Monday, February 26, 2007

SF Ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, 2/24/2007

Smells like teen spirit
San Francisco Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty”
Saturday, February 24, 2006, 8PM

As a teen, the first full-length non-Balanchine story ballet I saw was The Royal Ballet’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” One of my fondest memories of this was the awe factor: the first time the fairies entered, Aurora balancing during the Rose Adagio, and later the celebratory wedding scene. Last year’s rendition by the Kirov Ballet didn’t quite hold up to my adolescent memories, but this weekend, San Francisco Ballet stood up to the challenge with its own version.

Choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson (after Marius Petipa, of course) in 1990, this Sleeping Beauty paints more than just a pretty picture. Sure, there are attractive sets, happy corps de ballet dancers, lavish yet understated costumes and wigs, and the well-known story, but what’s more, there are also dancers with determination and spirit. Yuan Yuan Tan, Saturday’s Aurora, showed us that beauty is more than skin deep. While not completely believable as a genuine, sprightly 16 year old, Tan performed with grit and flow, with jaw dropping balances in attitude (I think I counted at least 5 seconds in there somewhere. Thank goodness for the evening’s conductor, Martin West, and his baton!) during the Rose Adagio. Later on, when she came “out of retirement” at the ripe ol’ age of 116, Tan seemed more relaxed and refined, allowing her upper body to flow more and adding a peaceful smile to her face. Maybe the 100-year nap was a good thing. Or perhaps this was her reaction to her newfound love for the ever-able Prince Desiré, portrayed by Tiit Helimets, who partnered her soundly and effortlessly throughout while displaying gorgeously centered pirouettes and fantastically light n’ fluffy (just how I like my pancakes!) beats.

With supple limbs and strength running tautly through her veins, the regal Muriel Maffre ruled the stage as the Lilac Fairy and showed that while pantomime in story ballets can sometimes be long winded, it can, if done just right, actually be beautiful to watch. Sarah Van Patten, tonight the Fairy of Generosity, has come far in the past few years, developing from a young unpretentious woman into a self-assured and commanding presence to complement her fine technique. But one of the biggest surprises of the night came from Dores Andre, a member of the corps de ballet, who made her debut as the Fairy of Serenity in Act I along with the White Cat to Matthew Stewart’s nimble Puss In Boots in Act III. Other than a slight bobble at the beginning of her initial variation, Andre danced with a quietness that had me on the edge of my seat, following her from corner to corner as she hopped, balanced, and hopped again. Just two hours later, she transformed into a slinky hip-bopping feline who could purr with the best of them.

Elizabeth Miner’s fluttering and quick-footedness as the Fairy of Playfulness and later the Sapphire Fairy brought a smile to people’s faces, and Molly Smolen was well received in the roles of the tough-as-nails Fairy of Courage and the Diamond Fairy. Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, the Fairy of Tenderness, melted into every plié with ease, but sometimes her face told a different story. Two very different peas in a pod, Courtney Wright and Courtney Elizabeth sparkled as the Silver and Gold fairies. Wright’s dancing contained a more subtle shine, while Elizabeth glittered with more pizzazz. Katita Waldo (in for Kristin Long) and Joan Boada fluttered as the Enchanted Princess and the Blue Bird. Boada, with his smoldering good looks, seemed ready for takeoff, but Waldo looked out of place, and their partnering was shaky at best. Anita Paciotti's sinister yet gold-clad Carabosse (aka the Fairy of Darkness) creeped me out, and I can easily understand why she was “forgotten” on the guest list. Quinn Wharton was a boyish yet polished Mongolian Prince, and both Garrett Anderson and Jaime Garcia Castilla excelled playing the Cavaliers to the Jewel Fairies. One more of note was Nicole Grand as one of the Little Lilacs. Grand displayed great stage presence, always in character with a smile on and her head held high.

One nice, yet minor edit to Tomasson's "The Sleeping Beauty" is the recent removal of the 2nd intermission between Acts II and III. Yes, it's nice to have that "breather" in there, but for many families, a 3-hour ballet with young kids can be grueling.

There is a lot more to look forward to with this run, including Rachel Viselli’s debut as Aurora and several new Lilac Fairies (Elana Altman, Sarah Van Patten, and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun). And with such a wonderful start, the momentum is sure to continue on.

Photo by Marty Sohl

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stephen Petronio Company, 2/9/2007

They’ve Got Kick
Stephen Petronio Company
Presented by San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
February 9, 2007 8PM

Do you ever wake up and think, “Hey, I have an urge for some New York-style modern dance today!“? Funny enough, I did so just last week, and what timing with Friday’s return of the Stephen Petronio Company (presented by San Francisco Performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts). This evening was a night filled with dance (SF Ballet and Reggie Wilson next door presented by YBCA), and I’m glad I was able to see the Stephen Petronio Company’s return to the city by the bay.

The program opened with what happened to be the shortest yet potentially most fulfilling work, Petronio’s 2006 “Bud Suite,” set to the intelligent music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright. Funky, edgy, and clever, “Bud Suite” explores the poignancy of youth and the multitude of expectations throughout life without ever feeling like a downer. The dancers, partially in suits or white button downs with tattered backs and short red shorts (with tulle poofs on the rears at one point for the women), moved with incredible ease yet underlying power: Little piques here, a large grand battement originating from the pelvis there. The movement grew, yet not too big for its britches as my grandmother would say, and I enjoyed the understated yet compelling style.

