Archive | February, 2013

Ballet San Jose’s Don Quixote

26 Feb

Ballet San Jose seems to have acquired the habit of importing major male dancers for its full length productions, principally to partner Alexsandra Meijer as well as jack up the box office receipts.  It occurred when Tiit Helimets was given S.F. Ballet’s permission to dance Albrecht to Meijer’s Giselle and when Sasha Radetsky assumed the Ben Stevenson take on Cinderella’s Prince in San Jose’s production of Stevenson’s  interpretation of the Sergei Prokoviev score.

For Don Quixote, however, it was Jose Manuel Carreno’s turn, dancing Basilio in a Mikhail Baryshnikov reading of the Marius Petipa-Alexander Gorsky 1869 production of Don Quixote, here staged by Wes Chapman who had danced it during his years with American Ballet Theatre and mounted it twice for Alabama Ballet when he was that company’s artistic director.

On February 15, Junna Ige stepped in to dance Kitri on opening night.  For the Saturday matinee, Amy Marie Briones was assigned the Kitri plum opposite Jeremy Kovitch.  Saturday night was slated to be Ige’s second performance but with Maykel Solas with the Sunday matinee featuring Meijer with Carreno’s second appearance.  Apparently Meijer’s neck injury was comparatively minor.

The production struck me as a catch all with the physical set borrowed from Hans Christian Molbech’s set for Ballet San Jose’s earlier production of August Bournonville’s Toreador augmented in Act II’s Gypsy Camp and the Vision Scene by Santo Loquasto.  I wish Karen Gabay had been given something besides the brassy orange-red wig as bar maid in Act III, where her role took over some of Mercedes’ dancing seen in the San Francisco Ballet production.  Which production is more accurate is up for grabs, given the Bolshoi-influenced version with SFB via Yuri Possokhov and the Kirov/Maryinsky/ Baryshnikov flavor which probably found its way into the Ballet San Jose production.  The sources and their differences could be the source of animated discussions amongst balletomanes more avid than yours truly.

Other discrepancies included the absence of the Inn Keeper’s wife or an expanded role for Sancho Panza, which would have allowed Juan Moreno to exercise his marvelous comic skills which vie with Pasal Molat’s for acuity in the moment.  Costume wise, one might expect Inn Keeper Lorenzo as played by Anton Pankovitch to take off a towel-turned apron in honor of his daughter’s nuptials.

There’s not much new to say about the plot, derived from a small section of  the novel Don Quixote of Miguel de Cervantes.  The ballet reduced the Don to a facilitator of the romance between Kitri, an Innkeeper’s Daughter and Basilio, a young barber.  The Don is utilized to thwart the Innkeeper into blessing the union  even though Lorenzo has been trying to marry Kitri to Gamache, an aging fop with some aristocratic  pretenses and an evident money bag.  Their successful maneuver, brought about by Basilio’s faked attempt at suicide, creates the raison d’etre for the wedding scene and the war horse favorite pas de deux, a constant presence at many galas and international ballet competitions.  In the mix are some gypsies, a street dancer called Mercedes, a Toreador and his cloak-swishing companions plus a dream scene permitting Cupid and the Queen of the Dryads to flit en pointe with the corps de ballet in formation.

Maria Jacobs-Yu piqued effectively as Cupid in the two performances I saw and Jing Zhang and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun traded roles as Queen of the Dryads and Mercedes.  In the mix were a Toreador and his cloak-swishing companions and a dream scene following the Don’s mishap with the windmill, permitting him a vision of Cupid and the Queen of the Dryads.  Pipit-Suksun’s sensual correctness made her Mercedes a full-fledged flamenco artist, not merely a street dancer, and her Dryad Queen a bit remote but very regal.  Her timing is musical, unforced, never hurried, her port de bras a consistent dream.  Jing Zhang is openly dashing, an  extravert, inclined to sell the high points of her assignments.

Damir Emric and Maximo Califano traded roles as Don Quixote, but Emric took on the role of Espada, the Toreador to Califano’s Don when Wes Chapman gave us a Gamache edged with sarcasm and Califano’s was given to the grandiose gesture. Rudy Candia danced Espada opening night.  When it came to the Gypsy interlude, Beth Ann Namey was the opening woman and Shannon Bynum for Saturday’s matinee.

