Monthly Archives: February 2008

Two very different Giselles: San Francisco Ballet


Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle. © Erik Tomasson

From my experience, people watch Giselle with two very different expectations. One group watches Giselle for the spectacular dancing, for the technique and artistry – the classic standards of ballet. For the leads, the difficult demands include superb technique with a well of emotional depth and stage presence. Giselle also requires a corps with pinpoint precision, in which one leg at the wrong angle can stick out like a sore thumb. This audience group looks for exemplary dancing, in the most traditional sense. The second group watches Giselle with the expectation of character development and great acting skills, and may even forgo technical prowess for proper dramatic development and believability of the character’s motives and intents. (Technically, there are two other groups as well – one group who requires both great dancing and great character development in order to be happy, and another group that doesn’t care either way.)

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching two consecutive performances of San Francisco Ballet’s Giselle, with an example of each set of expectations – the matinee cast excelled at the technical and artistic demands of Giselle, while the evening cast was better at the character development of Giselle. The matinee cast was led by Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle and Tiit Helimets as her Albrecht, with Sofiane Sylve as Myrta. Before going into this performance, I had a few expectations – I was fairly warned of Tan’s acting skills, and I thought that she would be a spectacular Wili in the second act. Both turned out to be true. In the first act, I had a hard time believing that Yuan Yuan Tan was a peasant; her arms had an airiness that would be more fitting as a Wili rather than an earthy peasant girl. Tan has the uncanny ability of making everything she dances her own style (insert adjectives such as fluid, regal, precise, womanly, a more mature/deeper artistry); it’s just not traits that anyone would normally associate with a peasant girl. The second act however, was unforgettable. Tiit Helimets got a chance to shine, and his chemistry with Tan was mesmerizing, as their bodies seemed to melt together and speak as one. Helimets has gorgeous extensions to spare and a reserved princely aristocratic air, but I was most taken by his complete in-the-moment embodiment of emotion, from his facial expressions (seen a little bit in the photo above) to the way he related to Tan. Every single moment when he was dancing, Albrecht’s acknowledgment of the gravity of his actions was manifested in Helimet’s entire body, as if he was dancing for the last time with the love of his life. Nothing was outrightly external, but restrained emotions simmered, with passion seen in yearning extensions that were held a second longer, and Albrecht’s guilt and Giselle’s forgiveness seen in every movement. Seeing them dance together (my first time seeing them together) was breathtakingly gorgeous – passionate, tragic, gentle, forgiving, and very moving to watch. As a Wili, Tan’s softly fluid artistry betrays her love and forgiveness for Albrecht despite being a cool and aloof ghost, her hovering arms protecting his life. Emotion and dance cohesively melted into one, and the second act with Helimets and Tan was stunningly beautiful.

The evening cast starred newly hired principal Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada. Kochetkova is much smaller in size (when she is placed on a cart with the children, she is actually the same height as the children), and she embodied the spirit of a young girl, with a light flirtiness and precise attack. From the flirty downcast of her eyes to the way she slowly uplifted them to look into Boada’s face, you see a girl slowly falling in love for the first time with a growing trust as the first act progresses. Even though it was my second Giselle for the day, the first act flew by for me as I found myself getting caught up in the dramatic action. In the second act, her mad whirling attitudes as soon as her veil is lifted off brought tremendous applause. As a Wili, she still shows traces of the young girl as she flits across the floor, so fast that she was sometimes ahead of the beat, and her precision and lightness was lovely. Her chemistry with Joan Boada felt incomplete in its emotional depth, however. Joan Boada made a handsomely dramatic and passionate Albrecht, but at times his high energy felt unharnessed and a tad unfinished, especially on some of the landings on his jumps. His dance of death in the second act was filled with sky high jumps and passionate bravura, and his partnering of Giselle’s soft jumps across the floor made her look like she was floating across the floor.

