A Warm Giselle

30 Mar

Though familiar with the plot and the challenges for the principals and the Willis, outside of good dancing and a decent performance, I didn’t know what to expect. What fast impressed me was unexpected warmth and the dancers’ pleasure, reminding me of the zest and energy from the Christensens.

With two of its taller principal dancers, San Francisco Ballet opened its eight performance program with the 19th century Romantic ballet Giselle. Sasha de Sola and Aaron Robison were the respective Giselle and Loys/Albrecht.Veteran Anita Paciotti was the intuitive mother Berthe, Katisha Fogo as a fleet incisive Will Queen Myrtha and Nathaniel Remez was the hapless Hilario. The statement was made somewhere that the dancers were new to their roles. All have benefitted by Artistic Director Tamar Rojo’s coaching in what has been her first opportunity here in San Francisco to guide a ballet familiar to her. She was ably supported by Michael Melbaye’s handsome settings, designs and lighting commissioned originally by Helgi Tomasson. Rojo and the company did themselves proud.

Sasha de Sola was a fleet adolescent, girlish, transparently glad over her good luck with such a suitor. In a tole allowing him to show off his elevation in a grand jete, Robison tugged his peasant tunic with a dandified air, directing his squire with a simple decisive gesture “Just be quiet and Go!”

De Sola’s heart palpitations were clear and lingered long enough to be convincing, her technical skills a foregone conclusion. Simplicity rose to marked degree in the mad scene, blonde hair streaming to her shoulders, her face a mask, almost Grecian in quality, eyes, two burning black holes, as she faced the villagers and audience.

The encounter between Giselle’s spirit and the penitent Albrecht provided handsome partnering and Myrtha’s determination. Remez’ Hilario seemed to know he was doomed from the minute appeared pushed by the Willis’ hunting fury, projecting more elegiac resignation than pleading.

I will comment on two other casts separately. Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy the Wona Parkl-Wei Wang partnership.

Katisha Fogo’s Myrtha combined the willowy and delicate with the forceful and commanding, covering her forest glen with a sureness also present in commanding the disappointed spirits in their nightly ritual. The two dozen dancers in their filmy white romantic length tutus hopped across the opera house state with an impressive, steady purpose. In their nightly ritual, managing to evoke the other worldly.


San Francisco Ballet’s #90 Gala

25 Jan

Thursday, January 19, marked San Francisco Ballet’s 90th season with an opening Gala. A paired down version instead of pre-performance dinner with a raucous dance following. Thanks to Program 1 opening the dancers muscles needed protection.

I went with Carolyn Carvajal, a canny stylist and nearly 3 decade of San Francisco opera’s corps de ballet. Sitting with a seasoned dancer is an education and usually reinforces my perceptions.

SFB has never been shy about using visuals before performances and the Gala was given both with Helgi Tomasson’s view of the company and its road ahead.

The Gala danced gave us snippets of the ten item numbers to come, plus two elegant pas de deux with a third featuring Katisha Fogo and Isaac Hernandez from William Forsythe’s Blake Works 1. The opening featured Robert Garland’s Haffner Symphony with Estaban Hernandez with Julia Rowe taking over for an injured Elizabeth Barkman. It briefly provided us with Estaban’s agility and Rowe’s spiky correctness.

Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene came next with Doris Andre and Isaac Hernandez. Andre has never been cast in this role; with Hernandez, she conveyed a Latin aura to that fated illicit encounter. Warm liquid with feeling, distinct in pauses and emphasize, it reminded one that the romance occurred south of the Alps and/or Pyrenees.

Giselle’s Act II Pas de Deux danced by Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco were coached by Tamara Rojo. It seemed like I was inspecting a Romantic Era lithograph minus the exaggerated pointe shoes given the ballerina. Carolyn exclaimed on the print quality of their interpretation and Greco’s superb technique.

Danielle Rowe’s madCap whipped the audience into rowdy applause, giving tiit helimets a marvelous role, outside the usual danseur noble assignments, portending the triumph he enjoyed the evening following.

Yuri Possokhov and Val Caniparoli provided pas de deux for Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison and Wan Ting Zhao and Luke Ingham stretched feminine virtuosity to maximum capacity and partnering dexterity.

After the provocative Blake Works I came Cinderella’s meeting the prince in Prokofiev’s score for the ballroom, Sasha de Sola, being discovered by princely Joseph Walsh as conceived by Christopher Wheeldon.

Max Cauthorn, Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham provided a glimpse of Gateway to the Sun, Nicholas Blanc’s first for the company he graced before becoming a ballet master and winning a USA IBC choreographic award.