I saw Jose Manuel Carreno win the Jackson Grand Prix in 1992; his prize money probably is still impounded in a Jackson bank because of his Cuban origins.  He was immediately snapped up for the English National Ballet then under Ivan  Nagy’s direction.  Nearly twenty years later, Junna Ige was a finalist at Jackson, partnered by Shimon Ito in the 2010 Jackson marathon.  It seemed fitting that an unanticipated accident brought the two together, seasoned by that competitive pressure nearly two decades apart.  Carreno’s genial classicism is as correct as ever, master of multiple pirouettes, his grand jetes low and space filling.  Practiced in the role, he enjoyed it.  Except for an off-balance flub in her final fouettes in the grand pas de deux, Ige was spot on, charming, her technique well proportioned and clear.  Her smiling oval face reminded me of Margot Fonteyn in her prime, lively, nothing forced, in the moment.

Saturday’s matinee possessed some ballet history for Bay Area devotees because of Amy Marie Briones’ debut as Kitri; she demonstrated principal role status in this 1869 Ludwig Minkus melodic favorite.  A bevy of students and fans plus Briones’ teacher Ayako Takahashi were witness to Briones’ command of the role, aided by Jeremy Kovitch.  Briones dances large scale, with spirit, her technique ample, final fouettes, if traveling, alternated between singles and doubles.  Briones’ outstanding gifts could incorporate more nuance in her port de corps and port de bras, but as a debut she was simply grand and refreshing.

Kovitch did all right by Basilio, but he could allow himself to assume a macho emphasis, lengthen his sideburns, even add dark rinse to his hair, augmenting his steady partnering and overall dependability.

I hope Don Quixote won’t be out of the repertoire too long.   George Daugherty conducted the orchestra with  much verve  and I’m sure inspired the relish with which the dancers delivered their assignments. The audience responded enthusiastically.

Oysters, The Ocean And The Environment

13 Feb

When you read English or Japanese history or visit places in those two islands,  the inbred sense of respect for history is almost a given.  Witness the recent discovery of Richard III’s bones and the plans to deter them in Leicester Cathedral in a ceremony befitting a King.  I bet the royal family will be represented, possibly en masse.

That’s an odd preamble to the subject of oysters, but I will try to clarify that introduction: history.  Yes, history and a story of struggle, prevailing against prejudice and, ultimately scientific confirmation that oyster culture actually improves the oceanic waters where they are nurtured.

The shores of the United States, Atlantic and Pacific, once boasted enormous oyster beds.  Mark Kurlinsky wrote extensively about the beds around New York Harbor and their decimation by the gluttony of nineteenth century New Yorkers in  The Big Oyster. The same is true about San Francisco Bay where the Ohlone Indians supped on them extensively, leaving enough shells for a street off the Ashby exit to Berkeley and Oakland to be called Shell Mound.

Following Katrina a New York Times article commented on the buffer role the oyster beds historically had served around the New York Harbor area;  similarly The San Francisco Chronicle carried an article about the loss of the native oyster.

You would think that such articles might have influenced  the Department of the Interior bureaucrats  or registered with  devoted environmentalists at The Sierra Club, factoring  thinking about  oyster culture s value as both enhancing the environment and small-scale business helping the economy.

But no, in October, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to the Point Reyes Recreational Area to weigh in on the lease extension of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Senator Dianne Feinstein had found that the report recommending the removal of the oyster culture was flawed and probably hasty. Environmentalists want the Company’s removal, returning the land to its ‘pristine original condition.’  It looks as if they will get their wish – throwing  thirty Hispanics out of work and dumping over a century of history in the development of oyster culture despite racial prejudice and environmental challenges.

Edme Seton spent easily a dozen years while her children were at school delving into the compelling history of oyster cultivation.  When her children were grown, her research broadened to Japan where an Okinawan by the name of  Shinsho Miyagi immigrated to the Pacific Coast  to cultivate oysters first in British Columbia waters, then in Puget Sound and finally in the Bay Area with the aid of the Togasaki family.

Mrs. Seton learned that  in 1884 San Francisco businessmen had asked a local scientist working in Washington “how could they import oysters from Japan? And where was the best place to plant them?

“‘In the Estero,’ California Scientist Robert Edwards Carter Stearns advised. Oysters were big bucks in 1884.  For every dollar Americans paid for fish, they shelled out two for oysters.”  Parenthetically, have you ever seen the nearly all-day line outside The Oyster Depot on Polk Street?

Stearns advised the manner is which the oysters needed to be transported.  Mind you, by this time the Meiji Restoration has opened Japan to the outside world,  and steam ships had begun to sail between San Francisco and the ports of Japan.    Stearns wrote “and as a suggestion I should think that near the head of Drake’s Bay, on the coast north of San Francisco Bay[which you will see by the map contains a “bight” as the sailors call it] with a rocky or shelly bottom, would or might be a good place.

“After planting you will have to look out and protect the bed from the star fishes, periwinkles and whelks, which are as fond of oysters as the genus homo.”

