San Francisco Ballet Tour to Paris
Under the auspices of " Les étés de la danse "
Balanchine/Tomassson, July 12th
Balanchine/Tomassson, July 12th 2005
The San Francisco Ballet, that notable ensemble, is just that - an ensemble, uncanny in its rhythmic precision. And we are talking a Balanchine programme - one frantic step for every second note in the score.
When they do arabesque voyagée , one hears but a single swish from thirty people, and when they land, even from a jump with fouetté, a single footfall.
In the "Square Dance" finale section, again, their musical precision as an ensemble is admirable, reflecting instruction that is calm and very methodical.
As a group, their partnering skills are extraordinary, nor could they have been bettered by an acrobat. (Is that a compliment to the choreographer ? Stay tuned.) Witness that UFO in Tomasson's "7 for 8", where the woman seems to be thrown twofold, opening into a dégagé that one would have thought physically impossible, brought off with unperturbed calm.
In so ruthlessly competitive an environment as the United States, to achieve this kind of teamwork reflects an outlook less star-driven than one might, at this distance, have imagined.
Nicolas Blanc, in the Square Dance solo, danced to a rare technical and musical exactness, was nonetheless surprising to us on account of his expression, of which more below. In the same genre as ABT's Julie Kent, although much stronger in petit allegro, Tina LeBlanc is again spot on the music, a very cleanly dancer affording one, despite Balanchine's poverty of upper-body positions, considerable artistic pleasure.
Balanchine is a God in America. His ballets dominate the repertory in every major troupe.
Thus, over the last forty years, we are become used to weight-transfer so rapid, that it is like a Louis de Funès film.
The wisdom of this approach escapes me.
In Alexander Meinertz' biography of Vera Volkova appear photographs of her teaching Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer, manifestly focussing upon plastique.
One must allow enough musical counts for the plastique to register both in the body of the dancer, and in the public's mind, allegro work being no exception. For the forms called up by the music to pursue their "depth-charge" voyage in the memory once the curtain fall, three-dimensionality must be carried through the torso's orientations, an instant where the dance "pauses to breathe" upon the score. Too rapid a weight-transfer prevents this, and the forms fritter away.
Nor is it good for the body to dance like that.
A number of the troupe's gentlemen have hypertrophied legs, that seem almost to buckle under the weight of the musculature. In a Balanchine-dominated repertory, floor-contact will be poor. The Achilles tendon may shorten. The men, who have to jump so much, with so unsatisfactory a preparation as Balanchine allows, may grip or even claw the floor, and this will thicken the leg over time, nor is a hyper-trophied muscle an efficient muscle.
Through the Lee Strasberg Method School of acting, the influence of Stanislavski in the United States is enormous. This is a realist-naturalist school, its shop-front today being Hollywood, probably because it is so ideally suited to camera close-ups.
Neither Western European theatrical teachings, nor even many artists in Russia, especially favour the Stanislavski method.
Simply for the purpose of contrasting the two schools, let us look at an example from a ballet seen only last week here at the Paris Opera: Romeo taking poison in the Capulet tomb.
In the Method Acting approach, the actor or dancer playing Romeo is asked to think about how he would personally feel at seeing his bride thus, and work himself up into a passion of personal grief. The public is caught up in a relationship with the actor, that has a slightly sour quality of irrationality and immediateness. The event is not located in history, but rather in a public/actor relationship about their emotions.
On the other hand, the Western European approach, that has a different philosophical background, requires that the actor or dancer be objective about his emotions on stage. His task is to think about the entire play, and to present its weight to the public as an idea - What does this mean ? What will happen to Verona should I die ? Why has this older generation brought the world to such a pass, that there is nothing for it, but to die ? And so on. Not carried away himself, but rather make the public think about what has happened.
The issues he puts to the public are objective, and far more tragic than a single adolescent suicide, lamentable as that may be.
So when Romeo organises his features in the crypt scene, he does not dissolve into a tear-stained puddle, but retains at all times a certain distance and nobility.
All this to say, that the facial expression of the San Francisco troupe may seem perplexing to us in its naturalism. Amongst the corps de ballet in "Square Dance", only Clara Blanco wore what here one might call a "composed" countenance.
