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San Francisco Ballet, Program 2

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The second program (I saw it Saturday night) disappointed me. Serenade was well danced, and I especially liked Julie Diana (waltz) and Sarah Van Patten (Dark Angel), but the two Tomasson pieces were tough going.

I didn't understand Chi-Lin. Was there a story? It seems like it, to judge from the dancers being identified as various characters (unicorn, dragon, etc.), but there was no explanatory note in the program and the action onstage wasn't clear. Prism was also new to me, and I must say it really annoyed me. I just do not see the point of ersatz Balanchine. It's never as good as the real thing, and it actually misrepresents Balanchine's esthetic by applying a formula, which the Master himself never did. In the first place, he always steered clear of Beethoven, and in the second, if he'd been forced to choreograph to the first piano concerto, he would have made something deeper and more cohesive than what Tomasson gave us. Using different dancers for each of the three movements was a bad idea, since the music stands together as a unified piece (as do most concertos). Tomasson missed its darker elements, too—it was all too peppy and cheerful.

I'd much rather have seen the first program again . . . for the third time! It was that good.

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Hi Ari:

I found your comments re Prism so interesting. I saw Prism by NYCB at the State Theater when it first premiered--I believe I saw the second performance. A friend of mine who plays in the orchestra said that the audience had gone wild for the ballet at the first show. It happened again--the audience (myself included) did go absolutely nuts. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. loved the casting and the lighting, thought Helgi absolutely caught the spirit of each movement and thought it was beautifully played as well. (side note: Balanchine purposely avoided Beethoven? can we talk about that too?). NYCB brought Prism to SPAC that summer. I thought they made a huge mistake in programming it for a matinee--a ballet that is so dependent on lighting perfomed in daylight at an outdoor theater? Nevertheless, the audience went beserk again. My mom was at that performance and she couldn't get over how beautiful the piece was. Last season, we scheduled one of our trips to NY to see Prism again, and we were extremely disappointed. Flat as a pancake. The only liveliness came from Ben Millepied in the 3rd movement, where it is almost impossible to not be at least lively. MY daughter and I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, and we theorized that without Helgi to coach and impart his ideas, the cast (half new and half original) just couldn't get the spirit of the piece. As an aside, Lindy Madrijieff, formerly of SF Ballet, was cast in the piece, and I thought she was not good at all, which surprised me since she had been one of Helgi's dancers. Daughter and I decided that we would make it a goal to see SF Ballet do Prism.

We saw SF Ballet at City Center in October. I was not terribly pleased by the programming, and was so envious of you Washingtonians who got Serenade, Dances, and Prism. Was even tempted to make a quick trip to DC. We did see Chi-Lin and both enjoyed, but did not love it. I DID love Yuan Yuan Tan, thought she had the most exquisite delicate technique and would love to see her again.

So...what is going on with Prism? How was it received by the rest of the audience?

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I think the audience liked it -- but audiences often applaud the DANCERS rather than the ballet, I think. And I'd also say that whether a ballet is popular and whether it is good are two very different questions.

I liked "Prism" more than Ari did, but I take her points. As I wrote in my Post review, I think "Prism" deserves serious consideration -- I agree with Ari that it's a Balanchine derivative, but I think it's better than the usual run of that genre. I also think that Ari's point about it being broken up -- each movement led by a different dancer(s) -- and that this goes against the music is a good one. It's a case of using what LOOK like Balanchine rules the wrong way (think of Tchaikovsky piano concerto and its structure, as opposed to the "one ballerina per movement" of other works).

I also thought the costumes were God Awful. Mustard and greige? Screaming lipstick red, with spangles, making the second ballerina look like a Vegas Act, dancing with a man in a rich rose blouse -- beautiful; I'd like several. And then put the man in the last movement in black? And call it Prism? And I'm forgetting the Pumpkin Ballerina in the first movement.

Who is the Man in Black? "Prism" doesn't set its own stage. In Balanchine ballets, when each person comes out, s/he has a place in the ballet; you can sense it. The Man in Black could be from outer space, yet he leads the troops as though he's been there from the beginning.

All that said, I do think (I'm repeating myself; I also wrote this in my review) that it's one of the very few classical ballets made in the last decade that's worth looking at more than once. And that's not a small accomplishment. I think one of the things we're missing now are the second, third, fourth-rate works. It's not all masterpieces. If you set that standard, you set yourself up for a repertory that's either Masterpieces or Drivel and Dreck.

