February 5, 2008
Fill 'er Up
Virgil Thomson isn't the composer who pops automatically to mind when you think of dance, but he was a major presence at San Francisco Ballet over the weekend. The season's first two mixed-bill programs, seen Saturday and Sunday afternoons, each featured a ballet set to Thomson: Lew Christensen's Filling Station, iconic in the history of San Francisco Ballet, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season at the War Memorial Opera House, and Mark Morris' Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes.
Photo by Erik Tomasson
They're widely disparate choreographies, separated by almost 50 years. That each looks fresh and new is a credit to the composer, the company's orchestra (conducted by Martin West), and the choreographic inspiration that propels them, not to mention the dancers' absolutely stellar performances.
What we're talking about in both ballets is an American essence, which Thomson could capture handily. In the case of Filling Station (1938; its San Francisco Ballet premiere was in 1951), it was what the arts visionary Lincoln Kirstein commissioned for Ballet Caravan, an attempt to de-Europeanize classical ballet and make it an American art form. This movement would continue: Ballet Caravan, which toured America and overseas, would lead to the New York City Ballet, and the dancers who were in the premiere of Filling Station in Hartford, Conn., would go on to become famous — Lew Christensen, yes, but also Erick Hawkins, Eugene Loring, Todd Bolender, and Lew's brother Harold Christensen, as well as Marie Jeanne, like Michael Kidd recently departed.
But all that is a story for another time. What you see and feel here is wide-open spaces, where a gas station attendant is standing happily in his far-flung modern glass workplace — with those wonderful round-headed gas pump tops (the ballet's designer was the American artist Paul Cadmus). So we're somewhere out on a lonely highway ... other American ballets of the era, like Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, would, with the help of Aaron Copland, make it a lonely prairie, but that's the idea. No garlands, no little cottages, no swan pond, deep woods, or enchanted castle.
And no tights. The filling station attendant, Mac, sports a sheer white coverall, licked with red, and you can still imagine how handsome Lew Christensen, who not only choreographed the role but originated it, must have looked. Sunday it was James Sofranko, who bounced and bounded wonderfully through demanding fusillades of spins and leaps, joined by a pair of mechanics, Ray and Roy (Martyn Garside and Benjamin Stewart). Everything's goofy and freewheeling, from the antics of the three gas jockeys to the dorkiness of the family that arrives: Dad in a weird golf outfit, broad-brimmed straw hat, and saddle shoes, asking for directions; Mom, with a pouter-pigeon chest; and a little girl and her dolly.
A pair of drunken lovers rolls in, and a wildly off-center pas de deux ensues (Pauli Magierek and Val Caniparoli did the honors beautifully) before everyone launches into a little riff on the Big Apple. So it's free and easy. A gangster holds up the gas station, yet it ends happily (it used to end sadly, but Balanchine changed it).
The element with the most gravitas, really, is the music — songs that Kirstein commissioned in 1937. The seriousness lies only in the intent, that thread of something distinctively American, through which many of the 20th century's greatest composers will make their way. It's drawn from the same stream as Copland (who, like Thomson, went to Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger to learn to crystallize the American impulse), and its texture includes sounds of cymbals and tom-toms, a folksy lilt, call-and-response. It's the song of the open road, or the road opening to a ballet caravan.
A Playful Drink
Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, on the other program last weekend, is made up of piano études, composed by Thomson in the 1940s and early '50s, that have orchestra behind them. The grand piano, played by Nataly'a Feygina, is on the stage.
Photo by Erik Tomasson
Your correspondent first saw Drink at its 1988 American Ballet Theatre premiere, and must say that the piano sounded way better on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, surely through no fault of the pianist. Something in San Francisco seemed to gag the Yamaha, and it sounded muted and occasionally tinny.
The music offers an interesting combination of rigor in its pianistic demands — the 13 études include titles like "Pivoting on the Thumb," "Oscillating Arm," "Tenor Lead," "Fingered Fifths" — and richly playful melodies, redolent of carefree Americana; folk-sounding fragments, peppered with springy accents that push the dancers, alone or in pairs or clusters, into one excitement after another.
The rhythms propel a group into Morrisonian jumping jacks, toss Nicholas Blanc into gigantic tours jetés, raise Katita Waldo into swift chainés. There were other fabulous flights from the likes of Vanessa Zahorian, Reuben Martin, and Damian Smith. Yet the biggest and brightest star of them all, as the piano pounded out an energetic fandango, was Gennadi Nedvigin, in the role created for Mikhail Baryshnikov, leaping and spinning in midair at a 45-degree angle, or flashing through multiple pirouettes, only to end in absolute stillness and perfect equilibrium. The fandango should have sounded Latin, but its bravura made it feel very Virgil, dashingly American.
Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.
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