I still remember how surprised I was as a young dancer to learn that the first professional ballet company in the United States, the San Francisco Ballet, was not established until 1933. Given the fact that the Paris Opera Ballet was founded almost three centuries earlier in 1673, I realized that dance in America is very young indeed. Yet I am happy to report that on the evening of October 18th 2013 at the Koch Theater during the San Francisco Ballet’s brief but welcome return to NYC, I watched the troupe that launched the liveliest art on these shores prove that it has become one of the finest companies on the planet.
Even so, I can’t help but note that of the 18 principal dancers listed on the Playbill, only two are from this country. The rest hail from such far-flung places as Estonia, France, Spain, Cuba, China, Armenia, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and New South Wales. Although the San Francisco Ballet School is among the premiere training grounds in the 50 states, along with a number of others including the venerable School of American Ballet and the more recent JKO School of the American Ballet Theatre, we still seem to have a ways to go to catch up to the global standard of career-track teaching for ballet dancers.
That said, the mixed bill on Friday of NYC premieres was superb. However, some of the graying balletgoers in the orchestra seats were clearly not thrilled with the avant-garde “Beaux” choreographed by Mark Morris. When the curtain rose for this piece to reveal a stunning line of male dancers in unitards with a pink-to-red camouflage motif against a background of the same design, I was astonished that a ripple of titters ensued from the audience. Then after what I deemed to be a masterful work with perhaps unwitting nods to some Balanchine conventions such as rope effects with a series of linked arms, one gentleman whispered to his wife that he was confused at seeing men partner other men. To each his own, and Mr. B. did famously say “Ballet is Woman”. Yet I think Morris made a magnificent ballet that proved Mr. B wrong, the disgruntled man behind me notwithstanding.
One of the best received pieces of the evening was the opener, “From Foreign Lands,” choreographed by Alexi Ratmansky to the rollicking music of Moritz Moszkowzki with nods to dance from around the world. I’m not always a fan of Ratmansky’s work but I loved this one with its clear influence of his background as a Russian schooled in character dance. I also enjoyed seeing the talented if quirky Simone Messmer, who recently left the American Ballet Theatre in hopes of better roles and perhaps a promotion to principal. She’s still a soloist at the San Francisco Ballet but she was featured in the “German” section of “From Foreign Lands”, partnered by three men and performing with great aplomb. I’m eager to see what might be in store for her in seasons to come.
The other two ballets on the program, “Classical Symphony” by Yuri Possokhov to the music of Prokofiev and “Symphonic Dances” to the music of Rachmaninov, were eminently satisfying. They showcased the superb technique and fluid ports de bras of all the dancers. A special nod to the exquisite Sofiane Sylve.
On a final note, I wish the kids from Youth America Grand Prix who value tricks above artistry could have seen this performance. Perhaps they would have understood that stretch coaches and multiple turns and daredevil leaps are not what make ballet great. I’m glad that each generation of dancers is becoming better at the athletic component, but let’s not forget that we are artistic athletes or else ballet will devolve into a sport. My thanks to the San Francisco Ballet for not only advancing the level of technique but also keeping the artistry very much alive.
If you’ll be in NYC between now and October 27th, click here to find out how to get tickets for the rest of what promises to be a stellar run of the San Francisco Ballet under the direction of Helgi Tómassen at Lincoln Center.
This post originally appeared on BroadwayWorld.com