Tuesday, March 2, 2010

CULTURAL ICONS: San Francisco Ballet’s Triumph of Beauty

Ballet Bliss: San Francisco Ballet’s current season is dance at its best

Hurtling Onward Into the Constant Now
Recently, I went with my friend Jean to see a matinee performance of extraordinary perfection by the San Francisco Ballet at the gilded San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.

We sat in the front row, orchestra, just millimeters from the first violin, centimeters from the gray-haired conductor, and mere inches, it seemed, from the dancers and their whirling tutus.

I’ve attended programs of the San Francisco Ballet for many years, and always adore the opening gala followed by seasons of innovation and reinvention of classic dance. But this afternoon’s program—an all-Balanchine trio that included ‘Serenade’, ‘Stravinsky Violin Concerto’ and ‘Theme and Variations—was imbued with captivating lyricism.

Every dancer on stage expressed such exquisite control and creativity, utter lissome beauty and heightened degree of emotional intelligence and Jean and I had to dash out into the sunlight for a quick breath of fresh air at each intermission. Perfection is rare in any art form, and we both felt inspired, giddy and thrilled. The gates of perception were thrown open.

The all-Balanchine program consisted of three ballets choreographed in America between 1934 and 1972. Each was simply staged, and each complex and elegant presentation was in a classical, romantic and pared-down modernist style, with simple monochromatic costumes and rigorously refined choreography.

I scribbled a few notes in the dark—‘noble and complex choreography’, ‘the choreographer designs complex patterns and structures across the stage’. And onward I wrote, ‘vortices of delight’, and ‘highly trained dancers, superbly disciplined, are at once tensile and powerful and exquisitely lithe and intuitive’. Clouds of blue tulle hovered in the air. It was at once order and chaos, ever-changing beauty and lasting moments. Exuberant and controlled, bravely leaping into the air, grouping and re-grouping, the dancers turned abstraction and musical inspiration into powerful order and inevitable logic.

It was ballet at its best.

The Importance of Feeding the Eye and Heart
I’ve been attending ballet performances since I was six, when my parents took me to see the Royal Ballet perform ‘Swan Lake’. Breath-taking. This highly trained and superb company at various times included Margot Fonteyn and Rudi Nureyev.

I later studied ballet for some years, along with immersing my growing brain in piano lessons from the great and divine Miss Maisie Kilkelly, and art instruction by the charismatic Robert Brett.

This same inspiration and structure, wild creativity balanced with discipline, still frame my life. “Be orderly in your life so that you can be creative and free in your creation,” said Gustav Flaubert.

Today more than ever, wherever in the world we are, it’s essential to continue to inspire the eye, deconstruct and reconstruct the brain with flashes of perfection and pattern, and creation of the highest level wherever they exist and whenever they appear.

The brain, the eye, the body, the skin, the ears all love and respond to beauty and perfection, strange movements forward, a glance back, and experimental as well as classical artistry and creativity. I attend the season of the San Francisco Opera, and dash to performances in Paris and London and where-ever I travel. Art is as essential as air.

Writers must be alert to all other arts. Designers can be inspired by ballet. Constant exposure to the arts, to classic and avant-garde culture, to opera and art and music of all kinds is essential to designers and artists, architects and antique dealers, creators, writers, composers and style-setters in every field. There’s the performance, but also the interplay of all the disciplines that create an opera or ballet or design or sculpture. So much to learn, to be inspired by.

“The company delivers performances where nothing is more engrossing than the choreography. The sense of selflessness is a crucial characteristic of good Balanchine style,” wrote New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, on Feb 14’s edition. “The San Francisco dancers are a remarkably unmannered, elegant and grown-up company. The adult quality is impressive. Ballet elsewhere so often looks to be a matter for girls and boys.”

Watching and immersing myself in a ballet performance, I’m at once observing and experiencing the emotion of the virtuoso dancers, but also attuned to the ever-changing structure of a dance, the deft geometry of steps and movement across the stage, and the ensemble of costume design, set, lighting, and the mood created. My ear is following the violin or cello or cymbal, my eye is feasting on color and movement and abstract pattern. My brain follows the composition and structure, and my skin tingles with the evanescent beauty.

