Tag Archives: sofiane sylve

Black Magic: I’m a believer!

5 Sep

Um…hello. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve written, and it probably has something to do with acquiring this second job, as I am still learning how to manage my time better and figure this mess of a schedule out. It has also been an incredibly long time since I’ve written about some of my personal experiences inside the studio as an adult student of ballet, because I actually couldn’t afford to go. These past few months of eking out my existence and being devoid of dance have been rough, and have even led to the development of some stress related symptoms like eczema and temporomandibular joint disorder (I’m pretty sure I get all the weird diseases). While I can’t dispense medical advice, I do think being able to dance again has had a lot to do with healing these conditions. We all know the benefits of endorphins released into the body via physical activity, and obviously I really needed that. The positive emotional effects of returning to dance almost go without saying—I feel complete and alive again. I’ve always been grateful for every opportunity to dance I’ve ever had, and I will continue to do so because being grateful for something—anything—feels (for lack of a better term) magical.

On the topic of not being one to dispense advice, I would like to completely contradict myself and discuss in depth some issues on technique I’ve been exploring. I’m not really qualified in any way to teach anyone anything about ballet and can only comment on my experiences with my body, and how they relate to how I observe ballet technique in others. Disclaimer aside, in this one of my nine lives in dance, I decided to reevaluate myself and utilize the methods of Maggie Black, passed onto me by Jessica Zeller, one of my teachers from when I was at Ohio State. Before I proceed, this is by no means an exhaustive compendium on what Balanchine may have coined “Black Magic.” In fact, when Jess taught us a class a la Maggie, most of it didn’t make sense to me at the time. That’s the funny thing about ballet though—if you’re diligent about filing away the information in your mind, corrections and new ideas can take months, even years to manifest in physical practice, and all of a sudden you’ll find a little voice screaming “EUREKA!” in your head when you find a ridiculously awesome balance on relevé during center and best of all is the realization that such a feat was no accident.

While I have no firsthand experience as to how Black taught, there are a few basic principles I learned that are applied to barre exercises:

  • Work within the line of your own turnout (no, really)
  • Create a straight line through the ankle and foot, so as not to sickle or wing (no, really)
  • Try to shift your weight as little as possible
  • Keep your legs low, doing all of barre never passing forty-five degrees (optional)

Okay, now for the breakdown. Lots of teachers will often tell you to work within the line of your natural turnout, but us students make it a bad habit to cheat a little anyway. Those of us who don’t have a lot of turnout are desperate for more, and those that have a lot will cheat to get to 180° just because they can. However, Black’s method is very grounded in the anatomical, and even if you can touch toe to heel in a fifth position on flat, it’s almost certain that the same level of turnout cannot be maintained in a fifth position on relevé. To what extent the turnout disappears is going to be more or less obvious on different bodies, but if you’re working outside of your natural line, it’s guaranteed to happen. Similarly, maintaining a straight line through the ankle is taught, but not always put into practice. I find shaping the feet to be very difficult for myself, as my feet are turned in and naturally sickled, but I see in many other dancers feet that are “winged” or stretched too far outward. Especially for pointe work, this surely creates an uneven distribution of weight on the toes and just like forcing turnout on flat affects the turnout on relevé, a winged foot can inhibit the use of turnout going from demi-pointe to full pointe. I think. I really don’t know for sure, but it’s a tendency I’ve noticed in dancers who wing their feet a lot. All of a sudden, instead of moving through the joints like hinges, there are all kinds of obstacles in extraneous movements. More and more, I think Black’s way of moving is to make it as simple and efficient as possible, very point(e) A to point(e) B.

As far as this shifting weight business, it’s tricky—for good reason! When you train this way at barre, you will have to actually USE the barre more than you probably have been. Many teachers will have us students use only a light touch at the barre, theoretically able to pull your hand off at any given moment, which is certainly one way to do it…however, I see Black’s use of the barre to be a transition into class, meaning, you’re supposed to use the barre because something has to awaken, or alert your body that you will be dancing. Using the barre and not shifting your weight in essence keeps the body very square, and your entire foot grounded into the floor, as opposed to just the ball of your foot when standing on flat. This not only gives you a stronger feel for where your weight is (after all, you need to know what it feels to have your weight going into the floor if you want to push off of it!), but I think it makes further logical sense because when you do shift your weight to one leg and onto relevé, your body WILL react and training squarely at barre helps to ensure that the shape that goes on top of it is a balanced one that minimizes unevenness. It’s genius really—use the body’s natural response to make dancing easier!

