logic to the choices. When I called the choreography literal, it was literal to the beat and superficially literal to the phrasing, but not necessarily to the character of the music or the complexity of the underlying structure. So many adagios with bridges into third movements that never materialized: it was like attending a Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement class where the entire class is done on the right side, and at the end, the teacher says, "Now go home and do it on the left side." (And the left side is in so much agony that dinner is out of the question until it's righted.)

Except for a very nice little segment in the first movement, where two of three couples did the same choreography while the third did a little lift, three times in succession, ...smile with my heart, was of the everyone-does-the-same-thing when-they're-all-together school, the choreography for the pas de deux is pretty much characterized by "up and around and over," and the score was very piano-bangy. The high point of the piece comes at the end of the third part, where the abused woman rejects the apology of the abuser -- a virtuoso solo -- and walks off, after it looked like she might cave. I'm not sure I want to know if Tomasson actually saw this piece before he put it on the schedule. I wish I had stayed in the lobby after intermission and read a couple of more chapters of the Daneman Fonteyn biography, not because the piece was so bad, but because it was so mind-numbingly dull.

Theme and Variations closed the program. The corps looked superb. (Well, one circle at the end was a little off, but circles are so difficult to gauge.) The demis were wonderful as well, particularly Elizabeth Miner, whose dancing "popped" from among the others. And I don't think there is a company of men I'd rather see burst out at the end together; they ate up the stage. Which leaves the principals. I would never have believed that it was Lorena Feijoo dancing, if I hadn't read it in the program. I thought she gave a rather careful performance and wondered if she had been coached in the role by Alonso, because stylistically, her performance came from another place than the corps and demis. Her approach was in stark contrast to the dynamo I had seen in last year's Balanchine programs. It was a somber performance, too. It's not that I think the ballerina should be grinning, but a bit of a glow fits the role nicely. (She did finally crack a smile after the first balance at the end of the pas de deux -- where she changes the hold and her cavalier takes her newly free hand in a kneeling position -- after it went swimmingly.)

There was a lot I liked about it, nonetheless, particularly in the clarity of Feijoo's feet and legs and the uncharacteristic softness. (I never would have thought she would be cast properly in Giselle until this performance, but it's in her cultural heritage, too.) Vadim Solomakha -- imagine a tall, slimmer-legged Baryshnikov, without the cragginess or the bags under the eyes -- took an even softer approach. He's one of the few men I've seen who can do double tours with completely stretched legs and feet and so tight a crossed fifth, that his feet look like a ballerina's pointes in sousus.

The orchestra played beautifully under Mogrelia's direction.

There were six separate lighting designers in six works, and the only two pieces that were lit consistently well were Company B and Theme and Variations, because for the most part in these two pieces, the lights were on. I have to wonder if any of the other lighting designers actually looked at their work from the Balcony -- and I was in the Balcony Circle, the equivalent of Fourth Ring rows A&B, not even the very top of War Memorial -- because for the majority of 7 for EIGHT, it was impossible to see the men. When they danced against the black floor in the darkness, there were times I could see only arms, necks, and faces. At least the women were wearing pink tights, so I could see their legs. In these programs there was a love affair with the lighting effect where they punch holes in the gels, so that the light pattern onstage is like being in a forest where light shines through the leaves. (A very dark forest with very little light shining through the leaves.) This hurt the second movement of Maelstrom as well. When there was a gasp when the curtain rose on Theme and Variations, as the ensemble dressed in tutus and classical vests stood in place on the white floor, it wasn't just the decor that caused a gasp from the crowd: we could finally see.

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In these programs there was a love affair with the lighting effect where they punch holes in the gels, so that the light pattern onstage is like being in a forest where light shines  through the leaves. 

Ha! I've seen that "forest" pattern too many times to count; it's not bad for La Sylphide or other ballets that take place outdoors, but for more contemporary abstract works, it's a bit...odd. :excl:

And, being a poverty case myself, I always sit in the balcony, unless I can get subscriber upgrades for my seats (not always possible for more popular ballets), and I agree it would do a lot of good for The Powers That Be to see how ballets look from the nosebleed territory, both in terms of lighting and other things, like seeing whether the sets are cut off at the top, or whether the color of the stage is exactly the same color as the dancers' tights and feet so that they are hard to discern, and, of course, whether you can discern anything at all under "artistic" lighting... :excl:

Oh, and by the way, thanks again for another interesting review.

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I attended Sunday afternoons Program 1 and have similar feeling as hockeyfan 228, though I think I liked 7 for eight more. I want to put in a plug for Francis Chung. She has been dancing a number of featured parts over the past couple of seasons and is developing into a truely excellent dancer. I will be surprised if she is not promoted out of the Corp at the end of this season.

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I attended Sunday afternoons Program 1 and have similar feeling as hockeyfan 228, though I think I liked 7 for eight more.  I want to put in a plug for Francis Chung.  She has been dancing a number of featured parts over the past couple of seasons and is developing into a truely excellent dancer.  I will be surprised if she is not promoted out of the Corp at the end of this season.

Wasn't Chung fantastic? I think she may have been the dancer I couldn't keep my eyes off of during Square Dance last year, but whom I misidentified. I'm glad to hear that she's being given featured parts, because I would travel again to see her dance.

Where were you sitting for the performance? I wondered whether I would have liked 7 by eight more if I had been able to see more of it, particularly the men's dancing.

