San Francisco Ballet
Program 8
“Don Quixote”
May 2 and 6

San Francisco Ballet
Muriel Maffre Farewell Performance
May 6, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2007 by Rita Felciano

Every time I think of “Don Quixote,” I never want to see it again. Minkus’ oom-pah-pah beats are difficult to endure for close to three hours. Yet every time I do go to see the ballet, I am charmed by many of his lovely melodies — a few of them almost Rossini-esque. And, ah yes, there is the matter of the dancing, of course. Much of it is plain show-stopping, but much of it also so very fine and refined, with roles both large and small, for the very young and the character dancers. Like the “Nutcracker”, this Russian-Spanish cousin celebrates a ballet company as a mini-reflection of a democratic society. For all their differences, both works’ classicisms celebrate family, young love and a bourgeois sense of stability, with room for ancien regime survivors such as Drosselmeyer and the Don.

Despite spirited dancing, SFB’s “Don Quixote” remains a subdued affair. The Jens Jacob Worsaae production, borrowed from the Royal Danish Ballet, strips the set to essentials. It conveys little sense of this taking place in a city, or in the forest or in a magic garden. We get just the bare outlines of a plaza, a non-descript gypsy camp and wedding scene whose paper garlands could have come from a used car lot. Cobwebs and stars did create a dreamy background for the vision scene, but nobody would know that this is supposed to be a garden. Simplicity has its own virtues; but a little warmth would have enveloped the dancing better.

Dramaturgically, Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov’s three act version makes more sense than some. The narrative thread—such as there is—moves efficiently but without feeling rushed. The gypsy scene with the escaped lovers opens Act Two, to be followed by Lorenzo’s hunt and the battle with the windmill. The Vision scene transitions awkwardly but was notable for the asymmetrical deployment of its corps formations. Weaving in and out of them was a bobbing bevy of little cupids from the SFB school. Surprising in a ballet blanc, these architectural off-balances may have meant to reflect the Don’s skewed imagination. The Taverna episode with the fake suicide closes the second act. Act III consists of the wedding.

The second act includes the charming puppet drama which mirrors the lovers’ possible fate and provokes the Don’s quasi fatal act of chivalry. Also in the second act, a new Basilio/Kitri duet introduces a note of privacy and introspection for the two lovers. It’s the first time they are along, and they express the depth of their deeply sensual commitment for each other. The duet doesn’t quite fit into the logic of this extroverted all--fireworks ballet, but I thought it a most welcome idea to give a little more depth to our charming lovers.

In this production also, the solo for the Gypsy Woman underwent a tonal shift, lifting it beyond the standard gypsy dance interlude. Very often it’s just an excuse for over the top gyrations. This one dug into the “Hungarian” music and excavated a dark sense of anguish, a kind of ancestral longing—curtly dismissed by the Gypsy leader. It made the Gypsy Woman look like an outsider in her society much the way the Don is in his.    

I saw two different casts. Kirill Zaretzkiy’s string-bean thin and wide-eyed Don and James Sofranko—not the first time shining in a comic role—as Sancho Panza, Damian Smith as Gamache and Ashley Wheater as Lorenzo, performed in both of them. Somewhat surprisingly, given Tomasson’s experience with the Pantomime Theater in Kopenhagen, the comic interpretations leaned more towards slap stick then to their more refined commedia ancestry.

Both Basilio’s, Tiit Helimets, partnering Molly Smolen, and Davit Karapetyan, with Vanessa Zahorian, danced the male leads for the first time. Of the two, Karapetyan danced the role as if designed on his strong, athletic body. So far the young Armenian had primarily impressed with the speed and the strength of his elevation. As Basilio, he brought elegance and precision to his placement, fulminating speed and exuberance to his turns and landings as soft as on a pillow. At the same time, Karapetyan didn’t pushed the virtuosity, allowing it to be part of an exuberant Basilio who was witty, charming and self-assured. Zahorian, maybe SFB’s only true soubrette, played the role on a lighter note than the more dramatic Lorena Feijo who didn’t perform in this year’s revival. Sometimes Zahorin doesn’t quite inhabit her roles, but Kitri, with its mercurial shifts in mood, dare-devil speeds and high kicks in all directions, looked like a birthright. Throughout she used the fan like a playful assertion of Kitri personality. A lovely touch was her generous response to the Don’s old-fashioned wooeing; she danced the minuet demurely—but also kept her eye on Basilio. Zahorian gave a lovely, fully integrated performance, supported by a strong and equally convincing partner.