The supporting principals were equally impressive. The matinee Myrta was guest principal Sofiane Sylve, who portrayed Myrta as a rock solid unflinching queen of the Wilis. She particularly excelled in quick footwork, where she played with the music’s downbeat with thrilling musicality. The evening Myrta was soloist Sarah Van Patten. I’m seeing more of her these days, and her artistry is progressively leaving a lasting impression. Her Myrta was expressed through her eyes. Wide-eyed and unblinking as a ghost intent on killing, yet her eyes were also pools of sadness. Her delicate upper body belied her regret and tragic past as a jilted lover, with an external steely resolve that seemed that it could crack at any moment. Both Myrtas were glowingly beautiful. Hilarion was played by two principal dancers – Damian Smith (matinee) played Hilarion with more gravitas, while Pascal Molat (evening) danced with more dramatic energy, and even brought out moments of humor.

Another interesting thing about this production of Giselle is the way that it showcases the strength of its soloists and its corps, both in ensemble work and in solos. The corps is key to the effect of the Wilis seen in the second act. The SF Ballet corps isn’t always cohesive, but they were a unified and a scarily determined marvel on Saturday, distilled in a single man-killing machine. The peasant dance in the first act also gave some corps members to shine – corps member Diego Cruz (matinee) shined in his technically perfect solo, while principal Nicolas Blanc (evening) was less technical but danced with more spirit. Soloist Frances Chung sparkled in the peasant solo in both performances, and she danced cleanly with sunny broad strokes. Corps member Clara Blanco danced one of the lead Wilis in the matinee, and she held a particular regret in her arms that was sad and lovely.

To me, forgiveness is the biggest virtue that speaks of love. Passion and lust – that’s for beginners. Forgiveness? After all, it is divine. Some of the most moving pieces of theater addresses forgiveness and grace; Les Miserables comes to mind, where grace rules to change people. The story of Giselle can seem silly to modern audiences, with shallow characters and and a twisting plotline (for instance, why does Hilarion have to die?). Giselle herself drives me crazy, actually, because she’s frustratingly not very bright, and Giselle and Myrta represent two female stereotypes that aren’t so flattering. But it remains a classic, for many other reasons including the fact that grace and forgiveness displayed on stage is something audiences never get tired of watching, especially when it’s so beautifully done as the performances I saw on Saturday.

The last performances of Giselle was today; their next program, a tribute to Jerome Robbins, starts on March 6, with Fancy Free, In the Night, and the West Side Story Suite. It’s interesting to read reviews of NYCB’s West Side Story suite, and knowing this is what I have to look forward to. It sounds like a musical with pointe shoes, complete with the singing dancers. I’m looking forward to seeing how this translates onstage.

San Francisco Ballet 2008 Season

Has anyone seen SFB’s Giselle? What are your thoughts? Do you watch Giselle for the dancing, and/or care about character development onstage? When was the last time (if ever) you ever saw two shows in one day?

Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion


Last weekend, Jen and I hopped in a Prius and drove six hours home for the weekend, listening to NPR’s Cartalk and This American Life and the Drowsy Chaperone soundtrack the entire way. While we were at home, we stopped by the Orange County Performing Arts Center to see another ABT principal, Diana Vishneva.

Diana Vishneva, of course, was ravishing. Everything that has already been written about her is true – a great technician with unbridled passion and so much fun to watch. The best thing about this show, in addition to Diana herself, was the fact that she took great risks in picking choreographers who choreographed for her – Alexei Ratmansky, Moses Pendleton, and Dwight Rhoden. They even wrote short pieces on what it was about Diana Vishneva that inspired them in these pieces. She wasn’t safe in choosing these very different choreographers, very different from what she would dance at ABT or the Mariinsky Theatre. Despite her noble intentions, most of the night just didn’t work.

The night opened with Alexei Ratmansky’s Pierrot Lunaire. Alexei Ratmansky wrote in the program that even in her happiest roles, he is struck by Diana’s dark side that always peeks through, and he wanted to build on this. And so he proceeded to choreograph for her and a small ensemble, a ballet about a clown with disturbing fantasies, including fantasies of sex, death, and religion. (Let me repeat, a clown.) In addition, the ballet was set to the dark disturbing music of Arnold Schoenberg, with a mezzo-soprano (Elena Sommer) singing in sperechstimme, or speech-singing, which sets a dark scary quality that sounds like chanting I’d hear in a tomb in the middle of eastern Europe. The choice of isn’t easily accessible to a general audience, including my own ears. Despite the choice of music, the music was brilliantly performed by musicians with a world class presence and a clarity of tone. Standouts were Elena Sommer, the mezzo-soprano, and Nikolay Mokhov, the flute player.

