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When you’re a mixed-bill sort of ballet patron and not a devotee of the full-length story ballets, performances like San Francisco Ballet’s Program 6 give you everything you could ask for. Saturday (April 20, 2013) afternoon’s first ballet, the third act of Nureyev’s Raymonda (restaged from Pepita’s 1898 original) dropped me right into the dazzle and intoxicating festivity of a story-ballet wedding day. The set was opulent and mesmerizing, a medieval Hungarian palace brought to life onstage, all creams and gold, ornate columns, candles and icons. The dancing commenced with an enormous ensemble, corps de ballet couples that filled the stage in appealing Hungarian-style attire, the women’s skirts gorgeous and flowing, all the costumes detailed with fur, feathers, gold. Glazunov’s sweeping score, further, is just plain fun, and the orchestra played it wonderfully.
“Exuberant” best describes the dancing, from the opening ensemble through the solo variations, the Pas de Trois, the Pas de Quatre, all the way to Raymonda’s famous and famously difficult “clap” variation. It’s a damned busy ballet, in truth. In doing a little research, I learned the Act III excerpt is more commonly performed over the full-length ballet, and that Nureyev, in his 1969 restaging, pulled three solos from other parts of the full-length ballet and inserted them into Act III. Makes sense to me. And it explains better why Act III feels so packed with dance, so relentlessly driven (Nureyev liked to make his dancers work), from start to finish.
Much of the choreography remains carefully stylized, the epitome of Mariinsky classicism, and requires a different skill set for the San Francisco Ballet dancers who divide their repertoire equally between the classics and contemporary ballet (the latter of which they are peerless at). The character of Raymonda, in particular has very specific challenges in her solo variation. There are tons of bourées, easy on the eye but deceptively hard for the dancer, not to mention the passage of lightning-quick passés to fifth position. There are little hops en pointe, the occasional Anna Pavlova-esque glance over the shoulder, the arms coyly folded. Coming out of a tour-jeté, Raymonda’s focus shifts downward, toward the floor beneath her feet. If you’ve ever done a tour-jeté, focusing your spotting across the stage to maintain balance after the 180 degree revolution, you could appreciate the challenge, the quirky nature of this landing. Raymonda’s gaze remains downward, her body folding into a demi-plié afterward as if she’s sort of wilted. It’s vintage Pepita, Old World classical, with a touch of earthiness and sensuality injected by Nureyev in his restaging.
Principal Lorena Feijoo played the part of Raymonda flawlessly, nailing the distinct nature of the czardas-like reposes, her chin held high, her hand touching the back of her head, as well as producing the decisive claps punctuating the pirouette passages. She was proud, sassy, noble, spirited. My admiration for Feijoo is compounded by the recently-learned news that she is a new mother and has just recently resumed a full onstage presence after time off for maternity leave. Wow. So very impressive.
Here’s a link to the production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73P6rotSRkw
The second piece on the program was Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House, which portrays five female characters taken from iconic Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s best known plays. Ibsen, in his work, liked to challenge rigid Victorian conventions about respectability, marriage, women’s place in society, and the ballet highlights the pathos and angst of these five women. Bold, dramatic, decisive female dancing, starting with Frances Chung, whose steely muscularity and determined expression and body language served the role well. Her greatest competition for my attention, however, was the music: Dvorák’s Piano Quintet no. 2. Oh, my goodness, this piece of music is a favorite of mine. Being a classical music lover and a violin student, not to mention having an excellent view of the quintet, well, it sort of upstaged the dancing in my heart. In the best of ways, mind you. And as musicians for the ballet rarely get the shout-out they deserve, allow me a moment to say thank you, Loma Mar Quartet* and pianist Roy Bogas. Their performance was so very good; it was hard to know where to focus my attention.
Three corps dancers shared the lead roles alongside Frances Chung and Sarah Van Patten, which always gives me a frisson of pleasure to see. They were Marie-Claire D’Lyse (used in a soloist capacity, as well, in Raymonda), Kimberly Braylock and Ellen Rose Hummel. Particularly memorable was D’Lyse, with her striking lean, elegant lines (long limbs, long neck, and works them well). The five women took their turns dancing solo and with partners (Sarah Van Patten and Daniel Deivison were especially mesmerizing). When dancing together, the quintet of women produced a wonderful ensemble effect. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the corps dancers of this company are among the best in the business. I’d love to see them all promoted to soloist. (Speaking of corps dancers with tremendous merit, I was sorry to learn that lovely, talented Madison Keesler will be leaving the SFB corps at the end of this season to join the English National Ballet. Our loss!)
And finally, Symphonic Dances, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, set to Rachmaninov’s music of the same name. Beautiful, diaphanous costumes in autumn hues. Grouped up couples, six principals, four soloists, eight corps de ballet couples. So very pleasing to the eye, the ear, this ballet. Really enjoyable to watch and again, as a classical music lover I was over the moon, relishing both sight and sound. I didn’t want the ballet to end. I didn’t want the afternoon to end. Among the dancers, I particularly enjoyed the partnership of Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. I haven’t seen Yuan Yuan Tan onstage in a while, and she is as lovely and compelling as ever. Luke Ingham, new to the company this year, coming in as a soloist, likely had a tough bill to fill, partnering up with the iconic Tan (joined as a soloist in 1995, made principal in 1997), but his performance drew no complaints from me. He made his partner shine and never upstaged her: that, in truth, is a big part of the male dancer’s role. (I’m thinking I should duck about right now, dodging the hurled tomatoes for such a comment.)
A lovely ballet, and with its agreeable choreography, gorgeous costumes, lush, cinematic music, I would have thought this one would hold onto “favorite ballet of the show” status for me. But here we are, a week later, I’m composing my final notes, and darned if it isn’t that story-ballet Raymonda Act III that I’m remembering. I wonder if this means it’s time for me to go beyond my mixed bill preference. Hmmm.
Until next season, San Francisco Ballet!
*Members of the Loma Mar Quartet performing on Saturday: Krista Bennion Feeney, Anca Nicolau, David Cerruti, and Myron Lutzke
PS: A good story here, on how I got to see this performance for only $14: http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/?p=350