Doubtless the dry scent of the stage, and frissons of moving air from tutus and ballet slippers and whirling tulle stir memories of dancing class, the Paris Opera ballet, Margot Fonteyn’s lyricism, the Lyon ballet’s clashes, and the wildly erotic male dancers of the innovative Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.
In the profound creative terrain of Balanchine, for example I see the history of ballet re-invented, just as modern architecture re-evaluates classical architecture.

“Vanessa Zahorian has a rivetingly elegant physique, sparklingly precise legs and feet, a beautiful face offset by raven-black hair, and apparently complete technical accomplishment,” said Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times, Feb 14. “She switches effortlessly from sustained adagio to scintillating presto, and the fluent conception of legato behind everything she does helps to give her the pose of a rare artist.” – Critic Alastair Macaulay, New York Times, Feb 14 2010

San Francisco Ballet, the oldest professional ballet company in America, has emerged as a world-class arts organization since it was founded as the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1933. Initially, its primary purpose was to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length opera productions. The company now performs it repertoire from January to May each year in San Francisco, and then presents programs around the world, including, recently, in Paris and in Beijing, to great acclaim.

San Francisco Ballet
Highlights of the season:

Program 4: through March 7, includes the poignant and emotional ‘Diving into the Lilacs’ with music by Tchaikovsky, and choreography by the great and expressive Yuri Possokhov.

Also, the rather abstract but captivating and entrancing ‘Into the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ explores the vocabulary of ballet, with music by Thom Williams and choreography by William Forsythe.
Program 4 San Francisco Ballet premiere offers the exciting and sometimes jarring and tragic ‘Petrouchka’, music by Stravinsky, and choreography by Michel Fokine. This Ballets Russes classic dance fuses the history of ballet with the classical Russian puppet tale. This will be memorable.

Program 5: through March 28. ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a dramatic reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 story. Music by Auerbach. United States premiere. This is not the cartoon-related concept, but rather more like ‘Swan Lake’ with fins instead of wings. Torment and haunting! Danish feminists detest this story. Let’s see if this Hamburg Ballet choreography can make the mermaid heroic and purposeful rather than merely mad and tragic.)

Program 6: through April 21, is a superb trio that includes the ‘Haffner’ Symphony, with dance by Helgi Tomasson, music by Mozart. It’s an abstract portrait of Mozartian refinement, through choreography. This program also offers the world premiere of Italian choreographer Renato Zanella’s new ballet. I can’t wait to see it.

Finally in this program, ‘Russian Seasons’, the profoundly classical choreography by Alexei Tatmansky, with composition by Desyatnikov. Lovely, reflective.

Program 7: through April 20, includes ‘Rush’ by Christopher Wheeldon to music by Martinu. This program features the world premiere of a new dance by San Francisco Ballet choreographer in residence, the great Yuri Possokhov (one of my favorite dancers).

I don’t always find humor in ballet very convincing (it’s often forced and feels astonishingly awkward and kitschy on stage)…there is ‘The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody’). I detest the name. Choreographer is Robbins, music by Chopin. I might love it. I might leave early.

Program 8: through May 9, is the full-length ‘Romeo & Juliet’, choreographed by Tomasson to Prokofiev’s music. I saw a preview at the opening night gala, and it was tender, classic, artful and exquisite. I adore the emotive and engaging music, and the stage sets for this presentation are poetic and redolent of romance and time. Doubtless I will also be thinking of Margot and Rudi, the most exquisite and profoundly touching duo in these roles. Blessings to them both, wherever they are (dancing in heaven?).


Helgi Tomasson

Joan Boada, Frances Chung, Taras Domitro, Lorena Feijoo, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Tiit Helimets, Davit Karapetyan, Maria Kochetkova, Kristin Long, Vitor Luiz Rubén Martín Cintas, Pascal Molat, Gennadi Nedvigin, Damian Smith, Sofiane Sylve, Yuan Yuan Tan, Sarah Van Patten, Pierre-François Vilanoba, Katita Waldo, and Vanessa Zahorian.

