Tag Archives: David McNaughton

San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet on Film

24 Sep

At a September 21 preview in San Francisco’s Century Theatre, housed in the old Emporium building, a selected audience saw San Francisco’s current Romeo and Juliet production which starts the Lincoln Center at the Movies series October 1. While it is not PBS’ Great Performances series in which Michael Smuin’s version opened the dance series to full-length ballets, the Helgi Tomasson version enjoyed a remarkable production thanks to Thomas Grimm, and the various fiscal sponsors acknowledged by Tomasson and on the screen.

What made a notable difference from the early PBS series, created by the memorable trio of Merrill Brockway, Jak Venza and Judy Kinberg, were the use of closeups and deliberate cutting of movement, filmed May 7 at San Francisco’s Opera House. Cuts to an individual face or chest shots infused more drama than long shots with feet and body moving to the Prokofiev score. In addition, shots of the towns people and the harlots during the action added to the overall ambiance, the sense of a small interactive community.

Maria Kochekova and Davit Karapetyan were the fated lovers, supported by Pascal Molat as Mercutio and Luke Ingham as Tybalt with Joseph Walsh as Benvolio. Anita Paciotti reprised her role as the Nurse; Jim Sohm stepped eloquently in as Friar Lawrence while Ricardo Bustamonte and Sophiane Sylve were the steely Capulets, Ruben Martin and Leslie Escobar the Montagues. Myles Thatcher, the choreographic wunderkind of the corps, was a blond Paris. [Readers of my earlier SFB R&J review know my feelings about a too-early age of County Paris.]

There were at least three interviews between the acts, which were identified on the upper left, along with quotations from Will’s play; Helgi Tomasson; Warren Pistone who doubles as sword master and the Prince of Verona; Anita Paciotti
who speaks of the use of children in the production. Additional comments included Davit Karapetyan, Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat regarding the roles and the challenges of the fight scenes. Kochetkova was quite coy.

The handsome production additionally featured Martin West commenting on the score, the costume and makeup departments received their share of footage along with a small group of children making their contribution. I would pay to see the movie again.

The following evening, at a gathering to celebrate the 41st wedding anniversary of Carlos and Carolyn Carvajal Tony Ness, former San Francisco Ballet dancer who belonged to the Smuin era of the PBS filming of Smuin’s reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy to Prokofiev’s music, was present. He refreshed my memories of the Smuin production, both for the premiere and the PBS production when Diana Weber and Jim Sohm were the ill-fated teens with Anita Paciotti as Lady Capulet, Attila Ficzere as Mercutio, Gary Wahl as Tybalt, and Tina Santos the nurse.

At Smuin’s premiere, Vane Vest and Lynda Meyer were Romeo and Juliet and Anita Paciotti was the nurse. The balcony was upstage right and the entire set designed so that it could travel, a fact heading the review for The Christian Science Monitor. Tony was the Duke of Verona, but the PBS version placed Vest in the role. Paula Tracy appeared as Lady Capulet with Keith Martin and Susan Magno as the street dancers in the original production. Magno later danced Juliet with Tom Ruud and Jim Sohm. There were a succession of dancers in the roles – David McNaughton with Linda Montaner and later Alexander Topciy with Evelyn Cisneros. I believe Smuin’s production was later mounted by Ballet West, a natural connection for Smuin’s dance career started under Willam Christensen.

Most touching, however, in the PBS version Lew Christensen was Friar Lawrence. I also couldn’t help thinking of the succession of roles Sohm has assumed with such finesse following his active dance career; Grandfather in Nutcracker; Don Quixote in that ballet and now Friar Lawrence.

Earlier Tomasson Romeos, Anthony Randazzo, Yuri Possokhov, Pierre Francois Villanoba, and Joanna Berman’s Juliet, also floated to the surface. Clearly, the Tomasson production, elegant as it is, beautifully realized by the dancers, prompted memory lane meanderings.


2014 USA IBC More on Round II Choreographic Selections

14 Jul

For the Press Briefing Monday morning, June 23 at Jackson’s Clarion Ledger, jury chair Edward Villella explained the raison d’etre for assigned choreographic selections seen during Round II’s three sessions. As artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, Villella came regularly to Round III and the Gala of prior Competitions; in some instances to Round II also, which up to and including 2010 this round was a choreographic free-for-all. The pieces were either choreographed by the contestants or created by their teachers. Even with restrictions when the works had been created, few, if any, contestants chose a work in company repertoires, although the 1979 Competition enjoyed a Lew Christensen solo from Scarlatti Portfolio, danced by David McNaughton, and possibly others from European repertoire. In subsequent years, some European contestants utilized dances created for other competitions to demonstrate interpretive versatility.

