San Francisco Ballet, Program 1
Serenade
© Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet, Program 1

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director

San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

January 27 (Opening Night)-Feb. 7, 2015

Sfballet.org

If you want every body part on a dancer to self-deploy and sizzle, hire Lorena Feijóo as that dancer, and commission Val Caniparoli to make a piece along the lines of “Lambarena,” which might well be rechristened “Lumbar-Lorena.” Feijóo is often cast as the Latin femme fatale in works that have little to contribute beyond that specious profile, and too often not cast in works that show the independent, rebellious, and sometimes impetuous soul that  resides deep down (Think, “Why not Juliet?”) “Lambarena” gives free rein to the indigenous streak that some impute to Feijóo’s Cuban heritage and training. It sets loose all the other aforementioned characteristics as well, teased out by a jubilant Pierre Akendengué and Hughes de Courson score, that brings the gated community of themes built by Bach to tour the wide-open savannah of African rhythms, featuring instruments from each tradition, along with bird calls. If you carry Yoruba rhythms in your dance bag, you know just what to do with your head, shoulders, pelvis, hips, and lips, and how to share what you know with others. Feijóo awakens a spirited response in her partner, Joseph Walsh. Those who admire him for his technical feats might remark that they knew it was there, and needed just a little Feijóo pica of encouragement to ignite.

“Raku” is a ragu of exotic ingredients, bound together by an incoherent libretto, described in the program notes as “a triangle of obsession,” after a short story by Gary Wang. Choreographer Yuri Possokhov serves it up as an act of arson by an evildoer (danced expertly by Pascal Molat) that occurs late in the piece, hinted at earlier with a simmering suggestion that jealousy stirs the coals. A gilded lily of a wife (Yuan Yuan Tan) appears folded into a white kimono, lifted from her shoulders from above. Its ascent promises something to savor that never arrives. The fire that engulfs a warren of small village houses in the Alexander V. Nichols-designed set also kindles expectations that go unmet. Her husband, who suffers in silence, is Carlos Quenedit in this performance. One can rely on him to deliver intensity when a piece has a focal point, but outfitted here in an ill-fitting costume (Mark Zappone) that shortens his line, he seems unsold on the premise that anything but a casting misstep is responsible for his presence. “Raku” has bubbled up as a more appealing dish at times, and less so at others. Efforts of its various casts to bring it to the right temperature without it boiling over has not overcome the uncomfortable sense that it belongs on the back burner. Resounding applause indicates that the audience roundly disagrees.

This moonchild reviewer is one of a chorus that sings the praises of George Balanchine’s “Serenade” over all his other works. A blush of moonlight beamed on the planar faces of powder blue-clad ballerinas arrayed in well-tended diagonals, arms extended, hands flexed as if to palm something otherworldly that their gazes fix upon in the beyond, makes for a ballet tableau like no other. And it gets better. Arms move as one in elegantly simple, but unorthodox port de bras from above the brow, to the cheek, to the heart. In Elyse Borne’s fine-tuned and faithful staging, each member of this choir of angels finds her depth without breaking ranks. Mathilde Froustey floats through whips of chaîné turns, Frances Chung brings surety to her tour jetés, where Froustey’s go gossamer. Balanchine would have fallen in love with Maria Kochetkova, who though Vaganova trained, takes to the neo-classical steps as the natural medium for her precision and musicality. She is the embodiment of “Serenade,” the ethereal creature who slips into view and then away, never to be forgotten.

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.