Wednesday, January 30, 2008

San Francisco Ballet's Real Opening Night

The first program of San Francisco Ballet's season, which stretches from now until early May, opened on Tuesday night with the 1938 Americana classic, "Filling Station."

The ballet is historic on all kinds of levels. It's an early attempt to break free of Eurocentric subject matter in American ballet, and it's also a convergence of three of the Major Mid-Century American Homos (composer Virgil Thomson; libretto by wealthy impresario and polymath Lincoln Kirsten; decor and costumes by painter Paul Cadmus). The choreography is by Lew Christensen (ironically, he was reportedly a notorious homophobe), who with brothers William and Harold basically created the San Francisco Ballet in the late 1930s after its founding as an offshoot of the San Francisco Opera in 1933.

The company is celebrating their 75th season with an ambitious stretch of five separate programs, followed by a visit from the National Ballet of Canada, the New York City Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo each bringing a signature piece. The season ends with a "New Works Festival" where the company has commissioned 10 of the most famous choreographers in the world to create new ballets, which should be fascinating.

It was great being back at the opera house, which even after 30 years of hanging out, manages to reveal new, odd cubbyholes.

In fact, I still manage to get lost in the place, which is part of what I love about the building.

"Filling Station" is a funny, sweet and sexy ballet set in a gas station with hunk-a-chunk workers, a bratty family, and an inebriated rich couple all carrying on before an armed robbery gives the piece an excuse for a climax.

I went home for dinner during Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight," which is set to a septet of movements from Bach harpsichord concertos, and then returned for Balanchine's "Diamonds," set to Tchaikovsky's "Polish" Symphony No. 3 (with the first movement missing). The music isn't exactly Tchaikovsky's best, but the final movement does give Balanchine an excuse to have 32 dancers on stage performing a stylized version of a Polonaise waltz in movement so dizzying it felt like high-art Busby Berkeley.

The audience, which seemed to have the same ratio of women to men as the Thursday matinees at the San Francsco Symphony, thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Standing room during the week is only $10 and I can't recommend the company right now highly enough.

As my friend Thad Trela put it, "There are not many places in the world where you can have 32 dancers from a single company pulling off that final movement in 'Diamonds,' and not just pulling it off, but dancing so splendidly."


jolene said...

I was wondering if you had seen this...? I just saw it on Friday, and the excitement of the company is palpable. The dancers themselves were almost enough to pull Tomasson's piece out of the gutter. Almost. I hope you were kidding when you said you went home for dinner, the dancers were amazing (I saw the same cast as opening night.) Filling Station was hilarious - can you imagine that the initial ending was a sad ending?? It would have been odd if that had been the case, and so incongruent with the pace of the rest of the piece.

sfmike said...

Dear jolene: No, I wasn't kidding about dinner, as I was hungry. I heard the same thing that you wrote about the dancers in the Tomasson, though, when I returned.

jolene said...

If it helps, it was actually better than Tomasson's "Blue Rose", which to me, was one of the worst choreography that I've ever seen on a ballet stage. I also think that good choice of music helps, which in this case, it helped that he used Bach.