Balanchine Surprises, Thrills at SF Ballet

I had heard about the famous George Balanchine for years, ever since I first began training in Ballet and Modern Dance, but did not have the opportunity to see his work live until Sunday, Feb. 21. Prior to the show, I researched his style and vision, and watched several clips of his work but was only at the live performance that I truly understood his style and finally understood the meaning of "modern" or "contemporary" ballet. A repertoire of his pieces, called "Balanchine Masterworks," was performed by members of the San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

After a lengthy BART ride and a mad dash through the rain in formal-wear, my companion and I arrived at the Opera House out of breath but excited for the show. In our haste, we unknowingly rushed right past the main entrance and found ourselves at the stage door. I walked in to ask for directions to Will Call, and the assistant director of the company introduced herself and graciously offered to lead us directly there, rather than sending us back out and around the building through more rain and mud. Without further ado, we found our seats in the lower half of the orchestra, close to center, with a very nice view of the stage. I was close to the dancers and still nearer to the source of music, so I really felt the pulse and rhythm of the show. The program was very nice, showcasing three of Balanchine's pieces: Serenade, Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and Theme and Variations.

The first piece was performed to Tchaikovsky's Serenade- hence the title of the work- and costumes were romantic, light blue tutus and leotards for the women and full-body, blue unitards for the men. The external decoration of the set was minimal: bare stage and blue lighting. There were often many dancers onstage at a time, and the full group choreography alternated between clear formations and near-chaotic interweaving that would once again resolve into clean patterns.

I was at first not entirely sure what to expect of Balanchine's work, but his style quickly defined itself through the dancers' movements. The first most defining moment to separate Balanchine's modern ballet from the classical, in my understanding, was when Sarah Van Patten, one of the female principals, dramatically whipped her hair out its perfect bun. More specifically, it was the moment immediately before her hair came out: she was in a group of ballerinas doing chaine turns towards the downstage right exit and I noticed her arms moving up as in low fifth position; however, instead of continuing in a perfect round shape to high fifth, the round shape of her arms became distorted and I was completely taken aback when, for a split second, her arms were bent above her head as she turned! Her hands were at the base of her skull, as if she was doing sit-ups, in a completely untraditional position. The purpose of that movement became apparent in the next second: her arms kept rising past her head, and, as she continued to chaine turn, her gorgeous red hair spun out of its bun. I could sense the pleasure of her hair falling across her face and down her shoulders, and it was in that sequence that Balanchine's style became tangible to me. Then, Van Patten collapsed in despair upon the floor and the audience burst into applause.

Other defining moments in Serenade followed. Van Patten and a dark-haired rival soloist were competing for one primo's attention, and both not only had their hair down but also made extensive use of their flowing locks. There was a gorgeous partnering section where the male ballerina spun each of his partners in turn as if she were a screw twirling into the ground, and each ballerina deftly flicked her neck at the same moment in the turn so as to flip her hair dramatically. It was a subtle gesture but stood out so much in contrast with the rest of the more classical ballet scene.

The second most defining moment for me in terms of the definition of modern versus classical ballet was immediately after the redhead's apparent rejection. She was downstage left, facing approximately six other ballerinas, and I noticed that the dancers' feet were not very turned out. Throughout the whole piece I was constantly watching the ballerinas' feet, absorbing their technique and talent, so I noticed something was different as soon as the six arrived in their places. Although I was close to the stage, I was not quite close enough to always discern the turnout of the dancers' legs and feet, so at this particular moment I was having an internal debate about the position of their feet. The conversation was still running through my head when suddenly, softly, the dancers each turned out the left leg, then the right. They moved from what I then understood to have been sixth into a beautiful first. Again, it was so simple, but breathtaking.

A brief intermission was followed by Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, which I enjoyed for its ingenuity. There were many movements reminiscent of schoolchildren, snakes, and spiders, and the work included an impressive use of gymnastics such as back bends. Costumes were black bottoms with white tops for all except the principal ballerina, who was wearing all black. The movement was executed fairly well, although it looked like one of the soloists had a slightly stiff neck which hindered the flow of her movement. My favorite image was in the second pas de deux in which the male ballerina lifted his partner while she had her legs in a split- with flexed feet! It was shocking and incredible to see flexed feet finishing off a line in ballet, especially feet wearing pointe shoes. Surprisingly, I actually felt that the flexed feet added to the line and made her extensions even greater. Furthermore, this proved such a nice contrast when she was set back on the floor and demonstrated the strength of her body en pointe. This was also preceded by a breathtaking ronde de jambe à terre which was executed by both partners with the primo right behind the principal ballerina.

Another brief intermission was followed by Theme and Variations, which was by far my favorite piece. Costumes and setting were bright and crisp, the piece followed the prescriptions of classical ballet as I understand them. High white tutus complemented white and blue tops for the ladies, and the men had mainly white costumes as well. The setting was a courtly one, with large crystal chandeliers, green curtains, bright lights, and airy but quick music. It was all almost over-the-top but the dancers moved so quickly and with such skill that it was a complete joy to watch. I reveled in a moment of croisé devant / effacé devant / (repeat) / sous sous  [repeat all], and was delighted by a huge series of entrechecats which followed. The piece ended and I was left with a glowing sense of euphoria and a huge desire to learn to move as quickly as the dancers had onstage.

The afternoon closed on a lovely note. My companion and I returned to the same stage door from which we had entered, and I was lucky enough to catch an interview and autograph with principal ballerina Vanessa Zahorian from the Concerto. We spoke informally about her experiences as a dancer, and she confided that she had been the goofiest student in class until one day at age 11 when she finally realized she had great talent and decided to pursue ballet professionally. Little did she know how far she would come! A sweet and fun way to end an enchanting afternoon at the SF Ballet.

EBAC thanks the San Francisco Ballet for access to this performance.

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