Pierre Lunaire was confusing as a review mentions that the choreography follows the plotline of the words that were sung, unfortunately, in German. So the non-speaking German audience members were left guessing at what was going on. I didn’t even understand who was the clown until after the piece, I had to go back to my program to read that the part of the clown was passed to different dancers during the course of the piece. And it’s nearly unforgivable that Ratmansky thought to put Diana in a clown’s dunce cap.

The best piece of the night came next, Moses Pendleton’s “F.L.O.W.”, short for For the Love of Women. It was strongly based on images, and were delightful to watch. The first act opened with a pitch dark stage, and a glowing hand appears like a snake to charm the audience. Three pairs of dismembered limbs danced with humor, making shapes and even at one point, making bird heads that pecked at each other. The second act was of Diana on a raked mirrored stage, writhing (albeit beautifully). The third act was Diana in a beaded dress, spinning and whirling as the beads flew in the air around her. It was filled with breathtaking and pretty images, with no apparent meaning behind it all. It’s odd to me that the only choreographer with almost no ballet experience pulled out the best dance of the night. Perhaps it requires a sense of being so far removed from the subject, to think that outside the box.

The evening closed with Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Dwight Rhoden’s piece, “Three Point Turn”, who created the “danciest” piece of the night. It was refreshing to see her strike an attitude (the ballet pose, not her manner), and she danced with the amazing Desmond Richardson. I have to admit, he was a big reason why I bought a ticket to see this show, and to watch him in action was amazing. As Diana does, he embodies every move to the fullest. He excelled most in his solos, and it was great to watch him go. The piece was filled with three couples, interacting and symbolizing different phases of a relationships, dramatic with off center pointework and lots of pointed developpes. The piece was a bit long though, and towards the end, things started to feel repetitive and too one-note with the overall sense of drama and urgency that didn’t change.

Overall, the performances were amazing – Diana herself, Desmond Richardson, the dancers and the musicians. She took a great risk in working with three hot choreographers, who weren’t able to consistently create three great works. (The OC Register review was titled, “Ballerina’s ‘Beauty’ thwarted”. Ouch.) But as long as the dance world continues to take these risks that this show took, it’s bound to hit jackpot at one point.

After the show, we walked over to the stage door. It started so innocently to get autographs, but to my horror, I fear that we may have permanently been integrated into her documentary. She came swooping out, all smiles and beauty in motion with a cameraman following her, videotaping her every move. So I think he got footage of us getting her autograph, asking about a performance she gave at the Met that Jen attended, and getting a picture with her. AAAAHHHH. Jen asked her if she was filming a documentary and she smiled and said yes, we will be on film. I knew I should have dressed up more that night, I didn’t even do my hair.

I realize that my bias is that I love to see Diana in certain roles. The last time I saw her was dancing Giselle with ABT in New York with Vladimir Malakhov (what great casting!), and her tragic Giselle with her heartrending arms was the best I’d ever seen. This program was too much of a drastic change, and although she attacked the choreography will all her heart, if she couldn’t save it, I don’t think anyone could.

Updated: there are better pictures in the NY Times, click here for the pictures of her show.

Dance on the internet

There have been several events recently that have popped up in regards to dance on the internet. It’s amazing how dance companies have really started to recognize that there is an audience on the internet, and are acting accordingly. Dance on the internet increases visibility and accessibility – probably one of the biggest reasons why dance isn’t as popular as, let’s say, Justin Timberlake, is that information isn’t so readily accessible, especially for an art steeped in tradition. The internet can be used to view dance (such as Youtube), as well as to read about it, research it, and to discuss it (in areas such as blogs).

I was recently invited to attend movmnt magazine‘s blogger discussion to discuss dance issues and blogging, and how blogging can be used to promote dance to an increasing online public. Thanks to David (and Tonya) for the invite, I really wish I could have made it, only if I wasn’t several thousand miles away. :) It’s always a fascinating topic, and I’m learning a lot just by reading about the discussion you guys had. The most surprising thing that I learned was at the Cedar Lake’s blogger night, where they invited bloggers from the dance world to attend a dress rehearsal and join in an informal chat with the director, that the entire run sold out after all the bloggers blogged about it. That is awesome – it gives credit to how powerful online blogging can be, and how it can really be used to promote dance and actually sell tickets. It continues to amaze me that there is a demand for dance blogs – readers actually read our blogs, and buy tickets accordingly. How cool is that?!?