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As for Program 2 in general:

I saw it twice, and that's about the limit of my tolerance for "Chi-Lin." Structurally, you can't fault it. But it's so BORING. It reminded me of a David Bintley piece in SFB's repertory about a decade ago, something about an Egyptian temple and all these men dancing gods of the lung and liver. It was also BORING. And MacMillan's Rituals -- looks good, nothing there. And if you're going to do something based on Chinese mythology -- or Norse, or Greek mythology -- do a program note explaining it. I think Tomasson and the designer tried to do an explanation through design, with the four coins representing the four beasts being projected onto the curtain, and then kind of hovering over each dancer. But I thought the serpent was a dragon -- or a kind of long, funny Chinese dachsund. And you can't tell from the animals which one is air, water, etc. unless you've grown up in that world. The individual gods weren't characterized -- yeah, the turtle "swam," and maybe Chinese turtles are adept in the Australian crawl, but that's not enough. And Chi Lin is a unicorn, a sexually ambivalent figure -- or representing both sexes, but not a woman. Yuan Yuan Tan is very feminine, not ambiguous at all, and her choreography wasn't ambiguous. So it was a set of dances with a nice set. Maffre did the second performance, and I wondered why? I admire Maffre very much, but in this piece she's so different from Tan in every way -- line, approach, temperament -- that she looked miscast.

I thought the "Serenade" staging was not good at all. I'd rank it as the second worst I've seen. On the first night (Wed) it was unbearably choppy, and the dancers didn't seem to know what was going on. Not that there is a story to "Serenade," but the dancers have to have an idea of what they're doing, in the sense that it makes sense to them. Here, we had, "Run on, extend your arms; she extends her arms, count, turn, run off." Feijoo was lovely (the jumping solo) but her dancing was so far above everyone else's, and so mature, she looked like the chaperone at a sorority picnic. The solos looked as though they'd been rehearsed in separate rooms -- Sarah Van Patten especially. DANCE IT BIG!!!! seemed to be her only instruction. Worst of all, they weren't dancing to the music; they were counting. I didn't care that the corps was ragged -- the lines were all over the place -- but I cared about the rest of it. At the second performance, the choppiness was gone, but except for Tan, they didn't have a second cast. The other dancers (Kristin Long and Catherine Winfield) weren't strong enough technically.

I find this a problem with SFB in general. It's a company of first impressions. Opening night looks great -- and kudos to this; this opener was the most polished in recent memory. ABT always looks as though they've just rolled in an hour before curtain after a 2-year lay-off on opening night. Which side is front? Is Bayadere the one with the ramp? But SFB was ready for company, and that's great. But they don't have second casts. There's not enough depth. (And one explanastion for the often-commented on difference between newspaper and magazine reviews is that newspaper reviewers only write about opening night; magazine reviewers go back for seconds.)

In the first performance of "Prism," Zahorian was in for Long in the first movement and didn't pull it together. At the second performance I saw (Saturday matinee) she did, and the ballet looked much more musical. Sarah Van Patten and Zachary Hench did the pas de deux and it was difficult to watch. Van Patten kept falling off point in the duets and looked visibly relieved when she danced her solos. I thought she was far to young and inexperienced -- technically and emotionaly -- for this, and wondered if we were being used as an out of town try out. She's a lovely dancer, and has a great deal of promise, but she needs time.

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very good to hear about your impressions --

no, CHi lin doesn't work for me, either -- the Chronicle reviewer raved, and that program sold out here, but few balletomanes care for it.... there WAS some spectacular bravura dancing by some of hte men -- Sergio TOrrado as the dragon was Bolshoi magnificent, and Hansuke Yamamoto as the Phoenix also, staggering animal bravura.... but even so, it seemed like you'd just eaten a pound of beef and needed to sleep it off.....

We haven't seen van Patten yet -- from what I'd heard, we were maybe getting a new Loscavio.... I guess maybe not (the amazing thing about Loscavio was her OWN ideas)

But it's strange to hear that Kristin Long doesn't seem technically strong -- she must have been ill or injured.....

Helgi's ballets don't lend themselves to dancers -- his musicality is strange, but REAL, and a dancer who hears it -- as Loscavio did -- can make the case for his choreography surprisingly telling.... but there's only ONE way that it makes sense (unlike with Balanchine, where new dancers find whole new and convincing interpretations)..... and they often can't find that thread; I think maybe that's happened with Prism; I rember seeing it once when it worked, I was dazzled, and then a couple more times when I wondered what it was I'd liked so much..... still, I agree with Alexandra, it's important to have new ballets of the second and third magnitude (Helgi's Haffner Symphony qualifies, also; it should last).