Mrs. Seton proceeds to describe both legal changes in mining procedures and the birth of  Shinsho Miyagi  in 1884 who immigrated to the Pacific Northwest as a young man to engage in its promise of the fishing and oyster industries.

After being driven out of the Pacific Northwest by provincial and Washington state governments, Miyagi grew oysters in Tokyo Bay until the Kanto earthquake of 1923 drastically altered the shoreline and the oyster beds destroyed

Cooperating with the Imperial Fisheries College in Sendai Japan, Miyagi patented a a floating raft device in 1931 to hold oysters near the surface of deep water, raising them above sting rays but providing them with the best food supply.  The Drakes Bay Oyster Company uses Miyagi’s method to raise their oysters and ” U.S. Government shellfish inspectors have given the Estero the cleanest bill of health in the whole United States.”

Because of the Estero water temperature, newly spawned eggs must start their life in a shellfish hatchery.  “By 1884, California’s first fish hatchery near Mt. Shasta had been operating for a decade, sending millions of salmon eggs all over the world.  But not scientist was able to do the same for oysters….. an oyster egg lacks the yolk sac which nourishes you salmon until they are able to feed themselves.”

Enter a Russian fugitive from Soviet Russia, Victor Loosanoff.  “In 1919,..he fought on foot and horseback east to Harbin where the White Russian colony paid his way to the United States…he was on his own…working in the mines, summers fishing n Alaska, learning English, enrolling at the University of  Washington’s School of Fisheries, the first in the United States, patterned after the Imperial School of Fisheries in Tokyo.”

Loosanoff’s work measuring the toxicity of paper mill chemicals on fingerling salmon cost him his job. ” In 1930 the State of Virginia hired him to assess the condition of the once great oyster beds in the James River.  His findings have yet to be implemented. One year later, he moved north, to establish the shellfish laboratory in Milford, Connecticut.”

It took Loosanoff 31 years to provide the equivalent of the yolk sac for oysters. His quest included algae samples collected by Dr. Mary Park at the Isle of Man laboratory in 1934 and 1935.  These algae “provided the most reliable source of nourishment for all young clams and oysters, American, European and Japanese.”

Mrs. Seton writes that the Estero oysters are descendants of natives of the Bay of Sendai and “considerd the least difficult and most dependable.”  Their vulnerability to TB, Tributyl Tin, the killing ingredient in anti-foulant marine paint “helped the International Maritime Organization to limit the use of TBT…describing the chemical as the most toxic ever introduced into the marine environment.”

To be  continued

Memory Lane: Olga and Dorothy – III

12 Feb

Four young men and three young women arrived in San Francisco the Monday afternoon before the Saturday evening performance.  Another arrived on Tuesday.  Olga arrived earlier.  From Tuesday until Friday, there was at least one daily telephone call.  “Renee, we need a photographer.  Can you help?” “The tunic for Swan Lake is missing.  Do you know a costumer?” “We’re leaving Mehdi and Marin bare chested for Bayadere and Corsaire. I like good-looking young men bare chested!”  Amid my desk duties at work, it was a great diversion to hear her voice, always enthusiastic, always excited about what was happening on stage.  “Oh, Renee, Mehdi has taken over and is leading the group, and what results he is getting!  He is WONDERFUL!”  My own excitement began to rise. I called my reviewing colleagues; everyone had prior engagements.  I couldn’t believe it.

The photographer materialized by an appeal to Shirley Peltz.  Nita Winter conversed with me late on Wednesday and Thursday.  I wondered if my own excitement could possibly convey to her how important the event was.  To Nita is was an understandable matter of economics, time versus dollars.  Nita was matter-of-fact, went off to Friday’s dress rehearsal with nothing promised about remaining.  She wound up staying until Sunday morning, sleeping on  Dorothy’s couch.

With my friend Remy Munar I took a later morning Greyhound bus to Stockton, knitting while she slept and speculating about the four dancers I had not seen.  Three I saw at Jackson, 1979 and 1982, and I knew just how good they were. It turned out Marin Boieru danced a variation in Maurice Bejart’s Gaite Parisienne during the Belgian-based company’s last Zellerbach auditorium appearance.  From the tension I felt, one would have thought I was the impresario as I taxied from the motel to be with Olga while she handled a last-minute tape tech.

Dorothy greeted me as I walked through the Romanesque arches of the Commodore Stockton Theatre, the high school auditorium she has saved from destruction.  With excellent sight lines, acoustics and rental fees, it could be rented by outsiders.  It conveyed the ambiance of pre-World War II  California Valley, settled, a trifle staid, but solid, enduring and occasionally capable of grace.  Characteristically, Dorothy was steady ahead.  Last-minute television interviews in Stockton and Sacramento had begun to swell last-minute ticket sales.  By curtain, the pre-performance sale of 700 tickets had passed 1000 for the 1500 seat auditorium.   Dorothy remarked to me, “It is going to be a success.  I wanted these dancers here because I wanted Stockton to see the best, to have them as criteria.  I knew they would dance off of each other, stimulated by their mutual presence.  They’re winners, all of them.  Olga is good with her mixes.” While we chatted, the dancers began to file in, to warm up and apply their makeup.