A little about movmnt magazine – it’s a magazine founded by journalist David Benaym and dancer Danny Tidwell (of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, he’s the only reason why I started watching the show, and he totally should have won) “created for the fashion-forward, arts-oriented, and socially conscious web 2.0 generation” (as quoted from their website).

Another cool discovery of dance on the internet – Kristin Sloan, who is NYCB’s Director of New Media as well as the creator of The Winger, has launched a Youtube channel of NY City Ballet. It’s so amazing to be able to click on and watch clips of a company that I would never otherwise see, due to distance (and my unabashed preference for ABT, although perhaps it may be because I’ve never seen NYCB aside from Macaulay Culkin‘s brief foray into ballet), and to see what great dance is like in addition to San Francisco Ballet. :) It would be really cool if the vids spotlighted a dancer, to show what they’re known for, and for what style, and to highlight their dancing in a diverse array of roles. When people talk about “Yvonne Bouree’s style”, I never know what people are talking about (never mind the fact that it’s actually really weird that I even have conversations like that.) And backstage peeks are always fun too! This is a great way to make a company more visible and accessible online, to pique people’s curiosity, and to show off the best. And ballet dancers would make much better Youtube stars than the other talentless stuff that’s all over Youtube!! The Youtube channel is here.

Let me predict that it’ll be a short time before other ballet companies follow suit? That would be so much fun.

In Comes Company

EDITED TO ADD: Was it not brilliant?? I was left exhausted (well, also literally since it was late), but feeling very satisfied. I had forgotten how great of a show it is, and the TV translated the show very well, with crystal clarity. You know it’s a great recording if its most avid fans are mollified; there are 11 pages of live commentary as it was showing, with most of its fans loving every minute of it. And pleasing its avid

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fans are the hardest part, I think!

“I meant to, does that count?”

There were many chill-inducing moments. Some of my favorite moments were way more poignant and piercing that I had remembered. After Bobby asks Kathy “Did you just fall in love?” and she doesn’t respond, the pause was much longer that I had remembered. The pause was so pregnant with her regret, her obvious answer that she’s not in love, and a determination to become a wife and to have real things. I hated her for it, and yet you can’t blame her for wanting to live her life. I also didn’t realize how sad the ending to “Side by Side” is – Raul’s expression after no one returns his kazoo attempt was heartbreaking. Another favorite moment was a shot from the back of the stage, you got a peek at stuff that was going on upstage. Harry (Keith Buterbaugh) is playing his trumpet as a part of the ensemble, and he plays directly at his wife, Sarah (Kristin Huffman), who waves him away. I love how they incorporate the instrumental playing with their characters.

“The problem is, you want too little.”

I was also impressed with the marketing of this PBS recording, which was worlds better than the marketing and PR for the actual Broadway musical. I’ve heard more about this than the Broadway musical, and I liked the summary that they released (shown at the bottom of this entry). Kudos to showing a high quality show on PBS, I just wish they were airing it again. They’re re-airing it in my neighborhood super early in the morning (from 1 AM til 3:30 AM) next week, which makes it impossible for me to watch again.

“Stop looking at my charisma. “

I have a question for you Company-lovers out there. I realized why I didn’t get the musical the first time that I saw it; I was completely confused on the chronology of the show. Can someone help me? Does it occur within minutes, during his birthday party? Is he looking back at his life, or is it happening in real time? Sondheim, in the post-Company interview (don’t turn off the TV after Company is over!) talks about the “metaphysical” birthday party. At that point, I realized that I had no idea on what the time scale of the show was.

“Mock me with praise.”

I realized I can’t talk about this musical without gushing, and so I’ll take a back seat in explaining it in vague terms which of course doesn’t do it justice. Matt did a much better job of explaining the details of this show and the staging much better than me, so click here to read about his take. How do you write about something that you think is so wonderful?

“It’s better living it than looking at it.”

You can also buy the DVD!