Smolen is a technically secure and strong dancer; she danced Kitri with a great reserve. There was little evidence of this being a temperamental, strong-willed teenager who could stand up for herself. Missing was a sense of joyously going-for-broke not because the steps demanded it but because the character did. She was most convincing in the inserted Act Two guitar-duet where her yielding and soft lines suggested the woman she was about to become. Also as the Queen of the Driads, her beautifully delicate footwork and floating arms seemed a direct response to the Don’s dreamy longing. A lyrical, refined performance. Helimets as her Basilio, was curiously subdued. He could do the steps--though flopped one of his variations in the Grand Pas de Deux—but he couldn’t step inside Basilio.

Elana Altmann’s Mercedes also missed one of the trademarks of her role, the bourrees between the planted knives. Hers was an edgy, sometimes overly cool Mercedes in this literally a back-bending role. In another performance, Sarah Van Patten’s Mercedes brought the requisite arrogance and sultry self-possession to the part. In smaller roles, Nicole Grand’s Cupid was delicate and nicely detailed; fresh-faced, fleet-footed Danielle Santos as one of Kitri’s friends and as the Gypsy Woman showed remarkable range for one so young.

Muriel Maffre’s Farewell Gala packed the Opera House to the rafters, just about taking off the roof during the final on-and-on standing ovations. Nobody wanted to let her go. It was difficult to say good-bye to one so admired, one so distinct. She went out with style, self-effacement and at the top of her artistry.

Before coming to the Bay Area, the POB-trained ballerina spent some time with the Hamburg Ballet and Ballets de Monte Carlo. At 5’10” she was considered to tall to join her home company and had been unsuccessful in getting into NYCB and ABT. Helgi Tomasson hired her in 1990, after having observed her in class and seen her videotapes. What did he see in her? The purity and refinement of her style? The intelligence with which she used her unconventional body? The commitment she brought to every aspect of her craft? These qualities, which form the foundation of her artistry, must have already been nascent in the young dancer. They were certainly in plenty of evidence at her last appearance on the San Francisco Opera House stage.

The program highlighted Maffre’s ability in twentieth century choreography though it’s her magisterial Myrtha and for her double roles as both Lilac Fairy and Carabosse that I shall equally miss her.

Maffre performed the second movement of Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, her frequent partner of the last couple of years. Emerging from the dark, she took a deep breath and started to unfold those long silvery lines, defining space as she floated in Vilanoba’s arm. Even in motion she was perfectly still, caught up in the music and the environment of their making.

The Pas de Deux from “Agon” was a study in contrast. Maffre’s quiet authority took one’s breath away. Helimet, dancing the role for the first time is not yet a Balanchine dancer. He has neither the attacks nor the thrust required. But he is a solicitous partner, and though the performance didn’t work stylistically, the relationships between the two dancers had a surprisingly affecting quality about it.

In Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” Pas de Deux, with Damian Smith, the two dancers looked as if joined at the hip. They then opened up into a multi-limbed images that kept folding and unfolding into soft lifts, corkscrew turns and limbs that stretched into eternity. At one point Maffre reached her arm into space as if she were trying to hang on to the piano line for a tad longer.

Maybe the most remarkable aspect of Maffre’s “The Dying Swan” was its lack of sentimentality. This was a stark unflinching, even chilling look at the process of death at work, not withstanding the soupy music. These bony, sinewy arms--wings from which the feathers had been stripped--stayed up by sheer force of will. When they finally gave out, it was almost a relief. It was a stunning performance of a much abused piece of choreography.

In the deliciously performed ‘Alaskan Rag’ from MacMillan’s “Elite Syncopations,” partnered by the much shorter Sofranko, Maffre showed herself as the sophisticated lady she can be. (She might have a whole new career). Taking a one-joke piece, she elevated it into a class act. Pushing him, riding him, casually flying her leg over him, she adjusted her hat, wiggled her butt and smiled at us knowingly.

The tributary to this uniquely talented artist ended with hugs and flowers from everyone, including her life partner Benjamin Pierce, but not before SFB’s block buster Part I from “Artifact Suite.” She and Vilanoba danced as if it was the first, and not the last time—fierce, committed and every detail where it belonged. Whatever she’ll do in the years to come, Maffre will bear watching.

Photos, from top:
Aaron Orza and Hansude Yamamoto in "Don Quixote." Photo by Erik Tomasson.
Muriel Maffre, taking a call at her farewell performance. Photo by Erik Tomasson.
Brett Bauer, Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Vilanoba in Ashton's Monotones II. Photo by Andrea Flores.
Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Villanoba in Forsythe's In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Photo by Chris Hardy.

Volume 5, No. 19
May 7, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Rita Felciano

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