Staying with hosting families, their arrivals were spotty.  The pre performance situation possessed a sparseness because of their small number, and perhaps the physical distance between their regular habitats and Stockton itself.  But the ritual of preparation, using the iron pipes of the orchestra pit for a barre, overrode the strangeness of location, the anomaly created by the confluence via jet travel.

Silhouetted by the dim stage light, curtain up to aid the sound tech, a woman walked towards one of the stage entrances with a large flat box.  “Flowers?”
I inquired. “That’s about it,” came the reply as she marched ahead, sprays for the women, single roses for the men.

Shrouded  with shadows, two dancers entered the back aisle of the theatre.  One sported a discernible soup bowl line of straight brown hair: Marin Boieru, newly a member of Pennsylvania Ballet.  The other had a face familiar to Roman mosaics in the ancient empire ruins in North Africa; the curly mop of  hair, aquiline noise, large eyes with liquid stillness.  Mehdi Bahir, product of Rosella Hightower’s training in Cannes, a kitchen worker to pay his tuition in training for the Prix de Lausanne he won in 1975.  Mehdi’s practice costume was a outlandish a frame as his physical presence startlingly evoked Mediterranean classical artefacts.  A slash of white banding held the curly mop off his eyes; an outsized white shirt draped to the knees over garbage bag green sweat pants.  Face, textures, color conspired to display pure theatre.  Mehdi’s turnout,  diagrammatically correct like the pages of Blasis’ treatise, gave the impression of his oozing into the floor when he sat down, stretching his legs before him.  Boieru appeared in the orchestra pit.  Eric Vu An, white towel slung around his neck, looked as if preparing for a prize fight.  He grasped the painted iron pipe and started his ritual plie, tendu through the five balletic positions, occasionally breaking line to flex a recalcitrant music in the way dancers squiggle idiosyncratically in movement.

Claudia Jung and Nancy Raffa, their personalities to emerge during performance, practiced lifts with Eric Vu An and Marin Boieru before the curtain.

Jung required one-hand lifts above Vu An’s head.  The timing – preparation, transition, breathing and sheer physical heisting – all belonged to the Don Quixote pas de deux for which Mehdi Bahiri had coached them.  With visual acumen and obvious skill, Mehdi had coached the two slender young race horses into one of the most stylish, polished renditions I had witnessed in four decades of ballet going.  Vu An and Jung used their European stage presence and deportment to counter what American audiences usually expect in fiery audience flirtation.  The classicism was a trifle cool, but theirs was an excitement as Jung’s high-arched foot defined the extension of her leg in the up and out of second position. It nearly rammed her ear while retaining a classical look.

Eyeballs had bulged while Jung executed warming up battements for they had become a grand jete, one leg going vertical while the supporting foot of the other remained on the floor.  More exciting than the circus, Jung’s training and stamina for such a flexible body demonstrated the obvious systematic technical mastery  and care lavished on her by Konstanze Vernon of Munich,  one of the 1982 jurors at Jackson.

Memory Lane: Olga and Dorothy IV

12 Feb

Boieru and Vu An both both distinguished themselves with personality variations created by Maurice Bejart.  Boieru’s technique, pushed to the point of wobbling,  was out of practice in dancing classical repertoire.  Vu An brought form, intensity and his cool precision to a variation from Bahkti, Bejart’s questionable pastiche  version of Hindu iconography and philosophy, mutilating traditional Indian dance repertoire and form.  None the wiser for the cultural desecration, the Stockton audience cheered Vu An’s rendition.

Raffa and Bahiri lent a very Mediterranean warmth to Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  Theirs was an easy elegance and musicality, nurtured by their backgrounds of Algeria, Sicily and Naples, reminding one that some of the early ballet greats were southern Italian in origin.  They skimmed easily across the Marley flooring strips, turning and completing like well-oiled, elegantly constructed tops, pulled and retracted by the musical phrases stringing their steps along time.  Similar ease and understatement was exhibited later in the Kafka-Kurova rendition of La Fille Mal Gardee, an ease deception of the hours of construction and labor, so carefully framed by the technique that it seemed naturally inevitable.