Now for this forty-five degree business…an extension at forty-five is highly underrated (and ninety is a bigger beast than people might think!). The purpose of keeping the legs lower is to zero in on rotating your legs and training the muscles to move correctly. I’ll never forget what Jess said, that she worked this way at barre for six months or so and at the end of her experiment, could développé to 120°! It’s commonly known that one can be strong and not flexible, and also that flexible people are not necessarily strong. Something that always baffled me though is that I’ve seen people who are quite limber, take class regularly, and yet they can’t get past that barrier of getting their leg above ninety degrees. I’m beginning to understand more that technique isn’t about increasing some prescribed combination of strength and/or flexibility, but teaching your body HOW to move. Now, I’m not foolish enough to expect the results Jess had because our bodies are different, but I’ve already noticed a laundry list of things that have been much better at center for me.

So why did I decide to start training this way? Well, I guess I should start with the purpose, which is that I really want to be able to do a nice, attitude turn en dehors, a criminally difficult maneuver that isn’t necessarily a flashy sort of step, but for some reason makes me completely unravel. Mind you, I don’t even need to be able to do multiple turns—a clean single is fine—but all attempts have ended catastrophically and it occurred to me that I have a terrible habit of letting my ribs come too far forward in attitude and arabesque. It’s one thing to do this in an adagio, or strike the iconic pose from Swan Lake, but it’s not working for turning, and makes it impossible to use my back for spotting. So, I’ve been really focusing on keeping my ribs in, in addition to squaring my body, and what I like about Black’s method is that it helps to create three-dimensional shapes. Much of the Balanchine/School of American Ballet influence I’ve been getting has a lot of opening of the hip in second and arabesque, but a lot of what Black’s method will do is have you bring the legs forward where you actually can rotate it, and the same goes for the arms. My second position of the arms has been too far out to the side, which is part of the reason why my ribs and chest kept coming too far forward, and bringing my arms forward has actually helped me to engage my back much better, again, thinking in terms of three-dimensional shapes instead of some of the splayed out variety. I keep saying 3-D because this is a hugely important (and logical) concept for me—a ball for example, balances perfectly even though it only makes contact with a tiny amount of a surface, while trying to balance a sheet of paper is virtually impossible. Hence, my obsession with really trying to keep square hips/3-D shapes is because I’m convinced placement is the secret to good balance.

I was mostly inspired to really work at this by one of my favorite dancers, Sofiane Sylve, who has perfect attitude turns. I shall compare her with another of my favorite dancers, Ivan Vasiliev who has excellent ones, but goes about doing them a different way. This is not to say Sylve trained under Black because she most certainly didn’t—only that my interpretation of Black’s teachings are helping me to understand the body line that Sylve produces. Visual first:

The evolution of the turn, with Sofiane Sylve (L) and Ivan Vasiliev (R). And yes, I intentionally chose snapshots from clips of them in practice clothes.

It’s not perfect, but I tried to capture them at similar moments in the turn. As you can see, Sylve does a lot of the aforementioned: square pelvis, lower leg, even back, all on top of a turned out supporting leg. Vasiliev has a more open line, which is a very Russian thing to do, and has his leg further out to the side in that mysterious “a la sebesque” line (or in this case “a la sebesquitude”). It creates the illusion of length and height, offsetting his torso a bit, but inhibits the turnout of his standing leg, and in fact he’s kind of rolling onto the outside of his foot, which if you have tapered toes (and I know I do), this is a death sentence that ends in a fall. Keep your leg behind you like Sylve (almost like a detached retiré) and you stand a chance. Both are acceptable ways of turning, and Vasiliev can certainly wind around five or six times (check out his Basilio variations to see what I mean), so it really comes down to what works for your body. I do find Sylve’s prettier though, even if she only does a double or a triple, I think she has the kind of technique that lasts with you, and doesn’t rely too heavily on momentum or having the beastly strength and flexibility Vasiliev does.