I’m a bit torn; there are three fantastic things going on tomorrow night – Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Giselle at San Francisco Ballet, the PBS airing of Broadway’s Company, or the pre-finale to Project Runway. So Project Runway will continue to re-air into eternity, so that’s out. I just can’t miss seeing Company again. This musical spoke to me and so many of my friends, even thought it took a viewing for me to understand it. But sometime after the second time that I saw it, it clicked with me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. Also, watching Raul Esparza sing “Being Alive” literally inches away from me from the front row is a powerful theater experience I’ll never forget.

What is it about? It’s about Bobby, a bachelor on his 35th birthday, looking at his life and the life of his married friends. It’s a story of searching for love, life, and a sense of self. It’s filled with humor that makes you laugh, but reverberates in a bittersweet pang of reality. I’m really not doing it justice. I’m really curious what newbies will think of this show, so feel free to comment if you saw/are planning on seeing it (Matt? Tonya? Art?).

An interesting fact – Bobby is based on Warren Beatty, pre-Annette Bening. Some other characters are based on real people as well.

There are preview video clips that PBS has released, here is their opening song, “Company”. Notice how the actors are playing their own instruments, and all the music you hear is what you see onstage. Watching this clip again, I’m amazed at how the actors are able to act while they’re playing their instruments. I also love how the instruments serve as a metaphor for being involved, for playing the game. Director John Doyle is a genius.

The PBS website version:

“Company, the 2007 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Revival, airs February 20 on PBS’ GREAT PERFORMANCES series.

Long before Sex and the City, the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Company took an unconventional look at love and commitment in complex modern New York. The 1970 era-defining classic was – and is – an honest, funny and sophisticated portrayal of five married couples as seen through the eyes of their mutual friend Robert, a waffling, 35-year-old bachelor evaluating the pros and cons of wedded life. Raúl Esparza, who won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for his portrayal of leading man Robert, heads the cast of actor-musicians. John Doyle (Sweeney Todd) directs.”

Be sure to watch it!

Great Performances presents “Company”

Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia

Nina Ananiashvili in Alexei Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations

Just got back from watching Nina Ananiashvili and the State Ballet of Georgia at Cal Performances. In general, it was an uneven evening, especially in Balanchine’s Chaconne. It’s a young company, and they can only get better, but at times, it felt a bit student-showcase-y, with many loose ends, such as floppy feet and a complete lack of confidence and musicality. With that, Nina Ananiashvili is very good at bringing this ballet company into modern times; I just happened to catch her at the beginning of this company’s rise. I’m impressed by their repertoire with progressive pieces, as well as the traditional standards such as Giselle, which they’ll be performing later this weekend. It’s a great example of a ballet company incorporating good modern choreography, and they can only get better.

With that, the best piece of the night was Yuri Possohkov’s Sagalobeli, where the company literally came alive and seemed to be having fun for the first time. The dancers looked confident, and played more, even to the point of a dancer falling in her solo. But the enthusiasm showed, and the audience felt it. The music was traditional Georgian music, but the ballet was refreshingly un-folkloric nor old. Possohkov’s choreography was freshly inventive and sensual, with an unexpected move at every turn that kept the audience engaged and delighted. He has a true talent for inventive corps formations, as well as innovative lifts and partnering. When I think of Possohkov, I think of a couple in the middle of a whirling spin, with legs and arms whipping around, and then stopping as the woman leans into a deep arabesque, with her partner pulling on her hand. This is truly the best I’ve seen of Possohkov’s choreography, and SF Ballet is truly lucky to have him as their resident choreographer.

Nina Ananiashvili danced in Ratmansky’s Bizet Variations. This is the first time that I’ve seen Ratmansky’s choreography. I didn’t see anything truly special nor outstanding; I see some Petipa in his choreography, and it looks like he based this piece deeply rooted in the Russian tradition. Nina A. however, was lovely; she looked like a cloud, floating in a lovely way. She would make a great Giselle, it would have been great to see her dance more.

The other piece was Balanchine’s Duo Concertant, danced by Nino Gogua and Lasha Khozashvili. They didn’t look as comfortable as they danced in the Possohkov piece, but did passably well. I can’t wait to see NYCB dance it when they dance at the War Memorial Opera house later this season.