All performances take place at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. For more information and to book tickets, www.sfballet.org.

Photography above includes images of:
San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine's Serenade (blue gowns); Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto (black leotard); Yuan Yuan Tan and Anthony Spaulding in Possokhov's Diving Into The Lilacs (black leotard, pink skirt); Sofiane Sylve in Ratmansky's Russian Seasons (red emsemble, in air); Katita Waldo and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's Rush (red hair, black tights): Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet.

Photo credits:
All photography here courtesy the San Francisco Ballet. Photography by Chris Hardy and Erik Tomasson.


Tavarua said...


You observe and feel life...A refined spirit and a classical mind...expressions of elegance and beauty....
Ballet - the body speaks and your eyes are listening to a silent language, your mind and eyes on an evening's journey into a classical dream world of expression and perfection, a living picture of poetry in motion unfolding secrets of your heart and soul, noble bodies in movement, miraculous elegance light as clouds, an emotional language, fire and ice piercing your heart, sacred thoughts of understanding come to expand your mind, inspiration, passion...the vision of life's beauty.......Brilliant.......

"Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” - Martha Graham

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Tavarua-

Thank you.
It is late in your latitude and I hope all is quiet. Did you dine on quail eggs and caviar?
Yes, 'the body speaks and your eyes are listening to a silent language'--and vibrations fly out from the stage, and from the conductor's baton and from the cello and piano and flute, and the rustle of tulle.
I'll be attending a premiere of two new ballets on Thursday evening, so I will have the added thrill of 'beginner's mind'...seeing for the first time.
I will report.
Cheers and happy days, DIANE

JMW said...

What a great post! Love the images.

We became subscribers to the Louisville Ballet this season and have so enjoyed it. I used to work for an orchestra, so I spent a great deal of time among the many arts groups in town. When I left for the corporate world, I didn't make it to many arts performances, so it's been nice to set aside time and enjoy the ballet and all its beauty. The season closes in April with Swan Lake - I'm very much looking forward to it!

Philip Bewley said...

" Everything is beautiful at the ballet" is a lyric from the musical A Chorus Line, and this was such a beautiful piece of writing."Vortices of delight" and so much more in your piece really captures the magic and inspiration of dance. It is so true that one must be open to all the arts, and you have inspired me to attend this season. Thanks for the list of upcoming programs, we look forward to it!

Anonymous said...

I saved your post for this weekend, knowing that is was to savor with coffee and toast. I now know it should be with "quail eggs and caviar". Two young friends, busy moms, were both ballerinas in years past. I am sending them your beautiful piece. Thank you, Ginny

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I loved your note and comment about your ballet company.
You must feast the eyes on ballet, and feast the ears on the symphony and the opera companies, however small-town or obscure they may be.
I love to support arts groups and there are many in San Francisco. Perhaps just as there are enough restaurants in San Francisco to dine every night (what a thought) in a different one and never repeat for 6 years...so there are enough wonderful galleries, theater groups and dance troupes to enjoy every night for years. If only!
cheers, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Philip-

Thank you!
Earlier this week, I enjoyed the next program of the ballet series.
Three totally different pieces, including a wacky/quirky 'Petrouchka' and then a glorious piece by Yuri Possokov...loved them all. For two or three hours, I was entranced, uplifted, and inspired. I can't wait until the next program...and then there will be 'Romeo and Juliet'. I saw a preview of it, and it will be enchanting.
cheers, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Ginny-

I hope, indeed, you did have caviar and quail eggs..indeed, why not!
For a Saturday treat, it cannot be more indulgent.

Thank you for passing on my ballet feature to your friends. I hope they became a little nostalgic to think about the beauty of the ballet.

I loved your note...and hope to hear from you more often.
cheers, DIANE

Liz.Blog said...

This is a very inspiring beautiful post. The photographs are stunning. Thank you.

Topsy Turvy said...

Brava, Diane - your words make me feel like I was there at the ballet with you!