7 for 8 (both, chor. Tomasson)
Hey there cutes, put on your dancin' boots and come dance with me,
Frank Sinatra, "Come Dance with Me"
I must confess to a strong aversion to a/ musicals b/ Frank Sinatra c/ crooners in general.
Can this stuff be spreading outwards from its proper confines ?
Come Writhe with Me ?
Could it be this, that leads to one's doubts about the choreography of both "Concerto Grosso", one long tour de force for a small men's ensemble, and "7 for 8", both by Tomasson ?
What to say of the adagio passages for Yuan Yuan Tan and Yuri Possokhov, save that Miss Tan would appear to be a contortionist, and if this be classical dance, I'm a Porcupine.
Miss Kristin Long, for her part, is a sensational and fearless technician, while only a fool would choose to fault the ensemble for so full and entire investment into their roles.
Who does care ? Why was this Balanchine piece brought along with the baggage to Europe ? As I've said before, so-called abstract art tends to be replete with storylets, generally of the Lonely-Hearts, boy-meets-girl variety, of which one becomes Heartily and very promptly sated.
Anyway, Balanchine is in his Broadway-hoofer element here.
Amongst the soloists, only the polished Vanessa Zahorian made it look rather simpler than it actually is (that speed again !), as did Damien Smith, 1940ish in mood and an imposing partner.
Again, the ensembles were outstandingly precise. This corps de ballet is formidable, engaged, and very much with it.
Let's see what material they present tonight.
There are countless instances of skilfully-crafted pieces that the world could do without.
Well-crafted with an eye to "entertainment value", the Taylor and Lubovitch pieces, though unlike in mood, style and so forth, are commercial, insincere and as acutely embarrassing as stumbling upon things not intended for third-party viewing.
I have a problem with choreographers like Mr. Taylor, who deal with adult men as though they were cute little girls, skipping about in girlsie outfits sewn from wispy green silk, telling twee little "erotic" jokes about spring sap rising and so forth. Thanks, but no thanks Mr. Taylor.
The Lubovitch is simply dreadful, a glaring illustration of Bruce Marks' expression "the over-energising of dance". How the cast got through the half-hour of crashing, bouncing and hurtling to non-music, is a miracle, Gonzalo Garcia, the soloist, looking as though he were ripe for hospital at the end.
Wheeldon, of course, was the fellow we were all waiting for. It would be unfair to judge a thirty-year old choreographer on this one piece, although it does manage to be both bleak, weak and clichéd at once. The grotesque hyper-extensions of Yuan Yuan Tan are again exploited to the uttermost (have you ever seen a développé devant at 190 degrees, laddie ? well, you don't want to), with the public baying like dogs at every one of the poor creature's contortions. Whatever has been done to that girl's crushed and tormented body ? In a half-hour's dancing, no elevation, neither jumping nor batterie for the men, very floor-rooted.
Beware of one's own initial reaction to a "strange" "foreign" troupe.
In discussing the summer's presentations by the San Fran Ballet, bear in mind, first, that they were appearing before a public that attends, ten months a year, the Paris Opera.
Secondly, San Fran performed at Paris in the open air, without décor and without orchestra pit between the artists and the audience. The audience is rather too close for the comfort of those on stage, the scenic illusion being disrupted, and every tiny corporeal flaw is magnified. The costume-hues, without sophisticated lighting, may look harsh and glaring, or clapped-out. As for the makeup, heavy greasepaint at so close a range makes one look a clown, while too little, as though one had burst out of the wings straight from a pub crawl.
Thirdly, this is an American troupe, performing in a European nation openly at variance with the foreign and military policy of the circles currently ruling the USA. If you think the artists are unaware of this - and no matter what one's own personal views, or theirs - think again.
As for the lack of homogeneity, from a visual standpoint in the corps de ballet, in France and Russia - unlike America - the pool of high-level classical dancers turned out by the State Academies is so large that the national theatres "cherry pick" those whose body fits the latest fad. For the past fifteen years, this has meant a mannierist, etiolated body-type that recalls El Greco's paintings.
Accordingly, the corps de ballet does not look like the Maryinskii. But can one produce the desired artistic effect without everyone looking as like as peas in a pod ?
The San Fran crowd produce an effect of unison and harmony by listening to the music. That is more effective, actually, than everyone's LOOKING alike.
