San Francisco Ballet – Pacific, Magrittomania, Symphony in C

Written by:
Larry Campbell
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The San Francisco Ballet concludes its repertory season with a program that aptly describes the company today. There were three works: a Balanchine classic, a dance by a master choreographer of today, and the work of a new choreographer. All of the pieces were revivals, performed with the polish of a premiere and demonstrating the care the company takes with everything it dances.

Mark Morris’ Pacific, a work he created for SFB in 1995, is set to two movements of a trio for violin, cello and piano by Lou Harrison. A resident of northern California, Harrison was an early champion of gamelan music. His own compositions have an outward simplicity and an inner complexity that present unusual challenges to the choreographer. Morris has responded with a dance that is pensive without being lugubrious.

Like the title of the dance, the work has multiple connotations, which are underscored by the costumes of Martin Pakledinaz. The bare-chested men wear culottes—full, skirt-like pants that suggest the native dress of Pacific Island and even Indian cultures; the women’s outfits have the same full skirts with simple tops. Blues and greens predominate, with red used for the central couple. The colors evoke the ocean as well as tropical climes. The movement Morris uses also incorporates suggestions of Asian cultures, particularly the Kathak style of southern India: the men (and later the women) repeat a gesture of one arm raised in a curve, the other pointing straight in the opposite direction with the head turned towards the pointing arm.

The choreography is complex, like the music. It is difficult to detect the patterns and structure, as they go by so quickly. Despite some vigorous movements, notably a high kick to the side, two gestures remain in the mind. One is a reach with both arms, the body stretching forward. The other is a self-embrace. These convey longing, searching, and an impulse for quietude. The cast gave a performance that spoke of concentration and commitment. The central couple, Joanna Berman and Damian Smith, were particularly effective. This is a work that makes you think about its meaning.

Magrittomania was choreographed last year by company principal dancer Yuri Possokhov. He has taken some of the best-known images of Magritte (the anonymous man in the dark suit and bowler hat; the face obscured by a large green apple; the woman with protruding, naked breasts; the couple with their heads enshrouded) and made them move. The music is by Russian composer Yuri Krasavin, who has taken selections from Beethoven (notably the first piano concerto, as well as “Fur Elise” and the seventh symphony) and given them an unreal, percussive edge.

With its constantly changing imagery and familiar yet distorted music, the ballet is a successful embodiment of Magritte. If one is inclined to look for meaning (an almost nihilistic view of life), that pursuit is quickly interrupted by nonsense. There is a charming dance for three men to music with a klezmer feeling (Guennadi Nedviguine led the trio with panache). An enigmatic woman in red dances with one arm behind her back. Two large green apples float across the sky. This is surrealism in the flesh. The woman in red was danced by Yuan Yuan Tan, whose flexibility and poise were used to great effect. The role shows off her technical skills, as well as her growing interpretive abilities. The ballet begins and ends with the man in the bowler hat, but at the end the woman in red reappears, this time holding the large green apple, which she explodes as the curtain comes down. It was a suitably surprising conclusion to a very effective work of theater.

The program ended with George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, as uplifting a dance work as ever was created. Made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, Symphony in C is an expression by the Balanchine who was still entrenched in the Petita tradition of classical ballet, but who was beginning to find a new voice. When compared to his equally masterful Theme and Variations, created a few months earlier for American Ballet Theater, it already demonstrates some of the more American-style freedom that characterized his later work. Set to Georges Bizet’s youthful symphony, this ballet brims with life.

This work has been in SFB’s repertoire for forty years, and they dance it better than ever. It is not every company that can muster the depth of talent, not to mention the sheer number of dancers required to be able to stage it. The first of the four movements was led by Julie Diana and Pierre-Fran�ois Vilanoba. Diana is a stiff dancer, and she misses the amplitude that gives this role its special joy. Muriel Maffre, partnered by Benjamin Pierce, gave an exquisite rendering of the second movement. Her serenity and musicality, coupled with her beautiful line, made her performance memorable. The lively third movement had Tina LeBlanc and Christopher Stowell as the leads. They are an ideal match—both sparkling technicians—and they danced with great verve.

The fourth movement began with Sherri LeBlanc (Tina’s sister) and Damian Smith, who introduced the musical theme. With each succeeding repetition of the theme, Balanchine brings back the dancers of prior movements, one after the other, letting them repeat signature movements of their earlier choreography. Then, for the fifth repetition of the theme, he fills the stage with all of the women, a stunning stage picture with the corps on the sides and the rear providing a frame for the principal dancers in the middle. The theme repeats again, and this time he brings on the men. And then the entire cast, filling the stage, brings the dance to an exhilarating close.

– Larry Campbell

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