Well folks, this post is getting too lengthy so I suppose it’s “choose your own adventure” time. Just know that the teachings of Maggie Black (as passed down to me by one of her students) is not a miracle cure. Although I can say that after such a long break and a mere four classes of doing this, I’m dancing cleaner than ever, with better balance, and the most control I’ve ever had. Even wonky pirouettes I have an easier time saving, and just so you know, during a round of kitchen fouettés I even did a double attitude en dehors! Was my leg very low? Absolutely. Did I feel like a rock star anyway? Absolutely. Results not typical…but what do you have to lose?

Bring it forward. Keep it rotated.

She’s Just a Small Town Girl

27 May

A staging of Giselle is like a family recipe for apple pie—sweet, simple, and familiar.  However, there are of course unique touches that make each production distinct, and probably the most recent one to have been filmed for a DVD release is the Dutch National Ballet’s staging, with additional choreography by Rachel Beaujean and Ricardo Bustamente.  This was filmed in February of 2009, with Anna Tsygankova in the title role and Jozef Varga as Albrecht.  Admittedly, I knew very little about the ‘Het Nationale Ballet,’ though I’m sure 99% of people who have ever procrastinated by watching ballet videos on YouTube have of course seen that short video clip of Sofiane Sylve (now with San Francisco Ballet) performing some of the most spectacular pirouettes ever, in William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and the coda from The Nutcracker.  I don’t have to post it…but here you go (at least, for those readers who actually have lives and honestly haven’t seen this before):

I really wish both of these performances were on DVD…you can see Marcelo Gomes was her partner in Nutcracker for a split second at the very end, and he simply isn’t filmed enough and I love, no, LOVE what I’ve seen of Vertiginous (it’s to the Finale of Schubert’s Symphony no.9 in C! Hi, amazing!).

At any rate, it’s possible that the company simply hasn’t had a lot of exposure to international audiences, as DVDs are fairly new for them, having only released a handful thus far: Sleeping Beauty (2004), Giselle (2009), and most recently a recording of Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quichot (2011) in addition to Hans van Manen Festival and Hans van Manen: Nederlands Dans Theater, HET Nationale Ballet, which obviously feature works by Hans van Manen, a famous Dutch choreographer who really ought to have more recognition outside of Europe.  Both NDT and the Het have been in the news as of late though, due to funding cuts proposed by the Dutch government, as much as 26% for the Het, which is a huge blow, and even worse is cutting 50% for Nederlands Dans Theatre, Jiří Kylián’s contemporary dance company.  It’s devastating for both companies for different reasons…an insult to downgrade NDT to a “regional company” when his choreography is seen worldwide (Pacific Northwest Ballet included!), and for Dutch National Ballet, a diminishment of status as one of the top international ballet companies.  The Dutch National Ballet has eighty dancers, which is just under a top tier company like American Ballet Theater boasting just over ninety, and the effort to release these films has them just on the edge to gain more notoriety. Hup hup, Holland! Get it together and support the legacy of your arts…they are far greater than you may know! (Petitions for the NDT and Het can be found here and here, respectively, and I encourage you to show your support!).

I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with the Dutch National Ballet’s production of Giselle, and that they deserve every ounce of support available, not only to help them preserve what they have, but also to push them further into the international spotlight.  I would even say that while different, the quality of it is on par with the Royal Ballet. They’re certainly not lacking in talent and I definitely got a sense of their company’s identity throughout their Giselle…they prize exceptionally clean technique, squareness in the pelvis and torso, a lot of emphasis on épaulement, and some of the most marvelously articulate feet I’ve ever seen.  It’s clear in their choice of technique that they train a lot of “rolling” through the feet. A dancer can either spring up onto pointe, or roll through every little joint and muscle to get there, and perhaps harder (and often neglected) is rolling down, which requires incredible resistance in order to not plunk down onto your heels.  Though both techniques are acceptable, rolling does make pointe work much softer.  The Russians that train Vaganova technique favor springing, so they don’t often exhibit as much control in that minute but important transition.  What I found interesting was that distinguishing demi-pointe and full pointe was further exhibited when any of the dancers did what’s called a ‘tombé piqué en dehors’ (or more colloquially, a ‘step-over turn’ or ‘lame duck’). A popular technique is to fall in the tombé into a demi-plié, but the Dutch keep their heels up and step onto demi-pointe. Not all of the dancers were entirely comfortable with this, but the effect is very smooth, and the award for best feet definitely goes to Michele Jimenez and her delightful solo in the Peasant Pas de Quatre…she’s ridiculously good.