Ballet sometimes seemed to have been made for little girls.  Certain this one performance proclaimed that cliche.  Above and beyond the enthusiasm of the adult audience, the clutch of girls, obviously Dorothy’s pupils, look alikes with long straight filly manes of hair, dresses flouncing a little. Mary Jane shoes, white stockings over sturdy calf and thigh muscles, already showing the effects of ballet barre discipline induced a whisper of moisture in my remembering eyes.

For the finale, Bahiri has just completed his solo variation in Corsaire, the staple made international first by Rudolph Nureyev and now standard competition fare.  Jung, in blue velvet etched with gold braid, had taken her position en pointe and started her variation. Suddenly total BLACKOUT!

An announcement quickly followed ” There has been a total power failure.  Would the audience please leave the auditorium as quickly as possible by the nearest exit.”

The audience complied, rapidly, orderly.  I made my way against the stream of bodies backstage to find Olga, standing calm but stricken, in her yellow silk pant suit.  With the aid of a small pocket flash fished out of my knitting bag, the dancers crept down the stairs to the basement dressing rooms and green carpet area.  They sat mute, expressionless, on the carpet in a near circle while the technicians worked to restore the power.  In less than fifteen minutes the  lights were on again, and some audience stalwarts had returned to their seats.

But fearing injury, the performance did not resume.  Visibly shaken, Dorothy brought the seven soloists on stage, explaining to the audience why it was impossible to ask the dancers to complete Corsaire.  The roses were distributed, the fans applauded and cheered despite the unexpected close to a glorious exposition of classical ballet.

Direction and arrangements were given for tomorrow’s transportation; borrowed tunics were retrieved; plans confirmed for a Sunday evening supper in San Francisco, and an exodus made for the final party near the Stockton Marina.  The power failure had induced a patron to guarantee a new lighting system for the Theatre.

The party consisted of pastry puffs filled with sea food and scallops quickly demolished, virtually gone by the time the dancers reached the party.  Vu An was the first to depart since he, Raffa, Bahiri and Boieru were scheduled to leave San Francisco before noon for New York City.  Dressed like an international preppy, Vu An might have inspired Cole Porter lyrics or inhabited a Noel Coward stage set, rather than the sweat and exertion of Petipa, Lander and Bejart choreography.

In the flat midnight chill that crept up around my ankles from the river at the Stockton Marina, any balletic Cinderella would have treasured pumpkins after a night’s exposure to those four dancing princes.  Olga and Dorothy had conspired to bring that magical story alive.

The only dance review related to that memorable gala was published in the March, 1983 issue of Dance News, an issue which proved to be the journal’s swan song.

Memory Lane: Olga and Dorothy – II

12 Feb

When my turn arrived to question the Russian visitor, Gennadi looked at me and the surrounding scene behind long lashes and a smile worthy of de Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  His answers were translated to me by Olga and George.  Gennadi kept on smiling at me.  This was an interview?

The matinee hour loomed close.  We trooped back to the car after short, swipe-like forays in the nearby women and men’s clothing store before climbing into the car. “Don’t let him see too much, ” groaned Olga.  “He didn’t take much money out of Russia, only $15.”  [Olga later said this was standard Soviety practice before glosnost.]  The energies bounding around struck me like a wind instrumental ensemble, a counterpoint to my own lugubrious tones, heaving like the umpha-pah of a tuba.  Olga was the fife with a ceaseless supply of oxygen, Marda’s qualified for the piccolo pitch while George and Gennadi supplied the more mellow tones of oboe and bassoon.

During Round III, after the excitement around the defection of Lin Jian-Wei, the Shanghai-trained dancer, Olga stopped me in the aisle and asked if I would be willing to program Gennadi during his San Francisco visit.  Would I?  In that setting and with such a prelude, it reverberated like an imperial summons, with all the balletic mystique one could possibly conjure.

So Gennadi came, and stayed at the flat and was escorted around by Thelwall Proctor, professor of Russian at Humboldt State University.  Gennadi visited Anatole Vilzak at San Francisco Ballet, still out on 18th Avenue,where Vilzak gave him his graduation certificate from the Imperial Ballet School on Theatre Street;  Gennadi took the certificate with him to Nuvosibersk  for the Guild and Museum he had fostered there.  And ultimately he departed.

Labor Day weekend came a cheerily-voiced phone call.  The voice warbled over the telephone, “Renee, it’s Olga!”  She announced an international roster of seven competition winners would dance in November in Stockton.

Stockton? Yes, Stockton.  Stockton, California, home of the original Caterpillar Tractor Company; Sperry “Drifted Snow” flour; the first state hospital, an asylum for the insane George Shima, the Potato King, whose engineering efforts reclaimed so much  Delta land for agriculture from the swamps, land reclaimed that he could not own because he was Japanese-born.  Stockton, the first major American settlement of  Sikhs from the Punjab in India.  It was the Sikh presence which was responsible for changing the name of the Japanese Exclusion League to the Asian Exclusion League.

