Tag Archives: Cal Performances

The Joffrey Ballet Returns to Zellerbach

5 Apr

The Joffrey Ballet, now under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater, a former Joffrey Ballet member and lengthy veteran of San Francisco Ballet’s artistic staff, came to Zellerbach March 14 and 15. I saw the matinee on March 15, and have to say I left my glasses at home. The dancers therefore were not very distinct even sitting in Row G, but the music was loud, clear and, mostly lengthy.

The moves clearly impressed themselves on an enthusiastic audience, probably one of the most responsive and willing any theatrical or musical performer has the good luck to enjoy.

There were three ballets and a pas de deux, all from contemporary choreographers; two have strong ties with San Francisco Ballet; Val Caniparoli and Yuri Possokhov. It was canny of Wheater to include them in the local Joffrey appearance. I think he was determined to assert the historic Joffrey profile as being au courant as much as the Joffrey also demonstrates a sense of history with works like Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table. The Chicago repertoire includes Don Quixote;soon Christopher Wheeldon’s interpretation of Swan Lake,. No one can accuse the company of losing sight of or involvement with the classics. Robert Joffrey’s Nutcracker pointed the way as did the very early Conservitoriat of Auguste Bournonville..

Caniparoli’s piece,Incantations, concerned itself with introspection to a very long, arduous score by Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky; there was virtually no way the piece could be cut and remain coherent; Caniparoli
adhered to every phrase, allowing toes to point, legs to lift into attitudes and arabesques, smoothly partnered, reflected the lengthy employment of chimes. I am afraid my attention span wants to edit length.

Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili danced Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, set to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata #2. Murkily lit, beautifully danced, there is
something magnetic when Possokhov’s reliance on Russian composers features two dancers trained in the current Russian teaching tradition who also are husband and wife. San Francisco Ballet possesses at least two such couples, They make clear legal intimacy elsewhere helps to foster a special innerness when dancing in a contemporary work without narrative. Someone remarked “They don’t show relationship.” My take was relationship was so strong obvious manifestations wasn’t needed.

Alexandre Ekman’s Episode 31 possessed a certain zaniness about it which echoed faintly some of the Arpino cheekiness, while still being very different. His screen images at the back, the rushings around the stage made me wonder whether it was his reflection of observing workaday life in Chicago. The Joffrey Ballet is housed in the heart of downtown Chicago, so bustle and the El are routinely present. Chicago dwellers must have loved it, recognizing the stop and start, the energy the dancers poured into the work.

As to Stanton Welch’s ballet to the music of John Adams, I remember little except the pleasure of seeing Rory Hohenstein providing a skillful, substantial contribution.

In Dancetabs.com Aimee T’sao expressed the hope that Cal Performances finds a way to give the Joffrey a yearly slot as it allows for the Ailey and Mark Morris ensembles. While I think it unlikely on a yearly basis, I endorse seeing them every other year. Berkeley was an important place in the Joffrey some forty years ago, thanks to the touring program the Dance Program of the NEA fostered for all too brief a time.

Arpino’s Trinity was premiered at the Zellerbach before the Joffrey began to be sponsored by the San Francisco Symphony whose musicians provided the music the Joffrey danced to. It all vanished when the Symphony moved into Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera and Ballet claimed San Francisco’s Opera House all for themselves. No more American Ballet Theatre in February; no more Joffrey Ballet in June; no more theatre space of 2,000-2,500 seats to entice companies to negotiate dates to appear anywhere West or South of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Apparently, Mayor Ed Lee and others governing San Francisco’s 49 square miles, have no plans for such a theatre, easily accessed, with sufficient parking space to draw a crowd which loves something in addition to rock, hockey, baseball and football.

Still, I want to see Arpino’s Kettentanz again.

