The San Francisco Ballet gave us a splendid evening of dancing last night in the first of three performances at Wolf Trap, rousing a sizable audience to warmly welcoming applause.
Good as it was, one felt that it could have and should have been better, given the company's stature and artistic strengths. This is not only the oldest professional ballet troupe in the country (founded in 1933), but outside of New York City, also the one with the most substantial tradition and largest resources. It's on a higher level in almost every respect than any other "regional" troupe. Yet, as fine as last night's program was, there was also something ho-hum about it.
A bit of historical perspective: the company first danced at Wolf Trap in 1982 under less than ideal circumstances, in the temporary facility used before the rebuilding of Filene Center after its fire. Two years ago, the San Francisco Ballet made its Kennedy Center debut at the Opera House, with a different sort of drawback. The performances there were the last under "lame duck" artistic director Michael Smuin, who'd already been dismissed and whose replacement -- former New York City Ballet dancer Helgi Tomasson -- had been named. The present Wolf Trap engagement, in fact, marks the company's first East Coast appearances under Tomasson's stewardship.
Tomasson's approach to the repertory was mirrored in the choices for last night's program -- Paul Taylor's poignant "Sunset," created in 1983 but already considered a "classic" of modern dance; Balanchine's familiar 1947 masterwork, "Theme and Variations," as staged by Tomasson; and two recent pieces by Tomasson himself, who is still in the early stages of a choreographic career.
The contrast between this fare and what the company brought to the Kennedy Center was obviously due to differences in artistic personality between Smuin and Tomasson. From a choreographic standpoint, Smuin at his best is flamboyantly and effectively histrionic; at his worst he's brassy, glib and cheaply opportunistic. I'm not well enough acquainted with Tomasson's work to generalize, but from the few things I've seen, including the pair of ballets at Wolf Trap, I'd say he's at the opposite end of the esthetic spectrum. He'd be constitutionally incapable of anything tasteless or bombastic. Stylistically, he appears to confine himself within rather narrow traditional borders. His choreography is craftsmanlike and sensibly proportioned. It can also be not a little dull.
Tomasson's "Concerto in d: Poulenc," an ensemble piece dating from last year and the first large-scale work he created specifically for the company, has some of the virtues Tomasson always exhibited as a dancer -- it's clear and modestly scaled in its effects, respectful of convention and genteel in spirit, despite an overall vivacity. But the choreography has none of the genius of Tomasson the dancer -- the unique masculine graciousness and almost seraphic tenderness that infused his performances. Instead, it's almost mechanically structured -- in the finale, for example, the lead dancers from the first two movements return with their attendant ensembles to beef up the climactic feeling, but without any musical or dance justification. By coincidence, Choo-San Goh's "Double Contrasts," familiar to Washington Ballet audiences and set to the identical Poulenc music, shows what a wealth of choreographic possibility can be unearthed in the same score.
Tomasson's "Bizet Pas de Deux," also from 1986, displays an equally debilitating blandness. If, in this day and age, you're determined to go on making 19th centuryish ballerina-and-cavalier showcases, there had better be something a lot more eye-popping about the steps than what we're shown here.
Tomasson has brought a number of new dancers into the company and promoted others, but the casting of this first program -- and the sight-line conditions at Wolf Trap -- afforded only a hint of these changes. Alexi Zubiria was a galvanizing presence in the Poulenc ballet, and David McNaughton, partnering a so-so Joanna Berman in the Bizet, was technically brilliant, though he almost ruined the effect by marching out onto the stage as if he were headed for soccer practice.
Both Taylor's "Sunset" and Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" were well danced, with Evelyn Cisneros and Alexander Topciy outstanding in the latter, but both performances, as polished and cohesive as they were, remained very much on the surface of things in terms of artistic substance.