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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

The Pursuit of Happiness

Don Quixote
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco,  California
January 28, 2004

by Paul Parish
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Parish
published 9 February 2004

San Francisco Ballet's winter season opened for real last week with the first program in rotating rep, a smash-hit opening night performance of our new-last-year version of the Petipa-Gorsky Don Quixote, starring the dancers for whom it was made, the Cubans, Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada. To say these two are perfect for the roles is as much an understatement as saying that John Wayne was right for Stagecoach. Feijoo and Boada are sensational in the roles—in terms of virtuosity this year's performances topped anything I saw last year, Feijoo turning triple and quadruple pirouettes as the take-offs for diagonals where she hurls herself through the air into Tchai-pas dives. But their virtuosity is merely a pre-requisite for presenting mythic energy; these characters are archetypes, albeit comic archetypes—nobility in adversity, expressed not as Stoicism but as unconquerable high spirits.

Feijoo and Boada have what it takes to make the whole rest of the ballet necessary—native ease, temperament, manner, imagination. In this respect,the two are the greatest thing I've yet seen on our stage at San Francisco Ballet in anything. The style, the virtuosity, the heart, the gusto, inform every detail and make a ballet I never thought I'd have any respect for into an experience for which I want to make great claims. Until this production, I thought this kind of Don Quixote was a joke at the expense of Don Quixote himself—which I think was Balanchine's view.... But after seeing it, I think it presents one kind of ideal. (I saw something like it the next night, in Tina leBlanc's performance.)

Both stars learned their art in Cuba, and Tomasson seems to have made this production for them—he told a crowd of us at the Opera House last year he made the ballet "because we have the dancers" (which includes a large contingent of supporting artists from Spain—the Martin bothers, Gonzalo Garcia, Clara Blanco, to name just a few, who also have the style). Indeed Tomasson rushed it into existence, saving a year by renting Jens-Jacob Worsaae's costumes and sets from Copenhagen and using the help, invaluable help, of SFB principal dancer/rising choreographer Yuri Possokhov, who grew up in the Bolshoi's production of this ballet and danced nearly every role from the puppet-play children on up (everything except Basilio).

Tomasson understands character ballet; before he came to the U.S. he danced in the pantomimes at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Possokhov likewise has a flair for character, which we see in his dancing, even in "abstract" roles (Stravinsky Violin Concerto comes to mind—he dances it very Russian, demi-caractère, as he does Rubies, rather goofy; even in Emeralds, his cavalier is very French, very courtly, a personage).

In any case, Tomasson has picked brilliantly from the variant texts, composed a moody and elegant gypsy-camp scene, and assembled a first-rate character ballet. The story points emerge effortlessly but firmly: Don Quixote puts his lance at the service of an inn-keeper's daughter who has no advocate (other than her irrepressible high spirits and her refusal to surrender control of her life), to prevent her marriage to a fop who has no virtues but his wealth. There is in fact a magnificent defiance built into the character of Kitri, at the deepest level, which makes her a revolutionary figure—La Fille mal Gardée all over again, a heroine for liberals (certainly as she has come down to us through the Soviets).

It was a boffo hit in San Francisco last April; standees were four and five deep at the back of the orchestra in a house that seats 3300 people, and that on a Wednesday night. Many people saw it more than once; I went four times. And the crowds were good again last week (though not that good). The big turn-out, though, was only for the first cast—and given the dinky sets (made for the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, they are too small for our stage), and the over-exposed look of the corps (who are not used to being onstage for three whole hours and don't have the stage presence for it), and the technically strong but flavorless, indeed distracted quality of last year's second and third-cast leads who did not know in what spirit to pretend to be Spanish (though their stunts were splendid), I'd have to say it only really worked when Lorena Feijoo and Joan Boada danced the lovers, and the hilarious Damian Smith danced the foppish suitor. Kiril Zaretsky (as the Don), Pascal Molat (Sancho Panza), Sergio Torado (the toreador), Elizabeth Miner (Cupid), and especially Muriel Maffre (Queen of the Dryads, or on other nights, as at this year's opening, the Street-dancer and the tavern-dancer), supported them wonderfully.

This year Tina leBlanc has returned to the roster after having a baby, and she led the cast Wednesday night, dancing fabulously, partnered by Guennadi Nedviguine. Both are lighter dancers than the Cubans are, more idealized—indeed leBlanc's dancing in the Vision scene was heavenly, inevitable. She was a creature of air and fire; Feijoo was earth and fire (though her vision scene was also out of this world, she was more remote than leBlanc, who was at that moment so intimately accessible, we all felt taken into her confidence). The chemistry was weak between leBlanc and Nedviguine, though; he seemed unable to tap into the hero's popular appeal. Nedviguine is a miraculously fine dancer, noble in spirit, and he does not produce his miracles in order to bring down the house.

I'm reluctant to criticize Nedviguine; it's not up to me, an American raised in genteel poverty, to criticize a Russian raised amidst the deeply corrupted idealism of the Soviet system for balking at producing the simple peasant heroes that the Russian system held up to admiration, but it did appear that Nedviguine was too fastidious to go for it. He could not dance on the grand scale, with the weight and depth of fondu his combinations called for, but it seemed less a technical problem, more a distaste for pulling crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics out of his characterization. LeBlanc would look to him for a response and not get the steady flow of affection that Boada gave Feijoo.

Boada, on the other hand, treated the Opera House stage as if it were his living room. He was our host, the evening's entertainment depended on him. He gave a clearly visible nod of the head to the conductor when he was ready to start—it called to mind Taglioni in the Trockadero's Pas de Quatre.