Enter Dorothy Percival, Stockton’s raison d’etre for the forthcoming galaxy gathering, and another redoubtable lady in dance.  Artistic Director of the San Joaquin Concert Ballet Association, member of the Pacific Regional Ballet Association,  Dorothy possessed a braid sometimes hanging down her back, making me think of the  Bird Woman of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, without whom those explorers would never have made it to the Pacific Ocean.  Whether or not Dorothy was part Indian, she was in spirit a Sackajaweah, and she could bird dog an idea into reality with equally persistent energy.  Straight-faced, forthright, a woman remarkably open and unpretentious, tempting one to strew flowers in celebration.

Dorothy, in my memory, proceeded from loving. She nurtured, involved and fostered more talent than was easily enumerated, and from atypical ballet body types and ages.  The expression emerged, however, for Dorothy had the remarkable gift of being alert to the best, and finding it without turning her back or closing the door on anyone.  With a skill born only from a surpassing devotion, Dorothy put them all to work, purposefully, providing that all-important climate where the young, vulnerable, aspiring, the dreamer was permitted to get to together, decide their direction, labor and ultimately go forth.  In my memory, with the final summation of talent required of such nurturing, Dorothy knew when, how and why to let the fostered to, to release them without clutching, without tears.  There may be naysayers to this evaluation written some thirty years ago, but I was never aware of it.

The seven dancers Olga and Dorothy collected had accumulated awards in junior and senior individuals, numbered thirty.  A few special dance award and national citations were also added.  European commitments between  September and November changed the personae, but the line remained international, both exciting and impressive.  It included Medhi Bahiri, Algeria; Marin Boieru, Roumania; Claudia Jung, Germany; Lubomir Kafka and Jana Kurova, Czechoslovakia; Nancy Raffa, U.S.A.; Eric Vu An, France.  The Stockton International Awards Gala was the U.S. debut for Jung and Vu An.

The list included a clutch of Prix du Lausanne winders: Bahiri; Kurova; Raffa.  Bahiri, Boieru, Jung, Kafka , Kurkova and Vu An ad earned medals at Varna , Bulgaria where the jet-ago phenomenon had fostered the first International Competition in 1953. Boieru and Jung won medals at Moscow, the Czechs in Tokyo. Boieru enjoyed the additional distinction of having partnered the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci. Equally staggering were the roster of companies the dancers represented: Basle, Switzerand; Bejarts Ballet of the Twentieth Century; Ballet West; Boston Ballet; Dusseldorf Opera, Germany; National Ballet of Prague; American Ballet Theatre; Pennsylvania Ballet; l”Opera de Paris where Louis XIV’s passion for ballet had enjoyed its first subsidized home.

The dancers were gathered by their facility for winning and with Olga’s specialty, handling talented dancers, who were in some way Russian-trained. They had not performed together prior to their Stockton arrival five days prior to the Gala and most had not seen each other dance.  The original performance, scheduled for November 5, would have enabled another appearance in southern California to defray their air travel expense.  An unavoidable delay meant that Dorothy and the San Joaquin Concert Ballet had to go the financing alone.  That was asking a lot for a valley town for a one-shot performance in the 1982 economy.  Characteristically, however, Dorothy remarked while talking in the pre performance hush, “If you don’t risk once in a while, you never get anywhere!”

Memory Lane: Olga and Dorothy Get It Together

11 Feb

In my endless quest to clean out decades of paper accumulated, I came across  something from 1982,  a time before e-mail, I-Phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The story was submitted to a local newspaper but was rejected.  But since the tale is rooted in dance history and fact, I want to send it out with my own chuckles at the memory.  So here goes.

Where Olga Smoak is involved, where does one begin?  Knowing her is a tornado, pleasant variety, intense, an artistic typhoon all her very own. My knowledge of Olga Smoak began at Jackson’s First International Ballet Competition, 1979.  She hovered around the Czech entrants, Jana Kurova and Lubomir Kafka, medalists at Varna, Bulgaria, Tokyo and Prague.  They won the silver and gold medals in the senior women and men’s division at Jackson with an additional prize as best partners in the senior division.

The gossip from the Competition was that this energetic, slender, tiny-boned woman from Panama, with her sharp-nosed oval face was not only their interpreter, but the wife of the Czech juror, Pavel Smok.  The different spelling went unnoticed in the heat and steam excitement at that first competition in Jackson, partly because no one wanted to investigate, partly because there was no reason for anything official to bear Olga’s name at the time, nor the fact that this Vassar graduate listed New Orleans, Louisiana as her home and base of operations.