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A Program Change for The Joffrey Ballet

7 Feb

When Cal Performances issued its program brochure for the 2014-2016 season, the Joffrey Ballet’s March appearance at Zellerbach listed Gerald Arpino’s Round of Angels in its roster of ballets. The folder for Programs I and II of San Francisco Ballet has Round of Angels replaced by Val Caniparoli’s Incantations, I believe created on and for the Joffrey Ballet, commissioned by artistic director Ashley Wheater.

I can’t say I am sorry; I know a little about the back story of the Arpino work which I mention now. Though I don’t believe it explicitly stated, Arpino’s use of the Gustav Mahler’s music was a tribute to James Howell, his musical collaborator, who died of AIDS before Arpino started to set the work. Arpino came to San Francisco where Howell had settled, and stayed through Howell’s final days. Following his departure from the Joffrey staff, Howell studied physical therapy and eventually worked as a practitioner of Alexander technique, though he still advised Arpino musically, and may well have chosen the music Arpino used for his silver-Milliskin clad men and the single woman who is manipulated in swooping, bird-like patterns to Mahler’s elegaic themes.

In two events related to the Joffrey Ballet’s local seasons
under San Francisco Symphony auspices, Howell remarked he chose music for Arpino by stacking records to listen to while he was vacuuming. If anything stood out while thus occupied, Howell made a note of it, joining his suggestions to Arpino.

Together Howell and Arpino renovated a building on Sanchez; the basement provided space for a handsome studio and the upstairs housed Howell’s Joffrey materials. Arpino retained the building following Howell’s death, visiting periodically.

I was informed that the building has vast problems with termites; the guardians of the Howell legacy were forced
to move the material elsewhere. It is not the first time that rare artistic material languishes, despite the efforts of the guardians to place material safely in a public institution.

So perhaps it’s just as well Round of Angelsawaits a different tour to be seen again. Lets hope Howell’s collection eventually finds an appreciative, public home where the dance world can enjoy Howell’s remarkable eye.

Shanghai Ballet Dances Butterfly Lovers for Second Time

6 Nov

Cal Performances brought the Shanghai Ballet to the Bay Area for its second appearance here and with Butterfly Lovers, the same ballet I saw in 2007 at Flint Center in Cupertino. A six-year hiatus naturally brings with it new principals in this tale of fidelity beyond the grave, “combining Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet” a comment made by Berkeley ballet savant Nicole Liboiron at the end of the November 2 performance.

Nicole, native to Canada and of French-Canadian heritage with a startlingly thorough R.A.D. background, extensive performing experience and both teaching and choreographing herself, thus summarized the dichotomy of this full-length choreography by Xin Lilli, Shanghai Ballet’s artistic director to recorded music by Xu Jianqiang. Luo Huaizhen was responsible for the libretto which attempted to fuse a T’ang Dynasty folk/fairy tale with the rigors of classical ballet for this fifty-plus ensemble of dancers. While the results may not be successful in Western terms, the use of Chinese material is admirable; various undercurrents understandable principally to a Chinese audience must make it attractive to East Asian audiences.

No credits were given for the note-worthy scenery and the costumes. The opening scene features an idyllic school setting, then a country scene complete with distant pagoda before displaying a courtyard with vibrant autumnal maples in the background, finishing with a wintry scene. I have every reason to believe the progression of seasons not only reflected life’s passage, but conveyed a message attuned to Chinese rather than western spectators.

The costumes of the women in the corps de ballet might have come from a text book on Russian-style classical tutus, especially the skirt. Akin to a slightly drooping parasol, the skirts accented the bodice, the dancers’ slender torsos, framing pointe work, slender legs and conveying feminine modesty. In the early days of the PRC, the Chinese dance leaders turned to Soviet Russia when nations further west closed their doors to collaboration. Tutu-wise, go figure.

The Chinese sartorial panorama looked de rigeur, the gentleness of flowing fabric suggesting costumes constructed with silk.