What’s to say about that all too familiar Bolero? Commissioned by Ida Rubinstein and choreographed by Nijinska, the pounding phrases have challenged several dance makers who focused on a solitary dancer with panting observers below. Here, however, Yuka Oishi introduced partners in the successive phrases before a scrim with cloud formations constantly morphing into new shapes. Though one knows the music ending, those partners provided diversion.

Snippets, bows, applause, and flowers distributed the executive director Danielle Saint-Germain provided a rousing introduction to the lady with a one way ticket to London. Tamara Rojo appearing in a light lemon gown provided comments jotted on a small packet to which she referred to occasionally. Diminutive with English possessing an appealing accent, Rojo clearly knows what lies ahead. Those of us who love our local dancers and company from wherever they come, are ready to follow her vision avidly.

San Francisco Ballet’s Two Night Summer Stand

8 Aug

For the second year San Francisco Ballet brought a large crowd to Frost Amphitheatre on the Stanford University campus. In 2021 it was a one night stand, but 2022 registered August 5 and 6 for a program featuring the diverse choreographic talents of Helgi Tomasson, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe, plus San Francisco’s talents minus three principals and one soloist who have moved on to other endeavors and territories. Principal Benjamin Freemantle and Madison Keesler have chosen to try freelancing and Ulrich Birkjjaer apparently has returned to Denmark.

Frost Auditorium enjoys some great facilities, including an impressive staff, gentle sloping auditorium for the seated and those on the grass electing to serve as the upper reaches of a European opera house. There are snack facilities and the toilets enjoy automatic flushes and water streams for hand washing.

For the two evenings, SFB elected to dance Tomasson’s Seven for Eight to Johann Sebastian Bach; Jerome Robbins’ In The Night to Frederick Chopin and William Forsythe’s Blake Works I to the recorded music and voice of James Blake. The audience witnessed sheer classicism, a slightly dramatic/romantic classic by Robbins to a much beloved composer’s piano music, and the unusual music choice of a British popular composer by Forsythe which the ensemble devoured like a collective favorite desert.

I wish I could comment on the dancers’ impact, but the seating and missing distance glasses left me with the images of distant moving bodies; fortunately the works I had seen before. In Prism the men’s techniques were spot on; I felt understandable because Helgi himself was such a noted technician. Max Cauthorn was notable; there was one moment in a solo where his landing was a soft masterpiece.

When Jerome Robbins utilized Chopin for In The Night , as elsewhere, he somehow conveys emotion spot on. In this instance, he conveyed three aspects of male-female relationship – budding, rock solid if somehow needing revival, and storm-filled.

It is the second time I have seen Sasha Mahamedev and Tiit Helimet convey the middle couple, and, like one time interpeters Muriel Maffre and Pierre Francois Vilanoba, they brought to it a European sensibility, the comme il faut, so necessary in a multi-year union, even if subtly frayed, but definitely There! It would take a very special American couple to present these elusive dimensions.

Elizabeth Powell and Joseph Walsh were the young couple, clearly entranced with each other, but also frightened at the individual pull and prospect before realizing such tides are inevitable.

My disappointment came in the Tan-Ingham tempestuous third. Tan, elegant and technically flawless as usual, just doesn’t convey storm clouds and Ingham needs a Van Patten for such weather.

William Forsythe’s choice of Blake Works I which completed the trilogy on the program sent me to Wikipedia to learn just who this falsetto-toned singer/composer is, and by God, he’s English! Surprise indeed to this ancient observer[clue: I won’t see 85 again]. But what a treat for the company’s dancers! I could easily watch it several more times to begin to understand it, and preferably much closer up, though even at a distance, it’s a celebration of youth with a fair amount of cheek. With Sasha de Solo helping to commence and finish the work, it fit the venue and a lovely evening.

Garafola, Lynn, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern

30 Jul

New York, Oxford University Press, 2022, illus. $30.95

What prodigious evidence of a decade of copious research! So clearly evidenced in the pages of notes for this warm, this comprehensive fifteen-chapter biography chronicles an utterly remarkable woman, whose achievements also were tardily chronicled in an exhibit organized by the late Nancy Van Norman Baer of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museum. Nijinska also was previously memorialized by her daughter, Irina. Lynn Garafola’s marathon, however, leaves no doubt regarding talents, trials [many, many, many] and triumphs in a pioneering role as a woman choreographer in the world of Twentieth century classical ballet..

There is so much provided us besides Bronislava Nijinska’s life, thanks to Garafola’s decades of research, supported with twenty plus pages of notes. While this historical record is quite tardy, we now enjoy an objective account of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe during the ‘Twenties, his facile maneuvers, to which are added negotiations in the early de Basil era. Even more important is the account of the Ida Rubenstein Ballet with the revelation that two of Ravel’s more familiar compositions, Bolero and La Valse, were Rubenstein’s commissioning. To this is added Nijinska’s accomplishments at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. What her presence fostered in the creation of ballet schooling, performance and awareness, has made Argentina a “must” for any major dance organization desiring to tour Latin America. Nijinska’s first and subsequent contracts fostered the development for the training of major ballet figures, Julio Bocca springing to mind..