“Bud Suite” acted as a prelude to “BLOOM,” also set to the music of Wainwright (utilizing lyrics from Latin Mass as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson). While Wainwright was prerecorded, additional live accompaniment was also provided by the sweet and melodious sounds of the San Francisco Girls Chorus conducted by Susan McMane. The company’s men wore Rachel Roy’s cream/grey colored vests and shorts, and provided a more grounded contrast to the women, who were dressed in her muted blue/grey dresses resembling tulips blowing in the wind (and some “blooming“ later on into golden shimmer-like baby doll dresses). As the chorus, the music, and the dancers continued to soar, I crept to the edge of my seat, the company moving so fluidly on stage through this harmonious dance that I didn‘t want it to end.

Excerpted from Petronio‘s 1992 “Full Half Wrong, “The Rite Part,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and music by Mitchell Lager, is based on Nijinsky’s “Le sacre de printemps.” The company, adorned in sheer black bodysuits clad in fabric scraps, seemed transformed from earlier. No longer were they happy and carefree; instead, the dancers moved with steadfast purpose, some clear end in sight. Shila Tirabassi, as the woman dancing herself to death, jumped, kicked, and paused with sexual abandon, and closing the program, “The Rite Part” drove the evening home with seductive yet fierce imagery.

Photo © Stephen Petronio Company

Monday, February 05, 2007

SF Ballet, Program 2, 2/3/2007

En Fuego. Sort of.

San Francisco Ballet, Program 2
“Blue Rose,” “The Dance House,” “Firebird
Saturday, February 3, 2007, 8PM

This past Saturday evening, it may have been cold and lifeless outside, but the idea of seeing a whirl of high-quality dance brought warmth and excitement to my heart. While some of my newfound inner warmness could possibly be attributed to the recent dinner of miso soup, warmed lotus root, sake, and spicy sushi, my point is that I felt slightly toasty, my thoughts were warm, and I saw red hot, as in San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokov’s “Firebird.”

This new version of “Firebird” hit the spot for what could have been a chilly San Francisco outing, and while it conjured up images such as the Princess and Bowser from Nintendo’s “Super Mario Brothers,” the Phoenix from “Harry Potter,” and the Orcs from “The Lord of the Rings” all rolled into one, Possokov’s “Firebird” conveyed a fantasy all its own. Helping Tiit Helimet’s lovesick Prince rescue his “fairest of them all” Princess (Rachel Viselli) from the clutches of Pascal Molat’s in-need-of-rhinoplasty Kaschei, Yuan Yuan Tan’s orange-wigged, body suit-clad Firebird displayed a rare tenderness that exuded from every limb: an extended arm, a gentle attitude, and a soft yet powerful stare. Possokov’s choreographic skills seem to improve each go-around, and “Firebird” is no exception, infusing folk dance seamlessly with traditional ballet while also adding a comedic touch every now and then. There is continuity throughout without seeming repetitive, and his inclusion of relative props and intriguing yet minimal set design (by Yuri Zhukov) contrasted with Stravinsky's traditional score is a refreshing change. Authoritative without being too serious and mystical with a dash of comedy, this is one bird that gets the worm.

The two other works on the mixed bill didn’t quite have the power that “Firebird” did. “The Dance House,” David Bintley’s introspective take on AIDS within the dance community, debuted on SF Ballet’s stage 13 years ago. Facing reality head on, “The Dance House” abstractly explores not only the contagiousness of the disease, but also the reality that we are all connected to each other in some way whether small or large. Molly Smolen, in the adagio with Tiit Helimets, displayed lovely liquidity through her port de bras and développés. Tina LeBlanc and Kristin Long both shined in roles they originated, and Gonzalo Garcia’s “Patient Zero,” while reckless and crazed, seemed a somewhat fitting portrayal. Today, “The Dance House” can be viewed on a more macro level, with the concept ably being applied to other current day situations such as the impact of global warming, war, and racism, and it’s this ability that makes “The Dance House” work on a larger scale.

Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s “Blue Rose,” which is set to music by Elena Kats-Chernin and premiered last year, probably should have stayed in the past. The choreography feels uninspired, often flat, and if I may be so bold, a bad copy of Mr. Balanchine’s worst works (hip swivels and parallel cou de pied positions abound). However, Vanessa Zahorian and Nicholas Blanc added a buoyancy to the work, infusing a crisp energy to a rather bland piece of fare, and Natal’ya Feygina (piano) and Roy Malan’s (violin) accompaniment proved zesty.

“Firebird” anchors this program well and lives up to its entertainment and story telling potential. Adding balance to the evening, “The Dance House” does a 180°, making us face reality instead of hiding in a fantasy world. Overall (and even with the addition of “Blue Rose”), SF Ballet seems to be on track for the season.

A few other things to note. First, Guennadi Nedviguine is now Gennadi Nedvigin. Have I (and everyone else) been spelling his name wrong all these years? Time to update my spell checker. Second, if you’re waiting for will call tickets, be prepared to get yelled at, whether you’re old or young, and forced to reform your line out the door, down the steps (with no hand rails or assistance for the elderly and disabled) perpendicular to the entry doors, and along Van Ness.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Possokhov's Firebird.
© Erik Tomasson