Everything may have appeared arranged.  Jana and Lubomir lived apart from the other contestants at the International Village at Millsaps College, where San Francisco Ballet entrants David McNaughton, Dennis Marshal and Laurie Cowden were housed.  No one took into consideration the list of awards Jana had acquired, including the famous Prix de Lausanne for aspiring dancers up to age 19.  Lubomir Kafka already had a reputation having been featured prominently in the Princess Grace-narrated documentary Theatre Street.  It seemed natural that the Russian-speaking wife of the Czech juror make herself useful while her spouse was out front on official jury business.  Finish memory, Olga Smoak, 1979.

Enter 1982 and Jackson’s Second International Ballet Competition.  The management was different, the publicists were different and a string of advisers was present providing an emphasis on the regional ballet training in the United States with regional preliminaries; a few of us were present at the Competition for the second time. This 1982 format was a precursory for what is now standard for The Youth America Grand Prix competitions.

Marda Burton, Mississippi belle and stringer for UPI, and I had lunch with Ben and Estelle Sommers.  Ben, “Mr. Capezio”, started his theatre business career at 14 as delivery boy for Salvatore Capezio, toting shoes over to Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies. In 1982 Ben was a special honored guest at the Competition  along with Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Eudora Welty.  Estelle was co-chairing the Competition with Richard Englund of American Ballet Theatre II.  Ben and Estelle mentioned a Russian had made it to the Competition as a personal guest of Robert Joffrey and William Leighton, Mississippi Ballet International’s Executive Director.  Marda smelled a feature, and I evinced a mild curiosity since my assignment required I focus on the Houston entrants who emerged spectacularly with six prizes.

At the matinee intermission, Estelle, who had to be the Perle Mesta of the dance world, introduced Marda and me to the sandy-haired, grave-faced Gennadi Alferenko, still a trifle woosey from more than twenty-four houses on successive Aeroflot and American Airlines jets.  We smiled at each other, our first meeting with a Russian from Siberia.  Nineteenth Century Russian novels and their mindset did a double take when focused on this slender stranger from an area commonly considered exile, punishment, the back of beyond.

Since the distractions of Round I and the milling in the auditorium aisle were scarcely the ambiance for an interview I suggested lunch.  My American Express charge slip, saved in memory, reads Scroodges.  The occasion added a double memory;  in a nearby men’s clothing store was a promotional brochure with an image of Johnny Frane, a paternal cousin required to change his name because the clan objected to having a pugilist in the family.  That’s an international competition for you; unexpected connections, stronger by the minute, giddy by the second to the imagination.

George [Yuri] Zoritch, Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo principal, heavier in the chest with good living, sat between Gennadi and myself.  Olga Smoak sat on the opposite side with Marda Burton.  Giggling and exclaiming with her prototypic drawl, Marda flipped through Gennadi’s Russian-English phrase book while Olga turned her focus to me to provide a precise description of why she proclaimed herself “the happiest woman in the world.” Roped, collared, gripped, mesmerized, compliant, I listened.  Captivated as much by her intense energy as by her clarity of purpose and accented speech, my extremes of mood swings and checkered balletic love seemed mild morning dew in contrast.

How could a Russian bureaucrat possibly resist Olga’s combination of charm determination, calculation, intelligence and sheer wiles, simultaneously in the service of balletic art?  There she was, the Mata Hari of the ballet slipper,  conspiring to get the balletic best through West to East and East to West.  Olga is a Napoleona in an international warfare against cultural ignorance in an art form. No pitch of the voice, shrug of the shoulders, head nodding or flood of prose could pretend to convey the strength, depth and effectiveness of Olga’s strategies.  In Jackson’s late June heat, splashy drops of a thunderhead disgorging moisture, it was a double charge, honey chile, with the chorus and punctuation provided by the rise and fall of Marda’s relaxed “you alls.”

To be continued.

San Francisco Ballet’s 2013 Gala, January 24

11 Feb

Celebrating San Francisco Ballet’s 80th season, Helgi Tomasson gave his audience and supporters a sleek event of pas de deux, a pas de trois, one pas de quatre, a solo and a final ensemble excerpt which will begin Program I January 29.

I am fascinated by the choices Tomasson sometimes makes for partners, particularly for fluffy moments like George Balanchine’s Tarantella to the tinkly music of Louis Gottschalk, which sounds  like a precursor to early New Orleans jazz. So much so you can imagine it on an early Victor Red Seal record or envision it being played on an out-of-tune upright piano in some seedy New Orleans dive.  Pairing Sasha de Sola and Pascal Molat was novel, although de Sola conveys jauntiness along with her extraordinarily straight back.  Molat can dance the cheery street urchin in any guise thrown him,  his final measures soliciting every last centime.