Villella stated he was not impressed by most Round II selections; well he might. In addition to cavorting to pop tunes, some costumes flirted with nudity, a foretaste of the shorts-wearing teen-age students attending this year’s International Ballet School; shorts frequently seemed to be the garment of choice at performances and some social functions usually considered somewhat formal. Though not quite a prude, the sessions made me wonder about the future of the art and the mind-set of some contestants. What a dichotomy when romantic tutus are in a ballet company’s standard repertoire!

Villella mentioned, when approached for the job of jury chair, he expressed his desire to see works by contemporary choreographers which would challenge the dancers, maintain technical skill and foster evidence of individual interpretation. Chosen for this task were works from Trey McIntyre for solos, two for the men, two for the women, one each in the junior and senior categories, two pas de deux by Michael Neenan for seniors and one for the juniors. The costumes also were specified, simple, undistracted by sequins or ruffles.
McIntyre’s choreography, one of the more off-beat of current choreographers, used excerpts from Bad Winter and Leatherwing Bat, which, not seeing the full ballet, says nothing about the charm of the music. Bad Winter employed a vintage-sounding vocal by Steven Tracy of “Pennies from Heaven” for junior women and the delightful Peter, Paul and Mary folk tune, “Leatherwing Bat” for the junior men.

For the senior males, McIntyre selected Book Trio music from Henry Cowell’s Book Trio “Four Combinations for Three Instruments and Trio in Nine Short Movements” under the title (serious.) The senior women got an excerpt from Robust American Love, “A Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” performed by Fleet Foxes.

Michael Neenan’s selections included a ‘Thirties style pas de deux from Penumbra to music by Alberto Ginastra, and a Switch Phase excerpt by “Café Tacuba” from Brooklyn Rider’s Passport album, a selection of angst and tension. The sole junior pas de deux, The Last Glass excerpt, Beirut’s “Un Dernier Verre” but sung in English was suitably gentler. `

Seen once, the choices allowed audience and jurors to assess the competitors’ interpretive abilities. Over the three sessions, this decision manifested wisely, the interpretative edge going to dancers familiar with American predilections for lyrics or dramatic tension. I remember most junior selections and the pas de deux, the senior women’s selection dimmer in my impression. Seniors numbered twenty-three, juniors twenty-one, with twelve senior pas de deux, only six for the juniors. Fifteen juniors danced solos, eleven seniors performed alone.

The Last Glass, the junior pas de deux, featured the girl frequently with her back to the audience, once or twice in broad a la seconde en pointe spider-like in movement, lifted, dancing pirouettes; in the end en pointe, back to the audience, right foot beating delicately on the calf of the supporting left leg, to convey, apparently, the fluttering response of reciprocated young love. Of the juniors, just two junior Brasilians, Yasmin Lamondo and Gustavo Carvalho, danced this pas together into the finalist category. Romina Contreras of Chile, with a senior partner, also made the cut from this pas de deux. The remaining junior males interpreted Leatherwing Bat and the junior women Bad Winter.

For Bad Winter the junior women were required to wear black trunks, a striped stretch tunic covered over by an exaggerated white jacket with wide lapels and lengthy tie-like closing. Standing stage center-back, the dancer started to edge forward foot parallel to the stage, three such movements before the reedy rendition began. The body moves to face back, arms raised to make an incomplete square; some not-quite pirouettes follow before the words “Pennies from Heaven” are heard. There is a jaunty salute and one starts to think “Charlie Chaplin” or “Danny Kaye” as the dancer rolls on the floor under the admonition of not being under a tree. There is another movement upstage, some demi-pointe pirouettes before the dancer lifts the white front tails above her head, falls on her back and lifts her feet as the lights are cut.

Likewise, in Leatherwing Bat, the young men had an elaborate jacket, multi-colored, perhaps the several-hued wings of a parrot, in white tights, lifted their arms like wings, moved the forearm sometimes like semi fores, head twitched bird like, sidewise body lunges, some technical bravura in service to the quirky, occasionally rhyming, bird specie litany, the slightly bouncy rhythm seeping into the pulse. It was one of McIntyre appealing folk themes, easy to appreciate, the men’s interpretive grasp equally clear.

(serious), the McIntyre selection for senior male soloists, combined precision of execution, unexpected gestures in unexpected postures with beautiful, classical movement erupting from the quirky sections. From upstage center, the dancer stood, extended their arms, inspected their hands bending forward, wrapping them around legs in a la seconde, head and body, apprehensive of being followed. The movement heads downstage right, crosses over to mid-stage right, small inflections interspersed with turns and semi-crouching steps. At the finale, the dancer falls to his knees, and falls between the curtains. Interpretation ranged from the totally precise of China’s Mengjun Chen to the controlled frenzy of Ivan Duarte from Brazil.