What did you like about the ballet? Did you know the music beforehand? I wonder whether one of the reasons I felt so frustrated with the score is that I know what's supposed to come next, and it didn't :speechless-smiley-003:

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I sit in the balcony, just a couple of rows above the Balcony Circle. I, and my party had the same problem you had with the black on black with the men. It was very difficult to see their legs. I am not that familiar with the music so I wasn't listening for what was next and I could just enjoy the dancing with no distraction. I think it made the piece more enjoyable for me. I saw this piece premiered last year and enjoyed it then (though I had the same problem with the black on black thing) so it was fun to see it again. I kind of liked opening with the pas de duex. I like that it opened softly with that intimate pas and built through the following sections with more dancers coming on and the tension building until it all tapered back down to to the pas in part 6 before exploding back out in the last piece. Granted it was not as agressivly dynamic as my description sounds but I exagerate for effect.

Thanks for your comments about Program 2. I will be seeing it Friday night.

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Thank you guys, esp. Hockeyfan, for your thoughtful and very detailed comments.

They really should think about what the balcony can see. From the orchestra, the black on black in 7 for 8 are just right, and the ballet gleams in a beautiful way -- like the way a piano sounds -- but we're not looking at a black marly background....

You're SO right about the ghost of Loscavio in 7 for 8 -- that's a really inspired observation -- but if you'd seen Tina leBlanc in that part, instead of Zahorian -- to my mind, lebLanc is irreplaceable in this ballet, and Zahorian is just not musical enough to make it look like dancing. LeBlanc makes her phrasing SO clear, esp the syncopations. I'd walk all the way from berkeley just to see that circuit of the stage where she does 3 FAST pique turns in two bars of triplets (on ONE two THREE four FIVE six), and then does two contre-temps in usual time (ONE two three FOUR five six), repeating the whole thing 3 times as she circles the stage.... Zahorian does it but it doesn't sing.... Loscavio would have made it hilarous, LeBlanc makes it tangy.

I wrote a long piece about it for DANCEVIEW TIMES last year, I'd be grateful if you'd check it out, wonder what you'd think, and also please take a look at


about last week's program 2.

I'd just add something about Maelstrom. i love that ballet, but the first several times I saw it, I didn't know what hit me and was very puzzled by it. I still don't y understand why it's called that --

it certainly doesn't have a Balanchinean hierarchical structure, there is certainly no ballerina (though Maffre and Miner kept taking my eye and seemed to be deeply in on the secret of hte piece, to get it and know where the proper emphasis lay). In the adage I love the way the dancer's body "breaks" on that "odd" note after the ornament -- Morris has got 2 ways of doing it, for a dancer without a partner, they do a double ronde-de jambe en l'air and on the extension suddenly flex hte foot, breaking from ecarte to efface; for dancers with partners, they're on pointe, the standing knee bends and the angle changes (is it to efface? I can't remember, I just remember the way hte light hits them changes suddenly as the configuratoin changes, and then that position gets promenaded) -- it is SO beautiful, and SO appropriate to the quality of the music...

Will you go back and see it again this week?

I think Maelstrom is maybe the most beautiful new ballet in the last 10 years, and -- well, I could be wrong, but I think the only place in hte world you can see it is San Francisco. i'm definitely going back.


Just for the record, I was wrong. There are so many errors in print, I don't want to perpetuate another. Just saw 7 for 8 again today, and that passage in 7 for 8 is FOUR pique turns followed by 2 sets of kinda jazzy contretemps/walk-arounds, it's not in triplets at all but in duple time -- though it DOES feel syncopated, somehow, the piano is doing some dazzling passage-work, and leBlanc's attack is supremely musical here. Tomasson has made it for her greatest strength, her aggressive attack out from hte hips -- that frappe-thing, she has SUCH rapid-fire brilliance in piques. It's dazzling in Square-Dance, too, where she does dozens of piques faster than you can believe.

Edited by Paul Parish

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Paul Parish, it's all your fault that I had such great expectations for 7 for Eight -- it was your article from last year that made me want to see it! :) I loved that review. Next time, I'm going to sit in the orchestra to see it.

I've seen Zahorian in a handful of ballets now, and she's never really grabbed me in any of them. I wish I had seen LeBlanc, but she can make something out of tin cans, duct tape, and a car alarm. (Nothing like Joffrey experience :D ) She almost made smile worth a look. I also wish I had been able to see Julie Diana in the ballet. I miss her so.

I wish I had read your review of Program 2 before I went. I loved your description of Maelstrom, "The ballet gives the impression that you're only seeing a small portion of the dance, as much information as you'd get if you were diving near a coral reef and different schools of fish, sea horses, rays, etc, came and went according to their own reasons. " The ballet is it's own ecosystem. I wish I could see it again this year, but I'm away to Up North this weekend. (A tank of gas is a lot less expensive than the flight to SF.)

I'm so glad you reminded me of the flexed foot gesture. I had a cryptic reference to it in my notes, which under the ticking clock of the cybercafe, I couldn't decypher. There were two other gestures that I found very moving as well: the first when the signature gesture -- arm from front to side, front left close in fifth from fourth -- was done by two dancers back to back, and their arms crossed at the shoulder when they gestured sideways. The second was when a woman reached forward with her hand flexed upward and then used her free arm to grasp the hand and gather it in towards the heartbeat.

I would take a trip to SF for any ballet Morris does for SFB.

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hockeyfan/Helene -- I actually like Zahorian a lot, you can't help it, she's got gumption. She's not very musical -- but then, neither was Spessivtseva, and even Balanchine adored her... You don't have to be musical for everything - -but I think to make "7 for 8" interesting, you DO -- I really miss Julie Diana in the adage role. wish I'd seen Nutnaree Pithit-SUksun (sp?) in the role, for though Tan has a fascinating line in it, I don't find her phrasing musical, and it dulls that part......

But again, I'm SO glad you came down to see these shows, and it was wonderful to get your response, in so much detail.

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