One note: it’d be great if this show had timed the dancers’ bows and the curtain. The curtain kept on falling in the middle of the performers bows, as they were running downstage with arms uplifted, to take their bows. The lighting was awkward too; a percentage of the show was in muted darkness, as well as misplaced spotlights (is the spotlight supposed to only highlight the hands in Duo Concertant? The spotlight didn’t seem too sure if it was supposed to include the body or not). If Alastair Macaulay had a problem with the lighting at the SF Ballet programs, he would have had a field day with this one.

Edited to add: The problem with Duo Concertant is that it lacked the extra extension, the snap and verve – it was more than proficient given the material.

The theater was teeming with San Francisco Ballet dancers last night – they’re not performing in Giselle until Saturday. Spotted were artistic director Helgi Tomasson, dancers Yuan Yuan Tan, James Sofranko, and Gennadi Nedvigin, who got accosted by a group of giddy pre-teens in the lobby, and SF dance critics Rachel Howard and Allan Ullrich. It was a great audience, and the theater was pretty packed.

Bolshoi’s Alexei Ratmansky turns down NYCB

Ratmansky to turn down the job as NYCB’s resident choreographer

Aw, I’m a bit disappointed, although I’m sure it’s for the best. This weekend is shaping up to be a Ratmansky-filled weekend for me, with Nina Anashiavelli and the State of Georgia Ballet at Cal Performances, and Diana Vishneva and the Kirov (with Desmond Richardson) in Orange County.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Status Quo

Will we have a female American president, before we have a woman running a prominent American ballet company? It’s amazing to think that dance, overwhelmingly female, is less adaptable than Puritan-initiated American politics.

From the NY Times: regarding Trisha Brown’s retirement.
““It’s harder for women,” Ms. Brown said. “It just is. They get fewer grants, fewer bookings, fewer reviews. I’ve known that always.”

“There are all kinds of ways of diminishing a woman’s power,” she added, noting that female dancers face harsher scrutiny, especially as they age. “It’s in the culture. It’s how we think about women.”

She recalled seeing ]Martha] Graham speak late in her career. “I remember asking people around me, ‘Why doesn’t she dance?’ ” Ms. Brown said. “ ‘She looks like she could dance. Is it because she can’t remember her steps?’ I was speculating at the lowest level possible.””

The Trials of a Delinquent Adult Ballet Student

Another adult ballet dancer – after taking his first ballet class, he writes, “Had I not sweated out every drop of water from my body, I would have shed a tear.” Article here. The Guardian.

It’s embarrassing that I admit that I haven’t attended ballet class in over a year. The biggest reason is probably a combination of laziness, work, friends, blogging, and theater watching, which are internal factors; these are things that takes over a big part of my life. There are external factors however, that worry me to the point where I wonder if I’ll ever find a regular dance studio to attend.

In many ways, I feel like I am a representative adult dance student – I took dance as a child and even took it seriously, until college and med school got in the way (in addition to music taking over my life in high school). I even kept up ballet in college at Stanford, studying with a former NYCB dancer there and even performing a solo in our spring quarter dance performance, where I wrangled and bribed my dormmates to come out to watch. (The hardest part about ballet class was that on the way back from ballet class, I had to bike past a Jamba Juice at every class. Any attempt at weight loss was counteracted by this fact.) However after college, it’s been hard to find a good adult ballet class for many reasons.

Like many other adults who take ballet classes, I not only have had a history of dance in my childhood, but also have a professional life that has nothing to do with dance. I won’t go to classes during finals week (except for the rare times I wanted to clear my head) or during the days when I have long experiments. I go to ballet classes because I still love ballet (if my ballet viewing hasn’t told you that already, I don’t know what else will!) and still love doing it, and it is the only form of exercise I can do regularly. I ice skate, but public skating hours are irregular and the nearest rink is about 20 miles away. I get too bored at the gym, and have failed to keep going out regularly for more than a quarter. Treadmills don’t hold a candle to doing leaps across the floor! Ballet is also a better workout, in my opinion.

