The big star at this San Francisco Ballet program was the house pianist, Michael MacGraw. First giving a fabulous performance of Bach, the keyboard concerto movements that have been cobbled together to make-up Helgi Tomasson’s new dance, then diving into the waterfall of romanticism that is Saint-Saens’ Le Carnaval Des Animaux, he must have worked-up quite a sweat. His efforts as well as those of the orchestra, under first-season conductor Andrew Morgrelia, created a sizzle in the auditorium, a musical excellence that fit the color and classicism so well produced by the dancers.
Paquita, an uber-Russian, textbook tu-tu ballet, was an opportunity to judge the San Francisco dancers as a classical company. Does their corps de ballet stack-up with some of the Russian companies that have passed through town recently, like the Kirov and Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet? Yes and no.
Paquita is a text-book example of Vaganova technique, the Russian variation on ballet technique that incorporates some of the soul and vigor of traditional folk dance, more snappy finishes, a rhythm on leg-work that is less ethereal, more dynamic. This is the kind of dancing that is a way of life rather than a technique that can be taken on and dropped. Lorena Feijoo and Vadim Solomakha had it, particularly Feijoo, whose nearly over-the-top attack on lifts and landings works here.
Helgi Tomasson said in a recent interview that he needs to present works like Paquita not only for the dancers, whose technique gets sharpened onstage by the very exacting dancing, but also for the audiences, who need to see "where ballet came from," the lines and diagonals, the steps. Fine, but his corps is so filled with individuals–bright, solo-quality dancers instead of the matching figurines you find in other companies–that it seems a shame to confine them this way, to these group dynamics. Or maybe it’s that they don’t want to. In any case, they look aligned, but never anonymous.
7 for Eight, Tomasson’s world premiere, takes Bach keyboard concerti (originally written for the harpsichord, but played here, with two exceptions, on piano) and creates a seamless world of movement, seven sections that feature twos, threes and foursomes exploring pattern and pause, choreographic invention that lightens the idea that Bach is just a torrent of notes, an endless running music machine. Here, Tomasson’s take on Bach looks good on Yuan Yuan Tan and Yuri Possokhov, black costumes and backdrop causing their arms to seem more important than their legs. Intensity builds and by the middle of the piece, a pas de trios with Elizabeth Miner, Rachel Viselli and Pascal Molat, it’s all about bravura, all leaps and lifts and turns. Tomasson knows how to let his men loose, and Possokhov, Gonzalo Garcia, Molat, and Nicolas Blanc are given plenty of room to show off. Like Paquita, this is ballet with the "wow" factor, but Tomasson balances that with affecting moments of quiet and workmanlike choreography.
Le Carnaval Des Animaux is a miracle just because it’s funny. Between Amanda Schull’s clompy, ballerina "elephant," and Muriel Maffre’s dying swan (which really dies), the piece succeeds because of the music, the color, and most of all, the character-dancing by the company. The music, by Saint-Saens, features some of the most flashy romantic piano scales around, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky never veers from this energy and beauty. Here, the idea that a bunch of partying friends are "playing" animals makes all the difference. There is abstraction rather than animal costumes, and dancing rather than mugging. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba played a fright-wig-bearing "lion," Stephen Legate, a "cockerel," and Nicole Starbuck, a "hen." There was also a lively chorus of turtles and birds, horses and kangaroos.