By Allan Ulrich
SAN FRANCISCO (San Francisco Chronicle) — You couldn’t help stumbling over a masterpiece this past February at the War Memorial Opera House.
For the third subscription program of its 77th season, the San Francisco Ballet devoted the entire bill to three seminal dances by George Balanchine, all seen here before and all welcome back in these carefully prepared revivals. The fare was impeccably chosen. The music making (with one exception) was often ravishing. The dancing ranged from glorious to efficient.
Yet, even if a performance here and there might have been stronger, watching a major company come to grips with ballet’s most challenging and most gratifying choreographer affords an opportunity to witness the act of re-creation at its most illuminating. Regrettably, this will be the ballet’s only ration of Balanchine for the year.
Still, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson was wise to bracket the bracing, angular “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” with two major Tchaikovsky-inspired works. There are similarities here. In the opening moments of the 1934 “Serenade” (Balanchine’s first American ballet), the 17 women drenched in blue moonlight spread their feet into first position.
At the opening of “Theme and Variations,” the principal couple etches a string of tendus (compromised in this perfromance by the needless insertion of that blatty orchestral prelude used at American Ballet Theatre), which evolve into an evocation of the Mariinsky style that fostered Balanchine. In both, he seems to tell us that he is prepared to conjure miracles from basic classroom vocabulary. Which he does.
“Serenade” retains its power to suggest narrative through mundane events, like the dancer who arrives late and the woman who falls, loosening her hair. This performance, staged by Elyse Borne, was steeped in poetic allusion and a musically sensitive contribution from the corps.
In the waltz section, a volatile Sarah Van Patten found an empathetic partner in Tiit Helimets. Lorena Feijoo spun her dazzling way through the “Tema russo” section. Sofiane Sylve launched the dark angel’s circular arabesques with ferocity. David LaMarche drew from the Ballet Orchestra a thrillingly lush performance of the “Serenade for Strings.”
“Theme and Variations” (1947) boasted occasionally stellar dancing from Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in assignments that mercilessly expose deficiencies of technique. None here, although this company has, in the past, offered more romantically inflected performances.
Karapetyan has mastered the diabolical variation made for the legendary Igor Youskevitch, despite a tendency to rupture a line into individual steps. Zahorian remains a scintillating exponent of petit allegro footwork. Under LaMarche, the winds of the Ballet Orchestra wove tendrils of sound around the strings in the finale of the Suite No. 3.
Spotted in the floral patterns of the “Theme” corps: Frances Chung, recently appointed principal dancer (and overdue for the ballerina assignment). Talk about a company’s embarrassment of riches.
The return of “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” found Anthony Spaulding trying on the Peter Martins assignment in “Aria II,” opposite Yuan Yuan Tan with fair success in the tricky partnering. In the first pas de deux, Pierre-François Vilanoba tested his balances, paired with Sylve, astonishing in her even elevation and her twisting crab walk.
This fascinating souvenir of New York City Ballet’s epochal 1972 Stravinsky Festival abounds in the off-kilter, turned-in gambits that defined American neoclassicism and American urban energy. Thursday, the men’s corps thrilled in its soaring unison quartet. Franklin D’Antonio was the reliable violinist. Music Director Martin West conducted.
The Ballet dedicated Thursday’s performance to the memory of David Bartolotta, former music librarian and Orchestra bassoonist, who died last year.
Balanchine’s “Serenade,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” “Theme and Variations” finished its run on February 21.