Three of George Balanchine’s early masterpieces opened the San Francisco Ballet Balanchine Festival. The roots between the genius choreographer, his New York City Ballet, and this company are deeply intertwined. Lew Christensen (the first American Apollo), and then Helgi Tomasson, the current director, both worked as principal dancers under Mr. B. before taking the helm in San Francisco. The company has produced 28 productions of Balanchine works over the years, and possibly no other organization in the U.S. has a school and dancers to rival those of the New York mothership.
Each of the three pieces demonstrates the genius of Balanchine in a different way. At the same time, the brilliance of the San Francisco dancers was solid, unwavering. This is not "imitation" Balanchine.
Serenade was the first ballet Balanchine made in America. Originally set on students, to the highly danceable melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the limitations set on the choreographer by inexperienced dancers and uncertain conditions helped create a work of ingenuity and breathtaking simplicity. The opening, when 16 ballerinas in long white tulle simply lift an arm together, ranks among the single most beautiful moments in ballet.
Balanchine managed to create, in this one early piece, a roadmap for his own choreographic development. The lush music served as a chessboard for his choreographic exploration; the focus was on form, on the feminine aura created by groups of ballerinas working together, without men. Serenade is a piece that feeds the viewer with imagery. Lit hauntingly and played on a bare stage with a midnight blue backdrop, the whiteness of the dresses danced and the dancers served as commas and punctuation.
Soloists come forward, shine, and then dance their way back to join the last row of the chorus. Just like a dance school recital, everything is very egalitarian; there is even a section where the four male dancers take turns lifting women, so that everyone gets a chance to be in the air. Lorena Feijoo, who played a fiery Kitri earlier in the season in Don Quixote seemed downright subdued here, strong but reined-in, though ably partnered by Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. Tina LeBlanc, on the other hand, shone with smiling crispness and clarity. Sarah Van Patten and Stephen Legate suggested as much narrative as the audience was going to get. Serenade is all about the music and Balanchine dutifully filled every minute in the workmanlike, playful, exploratory step-making that changed dance.
Apollo (1928), which Balanchine originally choreographed for the very modernist/experimental Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev, has a 1920’s European angst, a pre-modern dance clunkiness to it. It was Balanchine’s first use of the music of Igor Stravinsky, who would grow into a huge influence and partner for the choreographer. This Apollo is hardly God-like; technique conspires to humanize and humble him. Terpsichore, danced by Yuan Yuan Tan, perfectly suited the earnest, boylike Gonzalo Garcia as Apollo. Calliope (Sarah Van Patten) and Polyhymnia (Vaness Zahorian) failed to win his favor but showed off all the Balanchine trademark–jazzy, angular dancing, inward rotation, aggressive toe shoes, thrust hips. Garcia, who is capable of blazing pyrotechnics, had a soft-touch to this character role, a tougher, technical mission because of the trick-free choreography. It’s as if the dancer, as Apollo, is being taught how to become a proper leading man, beyond big jumps and spectacular turns.
The Four Temperaments, the most recognizably "Balanchinian" of the three ballets on the program, was also the most complex and fascinating to watch. In the opening themes to the striking music for string orchestra and piano by Paul Hindemith (the excellent piano soloist was Daniel Waite) it was disappointing to see Brett Bauer and Elana Altman a little over their heads, straining rather than relaxing into the technical demands of the work. But Leslie Young and Moises Martin in the 3rd Theme looked totally confident and striking. Muriel Maffre, in the Choleric solo, was every inch a Balanchine dancer, her extra-skinniness looking perfectly at home, showing-off her angularity. This was her moment and she lived it. The piece ends in a sea of black leotards with a popcorn rhythm of lifted ballerinas appearing above, flying in traveling arcs like dolphins.