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Paul, I think I know what you mean about Tomasson's musicality -- I had that sense with Zahorian, too. At the first performance, she hadn 't found it, and at the second performance, she had. His musicality is melodic, closer to Ashton and Tudor than to Balanchine, I think, and, as with Ashton, I often think that a performance is analogous to the needle on an old record-player being slightly off the groove; you can still hear the sounds, but it's not RIGHT, and then the needle would slip into the groove and the sound would be right again.

Van Patten was lovely as the second soloist in "Ballo," and she may well be ballerina material. She's got guts. I think she looked miscoached in Serenade and miscast in Prism. Paul, I hesitated to write anything about Long because I know you like her :) She seemed very likable, but in both Dances and Serenade -- and I'd say this of a lot of the women in solo roles -- I just didn't see any strength or scale -- i.e., the amount of space between the legs in the jumps in "Serenade" And I didn't see any personality; I saw a nice smile, but not a face, if that makes sense. And this, I realize, is one big difference between seeing a company every day and seeing them for a week once every year or two.

I'd bet on Zahorian to be your Loscovio replacement :)

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What, exactly, does determine whether something is good? No tongue in cheek here, no disrepect or sarcasm--just an honest question. Who and how is that determination made?

I think Prism is a very good ballet. Yes, it is derivative of Balanchine. Lots of stuff is, because Balanchine isn't making any more ballets, and most of what he made is masterful. If I were to attempt choreography (heaven forbid), I would look at Balanchine's work for inspiration. Even if I didn't consciously attempt to create in that spirit, I think that someone such as Helgi who danced for Balanchine for years would be so influenced that it would be well-nigh impossible to avoid some derivation. And in my opinion that is a good thing, because if I can't see new Balanchine works, I'll take what someone is trying to do in the same spirit, as long as the effort is honest.

I think the audiences went nuts for Prism because it is good. Audiences are still flocking to hear Beethoven symphonies too, because they are good--some better than others, but all worth a listen. My point is that I think the audience CAN tell when quality is present. I don't think we need Anna Kisselgoff or even you, Alexandra, to tell us what is good. I enjoy reading reviews, I enjoy reading what you write Alexandra, I have learned a great deal from you. But I don't think that the critics are the ultimate determinors of what is good, and I think that what is popular often (by no means always, we all know that) is what is good.

I am still trying to figure out what went wrong the last time I saw Prism, in last winter season. Oh, and I don't remember spangles. I've seen it at least 4 times and I honestly don't.

Regarding Chi-Lin, I wasn't bored at all. I do agree that some program notes of explanation would have been really helpful. But my interest level remained high and I was captivated by Yuan Yuan Tan. I remember hearing a lecture by Jaime Laredo about judging a violin competition. Laredo's comment was that the bottom line is: was this person someone you want to hear (read see) again? That's it for me. I want to see her again. And I cannot comprehend that Yuan Yuan Tan and Muriel Maffre would ever share a role! They are totally different, in every way: style, appearance, technique.

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Hi R [Koretzky],

About Balanchine avoiding Beethoven, he never made a ballet to Beethoven's music. He felt strongly that ballets should only be made to "musique dansant"—dancey music. He thundered against John Cranko's using the Brahms Second Piano Concerto for a ballet, saying that you should be able to put people in jail for doing that. I assume he felt the same way about Beethoven. Robert Irving evidently agreed (he and Balanchine shared many musical tastes, which is why they worked together so well) and once said in an interview, about Balanchine, "He's never made the mistake of choreographing to Beethoven."

I think their objection was that Beethoven's music is too intense, too thunderous (even when it's quiet), and seems to be coming from deep inside. Ballet is objective (in contrast to much of modern dance), and I think Balanchine felt that it works best with music that is objective, too. In any event, I thought that the ballet that Tomasson imposed on the First Piano Concerto was a brightly objective piece sitting uneasily on music that was a private musing.

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For any ballet out there, if it's been reviewed multiple times, you're almost sure to have diametrically opposed opinions. Reviewers are not arbiters of absolutes, but neither are they supposed to be pundits. Their credibility is (one hopes) based on years of viewing. A reviewer's job is to tell you what they saw in a work and their opinion on it. Are you supposed to change your opinion of a work after reading a printed review? No - but it is interesting to look at it if you see it again and see if you can see what prompted the reviewer's comments - but you still might disagree.

