Must-See Balanchine
Joseph Walsh in Balanchine's Prodigal Son. (© Erik Tomasson)

Must-See Balanchine

San Francisco Ballet

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
War Memorial Auditorium
San Francisco Opera House
Mar. 7-16, reviewed Mar. 7
Sfballet.org

Stagers Bart Cook and Maria Calegari return as Balanchine Trust emissaries to transmit the particularities signaling George Balanchine’s momentous break with traditional classical ballet to another generation of dancers. In three works, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Diamonds” from the Jewels Suite, the company zestfully meets the challenge of proving that these neo-classicals withstand the test of time to be classified, oxymoronically, as classics.

“Stravinsky Violin Concerto” is one of Balanchine’s “leotard” ballets, where in clever reversals, Yuan Yuan Tan shepherds a flock of men and then a polished-looking Luke Ingham herds a bevy of women. The piece leans on an armature of traditional gender identities to underscore a modernist egalitarianism. Premiered in 1972, the “youngest” of the three pieces, its arrival coincided with the Second Wave of the women’s rights movement, and the choreographer’s famed declaration that “ballet is woman,” takes on a very different aspect in this work. Rather presenting Tan as if on a moving pedestal, he has her driving. Tan, who has danced a number of femme-dominant roles, dispatches her off-balance extensions and jutting hips with discretionary abandon, while tending to the fearless symmetries that shape the piece. Sarah Van Patten, dancing for the first time since having given birth last season, feels her way back into the thrum, dancing an adagio pas de deux with Tiit Helimets, who, over the years, has been a Daddy Long-Legs to her Ingénue, but now they fold into each other’s manipulations with familiar plasticity, as he draws her head into his slow descent to the floor. The black and white palette is no tribute to absence of color. Rather, its secret lies in deriving its coloration from mournful violin accompaniment by Cordula Merks.

“Diamonds” from 1967, is Balanchine’s “middle child,” in the evening’s array. With its brilliant “white” lighting by Ronald Bates, Barbara Karinska’s sparkling champagne tutus, and bow-tie or diamond- shaped corps traverses, it clinks, rustles, and glitters in celebration of New York high society sophistication without a trace of Manhattan sophistry. Vanessa Zahorian, retiring at the close of the current season, is a proven practitioner of Balanchine style, and interprets the pas de deux with smiling aplomb, enabled by her partner Carlo di Lanno. Di Lanno doesn’t get to do much more than move her about, very much the ring finger for her Solitaire. Coming as it does at the program’s end, “Diamonds” a nice little dessert to leave a frothy finish after a full-course repast.

“Prodigal Son” is the senior of the three works, set on Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1929, three months before he died, at which point the rights reverted to Balanchine. It’s one of the two narrative works he brought with him to Ballet Society from Ballet Russes, the other having been “Apollon Musagète,” later abbreviated to “Apollo.” It re-enacts the title-name Bible story, minus the resentful brother, and Joseph Walsh, as The Prodigal Son swells with ambition as he sets off with only enough of a whiff of misgiving to foreshadow the story’s wrenching finale. Walsh finesses the subtle acting challenges with tactile facility, perhaps having internalized the rewards of a subtle treatment from his experience working with Christopher Bruce. By contrast, he hitches his pyrotechnics to the gains his character looks forward to scoring, and soars across the distance he has put between himself and his father and sisters. His entourage consists of his two servants, danced with a great comic flair by veteran soloists Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and James Sofranko, whose physical acting ranges from throwing punches to circus acrobatics. They comport themselves with nothing less than Shakespearean antic timing and coordination. One can only compare their comic sense to Nicolas Blanc and Pascal Molat in Renato Zanella’s “Alles Walzer.” The brutish Drinking Companions are as hedonistically offensive as traffic will allow.

Georges Roualt’s Van Gogh-like sets, and costumes echoing the sets’ tapestry-like complexity of color, add depth and perspective to the linear narrative. There are two dramatic moments where stager Richard Tanner’s surgical eye, and the dancers’ commendable pacing, meshed with precision. The first is the seduction scene, where Sofiane Sylve as the Siren, hisses out just enough steam to elevate Walsh’s Son’s puerile temperature, and having exercised that power, squanders not one more iota of herpetic attention on him, but slithers out of his life for keeps. The second occurs during the finale, when a defeated, betrayed, pauperized, and suffering Son crawls wrenchingly through the desert on his knees to at last seek solace in his father’s house. The moment when Ricardo Bustamante as Father reaches out to his son so that he may carry him home, gesturally recounts the occult story of Father’s years of suffering in silence, having kept the home fires burning, along with faith and hope that in the end, his son would see and seek the light.
Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.