Matthew Neenan’s pas de deux were easily understood. After all, the two dancers need to react to each other; that necessity alone helps assessing interpretive strength. Combined with steps and music, it provides an accurate appraisal of range. The excerpt from Penumbra, danced by six couples, specified the women wear a floor-length skirt but allowed the women to choose, red, mauve, filmy tulle and uneven-length black. In contrast to Switch Phase, emotional controversy was comparatively minor, though the woman drags herself across the stage to grasp her partner’s legs toward the end, after having lain prone with the suggestion of completed love making. There was a spectacular lift and a startling head-first drop of the woman; in the end man and woman have embraced.

Switch Phase is stormy and the man gets as good as he gives; they turn, head touching head; there is one magical moment when the pair touch each other’s forefingers moving from hip to chest before going into other movements, signaling a cautious recognition of the other’s separate being requiring respect. After the lifts, or supported arabesques, there is upright, body-to-body contact and resolution. Phrasing again was the key to the effectiveness of each presentation. Melissa Gelfin, USA, and Arianna Martin, Cuba, gave distinguished interpretations as did Aaron Smyth.

These three sessions, replete with excitement; revealed the choreography as choices, physical forms of understanding over technical competence. The thirty-one finalists were the result.

N.B. The above was written during the Competition; the prior entry on Round II was written in San Francisco

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.

Lew Christensen’s Legacy

1 Jan

With Virginia “Ginny” Johnson’s death September 21, 2011, Lew Christensen’s
balletic legacy faces an uncertain future.  Ginny was responsible for mounting
his ballets on companies desiring a Christensen work in its repertoire. Christensen’s widow, Gisella Caccialanza, gave San Francisco Ballet permission to accomplish its own revivals so long as there was someone in its ranks who worked with Lew and danced in the ballet.  The last works the company has revived were “Con Amore” and “Filling Station;” outside of “Jinx”, they perhaps are the best known.

Given the Christensen brothers’ background in vaudeville, many of Lew’s works are not only story-based, but filled with business, the business of situational movement. This vaudeville background was first demonstrated in Lew’s 1938 Ballet Caravan choreographic debut, “Filling Station.” Those who have seen it know the horseplay by the truck drivers, the eerie chase with flash lights after the lights have been switched off.  How much of this was the Lincoln Kirstein libretto might be questioned, but Lew knew what caught an audience’s attention.  The same can be said of “Jinx,” created in 1942 while Lew was waiting to be called into the Army.

Vaudeville  manifested itself in “Con Amore,” not only in the plot, but in the fake trees used by the Amazons, their pursuit of the pirate, foot flirtations by the errant wife,  the presence of Cupid and the final aiming of Cupid’s arrow on the student. In Lew’s “Don Juan,” 1975, few who saw it will forget the chase in the nunnery. In “Scarlatti,” Harlequin’s hoop dance earned a bronze medal for choreography at the inaugural international competition in Jackson, Mississippi and helped David MacNaughton to walk away with a senior men’s silver medal.

Given the company’s practice, there may well be archival video footage of other works which could provide guidance in reviving some of the works.  There are additional memorable works, like “Shadows” and “Divertissement d’Auber,” in which every young male dance in the company in the ‘60’s possessed of a  decent jump was cast: Roderick Drew, Michael Smuin, Terry Orr, David Coll all come to mind.  There may have been others created during the summer sessions in the upstairs convertible studio on 18th Avenue.  I believe 18th avenue was the site of the first performances of “Il Distratto,” rendered memorable because it provided disembodied legs as part of its source for chuckles. Ballet San Jose mounted it during this century’s first decade.

“Original Sin” was created during one of the brief spring seasons the company occupied the former Alcazar Theater. I seem to remember two rather witty works for the same venue, one of them “Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes” and another “Pied Piper,” or some such name with lots of green in the costumes and a version of medieval ramparts as part of the scenery.  A more romantic work was “The Lady of Shallott,” an exclusive vehicle for Jocelyn Vollmar with Kent Stowell, retired co-artistic director of  Pacific Northwest Ballet, featured as one of the knights passing through the Lady’s vision. “Norwegian Moods” has to wait about a decade and it formed a pas de deux danced by Susan Magno and Keith Martin, former Joffrey and Royal Ballet soloists,a work both tender and lively.

Lew’s choreography suffered because of the technical level of dancers passing through the school.  The female students seemed a little strident during thebetter part of the ’60’s as Lew strived to stand his company technically that  of New York City Ballet.  While the level of dancing rose markedly when Michael Smuin brought several dancers west with him to share co-artistic direction, Lew’s snow scene in his Nutcracker Act I early distinguished itself for the swirling movement of the dancers, catching the feeling of wind pushing the snowflakes into drifts.

One hopes that a company suddenly will remember several of these ‘oldies
and goodies’ so they won’t get entirely consigned to the written word or
the limited life span of videotape or DVDs.