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Jack Anderson

The San Francisco Ballet Returns

San Francisco Ballet
Lincoln Center Festival 2006
Closed July 30, 2006
New York State Theater, Lincoln Center
Info.: (212) 721-6500 or www.lincolncenter.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson Aug. 2, 2006

Making its first New York appearances in four years, the San Francisco Ballet demonstrated that it remains a major company.

Its most eagerly awaited production was Mark Morris's three-act "Sylvia" which, at its premiere in 2004, apparently surprised some San Franciscans who, knowing that Morris can be prankish, expected an iconoclastic treatment of Delibes's score. Instead, he took this tale of nymphs, dryads, and shepherds quite seriously, with classically-based dancing and unexaggerated mime. All this attested to Morris's musical intelligence.

Yet the fact remains: despite its delicious music, "Sylvia" is not dramatically very compelling. Frederick Ashton never quite made it work. So, too, Morris's ballet is a nice try, but little more. The characters, including a passive hero, remain ciphers, and much of Morris's choreography fits the narrative, without being distinctive in itself. At the performance I saw, Elizabeth Miner was an elegant, but rather cool, Sylvia. Pascal Molat looked handsome as Aminta, the hero, and Pierre-François Vilanoba made Orion a passionate, and not merely a melodramatic, villain. Allen Moyer's scenery for the first act was a fussy profusion of vegetation and draperies, but his gleaming classical statuary in the third act suited Morris's choreographic self-control.

The season's most substantial attraction was a triple-bill of plotless ballets, each of which made use of Bach. Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director, offered "7 for Eight," a suite to seven miscellaneous Bach pieces for Miner, Yuan Yuan Tan, Yuri Possokhov, Tina LeBlanc, Gonzalo Garcia, Rachel Viselli, Joan Boada, and Jaime Garcia Castilla. In the past, Tomasson has been a careful, but occasionally bland, choreographer. This ballet both showed his usual command of the ballet vocabulary and held special interest for the ways he created illusions of space opening up or closing in, sometimes with the aid of David Finn's lighting, but more often simply by repositioning his dancers.

Some companies might have called "Quaternary," "The Four Seasons," for those times of the year served as Christopher Wheeldon's choreographic pretext. But, conceivably, he chose his title because he wanted to dissociate his production from other "four seasons" ballets to such composers as Vivaldi, Verdi, and Glazounov, who have tended to inspire seasonal jollity. In contrast, Wheeldon's year passed soberly to music by Bach, John Cage, Arvo Part, and Steven Mackey and with scenic and lighting designs by Jean-Marc Puissant and Jennifer Tipton that placed the action against a rectangle that changed colors as the months went by.

Winter featured chill unisons. Dancers bounced through spring. Summer was notable for its stately pas de deux for Possokhov and the imposingly long-legged Muriel Maffre. People entered rolling as Autumn began, and that season concluded with an ensemble with linked hands.

William Forsythe's two-part "Artifact Suite" proved brash and surprising. Its first section, to Bach 's majestic "Chaconne" for solo violin, was dominated by formations for large groups. But whereas the music continued undeterred, the action was constantly interrupted by moments in which a curtain suddenly banged down upon the stage. Whenever it rose again, the dancers had re-spaced themselves. But these new sequences were also shattered by other falls of the curtain. Forsythe thereby set up theatrical tension between musical continuity and choreographic disjuncture.

His finale, to piano music by Eva Crossman-Hecht, was a study in stormy mass movement for dancers led by Elana Altman, who seemed some sort of drill mistress. Steps grew increasingly intricate, but also increasingly compulsive, as if Forsythe had wound up a mighty, but ominous and possibly unstoppable, machine.

The San Francisco dancers were always admirable, even though, except for "Sylvia," this particular repertoire gave them few opportunities for either drama or comedy. But it would be a pleasure to see them all again in any repertoire.

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