Tag Archives: Russell Hartley

Silicon Valley Ballet’s Production of Giselle

19 Oct

It was a case of something old and something new for this 1841 Romantic Era tale of love, class, love betrayed and love transcendent October 16-18. And, yes, it was the U.S. first, Alicia Alonso’s take of the classic Giselle thanks to Jose Manuel Carreno’s dream to bring it to the United States It was however, something, if not old, borrowed, since the sets and costumes utilized were first seen when this San Jose-based ensemble was directed by Dennis Nahat, a fact overlooked in the pre-performance promotion. Scenic credits go to Gianni Queranata for the excessive floral scenery scenery, perhaps late summer abundance; Act I costumes to Paul Plesh and Act II costumes to David Guthrie with David K. H. Elliott as the lighting designer. Who knows the credit for the recorded music.

While the company possesses three ballerinas undertaking the coveted role of the delicate peasant girl, it has also acquired a principal male dancer in Brett Bauer, one-time member of San Francisco Ballet, principal with the Oregon Ballet Theatre under Christopher Stowell. My main objection to his performance was his hair was too crew cut for Albrecht and his costume in Act II hit at an ungainly length on his hips. I attribute such concerns to the late Russell Hartley; his eye for costume and decor was such that he said, “I get so disturbed by some costumes, I can’t see the ballet.”

Saturday night Ommi Pipit-Suksun made her debut as Giselle, as Junna Ige did in the afternoon. Pipit-Suksun’s face and body lines make for an ideal Giselle; she added inherent diffident movements I consider Asian, endearing, moving through her postures naturally. Her eyes possessed the unblinking attention of a bird, fluttering; ultimately when she realized the betrayal, caged, deprived of the incandescent joy experienced dancing with Loys, Albrecht in disguise. It was wistful, tender, sanity bending inexorably against the facts of fate and class.

Instead of game, Hilarion, hesitancy sensitively portrayed by Akira Takahashi, wanted to give Giselle a white floral bouquet; there were the villagers arriving as he is about to place the blossoms in a receptacle. His approach to Giselle was more physical before the sparring between Hilarion and Loys [Albrecht], upstage until aware of Hilarion’s physical importuning. The tangle of wills provoked Giselle’s anxiety and her sinking to the bench, an Alonso motive seen in Alonso’s Giselle segments on Channel 32.5, a singular contribution Alonso included in her production.

Later, when there was the second attack, her friends rush to provide a chair, and Loys’ concern is more than passing. One could see Pipit-Suksun upstage, gathering her strength as she joined the circling villagers. Avoiding some of the technical challenges, [the toe hopping on the diagonal and dancing before the Courland party because of hyper-extended muscles], Pipit-Suksunl, along with her exquisite presence, conveyed a technically strong portrait of the fated adolescent.

Berthe was ably portrayed by Karen Gabay; not so many years ago, she was a memorable Giselle. The mime scene was expanded, with a Wili appearing in the background. Berthe, corralled a villager physically to demonstrate the ugly fate of woman unfulfilled and male caught at midnight in the forest. Here Alonso has been not only specific, but the background  Wili  is visible only to the audience. I wonder at the connection between Cuban folk rites and interpretation of the ballet’s libretto.

Act II enjoyed spreading rays of light from center stage, moon hovering slightly orange in the background, stage necessities triumphing over scenery. As Myrthe, Jing Zhang’s port de bras, with the other Wilis, demonstrated they were not quite alive, along with steady arabesques moving horizontally across the stage. Skillfully dancing as Moyna and Zelma Amy Marie Briones and Cindy Huang emphasized this semi-worldliness. The clear box sounds of the toe shoes in Zhang’s rendition showed little sign of special Marley flooring, or a sprung floor underneath, the San Jose Performing Arts Center might consider as a good investment.

Pipit-Suksun was elegant, a fluid sprite, tenderly supported by Bauer. One particular touch I enjoyed was the use of simple blossoms in the initial encounter which Albrecht picked from Giselle’s raised arms. No great tossings, it reminded me of Igor Youskevitch’s feats when dancing with Alonso several decades ago, and seemed a fitting tribute.

As Aimee T’sao noted in her San Jose Mercury review, the pity is the production is unlikely to be reproduced soon, giving the dancers the opportunity to grow in their roles, as well as the possibility of hearing an orchestra in the pit once more.

Given only six of the corps de ballet were hired by Dennis Nahat, with thirteen corps dancers arriving during the interregnum and under the direction of Jose Manuel Carreno, it’s difficult to assert how changed the former Ballet San Jose has become. The uncertainty prior to Carreno’s arrival was palpable, along with the deficit non-existent under the Nahat aegis. Given all the adjustments, the new SVB has made a major stride in this production of Giselle. But there still is must yet to be done fiscally and artistically. This production speaks to future possibilities.

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MPD and Muriel Maffre

26 Jul

When Dance USA met in San Francisco the end of June, the Museum of  Performance and Design [MPD] provided an afternoon open house on the fourth floor of the Veterans’ Building.

I’m hazy whether the display had been assembled particularly for the presence of this national dance professional organization or if it had been up for some time. At any rate, I trotted down to Civic Center June 30 to take a look about an hour before closing.