Zhu Yingmai, danced by Li Chen Chen, attends boys’ school in disguise and becomes enchanted with Liang Shanbo, danced by Wu Husheng. The school bully, Ma Wen Cai was danced by Zhang Yao, who disrepects the teacher, cheats on his classmates and fights with Liang. Zhu tends to Liang’s wounds, falling in love with him. Zhu, summoned home, accompanied by Liang, has visions of pairs – butterflys, mandarin ducks and magpies. She drapes a bride’s scarf over her face, Liang interpreting this as play. With Zhu’s parting fan to Liang,
depicting butterflies, he realizes Zhu is a woman.

With a grand ceremony Zhu’s father arranges a marriage for her; to her dismay, the potential bridegroom is Ma Wen Chai, the school bully. Zhu is not happy. Liang comes to propose marriage, but Zhu’s father is not impressed. Zhu opposes the union. She and Liang profess their love, but Ma brings retainers to beat Liang lifeless.

In the final scene, Zhu, dressed in bridal red, follows Ma reluctantly, but manages to elude the marriage ceremony, and rushes to Liang’s grave. Zhu vows death and the heavens oblige, transforming the lovers into butterflies.

Technically, corps formations were models of clarity, point work, their landings from jumps soundless. There were two opportunities for male ensembles, one incorporating traditional Chinese gestures in competitions. For the women, there was a typical hand gesture close to the cheek seen in Chinese theater, face slightly cocked, conveying the demure, charm and modesty expected of well bred Chinese womanhood.

If the Butterfly Lovers tale stems from the T’ang Dynasty, the heroine’s disguise can be considered accurate – women’s feet had yet to be bound. Sansai tomb figures depict women on horseback playing polo.

Li Chen Chen made little use of her pointes until the betrothal scene and the struggle with her father, would be fiancé, Ma and being the center of a tug of war between Liang and Ma. We Husheng, tall and slender, partnered well, but his height does not provide a secure center for turns, unlike the more compact Zhang Yao as the villain; it seemed deliberate casting.

While admiring the development of Chinese themes for ballets, Butterfly Lovers with its elegant corps de ballet and the story thread of the young lovers was a clear dichotomy; the twain meeting only in partnering, magpie and mandarin ducks variations, and the corps de ballet ensembles at the opening and conclusion of the story. Nicole Liboiron’s remark was an opinion also voiced in Allan Ulrich’s review. In the Chinese tradition, however, the audience is attuned to stark opposites.

Shanghai Ballet Presents T’ang Dynasty Theme November 1-2

22 Oct

Cal Performances is bringing the Shanghai Ballet to the Bay Area November 1-2 for their second visit. The first was at the Flint Center in Cupertino, June, 2007, enjoyed by predominantly Chinese audiences.

The ballet scheduled is the same one I saw those nearly six and a half years ago, Butterfly Lovers, a tale of lovers across social class and family restrictions. While I do not have the full libretto at hand, the hero was a scholar or tutor and the heroine was the sheltered daughter of a wealthy family. Family was not about to wait for scholar to pass the Imperial exams.

My memory was one of the exquisite employment of the pastel colors one also sees in pre-World War II enameled ceramics, bright, light and cheerful. The dancers, as one can easily guess, are carefully chosen and nurtured, their slender physiques, unusually flexible as well as classically schooled.

The Cal Performances press notice credits the ballet’s choreography to the
company’s artistic director Xin Lili, the music by Chinese composer Xu Jianqiang, blending Chinese instruments with a Western style orchestra.

Expanding on the brief visit, Cal Performances, The Center for Chinese Studies, East Asian Languages, and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will hold a symposium November 1, 4-6 p.m. at the Berkeley Art Museum Theatre. The gathering will concern the joining of Chinese and Western
cultural elements in depicting Chinese fairy tales, the adaptation of Chinese folk melodies to Western symphonic music forms, and, of course, Western Classical Ballet as it meets Chinese movement style.

Nureyev Exhibit at Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco

24 May

The summer issue of “Fine Arts,” the member magazine for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, announces a forthcoming exhibit titled:”Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance” to open October 6 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The announcement reads the exhibit “will showcase more than 80 costumes and 50 photographs from the dancer’s personal collection, entrusted to the Centre national du costume de scene in Moulins, France, by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, and will incorporate key loans from active ballet companies.”

