San Francisco Ballet
Stern Grove, San Francisco
August 8, 2004

One of the pre-show pastimes for San Francisco Ballet?s free annual appearance at Stern Grove is predicting the weather. The odds are stacked: if memory serves, four out of the last five years a thick shroud of fog has come cascading over the eucalyptus trees while the dancers tried to stay warm and the crowd clutched their winter coats. The weather this year was ideal by San Francisco standards: an even layer of gray in the sky, but no wind chill. No sunburns, no need for sunglasses or squinting, and no worries about whether the temperature was too low for the dancers to safely take the stage.

SFB made the most of these conditions with a program that was surprisingly meaty for an afternoon in the park: two servings of Balanchine, a slice of Petipa, and for an overwhelming dessert an ambitious work by Christopher Wheeldon. Most of the time, these ballets looked just as good or better than they have on the opera house stage during the last two seasons, and the casting was top-drawer.

The moments that stayed most vividly in mind came during ?The Four Temperaments,? one of the strengths of SFB?s recent Balanchine Festival. The company danced to the Hindemith as though in the cauldrons of hell, not at a summer picnic. Gonzalo Garcia, in the Melancholic variation, looked ready to throw himself from the Golden Gate Bridge. Sarah van Patten, a young and highly individualistic dancer recruited from the Royal Danish Ballet, danced the Sanguinic variation with Vadim Solomakha. If once I doubted what Helgi Tomasson so prized in her, I see it now. She is uncannily musical?the crisp correspondence of her footwork to pianist Roy Bogas?s single notes in one passage makes you wonder if her body isn?t somehow producing the sound. And she breathes drama like a perfume. She stole your eye in last season?s ?Serenade,? and she did it here again in the full company finale.

The most fascinating interpretation, though, was Yuri Possokhov?s. All the balletomane picnic tables were a-twitter about his Phelgmatic: ?he dances it like Petrouchka!? Indeed, he plays the sad clown-puppet with an incredible economy of facial gesture. He looks like Todd Bolender in those old photographs, dressed in the original Kurt Seligmann costumes. No one would want those distracting rags restored, but Possokhov?s rendering does make you rethink the appropriateness of character in Balanchine?s supposedly ?abstract? works.

Like Sarah van Patten, Sergio Torrado is another young dancer whose quick ascendancy I questioned. Is he dancing better with a new haircut, or could his old coiffure have clouded my judgment? His longer, romantic locks flying, he made a robust cavalier to Lorena Feijoo in ?Ballo della Regina.? Perhaps programming such a notoriously challenging work for less than perfect stage conditions is asking for trouble: If so, Feijoo dispensed of it quickly with a small tumble to one knee before whipping through those piqu? turns and punching up those bouncing ?chapp?s. The entire cast galloped nimbly to the Verdi.

Likewise Vanessa Zahorian kept her cheery composure during her hummingbird-like solo in the ?Paquita? pas de trois (drawn from Natalia Makarova’s setting) as an ailing audience member was carried away. Guennadi Nedviguine delivered his uncommonly clean beats with gentle nobility. Frances Chung?s epaulement lacked sophistication, but the stretch of her feet in glissade was a delight.

A second viewing of Christopher Wheeldon?s ?Rush? only confirmed my dislike for it. I?m an admirer of Wheeldon?s trio of ballets to Ligeti, and appreciate the challenge he?s bitten off in setting Bohuslav Martinu?s almost manic Sinfonettia La Jolla. It?s a big, busy, inventive work for 10 corps dancers, two principal couples, and another pair who dance the adagio sections, and it?s full of quirky shoulder rolls, torso ripples, and floorwork. But ?Rush? illuminates the score only in fragments, and it suffers a confusion of tone. In one key image, repeated throughout and used as the closing tableau, the men place their partners on the floor with the women?s hands pushing against the ground. Is this merely quirky or disturbing? You can?t get a clear sense of Wheeldon?s ?take? on the music to guide you.

No matter, the dancers looked ravishing. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith danced the adagio couple with elegance. Spunky Kristin Long reclaimed the stage after a long injury, making a sparkling pair with Tina LeBlanc. The orchestra heroically battled the elements under Andrew Mogrelia?s baton.

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