He was a fantastically charming rogue. Not only can he do double assemblés flying through the air at a 45 degree angle, he's screamingly funny when he's lying on the floor, "dead," with Kitri trying to revive him, and he puts his hand on her breast, and she's shocked and furious and delighted but has to play along because her father is there....

Until Don Quixote, Boada had seemed to have a virtuosity for which Tomasson had no use. Indeed, last year, just as the premiere was upon us, the news broke that Tomasson had decided not to renew Boada's contract. The explanation was financial, which many pooh-poohed, and yet: Boada had not been much use. He was not good in Vestris, a solo vehicle that one supposed was acquired to show him off, or maybe make him learn to act. (It is, ironically, the solo by Jakobson that Baryshnikov won the Gold medal at Moscow dancing, the year Tomasson won the silver.) In Vestris the mime came through not at all, and worse, he didn't seem to know or care. Boada had furthermore been uninteresting in The Prodigal Son. The only ballets in which he made something big happen were Etudes, where he gutted out the heroically difficult steps in the finale and made them look difficult (which the role requires, since the ballet requires a steady build-up of the suspense, of challenges met and overcome) and thus put the ballet over the top. He was also superlative in a featured small part in Yuri Possokhov's Magrittomania, where his gazillion pirouettes and heavy masculinity were built into the role.

Whatever his offstage personality may be—and I hear he is a very nice guy— onstage Boada reads as a top dog, not a cavalier. But this is perfect for Basilio, and as Basilio he softens this alpha heaviness with a great deal of puppy-dog charm. He is in fact completely adorable. He seems for once to be a poet; we believe he is musical, sensitive. His guitar seems a natural extension of himself, especially when he uses it as he embraces and supports Kitri in Tomasson's truly beautiful new "gypsy camp" pas de deux.

Boada's Basilio is about as complex as Curly in Oklahoma; he's the most popular guy in these parts, the guy who can do everything, and for whom everything's going his way. He knows everybody onstage, everybody in town, everybody in the gypsy camp, everybody in the tavern they flee to next. He's like Bill Clinton, instantly at home, at ease, the guy everybody looks to for what comes next.

Which makes it fun when a real Spaniard confronts him, adjusts his shoulders, and reminds him he's not the only man in this bodega. The secondary genre roles of toreador, street dancer, and Mercedes had real chemistry when macho Ruben Martin, or uber-macho Sergio Torrado, in another cast, asserted their jurisdiction—what back bends! Lifted chins, nostrils like bulls, posturing such as no suburban-American dancer could pull off (outside the Graham company).

And as Mercedes, Muriel Maffre showed her power to bring down the house with a back-bend like Harriet Hoctor's—we gasped out loud—completely appropriate at that moment. She understands maybe best, as a Frenchwoman might, of all those not to the manner born, the relationship of French Rationalism, which is of course where ballet was born, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is where this ballet was born.

But the ideal burns brightest in Feijoo. Feijoo grew up under Alicia Alonso in a country where they are still repairing 1957 Chevrolets to make them run somehow, where a ballet-dancer has the super-star status they did in the Soviet era, but where nobody has life easy. The grit and will it takes just to live, much less inspire an audience with an idealized version of itself, must be remarkable, and the difficulty of maintaining personal integrity under such circumstances must breed a magnificent capacity for irony and for contempt. That's speculation, but anybody can see that Feijoo has a full-bore temperament, a high mind, and a magnificent capacity for contempt (whether or not I am right in imagining her circumstances); the Southerner in me responds to her as to Tallulah Bankhead. "Go ahead with your bad self!" I am almost saying out loud. She is "too much."

In this part, she fused classical technique (rock-solid technique at the very highest level, in the vein of Plisetskaya and Terekhova), outrageous temperament, and personal gesture and created a character as true as—I don't know why, but Katharine Hepburn's Jo March comes to mind, a national type of the spirited middle-class girl. I forgot I was not Spanish. And so things that Kitri would normally do, such as play with her fan (for example), seemed not only not foreign to the viewer—since she's our girl—but necessary, and familiar, and brilliantly idiomatic. In the final coda, she flourished that fan ad lib.

As she had last year, she turned 32 fouettés, with the fan folded on the singles and fanning her breast on every double, and finishing in a sous-sus. (Last year she the sous-sus for about 16 counts more, like a knife stuck in the floor.)

She showed her character plainest at the curtain call last year. On opening night when they handed her her flowers—a bouquet the size of a bath-tub, red lilies—she looked down at the mass of them and handed the whole thing to her partner Boada, (who the whole audience knew, of course, had just been told that his contract was over.) She then took him forward and presented him to the audience.

It was just heroic, absolutely in keeping with the performances they'd just given, and one of the greatest things I've ever seen on this stage here. It put me in mind of Maria Bylova with the Bolshoi, who threw her flowers into the pit the night she'd danced Myrtha. You couldn't tell if it was in homage to the musicians, or out of contempt for some commissar who'd sent them to her, but it was magnificent, and definitely defiant...

Feijoo's gesture was so great-hearted, so obviously spontaneous, just her response to the fact of the flowers, huge red lilies, enough to cover a coffin. In a way it was defiant—not necessarily of management; I think she knew what a sympathetic vehicle Tomasson had just given her, how deeply it validates her way of being onstage. It's more a defiance of fate, let the chips fall where they may, I support my fellow artist and countryman, and my partner, in everything I've done tonight.

At SFB we are not used to great communications between artist and audience during the bows; sentimental effusions, yes, but not heroic things like this. The house went electric; it marked I think the moment when San Francisco Ballet stopped being an outstanding provincial company and became one for the whole world.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 6
9 February 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish




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