Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tina LeBlanc's Farewell Performance, 5/9/2009

Tina LeBlanc's Farewell Performance
San Francisco Ballet
Saturday, May 9, 2009, 8PM

After 17 spectacular years with San Francisco Ballet, Tina LeBlanc marked her farewell with an emotional and technically stunning program last Saturday. LeBlanc has anchored this company with her effortless technique, and pure, truthful style, and the audience sent her off in regal fashion, tossing flourishing bouquets of lilacs and roses while rising to its feet in rousing applause. Ballet clips and reflective interviews with other dancers, colleagues, and LeBlanc herself were interspersed throughout the evening, and these added a warm, introspective look into LeBlanc’s long career. Maybe the ballet will put these special treats up on the website for all to see?

On a personal note, I met LeBlanc a little under eight years ago. Fresh out of college, I got my first real job and at San Francisco Ballet not less. The summer before I had interned with Boston Ballet’s press office, but then most of the dancers were on summer break. I rarely interacted with the dancers in Boston, but at SF Ballet, they were everywhere: approving photos, giving interviews, taking class, talking on their cell phones, doing their hair in the elevator, and trying on pointe shoes. Just 21, I was understandably nervous about interacting with the pros, but on one of my first days, LeBlanc came by my workspace, radiating a tender friendliness, and introduced herself. If I could have, I would have hugged her right then and there… The next two years at the ballet moved at high speed, but LeBlanc’s genuine smile and down to earthness continued to stick in my mind as one great constant, both on stage and in person.

Saturday’s performance was no different. She danced effortlessly in George Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Partnered by Gonzalo Garcia, one of her many great, former partners (who is currently dancing with New York City Ballet), LeBlanc stunningly floated through quick hops into attitude and swift pirouettes, all while looking like she was skipping across a meadow instead of powering through extremely technical choreography.

As a contrast, her duet with Griff Braun (on loan from the Lar Lubovitch Company) in the “My Funny Valentine” excerpt from “…smile with my heart,” showed that even without pointe shoes, she’s still a force to be reckoned with. As she curled herself around Braun, she slowly drew a heart around his chest, but later brought out angst, passion, and admiration without being overdramatic or satirical as she and Braun delved through the poignant and musical choreography, accompanied by the stirring notes of David Kadarauch on the cello and Michael McGraw’s piano. The adagio from Helgi Tomasson’s “Sonata” proved women can wear white unitards at any age. Or at least if you’re Tina LeBlanc. Tomasson created “Sonata” after the death of a female friend, but as LeBlanc waved her arms towards a reaching Ruben Martin as she boureed off the stage, it felt more like transformation and evolution, not any defined-in-stone ending. Fittingly, the pas de deux and finale from Balanchine’s “Theme & Variations” provided a large corps de ballet processional and tribute to LeBlanc, which is the least that anyone could ask for. Partnered by Davit Karapetyan, LeBlanc danced through the final steps with tears in her eyes, officially saying goodbye to the stage and hello to the next chapter of her illustrious career.

The evening, though, wouldn’t be compete without numerous bows, a sincere smile, and an onstage tribute including former partners, more recent company members, colleagues, and family. While sad, the plentiful standing ovations proved that LeBlanc has touched many dancegoers, young and old. Here’s to her as she continues her journey both personally and professionally.

Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.
Tina LeBlanc and Griff Braun in "My Funny Valentine" from Lubovitch's ...smile with my heart.
Tina LeBlanc taking her final bows.
All photos © Erik Tomasson