Fascinating to me, perhaps because Romola Nijinsky’s biography was so focused on her view of her husband with the clear aim in making money to sustain her and her husband, is that Bronislava was the dancer on whom Vaslav created the Nymph in L’Apres Midi D’un Faun and the Chosen Maiden in The Rite of Spring. The latter role was not to be hers because of pregnancy. Also surprising to me was Nijinska’s continuing to dance into her ‘forties, creating for herself some of the most memorable roles in Les Biches and Le Train Bleu., Because so little has been written, let alone published in English, we know little about Rubenstein’s company for which Nijinska choreographed the first versions of Ravel’s evocative La Valse and the compelling monotany of Bolero, the latter work in which she herself danced.

Such an observation is not to minimize the value of Nijinska’s brief sojourn in Kiev with its influence on how her thinking, organizing and creativity began solidifying her modus vivendi.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, familial loyalty and devotion so outweighed her sojourn in Kiev,, adherents and creativity that, based on Romola’s persuasive painting of Western Europe prospects, Nijinska gave up this stimulating, if threadbare, creative enterprise in favor or Western Europe .

Because of her choreographic reputation, I was ignorant of the length of Nijinska’s own dancing career and the accounts of her own brilliant technique. She not only danced in the early Diaghilev Ballets Russes, her brother’s brief ensemble in England and during her brief sojourn in Kiev, but also was part of the 1921 London production of Sleeping Beauty which Diaghilev staged. She danced at the Teatro Colon during her first engagement there, with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes when she choreographed Les Biches and Le Train Bleu but not Les Noches. From Oakland Ballet’s revivals of all three works, San Francisco Bay Area balletomanes were gifted with an understanding of just how good Nijinska’s choreography was.

The New Orleans International Ballet Conference [NOIBC] provided the venue for the 2000 Ballets Russes Reunion, providing the spark for the Geller/Goldfine Ballets Russes documentary with Nijinska one of the choroeographers selected to showcase in Reunion’s gala performance.. Probably in the unused footage are the moments when Muriel Maffre, Yuri Possokhov and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba danced the noted pas de trois from Les Biches. Maffre personified the “sarcasm” Nijinska mentioned in a brief 1965 encounter, years before the actual reunion.

Nijinska as a very young dancer enjoyed a whiff of intoxicating romance with Fodor Chaliapin, Russia’s great bass tenor. It scarcely developed beyond a kiss or two, thwarted by events and family. But, in keeping with her life-long belief in ultimates, art, romance, etc., Nijinska’s image of him endured throughout her active life, a first marriage to a dancer which produced two children. This ultimate vision sustained her, even when pregnancy deprived her of creating the role of the fated maiden in Sacre Du Printemps which brother Vaslav has created on her as he had the role of the major nymph in L’Apres Midi d’un Faun. The philandering of her husband led Nijinska to divorce him, foisting on her the responsibilities of providing for the two infants and her mother Elonara, whose care of the children provided their formative influence and nurturing. These pages surely resonate strongly with current single working mothers.

Nijinska’s pre-World War II contracts, in Argentina, in Hollywood, in Europe, required traveling by sea. The leisure provided her with periods of recuperation from intense labor both mounting and rehearsing her own and other works – two creations a year is no small feat at any time. Her fiscal needs, changes in living locations, purchases of property all testify to Nijinska’s needs and demands on herself as well as her responsivenss to sympathetic individuals and artists.

We are very lucky to have this biography; all praise is due to Lynn Garafola’s assiduous research, patience and empathic assessment of Bronislava Nijinska.

Three SFB Student Performances

21 Jul

May 25, 26 ,27 were the dates San Francisco Ballet School engaged the Yerba Buena Theatre [there’s a legal arrangement to call it Health Net of California, another of on-going titles for sizable donations to YBCA] to show case every one from its tiny tots to remarkable trainees before families, supporters and ballet lovers. I made it to all three evenings and was suitably enthralled and proud. Not only were the students diligent in their formations, port de bras and corps, but they enjoyed what they were doing, the choreography providing opportunity to display their response to the training.

Included in the program were the dozen trainees San Francisco Ballet School supports in its 6 million dollar annual budget, including the seventeen member faculty, fifteen listed support staff with a half dozen production personnel. From the looks of those appearing, any professional company would be advised to consider signing them to a contract, with the possibility of demi or soloist status.