Switching gears the suicidal solo from Roland Petit’s L’Arlesienne touched on daring the audience; it worked. Pierre Francois Vilanoba made one of his initial impressions in the company dancing this role and the title of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello.  A dozen years later, Vilanoba conveyed the mental dislocation with a honed ferocity, a  image of suicidal madness worth remembering, circular grand jetes, flailing arms, riveted gaze.  Petit doesn’t always get many marks for his choreography, but his theatricality is unmistakable.

Returning to the light touch, August Bournonville and his Flower Festival at Genzano with Clara Blanco and Gennadi Nedvigin was another surprise pairing, nicely matched in size and sweetness.  Blanco could have been better coached;  she was half way between her iconic Nutcracker Doll and the thoughtless Olga in Eugene Onegin.  Nedvigen’s finishes in tight fifths elicited enthusiastic applause.

Myles Thatcher’s In the Passerine’s Clutch was conceived as a pas de quatre for Dores Andre, Dana Genshaft, Joan Boada and Jaime Garcia Castilla and enjoyed a premiere at the Gala. Thatcher used music from the prolific compositions of contemporary Polish composer Wjceich Kilar and is his third choreographic essay for San Francisco Ballet affiliated dancers.  Passerines are called perchers and number the greatest proportion of birds in the avian kingdom, including swallow, ravens, thrushes, sparrows, warblers, even the Australian Lyrebird.  Thatcher’s attempt to capture the darting, clustering, clampering, quarreling and mating deserves a second viewing.

Lorena Feijoo made her first appearance since giving birth to Luciana in the Act III variation from Raymonda, hand slaps and all  to Alexander Glasunov’s insinuating music .  Feijoo’s delicate sensuality was touched with a distinctly regal quality.  Audience members clapped when she appeared on stage.  Shades of Alexandra Danilova.

Tomasson’s Trio featured Sarah Van Patten, Tiit Helimets and Vitor Mazzo, in the section of the work set to Tchaikovsky music.  They danced an eloquent, inevitable triangle with Mazzeo as the dark figure luring Van Patten from Helimets arms, Mazzeo bearing a limp Van Patten off stage right with Helimets alone and forlorn at the curtain.

The Wedding pas de deux from Act III of the Petipa-Gorsky Don Quixote  completed the Gala’s first half, danced by Frances Chung and Taras Domitro as Kitri and Basilio in the lustrous white costumes designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz.  Rendered with eloquent understatement, and measured formality, Paul Parish mentioned Felipe Diaz, one-time San Francisco Ballet soloist and currently a company ballet master, had rehearsed the two.  Paul observed, “You absolutely have to have someone tell you where your head needs to go, where your eyes should focus.  It’s something you cannot do alone, or just with your partner.”  Chung and Domitro emphasized polish more than bravura.  That seemed to disappoint a number of individuals, but it suited me just fine.

Three pas de deux and one ensemble piece were the  Gala’s second half content, a paean to the company’s repertoire range.  Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz reprised the first act dream scene between Onegin and Tatiana where John Cranko’s Tatiana sees Onegin emerge from her bedroom mirror in a dream.  Given the elaborate set, one understands why Tomasson chose this snippet to open the second  half; it’s a major production operation.

On to the strains of John Philip Sousa and Balanchine’s wonderful spoof of the Sousa  brass umpapa.  This 1958 romp for New York City Ballet was first danced by San Francisco Ballet in 1981; I can remember Madeline Bouchard, Anita Paciotti and David McNaughton scintillating in their assignments.  Here Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan took on the Stars and Stripes  pas de deux created by Melissa Hayden and Jacques D’Amboise.  Here danced for a sunny pertness rather than the broad good humor originally conveyed,   Zahorian and Karapetyan came across cheerfully.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith danced Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux from After The Rain, set to Arvo Part’s extended ethereal score which never seems to conclude. It was an etched, elegant performance, tender but seeming to proceed under glass.

Excerpts from Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc finished the Gala, an ensemble piece which has become de rigeur in a Tomasson-run Gala, serving to remind the audience that a company stands or falls on the calibre of its corps de ballet as much as the brilliance of its principal dancers.  Lifar, who was the last major male dancer to rise under Sergei  Diaghilev’s influence, was ballet master for the l”Opera de Paris ballet company from the mid-‘Thirties through World War II, including  those four long years of the Nazi Occupation of most of Northern and Central France.  This work was premiered some mother prior to D-Day and in Zurich, appearing to lack any reference to the privation the French dancers were experiencing.

While I intend to discuss the ballet further after seeing the entire work, it was marvelous to see Sofiane Sylve as one of the center dancers, conveying in her bones the style and presentation required for this very French ballet.