BWW Reviews: San Francisco Ballet's From Foreign Lands - Symphonic Dances - Suite en Blanc
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands, photo by Erik Tomasson
Typically, a repertory program places its weakest link in the middle. It gives the audience motivation to stay in their seats until the end. The original order for this program had Suite en Blanc first, followed by From Foreign Lands and then closed with Symphonic Dances. No doubt this is why the program was rearranged to place Edward Liang's Symphonic Dances in the middle of this mixed repertory program presented by the San Francisco Ballet last Sunday. Kudos to Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson for recognizing that the program wasn't working and moving to change it. The new order led to a much better experience for the audience and heightened the expectation for the finale.
Symphonic Dances is by no means a terrible ballet but this is complex and rich music, Rachmaninov's last great work. The ballet doesn't measure up to the music due to its weakness of structure and a seeming poverty of ideas. Dancers come and go from the stage but we're not sure why. Ultimately this ballet fails to excite anyone. It also serves as a reminder that a choreographer should never have dancers get down on the floor without a very good plan to get them back up again, preferably with grace. It's too bad because the music was the best of the night. The New York City Ballet Orchestra, led by Martin West, conveyed all the power and drama of this richly textured piece. Ming Luke conducted the rest of the program.
Symphonic Dances had its bright points with fine work by Frances Chung partnering with Jaime Garcia Castillo and the regal dancing of Sarah Van Patten. Overall, the men of this company are really good and Liang's choreography gave them room to fly. Chung and Garcia Castillo match up well as partners. Chung's dancing is light and airy and their many overhead lifts were handled adroitly.
Van Patten is the one dancer that you wish every other dancer would watch because of the perfect formlessness of her port de bras. She does nothing that resembles a classroom form yet her arms are always pure balletic grace without ever crossing over into the realm of the mannered or affected. Everything she does is a pleasure to watch. In Symphonic Dances she is dominant after the fashion of Balanchine's great female roles. She asserted her power and authority repeatedly. As good as she was, it wasn't enough to compensate for the wrestling match that threatened to break out between Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz in the third movement's pas de deux. The hand changes looked like they needed a lot more rehearsal. Not a pleasure to watch.
From Foreign Lands, Alexei Ratmansky's set piece to Moszkowski's music of the same name, was positioned at the head of the program where it belongs. The music is European Romanticism before it is in any way ethnic just as the dancing is classical ballet before it is folkloric dances. This dance is a nod to classical ballet's penchant for celebrating its ethnic diversity through stereotypic faux folkloric divertissement in the nineteenth century. In Swan Lake the ethnic dances are tiresome because they seem to be taking themselves too seriously and they make an already long night at the ballet even longer. That's not the case with Ratmansky's ballet. It looks like fun to dance and the joyous energy radiates from all the dancers.
You could take your pick as to which of these character dances was the best. For me it was the light-hearted competition of the Spanish Dance, ably rendered by Frances Chung with Joan Boada and Mathilde Froustey with Vitor Luiz, who changed partners back and forth. The staredown between the dancers injected enough camp to make it fun, but not so much as to render it coy. If only Ratmansky would take the third act variations from Swan Lake and inject some new life.
Suite en Blanc, the crowd pleaser, was placed at the end of the program where it belongs. Judging by the audience's reaction this was exactly what they came to see. San Francisco Ballet's strong dancers delivered with fine technique and enough show-off attitude to make it come to life and get the crowd excited. Lalo's music is effervescent and cheerful if rather unmemorable. Once each piece of music is over, you've pretty much forgotten the tune. The dancing is like the music in that you feel like you've seen all of this before and while it isn't original in its ideas it celebrates what classical ballet is all about. It helps to think of this as a balletic cupcake, all sweet, round and fluffy. It resembles nothing so much as a series of fairly challenging classroom exercises dressed up with tutus to please any crowd with conservative taste.
Simone Messmer was radiantly beautiful and welcomed back to New York enthusiastically by the audience. Hopefully the move from American Ballet Theatre to San Francisco Ballet will allow her to fully realize her potential. She fully looked the part of the ballerina here. Taras Domitro, dancing everything to his left, was grace in motion which makes one feel churlish in mentioning that he cheats terribly on his double tours. It's not a big thing because he is such a good dancer and fun to watch but the problem is that academically rooted ballets like this give the dancers no place to hide from such prescriptive steps. The position is the position and anything that deviates is easily seen.
Vanessa Zahorian was spot on in a variation that featured a great deal of balancing on pointe and switching from one leg to the other while injecting a little melodrama. Raising her wrist to her forehead lends a touch of theatricality even while it is plotless. Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets (now my favorite name in all of ballet) rendered their pas de deux beautifully and would have been the highlight of Suite en Blanc if not for the presence of Maria Kotchetkova. Tan is a long, silky dancer who seems ethereal but she also has a lean and steely strong core.
No fewer than three different ballerinas had to try their feet at the obligatory crowd-pleasing fouettés with the clear edge going to resident prima ballerina, Maria Kotchetkova. There's no mistaking that she's the star here. In fact the whole stage belonged to her when she came on to claim it. There is a higher level of articulation and precision in everything she does and that separates her from the rest of the company. Her diminutive size makes it difficult to fit her into the larger ballet companies of the world but she clearly belongs in the top tier.
On its first visit to New York in five years, The San Francisco Ballet reminds us that it is one of our country's great dance companies. It's great to have them back in New York. Kotchetkova's supremacy aside, there is plenty of top grade talent here and an extensive repertoire. Notably, the men of this company are the equal of any other in their technical ability, energy and attack. Hopefully visits by this company will be more frequent in the future.