My suggestion would be for you to read reviews for a broader view of the work, rather than to see if you were "right". That's not a reviewer's job.

What makes a work "good"? Yes, that's individual. What one expects from a reviewer, and what differentiates him/her over time from a general audience member, is that you should be getting a sense from his/her writing what "good" means to that writer. His or her standards will be enumerated over time, and give you a road that you can choose to travel on, or diverge from. S/he will say more than "I thought it was bad" - you'll read "I thought there was no structure to the work and it was incoherent".

I'd have to say I'm no believer in mass audience reaction being the measure of a work. Audiences react to quality, yes. They also react to pretty costumes, good lighting, pretty or handsome dancers and "tricks". If you would rather go with the "I don't know what Art is, but I know what I like and what the audience likes" approach, all well and good, but then, why discuss the performance at all?

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Leigh, I don't think that's what I said. At least it wasn't what I intended to say. I DO read reviews because: 1. I am interested in what the critic has to say and 2. Because I am looking for aspects of a work that I might discover on a re-viewing. I don't consider it a contest to decide who is "right" and I don't usually change my opinion, although I do sometimes modify it and I frequently find some tidbit that hadn't occured to me. I am opening to learning, always. I do feel, though, that I can learn from a fellow audience member, too. I think there is more going on in the minds of many ballet-goers than the colors of the costumes or how many pirouettes can be turned. I don't think that one has to study criticism in college (although I wish I had) or have a byline in a newspaper to speak intelligently about art. Please give the public a little more credit! Most of us at Ballet Alert are not dance professionals and yet there is so much intelligent discussion happening here.

"Why discuss the performance at all?" Isn't that what we do here, all the time?

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You are a gentleman, and I thank you, but not even necessary. I admit I was feeling prickly yesterday, my bad. Today will be a better day, I hope!

In turn I want to reiterate the value (and enjoyment) of reading reviews.

Now I have a suggestion for those of us in the arctic Northeast, with snow predicted and single digit temps here. Let's just go to California and watch SF Ballet for ourselves!--are they back yet?

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thanks koretzky -- well, nutcracker opens Dec 10..... I can't say I'm excited, the productoin is garish and sentimental and makes all the old people look grotesque, and hte second act decor emphasizes whipped cream and chocolate syrup instead of crystallized ginger and toasted pecans and is horribly out-of-keeping with the musical characterization of Konfiturenburg, and the treatment of the children is patronizingrather than respectful -- but the snow scene is great, the dancing doll can be wonderul, so can the belly dancer (Arabian --Julia Adam's arms were like smoke when she did it) and hte trepak is exhilarating.....

I've never liked Christensen's grand pas, though Violette Verdy has said SHE likes it -- I wish I'd seen her do it, it's almost impossible to makes it interesting, the dancers have to be so cautious just to get through it.... Vanessa Zahorian arrived in town already dancing it better than anybody I'd ever seen doing it -- saw her at a children's matinee, with Guennadi Nedviguine ( they made their company debuts as Sugar Plum and cavalier at 11AM on a Wednesday or so) -- wow that was fantastic.....

that's my main reason for wanting to go -- to see the dancers again, and to see the debuts..... we haven't seen Sarah van Patten yet --

But doesn't anybody else have anyting they want to say about Serenade? what was wrong with the staging?how was the waltz?

Re Chi Lin -- it seems to me Tomasson wanted to make something with the flavor of the Golden Idol's dance from Bayadere.... a temple with statues "come to life" and dancing on a scale that justifies all the aspirations of heroic, bravura dancer-athletes, the Chabukianis... It doesn't get there for me, mostly because such things have to take you by surprise and end before you want them to..... also, the music is somehow prosaic

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Go figure -

I saw Zahorian do the Christensen Grand pas with Nedviguine in '99 at the Erik Bruhn competition in Toronto, and I liked it! It could have been the novelty, it could also be that Zahorian made it look unforced (she did quadruple fouettes like someone else would do a double.) She won, by the way (he did, as well, but shared the prize).

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Zahorian has better insight into what it has to offer than anyone els I've ever seen do it, the dynamics -- and on a great day I'm sure she can slice it up --

I still wish I'd seen Violette..... Christensen was a musician as well as a dancer, his son is a conductor, his work has its own musicality -- actually, I wish I'd seen Nancy Johnson, who created many of Christensen's roles and had a sense of his musicality, from all I hear, that I WISH I hadn't come along too late to get a sense of.....

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