Karen Gabay’s ingenuity has been called upon again to provide the music and choreography for the student demonstration, from Level 2 tiny tots to the trainee-ready Level 8. Once again, she has proven a wonder with her musical arrangements, fitting music to the complexity of the students’ demonstration of skill. Carlos Carvajal kept murmuring “oh, yes” on Friday to the strains of Emile Waldteufel, Jules Massenet and Johann Strauss.

Gabay introduced fans for the upper division girls, a tool not regularly utilized in training young pointe shoe users, but useful not only in warhorses like Don Quixote, but flirting adroitly with the audience. Several of the upper division girls displayed definite flair in their usage, quite a treat to see perhaps a dozen such hand-held props whipped full out for specific musical phrases.

This year the programs were printed with the student names, choreographic credits and musical choices, but not the three-nights of casting. Ballet Mistress Tina Le Blanc indicated the black square on the two-folded sheet as the means of accessing the casting. I was touched she not only recognized and guided me, but shared my enthusiasm for the prospect of seeing Nicolas Blanc’s choreography in the 2022-2023 program. They had danced together in a memorable pas de deux Le Blanc’s final year with SFB. Le Blanc taught at the school before the administration transferred her to ballet mistress status when Betsey Erickson retired; she also caught me up on the doings of her two sons, 24 and 19.

In addition to Gabay, other school faculty members were choreographically represented in the three programs: Dana Genshaft; Jason Ambrose; Viktor Plotnikov. Student essayists included: Angela Watson; Sophia Hatton and Chase Rogers; Pemberly Ann Olson and Davide Occhipinti, San Francisco Ballet corps member doubling as co-composer with Rob Shaw as well as choreographer. The musical range similarly diverse – from Mahler to Ravel and lesser known musicians Christopher Willis; Kamran Adib; Beethoven; and a largely spoken piece by the Rachels for faculty member Jason Ambrose, reflecting group activity, cohesion and affirmation.

Viktor Plotnikov was easily the most experienced of the faculty, setting his contribution to Gustav Mahler’s Adagietto, made familiar to ballet audiences by Gerald Arpino’s elegaic tribute to his former musical collaborator James Howell.
Where Arpino’s movement swooped, the woman being lifted and the men circling in a semi- run, Plotnikov broke phrases into angular movements where a woman would sit, the movements becoming smaller with phrases. It was a startling contrast to one’s visual memory, accustomed to runs, lifts, and aerial swoops.

For me, the acid test for the students was reflected in Tomasson’s use of the Haffner Symphony and Larissa Ponomorenko’s staging of Agrippina Vaganova’s Aceton Pas de Deux with Jihyun Choi and Joao Percilio da Silva. Choi, almost excessively slender, danced with verve and directness while da Silva excited everyone with his clear line, straight forward deportment and an ample, spot on execution, making me feel I had been privileged to see displayed new intelligence. [The program credited the pas de deux to Marius Petipa , but I have seen it enough times to know it as Vaganova’s work, her sole choreographic contribution to the classical repertoire.]

The pair danced the pas de deux two evenings, and essayed the leads in Haffner Symphony the performance between. Choi joins the apprentice ranks for the 2022-2023 season while da Silva along with Andris Kundzins have been engaged as members of the corps de ballet.

This tardy commentary should not be construed as lack of enthusiasm. The three evenings left me most satisfied, providing strong elation seeing a number of dancers at the threshold of distinctive careers.

Lines Ballet’s Turbulent Deep River

22 May

Yerba Buena Theatre provided the site of Lines’ Ballet’s Spring Season and, like other performing arts groups, the first theater venue since Covid closed theatre attendance in March 2020, May13-22. I saw the work May 18.

Under the title Deep River with singer Lisa Fisher seen prominently, mostly on down stage right, the thirteen Lines dancers put themselves through extra-demanding Alonso King choreography. It seemed as if Covid and the needless and questionable deaths of too many Blacks provided more than passing choreographed turmoil executed by dancers in minimal costume designed by Robert Rosenwasser, [both creative director and the company’s executive director], though the men mostly wore chiffon-like knee-length skirts.

Invariably there is a hushed moment when the curtain rises on a Lines production; here we saw almost a smoky, if murky, stage with rows of round lights overhead as if ranged like cookies on a baking sheet. Throughout the performance, save for a brief central passage, Lisa Fisher could be seen, mike in hand, on downstage right, her left side almost enveloped in layers of black fabric, some gathered, some pleated, while her right shoulder was exposed a black string holding an equally black bodice. There must have been some allusions to the layers behind the title and the choreography, referring to the layers of struggles depicted on stage.

