Scene4 Magazine: Balanchine at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | May 2012 |

Catherine Conway Honig

Scene4 Magazine-reView

May 2012

Each day before George Balanchine taught his morning class at the School of American Ballet, the dancers would trickle into the windowless studio bundled in layers of warm-up clothes and begin their individual ritual of preparing. Slowly the layers would peel off each body as some of the dancers chatted and others worked in silent isolation. Once Mr B entered the studio silence fell as did all remaining garments except leotard and tights.  

He began simply by nodding to the pianist and pointing his thumb down for the dancers. This signaled the beginning exercise, omnipresent throughout the world, of grands pli√©s or deep knee bends. As much as Balanchine loved and was devoted to music he did not welcome much of it in class. He wanted only the barest chords. So, if the pianist accompanied the pli√©s with too many notes, Mr B would stop the music and request something simpler.  

As class progressed, and both the steps and tempos grew increasingly treacherous, the music needed to remain restrained. Mr B wanted to hear the dancers' feet against the floor. This told him nearly as much about their mastery of the steps as watching them. The rhythm of their jumps, the weight of their landings and the silence when they were suspended in the air was the music he needed to hear.  


San Francisco Ballet's recent all-Balanchine program featured two masterpieces that provided the audience with the opportunity to appreciate the subtlety of these sounds. Divertimento No. 15, set to music of the same name by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is most captivating because of its intricately woven texture. It begins with a high-energy allegro featuring mostly principals and soloists though on opening night it featured the appearance of Sasha deSola who had been selected from the corps de ballet for this high honor. Among the five women and three men, Dana Genshaft shined brightest because of her quick feet, elegant upper body and joyous musicality. All of the female dancers betrayed a little too much tension in their necks, however, and Frances Chung has developed the unfortunate habit of jutting her chin forward in an exaggerated épaulement. What should be a slight inclination toward one shoulder has become a distracting tick that overemphasizes her square jaw.


The piece proceeds with a male duet (danced by Taras Domitro and Hansuke Yamamoto) that contrasted well the light-footed allegro with bigger, broader leaps and jumps. For these athletic, though never gymnastic, feats Mr B allowed the sound of a solid landing. Of all the male dancers currently on the roster at San Francisco Ballet, the Russian Gennadi Nedvigin, who danced the solo Fifth Variation, never fails to astonish with his thrilling landings. His landing leg fully bears the weight of his beautifully uplifted torso; his deep landings enable him to spring to surprising elevations, especially given the tempo. His command of the music allows him to suspend in the air, stealing a moment from the next phrase, and then gracefully returning to the beat. The tempos may vary but his execution is consistently satisfying. His body is always poised, as Mr B loved to say—"like a cat ready to pounce."  


The Finale brings the entire cast onto the stage for a high-spirited display of visual music. Sitting near the orchestra I was both bathed in music from the orchestra (conducted by Martin West) and could appreciate the tender sounds of the dancers' feet lightly touching the floor in unison. The choreography features repetitions of the simple √©chapp√© saut√©—a jump from tight fifth position with feet and legs tightly crossed, splitting the legs open in the air and suspending there before returning back to fifth position. Mr B insisted on precise spacing for the suspended second position and the San Francisco dancers have clearly rehearsed this in an endless quest for perfection. "No noise," Balanchine would command. "Like bird landing on eggs. Catch yourself and descend."    


The second revival of note was The Four Temperaments, one of Balanchine's best known and loved works. Imagine the 1946 world premiere of this classic taking place in a high school auditorium, Central High School of the Needles Trade, in New York. The humble origins of this work are a dingy school theatre where the only concession to a proscenium was a slightly raised surface for a stage behind a tattered curtain. The fifty-piece orchestra (not bad for what "Time" Magazine would soon call "underground ballet") had to crowd into the space between the audience, seated in hard folding chairs, and the stage. The conductor had no choice but to stand on an improvised platform and block the view of some members of the audience to carry out his important work of marrying the music and dance.  


Balanchine's homage to the four temperaments that govern the body, mind and spirit (Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric) was originally costumed in elaborate and distracting variations on the tutu. He tossed the costumes out after the first few presentations and began the revolutionary trend of performing in practice clothes on a bare stage with a simple, in this case bright sapphire blue, background. Set to music commissioned by Balanchine from Paul Hindemith, this piece was a departure in more ways than the costumes.

The choreography features the jutting hips, flexed wrists and ankles, and ample use of parallel feet rather than turned out. These movements were new to the ballet vocabulary at the time but Balanchine would continue to use them for decades going forward. Though Balanchine broke from the tradition of telling stories in his ballets, this is not the same as presenting work that is content-free. Each of four sections brings a state of being to life.  

Taras Domitro embodied Melancholic (perfect temperament for an exiled Cuban to interpret!) with an ensemble of six women, again featuring Sasha deSola. In a touching testament to one of Balanchine's other animal references, Domitro has a liquid spine, seemingly boneless, as Balanchine would say, "flexible and strong like trunk of elephant." His final exit from the stage in a deep back bend is one of the deepest I have ever seen by a man.

Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets danced the lead with four women in Choleric. Van Patten looks at home in Balanchine because of her naturally cool and expressionless face. The frivolous music inspired childlike playfulness with a staccato urgency. Tiit Helimets' long lines and solid partnering seemed to inspire Van Patten's off-balance risks.

The relative newcomer to San Francisco's principal ranks, Vito Mazzeo, also portrayed Phlegmatic with fluidity and flexibility rarely seen. His long, off-center extensions seemed as simple for him as walking. He transformed himself from one contortion to the next always maintaining the rhythm while building a sense of high tension. His downstage facing one-leg balance was a spectacular example of concentration and focus.  

Closing the piece as Choleric was Sofiane Sylve in fiery red hair. A master of the silent √©chapp√© saut√©, she appears to have gained strength during her years with San Francisco Ballet. Consistently energized and engaging without overplaying her seductive qualities, she gave a precise and honest performance.  


San Francisco Ballet will close its 2012 season with Don Quixote, choreography by Alexander Gorsky and Mauris Petipa, with additional movement and staging by Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov. Broadway designer Martin Pakledinaz has been brought in to design new sets and costumes which will make their first appearance on April 27. Don Quixote runs through May 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.   

Photos - © Erik Tomasson


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©2012 Catherine Conway Honig
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Writer for Scene4.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives



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