That said, I must confess that I find this production of Don Quixote feeble to a degree.
Clumsy and unflattering in their tiers of flounce and cheap machine-lace, the costume's pastel candy-floss hues wash out the dancer's features.
Additions to the score have been made that are musically very weak - a variation for Basilio, a pas de deux for the leads, and a gypsy queen's dance that is beneath comment.
No thought appears to have been given to the miming of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Lorenzo or Kitri's mother, blank and illegible.
The variations for Mercedes and Espada are grotesque beyond belief, while the gypsy scene is appalling, the costumes fit for a scarecrow.
In the vision scene, problems. One or two of the girls opted for changement rather than entrechat - perhaps they were indisposed, but it does look odd when there are twenty people doing entrechat; there was also a girl in the back who suffered several chutes de pointe.
The Canadian Frances Chung was excellent as one of Kitri's friends; torso fully engaged, splendid ballon, exact placements, and withal, gusto. Her colleague Rachel Viselli, of a more lyrical and reserved temperament, could not be seen at her best, dancing as she was alongside a smaller, faster and very stylish dancer. In the person of M. Hansuke Yamamoto, the troupe has a gypsy prince precise and brilliant in execution, with one caveat: no follow-through in the torso.
Contrary to what some might imagine, it does not help to be Spanish to dance Basilio. M. Gonzalo Garcia, although a good partner, is more of a lyrical dancer, nor is he the most confident of soloists, sometimes appearing shocked at his own address in having pulled off a tour de force. Technically, like the aforesaid M. Yamamoto, he tends to dance from the leg alone. Without wishing to be rude, I find M. Garcia lacking in stagecraft - he remains the same throughout, his facial expressions irritating in their naturalism.
I was very curious to see Tina LeBlanc, the troupe's reigning ballerina.
Mlle. LeBlanc is of the same generation as Zhanna Ayupova, Irina Zhelonkina and Leanne Benjamin, viz., the last generation for whom dancing has nothing to do with picking up the leg, a generation now being pushed off the stage by athletes, gymnasts, circus acrobats and contortionists. She is small and elegantly proportioned, the foot is taut, precise and sensitively used. Her batterie is outstanding, as is her ballon (the sissonnes performed as one rarely sees them - one doesn't merely travel ahead, one travels UP and ahead), her elevation remarkable, her pirouettes on axis and on tempo, the déboulé and piqué turns accented up, rather than zipped through like a sewing-machine. But not expect épaulement - Balanchine has ironed all that away.
Mlle. Blanc is 100% present and in contact with her public, building the choreography to pull all out the stops in Act III, where she pitches herself into the lifts almost with a cry of joy.
Frankly, this is a silly ballet, so what more can one ask ?
Dotted about the ballet world, there still exist specialists in character dance. They know dozens of folkloric dances, and have been trained to adapt them to major theatrical productions.
Accordingly, there is no excuse for so grotesque and tasteless a mish-mash as those "dances at a gypsy encampment" we've just seen from San Francisco - although the Nureyev version's encampment, if more polished, is no less ghastly.
Calling in a specialist is all the more critical, that one should avoid certain movements, such as the "Georgian-style" knee-bends, that Western classical dancers cannot execute properly. I once read an interview with the head of a Soviet folklore troupe. He said that the men's knees took such a beating, that their "life expectancy" as a professional was less than a decade ! Is that acceptable for a classical dancer ?
So roll out on the specialists in theatrical character dance, and let them choreograph steps that belong to a recognisable tradition, time and place, and let them be adapted them so that a classical dancer can perform them, and live to dance another day.
So the San Francisco season at Paris and the first Eté de la Danse, draws to a close.
To summarise one's thoughts:
The idea is excellent, and one hopes the organisers will not be discouraged by the wind and rain that made for rough going this year.
Let the next summer's season start only after the Paris Opera ends theirs, viz., after July 15th.
Let the tickets be only half so dear - few here can afford 25 euros for the cheapest places.
Let the class, rehearsal and performances be held in a proper theatre protected from the elements.
And let the press service do something about the deafening silence in the French media over the event.
(By the bye, that although the press service had initially offered to set up several interviews for this writer, none materialised. Was this inefficiency, or crossed wires ?).