King has long been noted for his usual application of pointe shoe usage – stabbing the floor, trembling forward on full pointe, deep squats with the feet using the shoe in the same manner, and off center rotations with the supporting leg and the extended leg creating a memorable arc in space, quite unlike a fouette if perhaps using the same propulsive dynamics. These methods were entirely present, executed not only to Fisher’s memorable voice, but to music attributed to Pharoah Sanders, Maurice Ravel, James Weldon Johnson and the concluding spiritual “Deep River.”

Devoid of the usual printed program with profiles of the company members, consulting Lines website proved difficult to identifying the artist involved in various passages.

Prior to the work’s conclusion with a memorable pas de deux, the dancers led the audience through almost unbelievable angst, whether wriggling or writhing on the floor, lurching or struggling across solo, in twos or small ensembles. I felt as if our two years of struggle with Covid had unearthed in King’s artistic vision references to the post-1619 history of African Americans, unrelieved effort, emotional despair, the necessity to persist without knowing why or how, but somehow surviving. If so, Deep River was a powerful visualization in which King left no muscle or gesture unexplored in his vision.

Most of the orchestra audience gave the work a standing ovation.

Four Generations in Theatre Arts

17 May

Some of the lasting traditions and legends in ballet derive their source in families. The Taglionis, The Petipas and to a lesser extent, the Bournonvilles, are notable, though I am unsure whether a fourth generation has been identified. Theatre history also records generations of performers.

Here in San Francisco, however, we have an example of such longevity; I am lucky not only to know about such, but to enjoy a lengthy acquaintantship with same.

Sometime following his decade of performing in Europe [Gramd Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, Bremen Opera, Bordeaux Opera] Carlos Carvajal and I struck up a friendship and intermittent written exchange of opinions. Returning to San Francisco Ballet by 1965, Carlos became ballet master and resident choreographer, sharing the practice of the cello with Lew Christensen. He created Tottentanz for San Francisco Ballet with Robert Gladstein as the death figure. That production later saw several performances at Grace Cathedral, Anton Ness and Dudley Brooks reprising the towering role in the production which grew out of Carlos’ years in Europe, forming his Master’s thesis at California State University, San Francisco.

Carlos, half Filipino and half Swedish, derives his theatrical gene through a grandfather who is mentioned in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tagere, a man with his wife specializing in the Filipino version of zarzuelas, the Spanish operetta form. Carloshad an aunt who he never met active in early Filipino movies.

But his gene was reinforced by his father who came to the United States and began earning his living by staging magic shows, in addition to stage related crafts. His father also was a painter, who depicted anti-Church themes in his canvases.

Prior to World War II< Carlos enjoyed the presence of the San Francisco Youth Symphony before becoming involved with the Chang International Folk Dance Group, also providing leadership for a time. A suggestion that he take ballet lessons led to San Francisco Ballet and entry into Guild membership via the San Francisco Opera, a time he recounts with relish, particularly the touring opportunities it provided.

Because the ‘Forties and early ‘Fifties provided few US performing dance opportunities, Carlos sailed to Europe for what became a decade of exile, dancing and touring with the aforementioned artistic organizations. His return to San Francisco Ballet lasted until his ballets aroused the ire of the ballet board for the audience they attracted. A cadre of dancers followed Carlos living communally in what now must be high rise office and residential buildings south of Market Street in the City’s financial district. Moving to the Mission and 22nd Street, Dance Spectrum enjoyed a studio, workshop performances and seasons at the Palace of Fine Arts for at least a decade. Among the memorable productions was Wintermas, performed at the old Commerce High School Auditorium [still underused and lacking earthquake reinforcement] with newly wed Carolyn Houser Carvajal in a central role, soon to give birth of Calliope and later to Celina, now known in performing arts circle as Lena Hall. Wintermas also was adorned with one of Ruth Asawa’s wire sculptures.

The children were part of Dance Spectrum life until the ensemble ceased, Carolyn joined the dance ensemble of San Francisco Opera and seasons with Dance Through Time. Carlos went on to guest with his choreography, provide the artistic leadership of Peninsula Ballet Theatre and a dozen years sharing similar guidance with T.K. Ladzekpo for the Ethnic Dance Festival. Honored with June Watanabe by the Museum of Performance and Design in 2021, Carlos still teaches enjoying his role as pater familias.

Calliope, usually called Calli, enjoyed a sojourn in the Girls Chorus, opting for a GED rather than conventional high school, spending close to a decade practicing belly dancing in local restaurants and at least once in the Ethnic Dance Festival. I remember the auditions at SF State’s auditorium where one woman swooned over Callie’s capacity with “isolations,” a superior ability in the danse du ventre, the name also applied to this dance form.