In addition, there are some quirks with being in a semi-rural neighborhood that presents some obstacles for attending class regularly. I’m currently living a distance away from the nearest metropolitan city which is San Francisco, where our modest town features a few local dance studios. Many local dance studios such as these are probably where the biggest ballet stars today have started, and represent an important place in American dance today. The problem is in these small towns and cities, many dance studios have a set idea of what a “good dance studio” should be, and are trying to emulate what they think is going on in dance studios in the bigger cities For instance, the biggest obstacle in attending these classes is that my local dance studio requires a strict uniform of black leotard and pink tights for their teen/adult classes. How many adults do you know, in their thirties and forties, or even self conscious teens who are anything but rail thin, who enjoy seeing themselves in a skintight black leotard and pink tights, with nothing to hide the hips? At least black is a slimming color. In addition, there is a requirement for everyone’s hair to be in a bun. I see many variations of people attempting this, as many short haired people are using pins to resemble a bun. You should see me try to force my stick straight hair into a bun and watching helplessly as my bun slowly unravels with my straight hair that slips out of it within seconds, or even worse, during class. In addition, I’ve witnessed some dangerous practices going on in dance classes, which teachers practice in the guise of being being “rigorous”. On my first day of dance class in three years, I had a teacher who had the class do about 75 releves on one foot with no preparatory plie, and then repeat it again on the other foot. I had expressly told the teacher that it was my first class in years, and yet she was relentless. I could hardly walk the next day, and I spent over a week, recovering. It’s in such dance studios that have a “big city complex”, where they try to be like the next School of American Ballet, where the students clearly don’t have the same goals.

I really felt the contrast when on a whim, I took a ballet class at the San Francisco Dance Center. Without even thinking, I had brought my usual dance uniform, and I ended up sticking out like a sore thumb. No one was wearing pink tights, and people were mostly wearing sweats. One guy was even wearing a full body unitard. They were wearing whatever they wanted, and it was a casual attitude of an adult ballet class that I had not experienced before. It was great to be in a group where people danced because they loved it, and had fun with it. And no one is accusing this studio of being less than rigorous; in fact, Muriel Maffre herself has reportedly taken this exact same class! (Too bad she wasn’t there that day I went.)

I’m sure that this isn’t the case for all adult classes in local dance studios, but it makes it difficult for me to stay loyal to a dance studio that remains oblivious to adults’ needs. My priorities don’t include being the next Melissa Hayden, who started ballet in her teens, or to dance professionally or anywhere near that. I come to get a good workout, and to continue to do what I love to do. I go not to deal with a scary teacher, but yes, to have fun. I can deal with taking class with 12 year olds. I can deal with corrections in technique, which, although it’s rare that an audience will ever see it, is still important even for health reasons and in my goal of being a passable “dancer”. It’s the other stuff that remains difficult to keep me coming out, especially when my priorities are clearly elsewhere.

It is with this rant that I’m still hoping to find a regular ballet class to attend. I was really happy to find that our newly built university gym just started offering ballet classes at $6 a class where “tight clothes and socks are required”. (There’s no mention of a bun or tights or even ballet shoes being required.) It’s a beautiful room too. I hope it’ll work out, and I’ll find a ballet studio home soon.

San Francisco Ballet: Program 2


Vanessa Zahorian and Kristin Long in Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15″

I realize that I tend to speak in hyperbole about my favorite San Francisco Ballet, but if there ever is a perfect night in ballet, Program 2 came pretty close. Program 2 consists of a right balance of diverse pieces, with Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, and choreographer-in-residence Possohkov’s Firebird. Thank God that SFB hasn’t adopted NYCB’s ‘themed programming’ with names such as “Spirit of Discovery”. In reviewing one such night at the NYCB, NY Times critic Jennifer Dunning lamented, “Oh, those titles, and whatever happened to Programs A, B and C?” Give me normal good ol’ fashioned programming like this any day, where I can get a diverse range of pieces in one evening.

The best part is the ability of SF Ballet to flow in and out of different styles of choreography seamlessly, and with charm. I had always taken this uncanny talent of SF Ballet for granted until I saw a company that didn’t do it so well. SFB makes it look so easy, and they tackle Balanchine to Morris to Possohkov beautifully. (In fact, Jen got a personal endorsement from Mark Morris himself that she should watch SF Ballet do Balanchine.)