The Dutch certainly prefer a more sophisticated Giselle with a rustic feel.  While other productions are quaint, borderline hammy, or even a little too moony, this Giselle is toned down, mature, and very elegant.  Tsygankova found a great balance of portraying a character that is shy and naïve, but with a little more woman to her rather than young girl.  Her mad scene was extremely convincing, and there were a lot of moments before that where gestures cautiously alluded to her heart condition (this one is not a suicide Giselle, or one that dies solely of a broken heart).  I loved her in Act II, where she favored good placement instead of hiked up her hips for higher extensions.  For example, in the short adagio before the iconic pas de deux, Giselle performs a simple arabesque penché with her arms gently crossed in front of her, and Tsygankova really stays over her supporting leg, taking care not to hyper-extend her knee and “sit back” in her penché.  By keeping her pelvis square and her back even, her leg does not go to 180°, but the line between her back and leg was just perfect.

Not Act II, but a lovely variation from Anna Tsygankova:

Vargas is a fantastic Albrecht, electing to portray a version that requires some sympathy, rather than the lusty cad often seen in other stagings. In an interview that’s part of the additional features, Varga discusses why he doesn’t think of Albrecht as a bad person—he’s someone that is caught between love and obligations due to social status.  Albrecht is also a victim of his own naïveté, a sort of “the grass is greener on the other side of the fence” situation where he sees these jovial villagers but doesn’t fully understand what the life of a peasant entails.  Logically speaking, I like this because in other productions one has to wonder if the impetus for Albrecht’s remorse is simply a sense of responsibility over a girl’s death, due to his promiscuity.  Varga’s Albrecht was truly in love with Giselle, and feels regret that he never had a chance to explain the truth himself. With strong acting skills and technical brilliance, Varga just looks so natural and calm. I really like his arabesque line, and also during his Albrecht variation, there’s a double attitude turn en dehors, quite possibly one of the most heinous steps in all of ballet…there’s no other way to describe it than difficult, because the whole time your leg just wants to fly away from you.

Exceptional soloists in the Peasant Pas de Quatre…I already mentioned Jimenez, and the others were Maia Makhateli, Mathieu Gremillet, and Arthur Shesterikov (Gremillet did a double tour in his variation where he landed in a perfect fifth and didn’t budge…my jaw dropped—no shifting feet or bouncing out of it!).  The corps de ballet was also superb throughout, an utter joy to watch but one of the things that really made this production was Igone de Jongh’s Myrtha—absolutely steely presence and this was one area where clarity in her épaulement really accentuated the character.  The Dutch épaulement (or perhaps Beaujean and Bustamente’s choreography) really finds interesting facings, and it’s another aspect of training that is sometimes neglected, and in some cases considered a lost art.  In fact, a lot of what the Dutch do in terms of épaulement, working through the feet, square hips, and even the body types of the dancers seemed more of a throwback to Romantic era ballet.  The only beanpole was Jan Zerer as Hilarion, who I really enjoyed watching in Act I, but something was off in Act II…I could see the desperation and fear, but there just wasn’t enough oomph for me. Though it’s unfair for me to say this, my current theory is that his height worked against him a bit because when you have that much more to work with, you have to be all the more expressive.

Peasant Pas de Quatre

Overall, the Dutch National Ballet does a very well balanced Giselle, emotional without being melodramatic and sophisticated is really the best way I can describe it. The only thing I honestly didn’t like was Bathilde’s costume, a monstrous blue and ivory striped dress (you may have caught a glimpse of it in the Peasant Pas) that I was incredibly resistant to.  Sometimes I like to see the thirty-two entrechat six for Albrecht in Act II (though I swear it’s usually more like twenty-four, if that) although Varga does two diagonals of brisés travelling forward followed by ten entrechat six, which I felt made sense because the diagonal of brisés heads straight towards Myrtha, kind of like a “Myrtha™ tractor beam” that’s pulling him in, which emphasizes her control over him and the “forcing him to dance to his death” thing.  There is an additional variation for Albrecht in Act I though, which is an interesting touch and kind of plays on his desire to have the same freedom as the peasants in the village, or perhaps that he thinks he can so easily live amongst them, when the truth is forgetting obligations doesn’t mean that they go away.