But when Callie decided to try New York for size, she quickly decided that her route was not with belly dancing but with hair, becoming adept with coiffures, dressing and creating wigs. Until she became the mother of Rosalie, it included far flung travel. When Covid came upon us, Callie had already added a son, Dorian. Covid show business unemployment eventually initiated return to the family home.

Within the week, I received this ecstatic e-mail from Carlos:

“Callie just got accepted to work in the make up,wig dept at the SF Opera House! For next season!! She will be joining the union as a result. What a completion of our lives associated with this institution–a full circle! Carolyn danced there for 29 years and young Calli was there all of the time in this wondrous place.

Indeed, she developed a fine voice and a subsequent career in lyric theater, dance and theater arts. That she should return to her source brings me great joy!

Seventy years ago, at the age of 19, I also signed my first professional contract and was able to join the AGMA union at this very opera house where I have had my adventure as dancer and choreographer! “

With two youngsters in the household, it seems likely the theatrical generations may number five.

The Tomasson Summation April 24

13 May

Assisted by brief video tributes provided of other artistic directors – Kevin MacKenzie, American Ballet Theatre; Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem; Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet; Mikko Nissenen, Boston Ballet, local dancers also commented on their sojourn with Helgi. It commenced with Elizabeth Loscavio, who joined the Hamburg Ballet; Julia Adam, choreographing and providing special summer programs in Marin; Joanna Berman; Katita Waldo, Anita Paciotti, Tina Le Blanc, Patricia McBride who was his partner in New York City Ballet; Mark Morris; Cathryn Marston; Dwight Rhoden; Justin Peck, company assistants like Felipe Diaz, musical director Martin West, Pascal Molat.

Behind a podium on stage right Ashley Wheater and John Neumeier delivered their view of what Helgi has accomplished in his role as artistic director, Wheater likening the position to an oak tree growing gradually to nurture what lies beneath his bows. Near his last sentences, Wheater, now artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet [an organization Tomasson had belonged to before its name change to the Harkness and his joining the New York City Ballet], almost allowed his emotion to surface, perhaps the most touching element in his comments.

The seven-selection program choices included two early favorites, Concerto Grosso being preceded by the lovely pairing of Frances Chung and Wei Wang in the Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers, the Handel music played by Roy Bogas, whose musical contributions to San Francisco Ballet goes back to the company’s State Department-sponsored south American tour. The two brought a warm, lovely felicity to the tribute.

The Corelli-based Concerto Grosso introducing Pascal Molat to his San Francisco audience was next. Here Lucas Erni assumed Molat’s assignment, his aerial capacity and joy in movement marking the contrast and complement to the other four dancers: Lonnie Weeks, Diego Cruz, Minguan Wang and Jean-Paul Simeons. I remember the originals as smaller; these dancers are taller, slender and very conscious of what a gem they were dancing.

Two Bits, the Aaon Jay Kernis guitar music providing the pas de deux which Gennadi Nedvigiin and Vanessa Zahorian danced with a mischievous air ranked number three in the program. Isabella de Vivo and Esteban Hernandez brought their sass, apparent ease and Latin-based spirit that one hopes to see in a future Gala.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets repeated their remarkable reading of the pas de deux from The Fifth Season and the cast of Harmony, to Jean-Pierre Rameau’s music outdid themselves as the final dance of tribute.

Before Harmony, however Sasha de Sola and Joseph Walsh flirted their way through Blue Rose, a 2006 premiere to Elena Katz-Chernin music; it had skipped my memory, but its revived dancing with syncopated accents in costumes reminding me somehow of late ‘Thirties, tickled my nostalgia nerve.

Completing the selections was this year’s premiere Harmony the nine-part essay in virtuosic classicism to the music of Jean-Pierre Rameau, who has been credited with the foundation of the ballet’s title.

If I had not consciously registered it before, the selections reminded me of Helgi Tomasson’s interest in and use of highly diverse music to challenge San Francisco Ballet’s dancers. These selections testified to an acuity of vision and movement, sometimes forgotten. I think Paul Parish put it succinctly when he evaluated Tomasson as a miniaturist. I would add to that evaluation that, like the skill of a Faberge, the results demonstrated here should be classified as exquisite.

City Ballet’s Spring Recital at the Palace

10 May

City Ballet’s Spring Recital at the Palace

Saturday, May 7, City Ballet presented what was probably its first recital since Covid prevented public performances It happened to coincide with City Ballet’s temporary removal from Otis Street while its building was being thoroughly overhauled. The organization took refuge in the ground level of a Fillmore district church, continuing to train young San Franciscans in the Vaganova style pedagogy which has its heart in St. Petersburg in the academy bearing Agrippina’s name, feeding young aspirants into the ranks of the Maryinsky Ballet. It now has returned to Otis Street, and, on May 13, will host a benefit opening [$100/head] in its new Champagne Room, clearly an addition to its studios and class schedules..