The announcement further states “Nureyev loved sumptuous shows and was particular about his costumes, often imposing changes and improvements.  The costumes on view expose the wear and tear of daily use, bearing witness to the lives and bodies of Nureyev and his partners Margot Fonteyn, Noella Pontois, and so many others.

“The exhibition illustrates a life devoted entirely to dance and highlights ballets danced for choreographed by Nureyev…. Each ballet is displayed in a dramatic installation that emphasizes its spellbinding theatricality.”

Since CAL Performances will be presenting the Maryinsky Ballet October 10-12, it might well be exciting for the visiting dancers as well as the host of local balletomanes who witnessed Nureyev’s San Francisco appearances as well as dance lovers fascinated by the man and his legends.

The Royal Danes’ La Sylphide at Zellerbach

16 Jul

The Royal Danish opening  with two performances of La Sylphide, the 1836 version by August Bournonville with a beguiling multi-generational company of seventy dancers, required a forty-five minute intermission following Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson.  An additional thirty minute intermission between Acts I and II was needed, but the audience didn’t seem to mind if one could judge by the response at the curtain.

The entirely different casts, provided their own excellences,; the second danced with more ease since scenery shifts devoured all the desired stage rehearsal time of the dancers for the opening.
During the second night’s first intermission former S.F. Ballet soloist, Danish- born Peter Brandenhoff, introduced American-born soloist Gregory Dean who gave the audience appropriate information to fill the lengthy pause.

La Sylphide recounts the story of a young sylph, enamoured of James, a betrothed Scotsman, who lures him away from Effy, his fiancé moments before his wedding, after he has tussled with a rival, Gurn, and antagonized Madge, a crone seeking warmth at the family  fireside. Obviously  Madge takes dire umbrage over James’ treatment.  This act allows the Danish children to participate in the collective dances, the audience to relish pipers and brilliant stylized Scottish variations by James, Effy and Gurn following the fey flirtatious dancing of the Sylph.

In Act II, The Sylph introduces James to her woodland bower, offering him natural tokens from the glade;  he tries to possess her.  Just before this bucolic scene, Madge is seen stirring a diaphanous scarf in a cauldron, to which her unsightly and bent cronies bring odious additions,  ominous prelude to the following bucolic landscape.

At the woodland glade, James is further frustrated by the other sylphs who screen his vision from his grasp.  The lines they form and the patterns woven give an inkling of some of Petipa’s source material for Bayadere and Swan Lake.  La Sylphide, however, is largely sunny, if the unearthly heroine is doomed and her lover soon to follow.  Just before Madge gives the scarf to James, she engineers Gurn’s proposal to Effie.  Madge offers the scarf to James who entices the sylph with it, wraps it around her with fatal results; she dies and is airborne off to sylph heaven leaving James to face Madge’s wrath and vengeance.

Guesting Caroline Cavallo and Gudren Bojesen shared the Sylph’s role, with the American born Cavallo delivering a more stylized version and Bojesen Nordic and exquisitely flighty.
Their James were Mads Blangstrup and Ulrik Brikkjaer, the former with a long classical line; the famed Bournonville aerial dynamics both shared equally. Of the  Gurns, Nicolai Hansen and Alexander Staeger, the latter provided more dimension. Camille Ruelykke Holst’s Effy was less willing at the marital switch, Louise Ostergaard more safely compliant. Former Sylph Lis Jeppersen and Sorella Englund as Madge contrasted expansive versus incisive gestures and movement, the latter’s containment signaling more familiarity with the role.

Whatever the difficulties, the Danish style and form sparkled clearly, underplayed but carefully displayed like a housewife’s domestic polish for silver and glassware. We get enough fireworks; quiet sheen is refreshing.

Let’s hope Cal Performances brings them back at an early opportunity.