San Francisco Ballet's Program 5 is the first half of it's Balanchine Festival. "The Four Temperaments" is set to Pall Hindemith's Theme and Variations of the same title. "Apollo" is to Stravinsky's Apollo Musagete. The evening begins with "Serenade" to Tchaikovsky's Serenade, Op. 48. This is Balanchine's first work in America after numerous failures in Europe. The Program Notes tell of the spontaneity of the choreography. "At the first rehearsal, 17 girls showed up. Faced with the unwieldy number ... Balanchine devised ... rows of diagonal lines with the seventeenth girl serving as the linchpin in the center. Other elements of chance found their way into the choreography as well: the tardy entrance of a student, a mishap of another young lady when she fell to the floor."
"Serenade" is elegant, lively, and lyrical. The movements of large groups of women in filmy skirts never ceases to amaze me. This is full of unusual movements. Groups of two, three, then four women together form their bodies into shapes, with their arms folded up over their heads like big bonnets. Five groups of three form a half circle. The groups consist of a girl kneeling in front close to the floor, the second one back on her knees with her torso straight up, and the third standing. The effect is like a beautiful amphitheater of ballerinas.
There are very few men in "Serenade." The first one appears in a pas de deux, with lively jumps and lifts. The ensemble is a backdrop, and the ballerina does a series of fast turns and spins off stage. Large groups pass through each other, mesh, and separate. No matter how much I see this done, it's still breathtaking when done well. San Francisco Ballet never misses on anything here. This is as finely tuned an ensemble as any I've ever seen, and they always hit the mark.
A woman lies flat on the corner of the stage. The man comes across the stage with another ballerina behind him, covering his eyes, and guiding him. Lorena Feijoo rises, passionately making her move. She doesn't get the man, goes to the other woman at the side of the stage, and three men lift her, standing straight up, carrying her across the stage as she bends back.
"Apollo" opens with the mother spotlit on a platform. She writhes, stretches, and kicks her legs up. Apollo appears below, wrapped like a mummy, simulating birth. His face contorts like screams. This ballet has a lot of very intense facial expressions. Two women unwrap him, and he spins out of the last wraps. One ballerina is in a sitting position, being held up by another, as they move across the stage to give Apollo his lute. He's like a rock star as he spins his arm in windmills, playing his instrument.
Apollo is with three women. They float across the stage on point, he holds them, pulls them one way, then the other. They circle him together, he solos with them, but they are always accessories to him, whether in a group of solo duet. They're jerky as they move across the floor on their heels. Then the girls float on point. Terpischore dances up to him, ripples her hands up her front, bends back, and he bends over her. The movement is sharp, but finely detailed, like when she comes out and gently touches the tip of his finger with the tip of hers. They do a sweeping upside down lift, turns, and the three women on the floor, raise a leg, touch their toes together, he holds them, they continue touching as they lower them back to the floor, and rise one by one, together with him.
"Apollo" is the oldest surviving ballet of Balanchine, dating from 1927. The title role was reportedly written with a soccer player in mind. When a critic said "Tell me, where did you ever see Apollo walking on his knees?" The choreographer responded, "Tell me, where did you ever see Apollo?"
"The Four Temperaments" is full of contrasts, and unusual movements with a firm classical under pinning. We have duets, lifts, and sharp arm movements, like Egyptian hieroglyphs. There are solos and small groups. One group of four girls is set against two girls and a guy. He goes from one group to the other, like he's being pulled by a magnet. Two women exit across the stage on point, while the others do high kicks in unison. A man on one leg holds the foot of his other leg out. Groups of bodies meld into unusual shapes. The bodies in this are always off center, moving mechanically, then breaking into smooth, bouncy motion. A solo woman does high leg kicks then stops, starts, stops, and starts again. Everything is in black and white, with a series of pas de deux against the corps.
"The Four Temperaments" is a great conclusion to the first half of San Francisco Ballet's Balanchine Festival. Andrew Mogrelia led the orchestra, along with pianist Daniel Waite in "Temperaments." The San Francisco Ballet continues through May 9, at the Opera House.
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