One such Vaganova Academy graduate, Nikolai Kabaniaev, is in charge of the men’s division and the results of his training and subsequent teaching was on proud display as I attended the recital with Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo-American Ballet Theatre-Ballet San Jose veteran Roni Mahler. Mahler, moving to San Francisco in early 2020; her practiced eye; hearing her murmur ‘brava’ in a low voice added to awareness of what I was watching.

Kabaniaev came out on stage between Acts I and II to recognize four students headed elsewhere; one young man has been accepted in the Joffrey School trainee program; a young woman has been given a full scholarship at the Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo; another is joining State Ballet, Santa Barbara [I may not have the correct name of the company but accurate location] and the fourth will start college at Syracuse University.

The handsome glossy program featured two young dancers under the title of La Fille Mal Gardee and the labels, Spring Show and CBSF. The printed program sported an insert, however which mostly obliterated the roster and order of the variations. What was retained and commenced Act I was the Santanella pas de deux with Katita Kratz and Kyawzwa Lwin, both long and slim of limb, very correct in execution, promising much when the technical demands are firmly solidified. Their striving was touching and visually pleasant to watch, thought there was a tendency to drop stage posture following the customary bows.

Next came the Act III Black Swan variation essayed by Michelle Lim, working from a pokey recording. Again accuracy was dominant, rather difficult to observe with the tempo obscuring the dazzle in the variation.

Samuel Morris’ take on Siegfried’s variation, Swan Lake, Act III, displayed the ballon inherent in the choreography, and while accurate, he almost nailed the overall effect. I want to see his progress a year from now. The same can be said of Henry Lichtmacher’s rendition of a Coppelia variation.

Variations from Paquita, male and female, followed. Lim, seen at the beginning, danced well. Like most of the young men dancing, his legs looked like efficient pencils delivering an aerial message, quite a tribute to Kobaniev’s training. Kailin Kratz’ Paquita variation elicited the same impression. The second appearance of the two found them more relaxed.

With due respect to the individuals who clearly labor to help produce the program, an observation regarding tutus. While the skirts flare nicely, the placement is so high that the under pants are revealed when the dancer stands still. The flare should begin lower on the hip, so that only an arabesque or a turning attitude reveals the dancer’s crotch. Decades ago, an English balletomane commented on the ability of Russian dressmakers to fashion tutu skirts to the dancer’s advantage, even if the torso design might not meet current standards.

Michelle Lin completed this portion of the program with a Raymonda Variation, its quality and tempo providing her more expression and dynamics.

A charmer, “Chicks”, with music from La Fille Mal Gardee found a painted country set with an array of white egg shells mid stage back, out of which a dozen young fledgling emerged, eliciting an audience murmur. Led by Emma Johnson, the dozen proceeded to do their bit. Roni leaned over to me and said, “The fourth girl from the right shows ballerina material.”

The remainder of Act 2 was truncated with several changes.

Following intermission Act 3 ;provided contemporary choreography by Nikolai Kabaniaev for the eveniing’s inaugural dancers Kratz and Lwin, gaining in expression and confidence.

Morris enjoyed his stint with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Fly Me to The Moon”, the audience agreeing with warm applause.

To Kiri Te Kanawa’s singing Michelle Lin danced “Innamorat.

Henry Lichmacher relished Jacques Brel’s rendition of “Mon Enfance” as did the audience.

To Philip Glass music. Brett Conway’s “Onward” closed the program, with eighteen young adolescents engaged earnestly with shifting patterns, forward movements, testimony to their enjoyment and commitment to dance, and to dance well.

Completing the evening while waiting for our taxi, Roni and I observed the dancers departing, those long limbed young men rather smaller than their stage appearance. The mufti, totes, and footwear of the young dancers departing with family members lent a memorable before and after note to their display of evident talent.

Two More Asian Swans

9 May

Single tickets May 4 and May 5 enabled me to see Wona Park and Misa Kuranaga as Odette-Odile with Wei Wang and Angelo Greco as their respective Siegfrieds, Katita Waldo and Anita Paciotti as Queen Mother, Val Caniparolli and Tiit Helimets as Tutors, and, importantly Nathaniel Remez and Alexander Renoff-Olson as Von Rothbart. Assignments for these two corps members presage a growing set of dramatic dancers in the company,. Based on the deliberation and menace they convey in these assignments, they relish the opportunities.

When it came to the pas de trois , Lucas Erni, Isabella de Vivo and Megan Amanda Erlich were featured May 4; on May 5 Joshua Jack Price and Leili Rackow shared trio duties with Isabella de Vivo, whose ballon and phrasing always are spot on, regardless of the assignment.