So friends, I highly recommend it, and if you get a chance to watch it (or you already have, live too!) I would love to hear your thoughts and see if you had the same positive reaction to it as I did…occasionally, I need confirmation that I’m not crazy. Meanwhile, check out some Act II highlights while you’re at it:

San Francisco Sojourn: Part 2

14 Feb

Day two of my trip to San Francisco would have me returning to the War Memorial Opera House for Program 2, a triple bill of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet Yuri Possokhov’s RAku and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  This would be the moment I had waited for, a live viewing of Symphonic Variations, one of my absolute favorite ballets and it was only fitting to have it be the first Ashton ballet I ever saw live too.  However, with that being in the evening, what pray tell, would San Francisco have in store for me while I wandered around the city?  I started with a stroll through Union Square, full of shops that sold things with obscene dollar amounts and walked about seven feet into Chinatown before concluding I really didn’t want to be there (wreaked of the tourist trade), but no matter…I had purchased a tour for that afternoon to go to Muir Woods National Monument and Sausalito, a rich people neighborhood near the aforementioned redwood forest (and Sausalito was lame…I don’t care if it’s home to celebrities in their multi-million dollar houses…there’s no point in driving through the area of Skywalker Ranch if you can’t go in!).

Yes, I did the unthinkable…I purchased a tour package.  In my defense, I only did so because it would have been impossible to get to Muir Woods otherwise (if you go in peak travel season, there’s a shuttle bus that goes there from downtown San Francisco, but peak travel season be not February).  I knew there would be some overly talkative tour guide, who would be sickeningly peppy and spew plenty of information that I would instantaneously forget anyway, but as a nature geek, I was desperate to see the redwoods.  The forest didn’t disappoint—you can never really conceptualize the magnitude of redwood trees until you actually see them.  However, that blasted tour only gave the group one hour to walk through the park, which was barely enough time to mosey along the regular trail, let alone walk the longer trail or hike the offshoot ones.  Someday I shall return, and enjoy the woods on my own terms!  Oh, and if you like to buy souvenirs, I thought the bookstore (located in the visitor center right next to the ticket office) has better books, postcards and even tote bags made from recycled materials.  The gift shop (which is separate, and slightly further into the park) had more of the touristy kind of crap that I hope I’ve made clear I don’t like.

I was hoping to find Treebeard and defeat the orcs. Photo ©Me

Anyway, time to talk ballet.  I was beyond giddy arriving to War Memorial that night, and something unusual happened in that there was a pre-performance lecture with San Francisco Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer for RAku, Christopher Dennis.  I’m going to hold off on discussing some of the points from that lecture (which I think is available as a podcast…somewhere) because it’s going to make more sense to lump it with my thoughts on RAku as a whole.  First and foremost is Symphonic Variations!  The moment I felt like I had been waiting my whole life for!  I couldn’t have asked the cosmic forces to align for a more perfect occasion.  The cast for Symphonic was Frances Chung, Maria Kochetkova, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez, Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla.  When that curtain came up…I almost fainted.  One thing that doesn’t come across in film or in photography of Symphonic is how vivid and luminous the coloring of Sophie Fedorovitch’s set is—it just radiates a chartreuse brilliance.

It was a pleasure to see Kochetkova and Nedvigin’s partnership revisited, though Symphonic is a piece where it’s not really appropriate to have a particular dancer or couple stand out.  Had I not seen them in Giselle the night before, however, the thought wouldn’t have occurred to me, so this is a rather contextual observation.  I do think Maria stood out just a little bit in the piece and embodied the Ashton style the most.  Gone were her romantic port de bras from the night before, in favor of straighter lines through the wrists and clarity in favor of softness.  It wasn’t as though she was overly conspicuous…Symphonic is like a dance of six pearls, and I’ll say that Maria was the Mikimoto AAA (which for your information, means it’s a unblemished and for white pearls have a hint of rose in its iridescent luster).  Overall, the ensemble gelled together wonderfully, though I have to say that one of the guys was borderline overly indulgent with his lines.  It wasn’t Nedvigin for sure, and unfortunately I’m not familiar with the company enough to know if it was Hernandez or Garcia Castilla but he was pushing it.  For example, there’s a moment where one of the male dancers has to do grand jetés to the right and left that land in arabesque between a pair of the female dancers, and then does a quick lift with one of them (rinse, repeat).  Now I am of the opinion that one has to move from the arabesque they land in and said dancer did that thing where he landed in arabesque and kicked his leg up just a little higher (common to do in when doing an arabesque in demi-plié) but the problem was that he barely made it to the little lift in time.  In the Royal Ballet video (which I’ve seen only a hundred million times), Ludovic Ondiviela moves from the arabesque he lands in and doesn’t have to rush to the next movement.  I know it’s nitpicking, but Symphonic does require a sense of purpose, but with ease throughout.

