Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’

24 Mar

Greetings from sunny California!

I thought my last few days in Seattle were crazy, but my travels in California have been insane so far! To recap with some highlights, I spent almost a week in the San Francisco bay area, taking classes but staying in San Jose with my gracious host and frienderina, Jen. She recommended Lee Wei Chao’s class at Alonzo King Lines Ballet, a notion seconded by others in the dance community so I took his class twice (Lines has a nifty deal where your second class is half off, the good ole foot-in-the-door sales pitch), and I also took class at local studios in San Jose (including Marny Trounson, a former soloist with the Royal Ballet, who danced for Ashton! Danced for Ashton I say!!!). Last Thursday began my gauntlet of performances, kicking off with San Francisco Ballet’s opening performance of John Cranko’s Onegin (uh, DRAMA!), on Friday I went to see Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’, which consisted of Les Rendezvous and Méditation from Thaïs by Sir Frederick Ashton, Stanton Welch’s Clear, and concluded with Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. After a six hour drive to Los Angeles the next day, I found myself on UCLA campus, watching Los Angeles Ballet perform ‘Balanchine Gold’, an all Balanchine program with La Sonnambula, Concerto Barocco, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and The Four Temperaments. Did you get all that? Because I’m not even sure I did!

I’m still processing much of this, and much of the material is going into the book, but I would like to take a moment to write a bit about Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’. I was fascinated by the idea that a good size company like BSJ (who also enjoys the luxury of a live orchestra!) was so close to San Francisco and its home company, because I imagined there might be some competition for dancers and audiences alike. I wondered how proximity affected programming as well, and clearly, the fact that BSJ did two Ashton ballets meant the two companies do have some different interests in mind. However, A common thread was that both companies make wonderful efforts to provide extra educational opportunities to inform the audience about the works they’re seeing—SFB had a discussion with Jane Bourne, a choreologist who stages Onegin and other Cranko ballets, while BSJ brought in Hilary Cartwright to talk about staging Les Rendezvous for the company. Cartwright had some wonderful anecdotes and insights into Ashton’s work, how he trained in the Cecchetti method, his famous demand of his dancers to “bend” (which wasn’t simply a bending of the torso, but required bending of the torso with a spiral or a twist), and that Lucia Chase, the co-founder of American Ballet Theatre even asked him once to be resident choreographer for ABT.

Les Rendezvous is a ballet that is not performed often even in the UK so it’s a real treat to have seen it on BSJ. Charming, airy, romantic, it’s simply a meeting between various couples and four little girls, set in a nineteenth century Parisian park. Few ballets could be so utterly delightful as Les Rendezvous—we’re talking white lace, pink ribbons, and sweet kisses on the cheek. Still, some of the choreography is devastatingly wicked, with plenty of Ashton’s trademark speedy and intricate footwork and a never-ending cascade of the little steps that look simple but aren’t. Soloist Amy Marie Briones in particular handled the choreography with ease, and it has to be said that she is a ferocious fireball of a dancer. She is so technically strong that she’s the kind of dancer you can watch and never wonder if she’s going to do complete the steps because she’s always in control of what she’s doing. One part of the solo requires a fast double pirouette to land in plié, then whip around while arching the back, which is heinously difficult and she did it—several times. With bright eyes and exuberance, Briones was an absolute joy to watch.

Les Rendezvous - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘Les Rendezvous’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

It seemed many of BSJ’s ballerinas would shine in Ashton, as soloist Nutnaree Pipit Suksun, danced Méditation from Thaïs with a rare and extraordinary beauty. She is one of those dancers that has it all—the lines, the feet, the artistry, and in a spiritual role like Thaïs, with its certain exotic aroma, Pipit Suksun is a stunning goddess. Even the costume seemed to glue itself to her, glowing like an amber firefly as she floated across the stage in ethereal fashion. Beyond her lyricism, Pipit Suksun has a generous warmth to her dancing that invites the audience into the piece, and the image of her in it is permanently emblazoned into my fondest memories. Curiously, I didn’t know that she is one of few Thai ballerinas, and the only one to be currently employed in the US, and it really pointed to the diverse makeup of BSJ as a whole—not just in ethnicity, but also noticeably in physiques. There are curvier dancers, shorter dancers, and not everyone is a beanpole with high arches. The multi-faceted diversity BSJ makes its flavor unique, and I think sends an important message to audiences that ballet is possible for more people than we think, and that artistry and quality of character in dancing is defined by many things.