Erni and Price share gifts for elevation, correctness and finish of gesture, each adapted to their physical size; Erni is small and compact, Price, not overly tall, quite slender, his looser muscle structure making phrasing and finish notable on the beat.

The aristocrats dance, Siegfried briefly engaging with the women, then the children with the Tutor followed by the peasants; Siegfried necessarily paid attention, but is distracted by the Queen Mother’s demand that he marry. Tomasson has provided a solo to convey Siegfried’s dilemma. Here cultural traditions underscore his responses: Wang’s is elegant, polite, but understated, Greco more emotional as was his engagement throughout the dances to entertain him. Both made it clear, that while enjoying the attention, they are quite uninvolved in the mating game. Asian or European, both grasp the cross bow in relief and anticipation of the hunt.

Then it is Act II where Von Rothbart makes his appearance, impressive in size by both Remez and Renoff-Olson, the former’s menace by controlled tension, the latter by a certain sweep of his winged tunic, both picture book villains. The two Siegfrieds aim their bows, then lower them at the approach of Swan Queens Wona Park and Lisa Kuranaga.

These monarchs are petite, intense, ever so correct, their bird-like accents applied sparingly. They lack nothing in timing, phrasing, providing visual pleasure as they tell Siegfried why they are birds, why Siegfried must not kill any of her flock, their distress in being torn between human possibility and feathered imprisonment convincing. In the solo variation of the three Asian swan queens, Kuranaga visibly moved through passe position in the solo ending in arabesque. Chung and Park moved wide of this nicety, doubtless due to coaching. In the pas de deux, invariably there is the moment when Siegfried has turned away toward stage right in reverie, Odette crosses from mid-stage left, to move under Siegfried’s arm, signaling belief in having found a love, a champion, the possibility of freedom.

The corps. the four small cygnets, the two lead swans all conspired to reinforce the pristine nature of Act II, credited historically to Lev Ivanov. What a tradition and how beautifully realized. The Siegfrieds were suitably enchanted, equally aware of their beloved’s bewitchment.

Act III is, of course, the razzle dazzle of the ballet – the vamp supreme, and Park and Kuranaga did themselves proud, double fouettes et al, despite a slight stumble by Kuranaga and traveling with her fouettes. [Those fouettes are the subject of a TED vignette created by Arleen Sugano regarding their impetus, the movement introduced to Russian ballet by the Italian ballerina Pieria Legnani.] The interplay with Von Rothbart was appropriately knowing, the soaring of Siegfried’s variation indicative of his increasing excitement, desire and triumph in achieving the selection that Mother had demanded. The audience was ready to applaud and roar at every successful feat. Then, the crushing deception revealed with Von Rothbart and Odile laughing and vanishing, leaving Siegfried distraught, rushing to the lake.
The transition is handled by water marked curtains swung forward and back while the palace scenery yields to the lake and the fateful boulder.

I personally find the variations representing potential princesses an anomaly in regal protocol, the variations are lively. [I guess my Anglo-Saxon heritage has fallen into the sanitized camp when it comes to comme il faut behavior] However, the variations capture the spirit of the music skillfully and the dancers interpret the choreography with zest. May 4, Isabella da Vivo and Diego Cruz danced the Neopolitan princess variation with gusto. Daniel Devison Oliveira held up the Russian tradition with his characteristic vigor and sense of what is needed. Gabriela Gonzales, who has been sharing pre-curtain instructions with Devison-Oliveira, danced the Spanish princess May 5 with a warm authority. Act III also enables the viewer to gauge the deportment of the Master of Ceremonies. Two impressing me were Nathaniel Remez and a surprise from amongst the apprentices, Andris Kundzins.

Act IV possesses some of the simplest, yet most beautiful music of the ballet, ditto the movements, measures of sorrow, apology, forgiveness and acceptance before the the necessary fight between Siefried and Von Rothbart and the flight of Odette to her fatal fall from the cliff; Siegfried startled, echoes his vow, running to follow her as Von Rothbart struggles in his death throes before his enchanted flock.

The audience was warm in its responses both evenings, many standing along with the vigorous applause. Of particular charm was Wona Park’s acknowledgment of Wei Wang’s partnership, her head resting on Wang’s shoulder following her initial bow, the best possible compliment.

May 5 I shared the two aisle seats with Jamie Wright, one of the stalwarts in the Lines Ballet administration, as well as being a member of the Isadora Duncan Dance Award Committee. It was an opportunity to share memories of former Swan Lake casts and lasting impressions, May 5 being one to join that bank of balletic pleasure. Tomasson has given San Francisco’s ballet public a final singular pleasure.