I think the dancers absorbed the Ashton style pretty well, the only anomaly that really struck me as out of place was when the three male dancers have to tombé into an écarté derriere, and there was more distortion in the pelvis to get a higher leg than I think the Royal Ballet would allow.  This is something that’s always talked about in terms of the British style of dancing versus the American, so I’m going to try and illustrate it for those who are unfamiliar.  I’ve taken a couple of crappy screenshots from San Francisco Ballet’s website and YouTube, so bear with me with the low quality, microscopic photo to follow (just pretend like you’re in the nosebleed seats up in the balcony):

On top is San Francisco, on the bottom the Royal Ballet.

It actually wasn’t quite that pronounced with the cast I saw, but still noticeable. To me, the ninety degrees is more pleasing and makes more sense visually. Steven McRae (bottom right) was a bit of a bad boy though (Bobo, bottom center, is what I consider ideal). I know my critical eye here may seem unfair, so let me say this…I really, REALLY enjoyed the performance, and my observations didn’t hinder my ability to do so at all.  In fact, I would give my ever humbly biased opinion that the Ashton was the best danced piece of the night in terms of musicality and cohesiveness.  I would have given it a standing ovation had I not already been standing anyway (I had purchased a standing room ticket both nights in San Francisco)…unfortunately, it didn’t seem that the audience shared my enthusiasm.  The applause was tepid—though the more I thought about it, I’m not sure Symphonic Variations would ever bring the house down and receive thunderous praise, but a part of me was a little deflated anyway.  It would seem that America’s love for Balanchine simply inhibits an in-depth appreciation for subtler works like an Ashton ballet.  I don’t doubt the audience still found it beautiful in some way…just not to the extent that I do, and I  should never expect that of any audience.  I need to remind myself of that more often but I was prepared for accolades galore when Symphony in C would close the night anyway.

That would have to wait though, as Tomasson sandwiched the modernish RAku between the two neoclassical works, inciting the “Oreo cookie method.”  RAku didn’t have an official libretto, but the story was centered around the 1950 burning of the Golden Pavilion (or Kinkakuji 金閣寺), a temple in Kyoto, Japan.  In the story a nobleman or feudal lord and his wife reside at the temple during a time of war.  The nobleman is called off to battle, and his wife prays for his safety.  However, alone and unprotected, she is raped by a Zen priest and when the soldiers who accompanied her husband return, they return only with his ashes.  She is grief-stricken, and the Zen priest seizes the opportunity to burn the temple to the ground.  Logically speaking, I had a few problems with this because it was kind of an exoticized view with some historical elements but some inaccuracies, like how the samurai were largely gone before 1950 (Japan already had modernized warfare as seen in WWII).  However, Kinkakuji has been razed many a time, so I can ignore the dates and go with it…although I still didn’t entirely get the character of the priest in general; the motives for his actions weren’t made clear in the manner the rest of the story was.

Most of it was straightforward…it was a small ensemble cast of the nobleman, wife, priest and a handful of soldiers and the dancing had some modern aesthetics like flexed feet combined with martial arts and Butoh inspired movement.  RAku was quite innovative in that it employed an original score by Shinji Eshima, a bassist with the orchestra that plays for the ballet and opera, and I thought Eshima’s score was dark and provocative, with Japanese instrumentation and Buddhist chanting to boot.  The set was unique—a number of abstract white structures, some of which moved and had various images of the temple and different settings projected onto them.  This is where Christopher Dennis’s lighting design came into play.  The projected images would change for new settings, shifting seamlessly from one to the next, and Dennis added some effects like falling cherry blossom petals (very stereotypically Japan, and also a symbol of the samurai because cherry blossoms bloom only for a short time, fleeting, like the life of a samurai) as well as the flames on the temple later on.  It’s interesting because I found the set captivating but also distracting—it was quite overpowering, even taking away from the choreography at times.

