Although I'm extremely passionate about the performing arts, I can't say I'm outwardly emotional about it. I've seen hundreds, if not thousands, of live productions over the last four decades, but I can only think of a handful of performances which have brought me to tears. For as much as I love dance, I honestly don't recall ever having cried at a ballet performance. Much to my surprise, San Francisco Ballet's West Side Story Suite had me sobbing like a baby long after the lights came up. Could I BE a bigger cliché?
The finale of Program Four, a three-work tribute to Jerome Robbins, the piece tests the dancers' physical endurance, emotional range and even their vocal cords. Yes, you read that right, these dancers aren't just incredible athletes, a few of them are actually decent singers too. Although last Thursday's performance marked the San Francisco Ballet premiere of West Side Story Suite, at Saturday evening's performance, corps member Shannon Roberts stepped confidently into the role of Anita. It's nearly impossible to not recall Rita Moreno's voice in the strains of "America," but Roberts brought the house down with a spirited if not occasionally breathless performance, while fellow corps member Spanish-born Dores Andre gave the audience a sweetly endearing Maria, a role she was clearly born to play. Robbins' legendary fight scenes still pack a gymnastic punch in the gut and his uncanny ability to tell a story through dance remains unmatched. Garrett Anderson, Rory Hohenstein and Peirre-Francois Vilanoba turn in steamy performances as Tony, Riff (leader of the Jets) and Bernardo (leader of the Sharks).
West Side Story Suite isn't so much a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy as it is a choreographic riff on the themes of the musical, a format that allowed Robbins to completely alter the ending of the traditional story with his breathtaking Somewhere Ballet, a gorgeous, dreamlike sequence that brings the entire company back to the stage. It's an unexpected thrill to hear the voices of these dancers, and there couldn't be a more crowd-pleasing and emotionally stirring vehicle than West Side Story Suite.
The evening opens with Robbins' charming Fancy Free, a rollicking tale of three wide-eyed sailors (at this performance exuberantly danced by Garrett Anderson, Davit Karapetyan and Pascal Molat) living it up on a drunken free night in New York City. The sailors pick up two girls, and a fight develops over which sailor will be left without a date. The sailors attempt to out-dance each other, but when the girls are unable to choose, another fight ensues and the girls slip away. The sailors make up, but when another girl passes their way, it's clear that boys will be boys.
It's interesting to note that Robbins, an original member of American Ballet Theatre, created the choreography for Fancy Free while on tour with the company, working closely through correspondence with a then young, unknown composer in New York, Leonard Bernstein.
Many outside of the ballet world realize that Robbins' five-decade career reached far beyond the billboards of Broadway. He was ballet master of the New York City Ballet and worked almost exclusively in classical dance throughout the '70s. One of the most famous works he created for NYCB was In the Night, set to the lilting strains of Chopin's Nocturnes for solo piano. The piece consists of three partnered dances, which converge only briefly near the conclusion. Yuan Yuan Tan, Ruben Marten, Katita Waldo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba are certainly among the most technically proficient of SFB's company of dancers, but it was the confidence and supremely elegant style of Lorena Feijoo and Damian Smith that drew the most enthusiastic response from the audience.
At the end of the evening, my companion and I noticed a couple of dancers leaving the theater through the stage door. Not surprisingly, they looked pretty tired. As we walked back to our car, sniffling, sighing, wiping our eyes and feeling rather emotionally spent, it struck me that San Francisco Ballet's mixed repertory programs don't just put the dancers and musicians to the test -- Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's wildly varied programming, thankfully, also asks a lot of the audience.
Program Four of San Francisco Ballet at 75, A Tribute to Jerome Robbins has been extended through Thursday, March 20, 2008.