Thais - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose dancers Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Jeremy Kovitch in in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ‘Méditation from Thaïs’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

Still, it’s not bad to have it all—as long as a dancer knows how to use it, and corps dancer Joshua Seibel really stood out to me in Clear. Sure, he has that blonde prince, Greek marble statue, beautiful lines stuff going for him, but it was really his expressivity in Clear that was so beautiful to watch. There was intensity and focus, on top of incredible control, and I can only imagine what else he could bring to more featured roles. Sometimes I’ve seen dancers who are giving everything they have into a performance but for whatever reason I could still see a little reservation—maybe he or she doesn’t like the music or the choreography is somewhat uncomfortable, but watching Seibel in Clear was an exercise in conviction and commitment to a performance, which is exceptionally hard to do because one doesn’t simply attack the choreography of Clear—a dance for seven men and one woman, Clear is the kind of work that has to unfold from origami to a clean sheet of paper or dissipate like clouds to reveal a sunny day. The subtleties and mastery of ballet technique have to increase as the performance goes on, with purity as the final destination.

Clear - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose dancers Zhang Jing and Akira Takahashi in Stanton Welch’s ‘Clear’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

Concluding the program was Clark Tippet’s effervescent Bruch Violin Concerto No.1, a showy piece I described as a “bouquet of mountain wildflowers” when I saw it for the first time (Corella Ballet, circa May, 2011). Bruch is typical of a classic symphonic ballet, choreography to music with tights and tutus, and showed off BSJ’s strengths incredibly well. Divalicious Briones sizzled in the red tutu, but the company also boasts two sprites in Junna Ige and Mirai Noda, who fluttered through their roles with smiles and joy. Akira Takahashi provided dazzling virtuosity, his allegro work precise and flighty (as it also was in Clear) as he sailed through numerous jumps and turns with ease. With technique and aplomb, Bruch was the perfect piece to end a marvelous evening of dance with, and I think represents a lot of what the company is all about—diversity, technique, and truly thrilling performance qualities. As the company works through some transitions in changes of leadership, there is real potential to take the Ballet San Jose to establish itself upon the next tier, as a company with more regular performances and a repertory that attracts more dancers. Though there are difficulties to be expected in doing so, with funding being the ever-pressing concern, there is real potential and that is one hell of an exciting prospect.

Bruch Violin Concerto - Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose in Clark Tippet’s ‘Bruch Violin Concerto No.1’ (Photo ©Robert Shomler)

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5 Responses to “Ballet San Jose’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’”

  1. Odette's Ordeal March 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    Hi Steve-
    It was nice to meet you here on my own blog-stomping grounds at SFB!
    I greatly enjoyed Ballet San José’s ‘Neoclassical Masters’ program (I went the night after you), as well.
    It was a blissful collaboration of musical and dance artistry.
    Just wanted to clarify that Nutnaree (‘Ommi’ to her friends) was previously an extremely popular Company Soloist at San Francisco Ballet from 2004-2012. (Their loss.)
    At SFB, I have seen her Lilac Fairy, Myrtha, Snow Queen, SPF, & Arabian in SFB’s Nut, and in Balanchine’s 4T’s & Divertimento No. 15, but she remains firmly etched in my mind mostly from her roles in Robbins’ Glass Pieces (1st movement), the 1st pdd in his In the Night, Bintley’s Dance House, in which she gave one of her most haunting portrayals, and the very simple ‘friend’ role in Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, which she fave a lovely life to here.
    In spite of all that, she was *born* to dance Thaïs, and it was BSJ that gave her that opportunity and made it her most delicious performance ever.
    Though your journeys will ultimately have you hearing tales of all the dancers you missed or *should* have seen do this or that, you can rest assured that you were definitely in the right place at the right time for this one.
    Having seen an extraordinary amount of the SF Bay Area’s dance performances for several decades, my own life is richer for having witnessed the breathtaking fluidity and exotic appeal of Ommi’s Thaïs, perfectly partnered by Jeremy Kovitch.
    Count yourself a winner.
    Looking forward to your journey’s tales.
    ‘Odette’
    Odette’s Ordeal-A Site for Sore Swans & Serious Ballet Fans in San Francisco
    http://www.odettesordeal.com

    • youdancefunny March 26, 2013 at 7:07 am #

      Hey Teri!

      It was great to meet you too! Thanks for the background info on Ommi–she’s lovely and I hope to see her again! Glad you made it to the BSJ program too…the potential for that company is exciting and Les Rendezvous is only in the repertory there and at Sarasota Ballet, making it a rare treat indeed!

      Hope to be back in San Fran sooner rather than later too–next time, I’ll make more efficient plans to meet up! 🙂

  2. jenniferc March 25, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    I’m so glad you could get a taste of the bay area dance riches here! See you in Chicago, my friend, and safe travels

    • youdancefunny March 26, 2013 at 7:08 am #

      Thanks Jen! Can’t wait until we tear up Chicago…and by tear up, I mean take a ballet class like geeky people do!

  3. s kurtz March 28, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    What a great adventure you’re on — thanks so much for the running commentary. I envy you the experiences, and am so glad you’re willing to share. Travel safe, and let us know what happens next.

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