Not only was I curious about the contents, but I wanted to see Muriel Maffre in her new setting as Executive Director of MPD. I’ve been one of her avid fans since she danced Odette/Odile opposite Yuri Zhukov during her initial season with San Francisco Ballet.  She has given not only rare pleasure in her dancing, but she also has given the Bay Area a rare intelligence in her capacity to bridge disciplines effectively.

MPD is lucky to have Maffre’s abilities as it faces a move from the Veterans’ Building as that edifice starts seismic retrofitting in 2013.  MPD not only faces displacement, but the fact it cannot return once the repairs have been made: San Francisco Opera is slated to occupy the space.  Maffre therefore is working to secure space sufficient to house its bulging, disparate collection as well as to imprint the organization’s importance in the life of the Bay Area’s performing arts.

Funds, of course, are a problem.  New York City’s performing arts won city and state support. While MPD receives annual fees from a  number of organizations paying for their archival   maintenance, it also  relies on membership, private donors, and, presumably, funding for specific projects, for its support. I was told by a former president of the organization, then known as San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum [SF PALM] that it very nearly became a part of the San Francisco Public Library system.  Preventing the merger was the fact San Francisco’s library system would not guarantee incorporating SF PALM’s  existing staff into its personnel.

Lord, but my preambles can get involved!  Anyway, the exhibit seen June 30 was sheer delight; bits of everything: costumes, memorabilia, posters, books, generous with, but not limited to, dance.  The nucleus of MPD’s collection started with Russell Hartley, tall, blonde, very artistic and warmly gregarious, the first Mother Ginger in Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker, also the creator of the costumes – not only the sketches, but the garments themselves.  It was largely his nucleus that was on display.

Russell had blown up opera and theatrical posters, colored them. (He had been a painting conservator until the fumes required his shifting activities) Enrico Caruso stared out at you, head cocked slightly, eyes piercing.  I think I remember seeing Mary Garden near Caruso.
Octavian’s elaborate white satin costume, breeches and jacket from Der Rosencavalier occupied the entry niche and nearby was a poster celebrating La Estralita.  Angels in America was duly recognized.

Under glass was the sumptuous collection of the Stowitts’ costume  (Hubert Julian) sketches for Fay Yen Fah, the opera with libretto by Templeton  Cocker and music by Joseph Redding, premiered at the Bohemian Grove in 1917  before being mounted at the tiny Monte Carlo Opera created by Charles  Garnier.  Ninette de Valois and Alexandra Danilova danced in the opera, the ballet divertissement created by George Balanchine, his eleventh work under Diaghilev’s aegis in Western Europe.  The Stowitts’ designs never made it to the stage because Stowitts spent too much time on his oeuvre, subsidized two years by Crocker to study the objects from the Dun Huang caves brought to London and Paris by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Peliot. I remember being told by Anne Holliday, Stowitts’ biographer, that he ordered handmade paper from China for the sketches. Little wonder patron and artist parted collaboration.

Totally new to me was a colorful, highly-decorated costume exhumed from a trunk belonging to the short-lived Pavel-Oukrainsky troupe, organized in Chicago in the early ‘Twenties.  Andreas Pavel died in 1931, believed as a suicide.  How long the ensemble survived is not clear, but it  actually  predated San Francisco Ballet.

Serge Oukrainsky followed Adolph Bolm as ballet master for the San Francisco Opera, lasting one season, 1927-38, when his post was assumed by Willam Christensen.  Oukrainsky is credited as having created dances for the SF Opera productions of  Aida, La Traviata, Lakme, Un Ballo en Maschera. The explanatory notes stated a friend told Harlety the Oukrainsky trunks were headed for the garbage and he rescued them.  Maffre exhumed the contents from storage in preparation for this exhibit.

These objects were memory lane for me.  Russell Hartley had been a part of my San Francisco dance going, first when he gossiped while sitting beside me as I watched San Francisco Ballet rehearse  Sylphides at 236 Van Ness the winter of 1947.  For years his conservation studio was on Market Street about a block west of the Academy of Ballet at 2121 Market Street;  dancers were always welcome and parties frequent.  Before starting the Museum, then known at the Archives for the Performing Arts, in the basement of the Sacramento Street branch of San Francisco’s Public Library, Russell operated an art gallery just north of Broadway on the west side of Columbus Avenue.  There, among other artists, he showed Kyra Nijinsky’s paintings of her father.

Russell’s creation of the Archives, now the Museum of Performance and Design, got its major active impetus from two sources. First,  John Kreidler was able to take a U.S. Department of Labor apprentice ruling and make a case for applying the CETA funds to the arts.  It not only
enabled Stephen Goldstine, directing the Neighborhood Arts Program, to employ artists, but it provided personnel to San Francisco Ballet. CETA Funds paid the salaries for Russell Hartley, enabling him to concentrate on organizing the  Archives but hiring Judith Solomon as his assistant. Russell usually spent most of his stipend at flea markets, picking up discarded theatrical memorabilia.

Second, the space at the Sacramento branch came to Russell through the initiative of Kevin Starr during his brief tenure as Librarian for the San Francisco Public Libraries. I think the CETA salaries came through the Library system.  CETA funding went down the drain when Ronald Reagan became President.

Those energetic years came flooding across my memory screen as I regarded what Muriel Maffre had accomplished in this exhibit.  Russell Hartley would feel MPD is in not only competent, but imaginative hands.