San Francisco Ballet – Tuning Game, Celts, Without Words

The San Francisco Ballet’s third program of the season brought the company premiere of Nacho Duato’s Without Words set to an arrangement of Schubert songs (minus the voice) for cello and piano. First created in 1998 for American Ballet Theater, the ballet is sculptural, stark, strikingly moving and beautiful at once. It is a wonderful addition to the repertoire.

The cast consists of a uniformly strong group of four couples, with each pair bringing its own emotional color. The grieving woman is a recurrent motif in this ballet, an image emphasized by the large photographs of the dancers caught at certain moments, projected onto a cloth panel that goes all the way up into the flies and has two cuts in it at stage level, so that the dancers can make entrances through the image. The first time it occurs, the impact is striking.

Duato’s movement vocabulary is modern, with angular positions. and the woman often in open, deep pile (the term pile means "folded" in French, and the body does appear to be folding on itself when the legs are spread completely apart). Like the tango in its expression of passion, Duato creates an atmosphere of intense emotion. Every member of the excellent cast contributed to the haunting effect of the ballet. They were Julie Diana with Damian Smith, Katita Waldo with Parrish Maynard, Lorena Feijoo with Pierre-Francois Villanoba, and Joanna Berman with Roman Rykine. This was not a series of pas de deux, but a fluid and changing number of dancers on the stage, leading from three to two and so forth. The excellent musical accompaniment was played by David Kadarauch, cello, and Roy Bogas, piano.

Early in SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s choreographic career he favored classical music and highly decorous dancing. Once he began exploring greater emotional depths, his dance-making achieved greater impact because he seemed to be working with greater inspiration and ease. Tuning Game, revived on this program, is a fine piece, responding to the music with an individual sense of movement that indicates Tomasson has his own voice.

The revival of the 1995 Tuning Game was crisply performed. Leading this foray into John Corigliano’s Oboe Concerto, was Tina LeBlanc, who continues to dazzle in the fire and precision of her dancing. The group of seven men backing LeBlanc demonstrated the high standards that have become synonymous with the company. This led to a pas de trois, with the supple Yuan Yuan Tan supported by Parrish Maynard and Vadim Solomakha, who danced beautifully synchronized to one another. A duet between LeBlanc and the expressive Yuri Possokhov let to a final dance of Middle Eastern sonorities for the full company. The audience cheered the performance with justification.

Closing the program was a revival of Lila York’s Celts, created in 1996 and first seen at SFB last year. It pre-dates Riverdance but many will be reminded somewhat of that later commercial success. Irish step dancing can be thrilling, especially when supported by insistent music. To her credit, York tries to explore a wide range of musical expressions, so the work is not dominated by the fast, precise dancing of bodies held firmly erect, arms at the side, and bobbing like dolls. The ballet was given a rousing performance, with the fleet Christopher Stowell (who has announced his decision to retire at the end of this season–what a loss!) leading the pack. Gonzalo Garcia threw himself into the dancing with great vigor. Both these men were a pleasure to watch, as were the other principals, Julia Adam, Stephen Legate, and Kristin Long.

– Larry Campbell