- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

The San Francisco Ballet is filling the Kennedy Center stage this week with some of the most glorious dancing seen here in years. The company's brilliant technique, stylistic assurance and fresh, radiant energy are irresistible. Under Helgi Tomasson's masterful direction for the past 17 years, the 69-year-old company has become recognized as one of the leading companies in the world.

The San Francisco Ballet concludes its engagement with matinee and evening performances today and tomorrow a last chance to see this troupe at the top of its form.

The company's repertoire is broad and demanding. Its ballets range from 19th-century classics to a sizable collection of ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, both of whom created major ballets for Mr. Tomasson when he was a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, and, last but not least, to a striking collection of contemporary works.

The company began its visit here on a high note, with Mr. Balanchine's virtuosic "Ballo della Regina."

Lorena Feijoo and Zachary Hench soared through their demanding solos and pas de deux she strong and crisp, he with big, plushy jumps.

The ballet opens with a bevy of 12 women arranged in a charming tableau and moves quickly through a series of swift daisy-chain patterns performed with alert, easy grace.

A special pleasure of the ballet is a series of small solos, each a little jewel, that Mr. Balanchine created for four women.All of them (Amanda Small, Courtney Wright, Nicole Starbuck and especially Sarah Van Patten) brought out the inventiveness of each variation.

"Dances at a Gathering" is a miracle. Created by Jerome Robbins in 1969 to a series of Chopin piano pieces, and with a cast of five women and five men, the lengthy ballet evokes a small universe.

The bare stage feels like an open space outdoors in the country. The men are dressed in flowing shirts and wear soft boots; the movements are punctuated occasionally with folk gestures an arm raised, bent-elbowed, to the back of the head; a swaggering walk, heels first, hands on hips.

In a series of small vignettes, we see shifting encounters, some romantic, some pensive or playful. The mood is reminiscent of a story out of Chekhov, especially in a scene in which three women, musing, wander together in the moonlight.

There is a jocular game of one-upsmanship, played by two men warily circling each other, an exuberant sextet that builds in excitement as three women are tossed ever more daringly into the air by three men, and a sense of community in an oddly quiet but moving finish as the dancers stroll together, arm in arm.

The dancing is difficult, with arresting lifts, but capturing the evanescent spirit of the piece is what really challenges the dancers' artistry.

First among equals was the moving performance of Yuri Possokhov, identified as the dancer in purple. Mr. Possokhov is one of the finest male dancers in the world, and the insight and nobility of his dancing is a wonder. In the central role of the dancer in brown, Gonzala Garcia was thrillingly daring. Other standouts were Julie Diana, Yuan Yuan Tan, Lorena Feijoo, Kristin Long, Vadin Solomakha and Hansuke Yamamoto.

"Dance" is particularly fragile, depending very much on individual interpretation. The weak link in the final effect was pianist Daniel Waite, who played with little sense of nuance.

If memory serves, "Dances at a Gathering" has not been seen in Washington since 1980, when the New York City Ballet performed it. It calls for dancers who can go beyond technique, as the San Francisco Ballet is doing this week. This confluence of creative and interpretive art made for a high point of this or any other season.

Concluding the program was "Sandpaper Ballet" by Mark Morris, who has choreographed several ballets for the California company. It is set to familiar tunes by Leroy Anderson, including "The Typewriter" and "The Syncopated Clock."

One of Mr. Morris' conceits is to turn the hierarchical world of ballet upside down. While the opening "Ballo della Regina," for instance, has the ballerina centered like a jewel with a cavalier and ensemble complementing her, Mr. Morris perversely throws together 25 dancers five across, five deep both principals and corps members, arranged at random. He occasionally puts an important principal in the chorus line while a member of the corps dances a solo in front.

"Sandpaper Ballet" is not a major Morris work, but it is imaginative, well-crafted and fun to watch.

The second program extended the company's vivid dancing of Balanchine with his lyrical, windswept "Serenade" and offered two contrasting works by Mr. Tomasson.

"Serenade" was cooly authoritative, with strong dancing by the corps and the three female soloists. Miss Diana was quicksilver, Miss Feijoo commanding and Miss Van Patten classically pure. Mr. Hench was fine after a bafflingly portentous entrance, and Stephen Legate played the lone male caught in the grip of fate.

The two ballets by Mr. Tomasson covered a fascinating range. "Chi-Lin," to a wonderfully atmospheric score by the Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng, is dramatic, almost flamboyant, with colorful staging. "Prism," commissioned by the New York City Ballet and set to the first Beethoven piano concerto, is a vigorous exploration of classical ballet's resources.

"Chi-Lin" is dominated by the exquisite, startlingly flexible grace of Miss Tan. Here Mr. Tomasson has built on her memorable performance in Mr. Balanchine's "Bugaku," a highlight of the company's appearance here two years ago. Miss Tan has at her command an amazing nuance of gestures in the expressive tilt of her head and in long limbs twisted into exotically alluring shapes.

There are impressive male roles in "Chi-Lin." Sergio Torrado was fiercely dramatic as the dragon; Damian Smith appeared to swim onto stage as the tortoise for a sustained water pas de deux with Miss Tan; and Parrish Maynard was fiery as the phoenix.

The costume and scenic designs of Sandra Woodall brought colorful chinoiserie to the stage. For his part, Mr. Tomasson did not attempt to replicate authentic Chinese gestures but used them as a springboard to add something new to ballet's vocabulary.

"Prism" is a grand interpretation of classical technique, with big, juicy roles for a large corps and a series of soloists. Vanessa Zahorian, Mr. Hench and Mr. Solomakha were briskly airborne in the opening section. Muriel Maffre and Mr. Smith gave a sustained performance in the mesmerizing second movement, and Mr. Garcia stole the show with his gravity-defying leaps and outgoing personality.

Violinist Foy Malan in "Chi-Lin" and pianist Roy Bogas in "Prism," with the orchestra under Neal Stulberg's direction, added to the pleasure of the evening.

The San Francisco's Ballet's appearance here is turning out to be a major event. May it come again soon and often.


****

WHAT: The San Francisco Ballet

WHEN: Today at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., tomorrow at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $26 to $65

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: Four Stars


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