Theater archives

The Treats of the San Francisco Ballet


You can read about the up-and-down history of America’s oldest ballet company in Janice Ross’s excellent San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five (Chronicle Books). Many of the company’s early achievements were notable (in 1940, Willam Christensen staged the first full-length Swan Lake in the U.S. for it). But only since Helgi Tomasson took over as artistic director, in 1985, has the SFB become a major establishment, with a roster of 77 classy dancers, a rich repertory, and a busy performing life.

Because Tomasson was for years a notable principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, he knows (and evidently loves) George Balanchine’s works and sees to it that they’re staged and performed with devotion. The company’s rendition of Divertimento No. 15 (1956), on the second of the company’s three City Center programs, certainly attests to that.

In the 1950s, NYCB was a relatively small company and short on men. How Balanchine deploys five female soloists, three male ones, and a corps of eight women to the sparkling Mozart music is close to miraculous. Seldom have strictly classical steps looked as surprising or symmetry so kaleidoscopic. In this little court with gracious 18th-century manners and remarkably busy feet, two men introduce a robust theme, and six variegated solos twist and refract it with prismatic brilliance. The first part of the final Andante flows on without a break as one long pas de deux with the men doing double duty. Once the whole cast is onstage, it’s as if the women have a pact (“You go dance with him. I don’t mind”), and performing with ease and skill is this society’s most delightful challenge. The SFB cast I saw makes the point crystal-clear, with especially brilliant allegro dancing by the soubrettish Elana Altman (also entrancing in a duet with the excellent Davit Karapetyan).

Christopher Wheeldon’s lovely Within the Golden Hour—set to a series of surging pieces by Ezio Bosso, with a Vivaldi adagio folded almost seamlessly in—focuses on couples: three principal ones and four others. All wear unitards by Martin Pakledinaz in muted colors, with jeweled trim and headdresses for the women. Wheeldon uses the floor as much as any modern-dance choreographer: Dancers crouch, kneel, and lie down—often as part of a movement phrase; the spectator’s eyes get an up-down workout. For each section, three mottled overhead panels (also by Pakledinaz) are arranged in a new way, with not all of them visible all the time. Wheeldon, as usual, introduces quirky ideas and repeats them so often that they acquire respectable status. For instance, men hurry along, carrying their partners horizontally overhead; suddenly, the women snap their bent knees straight and fling out their arms. In a perky duet (charmingly performed in one cast by Lily Roger and Brett Bauer), the two introduce ballroom holds; clunky, flex-footed lifts; and a step that suggests jumping rope. Such oddities can be engaging. At other times, they create discomfiting little jolts in Wheeldon’s beautifully designed patterns. I wonder why, for instance, Tina LeBlanc, turned by her partner, suddenly grabs one leg and points it at the ceiling. You think: “Is she trying to get her leg out of his way, or does Wheeldon have her do this just because she can?”

He excels at rapturous duets. Dana Genshaft is amazingly tenuous and flexible—winding around Mateo Klemmayer like a deceptively frail vine that’s not quite sure of its destination. In a third duet, the marvelous LeBlanc is more decidedly extravagant—an ardent but gentle diva, who challenges her bold, admiring partner, Joan Boada.

Yuri Possokhov was a leading dancer with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and later with SFB, where he showed his first choreography over 10 years ago. He’s very skillful, but the basic premise of his Fusion and its possible deeper meaning are hard to grasp. Four men, garbed by designer Sandra Woodall in fancy versions of dervish attire, are kneeling onstage when the curtain opens, ritualistically jerking and arching their torsos beneath Benjamin Pierce’s array of hanging white panels (luminous in James F. Ingalls’s fine lighting). Throughout the ballet, flying in and out with their full, white coats swirling around them, these four often behave like go-betweens, or mentors to the four more plainly dressed men and four women who enter through the black curtain at the rear. Most compelling is the passage in which they form a chain close to a side curtain, and the wonderful Sarah Van Patten breaks through it, only to be repeatedly tossed or rolled back onstage by barely visible hands, so she can dance with Ruben Martin. In the end, it’s the second group of men who’re kneeling and jerking their rib cages around. An initiation rite? A cross-cultural fantasy? Go figure.

The company last performed in New York in 2006. I’d gladly welcome it back in 2010.