It didn't take many minutes into the San Francisco Ballet's opening at Wolf Trap last night to see that this, indeed, is a company of classical dancers. The clean lines of bodies, the high reach of limbs, the sharp accentuation of rhythm were a pleasure to discern so consistently throughout the acts from soloist to corps.
The company was dancing to the elegantly sensual music of Alexander Glazounov and, although it was never admitted in the program, this was really a version of Marius Petipa's "Raymonda." In its original form there is no better choreography to introduce dancers to a new public. However, Lew Christensen's adaptation, which we were seeing last night, isn't of that caliber. He has called his piece "Variations de Ballet." What he has done has been not only to abstract the dancing from the story, but to turn "Raymonda" into a ballerinaless spectacle. Two women shared solo and adagio passages. Both competent, neither was of star caliber, although Linda Montaner showed great sensitivity in the way she played with held phrases in the "Menestrel" variation--Christensen's best original passage.
Essentially it was the ensemble that shone in "Variations"--and one of the solo men, David McNaughton. Compact, forceful and with sustained strength, McNaughton was the most distinctive performer in the Christensen work as well as "Stravinsky Piano Pieces."
The two ballets to Stravinsky's music proved the San Franciscans' commitment to classicism in choreography as well as in dancing. The piano ballet is half charade, half examination. Michael Smuin's idea in making it may have been to show character and good manners through references to balletic stereotype. He succeeded in both respects and managed to display some of his best dancers--the gracious Betsy Erickson, McNaughton, and the sleek Alexander Topciy--as pianists, too. Others of note in the piece were Nancy Dickson of the riveting turns, enthusiastic Andre Reyes, and Evelyn Cisneros and Kirk Peterson, who tapped away as if they had never worn soft shoes.
"Symphony in Three Movements," the other Stravinsky work, began impressively. Robert Gladstein has choreographed it in the Balanchine manner of fragmented classicism. By paying attention to the music's volume and shape, not just its melody and rhythm, he is one up on most Balanchine imitators. It is a company piece in its architectural forms and focuses on three couples, of whom Dennis Marshall and Laurie Cowden are the centerpieces. Toward the end of the work, however, one begins to miss the conflicts of temperament that make Balanchine originals so difficult to match.
Smuin gave us a brief glimpse of his lyrical side in the lovers' duet from "The Tempest." In it, Gina Ness was freshness personified and Jim Sohm was a well-groomed, slightly stolid suitor. If the variety shown in the company's classical work on opening night is manifested throughout the season, this should prove to be a fascinating run. The company will be at Wolf Trap every evening through Saturday.