Unfortunately, RAku was not my cup of tea (ceramics aficionados will get that pun)…this is not to say it wasn’t danced well because Lorena Feijoo delivered a heart-rending, emotionally charged performance that had the audience holding their breath.  She was at times poetic, and at others an utterly destroyed shell of a woman.  I guess for me the piece oscillated too much between realistic and abstract, but here’s the thing…the San Francisco audience ate it up!  They gave it a standing ovation and loved it!  I was really surprised because new works can be risky (which is why I thought Tomasson put it in the middle of the program) but it really paid off this time.  The lack of enthusiasm for the Ashton I could have foreseen but it never occurred to me that the audience would love Possokhov’s ballet to the degree that they did.  Regardless of my feelings towards RAku, I do think it’s a wonderful thing when new work is being done, and Possokhov did what many in the ballet world crave to see, which is commission new scores from contemporary composers and do a narrative ballet.

Closing out the program was Balanchine’s Symphony in C, or as I like to call it: “the C-bomb,” because it’s as if Balanchine drops bombs on stage that explode into dancers (especially in the fourth movement) and before you know it, you have a horde of forty dancers moving in lattice patterns and trying quite successfully not to collide into one other.  It’s one thing to have a corps de ballet stand in a semicircle like in a classical Petipa ballet, occasionally changing patterns while the main couple dances in the center, but the fourth movement of Symphony in C has everyone really dancing and moving by the end and it took a mastermind like Balanchine to organize it into something that can function.  Balanchine’s choreography for this ballet is somewhat simple but BIG…huge penchées, extensions, big jumps from the men (and when it isn’t big, it’s very small…like a million tendus for the corps!) and has the kind of virtuosity many audiences can appreciate.  It also has a very pristine quality to it, and is thus one of my preferred Balanchine ballets.  I find it less…harsh, and less “New York” than some of his other work.

I have to admit, a lot of it is kind of a blur, especially because Balanchine reprises all of the earlier movements in the final one, so that’s the one that tends to leave the lasting impression.  However, special kudos to Sofiane Sylve who was absolutely luxurious in the adagio second movement and the young pairing of Nicole Ciapponi and Lonnie Weeks, both corps de ballet members but in principal roles as the featured couple in the fourth movement for their electrifying performance.  All of the dancers from the principal couples to the wonderful corps de ballet attacked the maliciously fast footwork with the appropriate aplomb and made it look very easy.  In the fourth movement, when all of the dancers conglomerated onstage, Sylve got a chance to show off some of her allegro work and I think her pirouettes had just a little more sparkle than her peers.  Also, there’s a moment where the twelve men burst into soaring, unison jumps and there is something so gratifying about that that I can hardly put it into words.  It was all very classy (I loved the costumes—white tutus for the women and black leotards and tights for the men) and thrilling to watch.  Symphony in C, like everything else I saw in San Francisco was something I had never seen live before and I think it has worked its way into my pantheon of ballet favorites.

This is actually Houston Ballet, but here’s a taste of the C-bomb:

Now here’s the shocking news…the audience response was rather subdued!  Whatever a hair above tepid is, that’s what Symphony in C received, something just a notch above the Ashton, with no standing ovation.  I thought for sure the largest scale work and finale of the evening would get the most applause but not even the C-bomb got the audience to its feet.  I was flabbergasted—I couldn’t believe RAku was the one to steal the show (and I am very hard to surprise!) and it’s not that it didn’t deserve it, after all I’m just one balletomane but I clearly had no clue as to how things would turn out.  Maybe audiences can appreciate ballet outside of Balanchine after all (even if it isn’t Ashton, and even if I still think it should be!).  I feel like there’s a lesson in cultural anthropology in there somewhere that I’m completely unwilling to extract at the moment.

So friends, I left San Francisco with a lot of food for thought and obviously, the experience was beyond worth it—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  I really hope to see the company again sooner rather than later, but I’m perfectly content and grateful for the opportunity I had this past week.  Hopefully you’ll consider making the trip to San Francisco yourself, and I have to say, their Program 4, an All-Tchaikovsky bill with Theme and Variations, a world premiere work by Tomasson, and MacMillan’s Winter Dreams looks positively delicious!