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S.F. Ballet hits higher note in mixed bill

The music adds breadth to the troupe's impressive displays in the four-part program.

October 11, 2003|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

By the time this review is published, it'll be too late to see San Francisco Ballet's mixed bill at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- a pity, since this four-part program (scheduled only on Thursday and Friday) showcased the company's multifaceted excellence far more persuasively than its undistinguished new "Don Quixote."

Moreover, the deep credibility of the program depended to an unusual extent on distinctive musicianship: pianist Roy Bogas in George Balanchine's neoclassical 1956 showpiece, "Allegro Brillante"; pianist Michael McGraw in Christopher Wheeldon's stark 2001 octet, "Polyphonia"; violin, viola and cello soloists in Helgi Tomasson's courtly new male quintet, "Concerto Grosso," and an onstage ragtime band headed by McGraw in Kenneth MacMillan's large-scale 1974 romp, "Elite Syncopations."

"Polyphonia" represented the big news of the program Thursday -- the first Christopher Wheeldon piece seen locally on stage, screen or TV with more to offer than merely a glib distillation of others' innovations. Set to a compendium of short pieces by Ligeti, it clearly drew inspiration from a number of modernistic masterworks (most notably Balanchine's "Four Temperaments") but found intriguing, surprising ways to dramatize the shifting moods and dynamics of its daunting accompaniments.

The contorted duets for Katita Waldo and Yuri Possokhov looked especially impressive, partly due to Possokhov's spectacular partnering prowess, but also from the sense that the music had led Wheeldon to uncharted choreographic territory and that he was responding to it instinctively. Sometimes his instincts faltered (in a useless afterthought of a finale, for instance), but mostly you saw a fresh, daring intelligence working without a safety net.

In "Concerto Grosso," Tomasson used music by Geminiani to tell us what we already knew: that as company artistic director he has built a male ensemble able to make virtuoso display look not merely effortless but elegant. Punctuated by the star turns of principal Pascal Molat, four corps men individually and collectively emphasized the majestic classicism in bravura dancing: the shaping of the body's energy and prowess to reflect an ideal of perfectly centered finesse.

"Allegro Brillante" should embody that ideal too, but the Thursday performance began lethargically -- a rare lapse in Andrew Mogrelia's musical direction -- and the dancing stayed facelessly efficient rather than brillante until very near the end. Vanessa Zahorian had the steps under control but never bonded with the Tchaikovsky accompaniment -- never seemed to be its reflection or impetus -- so the result remained prosaic. Zachary Hench partnered her capably.

Full of solo and duet choreography that ran out of ideas long before the music ended, "Elite Syncopations" never matched the vibrancy of either its ragtime score or its delirious Ian Spurling costumes. But, as always, the chance to see a company's supreme classical stylists growing playful and even silly proved irresistible. Thursday's major celebrators included a slinky Waldo, a sleek Julie Diana, a smug Damian Smith, a ditzy Muriel Maffre, a buoyant Gonzalo Garcia and a puppyish James Sofranko (another corps man deservedly in the spotlight).

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