By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
When Willam Christensen took over the five-year-old San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1938, he thought big, staging the first complete American Swan Lake two years later. Perhaps he envisaged the world-class company that plays City Center through October 13. The San Francisco Ballet honors the heritage of classicism that the three Christensen brothers brought to it, along with the Balanchinian ideals understood both by Lew Christensen, who had been Balanchines first American Apollo, and Helgi Tomasson (another great Balanchine dancer), SFB's artistic director since 1985. The current repertory mingles 19th-century classics with works by Balanchine, Robbins, Christensen, and Tomasson; commissions by hotand very, very goodchoreographers such as Mark Morris and Christopher Wheeldon; and prudently chosen acquisitions. Tomasson also sponsors in-house talent.
He has turned the company into a jewel box of talent. The dancers are lucid, spacious; they neither tighten up when called on to be quick nor push their steps at you like overeager hosts with a surplus of hors d'oeuvres. Theyre ardent yet somehow modest. Their port de bras can practically bring tears to your eyes. Watch Damian Smith, fluent and serenely focused as the Tortoise in Tomassons gilt chinoiserie bauble Chi Lin. Watch Parrish Maynard (fondly recalled from his American Ballet Theatre days) glinting like a knife in the intricacies of William Forsythes The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, or Gonzalo Garcia, a sunny young lion in the Morris and Wheeldon ballets, or Yuan Yuan Tan, fragile-looking with a tensiIe strength powering her extravagant extensions. I could name many more. Kristin Long, dancing with Yuri Possokhov in Tomassons lovely Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers, is a marvel of clarity. Instead of making one of those twining, clambering pas de deux in which the woman is seldom on her own feet, Tomasson keeps the dancers tenderly conversing in sympathy with Handels limpid questions and answers.
Morriss Sandpaper Ballet and The Garden are governed, as expected, by his always refreshing take on music. The first, to Leroy Anderson tunes we could all sing in our sleep ("Jazz Pizzicato," "The Syncopated Clock," et al.), rings changes on drill teams, but also on the ensembles of 19th-century ballet. Except that whenever the company, all clad in Isaac Mizrahis part green, part white unitards with green gloves and shoes, musters itself into four lines running from the footlights to the back of the stage, there's always someone out of place or craving another spot or arriving late (not the only Balanchine joke in the piece: Midway through it, tall, elegant Muriel Maffre is partnered by one, then two, then three men, who wittily weave and duck around her while she balances on one toe; she leaves and they play it again with an air ballerina). Morris seems perfectly at home with pointe shoes and brisés, and I love the way this bright work gives many dancers a chance to shine in a flood of ingenious little episodes. To Morris a "light work" doesnt mean a simple-minded one; he lavishes on Sandpaper all the rich, deep strategies at his command.
The Garden takes its tone from Richard Strausss Tanzsuite for Orchestra, after keyboard pieces by François Couperin. In this garden of delights, the dancers are the statuary, the arbors, the vines; occasionally they are also, despite the womens plain short black dresses and the mens black tights and rust polo shirts, baroque courtiersplacing their hands just so on the air in front of them, flourishing a wrist, copying one anothers steps and manners. Amid the dance-party formationsa circle of four, tricky contradance lines for eight on the other side of the stageKester Cotton and Guennadi Nedviguine spring by in a bounding, contrapuntal dialogue and Sherri LeBlanc and Smith indulge in a long love dance.
Continuum is Wheeldons second ballet to the music of Gyorgi Ligeti; he explores with dazzling ease Ligetis musical thickets and long, dark silences. Like his marvelous Polyphonia for the New York City Ballet, Continuum features four couples (Julie Diana and David Arce, Long and Garcia, Tan and Smith, Maffre and Benjamin Pierce); yet their duets emerge from a variegated array of experiences. While a dark curtain at the back rises, descends part way, or falls, the green-clad couples bathed in Natasha Katzs fascinating lighting parse the intricacies of the music and Wheeldons tersely elegant, slightly screwy phrases as if they were a group of like-minded friends and lovers.
Yuri Possokhovs second group work for the company, Damned, cries out for a dramaturge. For one thing, opening this version of Medea with Ravels Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte means he had to begin sweet, so we see Jason (Nedviguine) frothing ecstatically around with his princess (Nicole Starbuck) before we even meet Medea (superbly crazed Lorena Feijoo) or see what Jason is to her. The chorus is promisingly clad in white skirts, bare (or faux-bare) tops, white half-masks, and pale yarn wigs, but they mostly do ballet steps that distinguish them by gender, creating an extremely curious effect. Chi-Lin, gorgeously decorated with lighting and projections by Clifton Taylor and set to music by Bright Sheng, isnt Tomassons finest work, but exhibits its dancers (I saw Tan, Smith, Maynard, and Sergio Torrado) in attractive solos with semi-Chinese touches. Clad in gold by Sandra Woodall, they represent mythological characters of good omen: unicorn, tortoise, phoenix, and dragon. And perhaps ensure a deservedly fine future for SFB.