Monday, May 04, 2009

SFB, Program 8, 4/28/2009

San Francisco Ballet
Program 8
April 28, 2009, 8PM

I’m always a little sad at the end of the ballet season. As an audience member, seeing dancers attack new roles, revisit old ones, and expand their performance range feels fulfilling in some strange and usual way. And each season tends to be different, with various dancers rising to the occasion. These intricate developments can’t be predicted, but they’re sort of like the chili you make on a cold and rainy day: dependent on the ingredients you have at the time, heating time, and a little bit of luck. With this in mind, I watched San Francisco Ballet’s final program of the season (not including Tina LeBlanc’s farewell performance next Saturday evening) with a satisfying hunger in my belly.
Jorma Elo’s “Double Evil,” which premiered last season as part of the New Works Festival, shone brightly here as the evening’s closer. The work features odd quirks such at the women‘s derrieres pushed out behind their abnormally slanted tutus as they frequently stared ahead at the floor instead of up at their partners or the audience, but the slinky and peculiar movement using jagged arms, unexpected lifts, and what might be considered awkward yet incredibly inventive, almost nerdy choreography all came together in a whirlwind 27 minutes. The music flips back and forth between the quieter music of Phillip Glass and motivating percussion of Vladimir Martinov, and as it did, the eight dancers propelled themselves forward, using large bouts of momentum to continuously push ahead while still looking beautifully pretty. All of the dancers performed well, but especially Elana Altman and Pierre-Fran├žois Vilanoba, who twinkled in the opening duet; in addition, she continues to amaze me with her various strengths and movement diversity. “Double Evil” may not have made a huge dent in the grand scheme of ballet, but Elo’s unique movement style and structure are both entertaining and imaginative nonetheless.
Alexei Ratmansky, heralded as the next big thing in choreography, delivered a confident yet not too original work entitled “Russian Seasons,” which debuted in 2006 via New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project. Meant to showcase the real goings-on amongst a group, Ratmansky produces an introspective dance that intends to bridge the delicate with the overly dramatic. With the 12 dancers adorned in peasant-like jewel tones, the six pairs moved gracefully through this lengthy endeavor. Lorena Feijoo displayed her soap opera alter-ego as she delved through the work, seemingly tormented, but Yuan Yuan Tan didn’t overdo it as the bride-to-be as she wrestled with her impending marriage and the loss of personal freedoms. It’s unusual to see a cast including nine principals in one place, but soloists Hansuke Yamamoto and Elizabeth Miner, and corps member Isaac Hernandez all held their own and then some, saying a lot about the company’s depth and capacity. The score, Leonid Desyatnikov’s “The Russian Seasons” provided a moody undercurrent, complete with live vocals from mezzo soprano Susana Poretsky. But none of this could save “Russian Seasons” from feeling unusually overdone.
Additionally on the bill was Yuri Possokhov’s “Fusion,” also reappearing after the New Works Festival. No doubt it’s a fun piece, with new age-crossed-with-jazz accompaniment by Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman, but Possokov tended on the literal side as he explored his transition from dancer to choreographer. With a corps of four men often dancing in synch or canon and dressed in hats, deep v-necks, and long skirt/pants ensembles (all white), their movement often became hokey and expected as they weaved through the rest of the dancers. The eight principals, though, flew through the air at sonic speeds, whipping their bodies around and about, and this peaked my interest. Garen Scribner, especially, had an instinctive way of connecting the steps, making it look not like twelve different positions, but one remarkable and ever-continuous journey from point A to B.

April is one of those months that is traditionally filled with dance. Many smaller companies tour, the bigger ones are wrapping up their home seasons, and the month’s end hosts National Dance Week in cities and towns all across the country. With the economy a looming question mark at everyone’s dinner table and donations to non-profits dropping, we can’t quite guess what next year’s arts season will bring. With the regular season wrapping up, San Francisco Ballet’s offerings this year have, overall, been strong and sure. The quality of the dancers has been dependable, even with multiple big names injured for most of the run, and many soloists and corps de ballet dancers have risen to the occasion, displaying bright and hidden talents. Here’s hoping that our arts organizations, both large and tiny, can recover (financially and, in SF Ballet’s case, health-wise) from what is assumed to be a difficult few years in the making.


Sarah Van Patten and Garen Scribner in Elo's Double Evil.
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's
Russian Seasons.
Maria Kochetkova and Benjamin Stewart in Possokhov's Fusion.

© Erik Tomasson