Frances Chung and Taras Domitro in Balanchine’s
Theme and Variations ©Erik Tomasson,
(Choreography by George Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust).
The more they dance that [Theme and Variations], the stronger they get and the more they hold their technique. — Helgi Tomasson, SFB Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer
Years ago, I had a ballet teacher who announced that all Tchaikovsky is folk music, and all dances made to this music are essentially folk dances — an observation borne out in San Francisco Ballet’s all-Tchaikovsky night. Related solely by the most famous of all ballet composers, Program 4 features the world premiere of SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s TRIO, the company premiere of Kenneth McMillan’s Winter Dreams, and the neoclassic Theme and Variations by George Balanchine, which has been in SFB’s repertoire since 1986.
A Neoclassic Primer
Theme and Variations, set to Tchaikovsky’s third orchestral suite, opened the evening on a high note. Originally created by George Balanchine for American Ballet Theatre (1947), the work is a distillation of grand classical ballet components — virtuosic dancing, pretty tutus, sparkly tiaras — with all the plot elements removed. Traditionally performed against an abstract set suggesting a ballroom scene in one of the grand classical story ballets, Theme and Variations is a 30-minute sprint that taxes the technique and endurance of the entire cast from corps to principals.
At its core, the ballet is evocative of Balanchine’s Russian roots and, in particular, of the Petipa choreography that informed his dance history. Against this personal background, Balanchine deconstructed the most Petipa-ish work in current ballet company rotations — Swan Lake. In no particular order: the corps de ballet poses and passes, the four “little swan” dancers link arms and waists, the ballerina surreptitiously emerges from behind the corps; even the central pas de deux, complete with the ballerina’s freestanding birdlike foot-flutterings, is rearranged with the couple’s variations preceding the adagio section.
The traditional symmetrical right-right, left-left corps movements are also reinterpreted. They are staged with an internal structural logic tied directly to the music instead of to a preconceived visual image, making the kaleidoscope of patterns seem familiar, yet altogether new, reinforcing the impression that however the steps are ordered, this is definitely classical ballet.
A radiant Frances Chung and Taras Domitro met the ballet’s challenging technical and artistic demands. Chung was warm and gracious while executing the challenges of the various balances and intricate footwork, all the while making the audience believe she was having such a good time that she could go on doing this forever. Although still a bit wild in his landings and transitions, Domitro handled his tricky variation with aplomb and securely dispatched his partnering duties. The duo energized all the dancers, who performed with a precision and clarity representative of SFB at its best.
As for the folk dance — look no further than the closing Polonnaise — a classical ballet staple.
Theme and Variations is a textbook ballet, showcasing the best of Balanchine’s Russian past while offering an indication of the direction classical dance would take in the second half of the 20th century. Whether by homage or imitation, as in the many symphonic ballets in countries created around the world, or in works that rage against the format, as in much of the work created by William Forsythe and his disciples, Theme and Variations remains the standard.
With its onstage balalaika-infused folk ensemble and Anton Chekov origins (the play Three Sisters), the SFB premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams uses the melancholic transcriptions of Tchaikovsky’s music and Russian folk tunes to establish a sense of the title characters’ dissatisfaction with life as they find it. As a stage entity (the entertainment for the family dinner party), pianist Michael McGraw skillfully underscores the evolving drama.
The ballet outlines eldest sister Olga’s resigned spinsterhood, youngest sister Irina’s inability to choose between two suitors, and Masha’s unhappy marriage and infidelity, presented in a series of vignettes that are more an expression of personality and character than a narrative account. Unfortunately, this presupposes that everyone in the audience is familiar with the story and remembers its intricacies.
Nonetheless, the choreography for these brief scenes transcends the ballet’s inherent flaw. Through a vast step vocabulary and innovative movement transitions, MacMillan manages to outline the basic characters and establish the melancholic mood. It also helps that this current crop of SFB dancers has the acting chops to pull it off.
Lorena Feijoo, the oldest sister Olga, subtly captures a sense of resignation as she realizes that her responsibilities have dictated her provincial life. As Irina, the youngest sister, Maria Kochetkova blithely flirts with her two suitors, aptly danced by Vitor Luiz and Garen Scribner, as they pass her back and forth in MacMillan’s signature series of intricate lifts and exchanges. But it is with Masha and Vershinin’s central duet that the sense of longing and desperation reaches its peak. The farewell scene between the two married lovers, danced with poignancy by Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets on opening night, ends with Masha collapsed in tears cushioned by her lover’s greatcoat.
After her husband Kulygin — Damian Smith in one of his increasingly effective character portrayals — makes an aborted attempt to console Masha and the duel that leaves one of Irina’s suitors dead, the sisters come to terms with their respective fates. Bummer.
TRIO, a world premiere by SFB’s Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, closed the evening on a more positive note. Set to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the ballet is a three-part vehicle (the third and fourth movements are treated as one) designed to showcase the depth of SFB’s talent.
Tomasson partnered with his familiar team of Alexander V. Nichols (scenic design), Christopher Dennis (lighting design), and Mark Zappone (costume design) to realize his vision for TRIO. The women’s burgundy and pumpkin-colored flowing dresses complimented the sweeping movements, and the gold-toned sets and dramatic lighting enhanced each section as if they were separate, but related, works. [NOTE: The burgundy dresses appeared to be a bit big on the dancers and could use an additional fitting.]
As the ballet opens, the first couple, Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz at the opener, explode onto the stage at the head of the lively corps, covering the floor with gigantic sweeps of movement. The second section, the adagio, darkens in response to the melancholic turn in the score. Here, Tomasson has created a trio for two men and one woman instead of the traditional pas de deux, wherein a figure of death parts a pair of lovers, taking the woman away to her eternal reward. Even with Sarah Van Patten, Tiit Helimets, and Vito Mazzeo’s dramatic gifts, the narrative is murky, making the interaction seem to indicate a prosaic struggle between two men over a woman, instead of the intended spiritual exercise.
The closing section repeats the joyous momentum of the first, adding in refined Russian folk dance motifs in response to the musical inflection. On opening night, Maria Kochetkova charmingly engaged the audience with the Russian-infused choreography, and she and partner Gennadi Nedvigin, along with an exuberant corps, ended the work as cheerfully as it began.
San Francisco Ballet
Program 4: Theme and Variations, Winter Dreams, TRIO
In repertory with Program 3 (Classical Symphony, Nanna’s Lied,
Artifact Suite) through March 8, 2011
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House
[Originally published at California Literary Review, March 1, 2011.]