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San Francisco Ballet: Three Centuries in Review - Robbins Prevails

by Joanna G. Harris
January 30, 2013
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-5600
Joanna G. Harris
Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
Helgi Thomasson, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet is a wizard at programming a variety of ballets to intrigue audiences. For Program One of the 2013 season, he staged Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc," with music by Edouard Lalo, Jerome Robbin's "In the Night," with music by Chopin and the world premiere of Wayne McGregor's "Borderlands," set to electronic music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney.

It was quite wonderful to reacquaint oneself with Robbins' masterpiece "In the Night". It is an exquisite work from 1970 when Robbins was with the NYC Ballet. Set to a group of Chopin nocturnes, three couples offered various states of confrontation; the first playful, the second reserved and elegant and the third in the argumentative and conciliatory. All this was accomplished with Robbins' amazing ability to use classical dance vocabulary with dramatic expression. The lifts were unique to each couple, the partnering had special characteristics and the use of space suggested intimacy or a lack thereof. For the January 30 performance, Vanessa Zahorian and Ruben Martin Cintas were a pleasure in the first pas de deux; Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Heliments performed the second in costumes reminiscent of court dress and Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba were the tempestuous third couple. Staged by SF Ballet's Anita Paciotti with costumes by Anthony Dowell and lighting by Jennifer Tipton, "In the Night" is still a ballet for the ages.

Serge Lifar's dance aesthetic was developed in the Diaghilev era when he was a dancer and later as choreographer for the Paris Opera Ballet. Although the program notes drew our attention to the 'humor, bravura and charm' of "Suite in Blanc", this reviewer thought the choreography to be somewhat academic or at the very least to be a valiant effort to update 19th Century ballet. The score, by Lalo is excerpted from an 1882 work "Namouna," and is predictable in its forms: 'serenade,' 'mazurka,' and finale ('fete foraine'). Several SF Ballet regulars however gave outstanding performances in it. Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan in the pas de duex and Sofiane Sylve in "flute". Also, in a section entitled "cigarette" (a reference to the original ballet), Wan Ting Zhao gave an exciting technical performance. The piece was charming as a program opener, but failed to captivate this reviewer.

McGregor's "Borderland" was inspired by and reflected Joseph Albers "Homage to the Square," both in its design and its choreographic patterning. At the start, two dancers emerged behind a black square while other dancers occupied the four corners of the stage. What followed was a series of light shows (designed by Lucy Carter), electronic sound booms and a series of intense four-minute acrobatic dances. Following contemporary trends in ballet, McGregor, who has choreographed for his own company Random Dance, The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, represents the current trend of dance style that utilizes endless lifts, relaxed locomotion, continual series of turns and a unisex approach to seemingly casual yet very demanding dance phrases. As a 21st century style this is very 'in'. "Borderland" however startled the eye and hurt the ear. What was good was fascinating but carried on way too long.

SF Ballet has eight programs to present this season including the Hamburg Ballet in Neumeier's "Nijinsky", the US premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's "Cinderella" and the return of last season's "Onegin" as well as programs of shorter ballets. The company is off to a good start. Audiences can look forward to many enchanting evenings of great dance ahead.
San Francisco Ballet in Wayne McGregor's 'Borderlands'.

San Francisco Ballet in Wayne McGregor's "Borderlands".

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson


Elana Altman and Tiit Helimets in Jerome Robbin's 'In the Night'.

Elana Altman and Tiit Helimets in Jerome Robbin's "In the Night".

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson


Vito Mazzeo and Yuan Yuan Tan in Serge Lifar's 'Suite en Blanc'.

Vito Mazzeo and Yuan Yuan Tan in Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc".

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson


Sarah Van Patten in Serge Lifar's 'Suite en Blanc'.

Sarah Van Patten in Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc".

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson

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