The evening didn’t start well with an announcement over the PA that Jaime Garcia Castilla would be replaced by Hansuke Yamamoto in Divertimento, and Ruben Martin in Drink. That was the biggest damper on the evening, although the subs were great, Jaime Garcia Castilla is quickly becoming one of my favorite dancers in the company, with his lyrical lines and dramatic stage presence. He’s definitely one to watch. I hope he’s also ok so we can see him onstage soon.

Balanchine’s neoclassical Divertimento No. 15 reminded me a little of his Ballo della Regina. Whereas Ballo was joyful smiles, Divertimento was more gracious and knowing smiles. The piece exuded a warm sense of camaraderie which sparkled onstage, as dancers acknowledged each other while dancing. The rough edges seen in the female corps in Program 1 was nowhere to be seen in Divertimento, as the corps were confident and clean. The female solos are equally charming, with Tina LeBlanc shining the brightest. Vanessa Zahorian flew through her solo; it’s obvious she has perfect solid technique, yet I wished she would play with the music and enjoy it a little more. In all, Divertimento a confection is filled with Balanchine’s gentle musicality, and the dancers brought out its warmth to its full effect.

Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes was a more grounded shift in style. Every time I view one of Morris’ pieces, I feel like I’m revisiting a familiar old friend that always makes me smile. His choreography reflects his humor and his genius, and this piece is no different. Admittedly it’s not the masterpiece that Mozart Dances is, but Morris’ stamp is unmistakable. The piece starts with a non sequitur; a man carrying a woman across the stage for no apparent reason and exiting. The audience laughter was immediate, which means that the dancers were able to convey Morris’ message and humor convincingly. The piece has an undulating quality to it, like waves on a beach, as dancers enter and do their thing, and exit, only to enter again later. The dancing is filled with a whirlwind of push and pull, resisting and giving in, which adds to the ebb and flow of the piece. Pascal Molat soared in his jumps, as did Rory Hohenstein. Sarah Van Patten’s fluidity stood out, like a river quickly and gracefully navigating over rocks. This was also my introduction to SF Ballet’s newest principal, Maria Kochetkova. She’s tiny, and she still reminds me of a bird. She was absolutely charming in her quick precision and upper body openness. It’s going to be fun to watch her throughout this season.

The evening ended with Possohkov’s Firebird. It was Possohkov’s first work for SF Ballet as the choreographer-in-residence, and it was a solid beginning. Firebird is a safe yet smart choice to make as a first work, how could you screw it up, really? It has a strong storyline, with the drama of a romance and a sacrificial bird and an evil nemesis and his posse. It’s always been met with mixed reviews, but I’ve always enjoyed it. It has seeds of greatness in it with eye-catching moments of innovative choreography, and if Possohkov gets better, he will be a force to be reckoned with. No one can talk about this piece without mentioning its moment of campy humor, mostly in the lap of the evil character, Kaschei, danced by Pascal Molat. When Kaschei surprised the audience by jumping out of the fog to break apart the Prince and the Princess, there was a girl behind me who actually screamed. Its effect was heightened when we realize that his entire posse had snuck onstage under the fog and seemed to rise from the dead. The Prince was danced by Damian Smith who was endearingly boyish, and Rachel Viselli was the Princess who blossomed from a pouting girl to a feminine woman before our eyes. Yuan Yuan Tan made a passionately tragic Firebird.

In all, what a night. It made me think a little about the future of ballet, since this program was filled with modern ballet. I was recently reading a must-read article written by pianist Jeremy Denk, who wrote a tirade about what is wrong with modern music. I was struck by how his arguments against modern music was applicable to modern dance as well. Denk argues that the element that is missing from most modern music is delight, defined as “combination of discovery with pleasure, a kind of mental activity brought to bear upon pleasure, running into it as if in a traffic accident where no one gets hurt. It’s the brain slamming into the obstacle of beauty, waking up, rubbing its eyes.” That element of surprise, of delight, an unexpected pleasure that makes me smile, or pay attention, or react in any way, is what I often find missing in modern dance, which can often be serious and esoteric at best, pretentious at its worst. Program 2 was delightful, and if this program represents the future of modern ballet, then we ballet audiences face a great future ahead of us.

San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2. It plays through this Sunday.