I'm starting to wonder how we lived without Sadler's Wells and the new companies they always seem to be bringing over to the UK. I dearly love many of the companies here, toast their achievements, note their eccentricities and chart their progress this way and that. But there is nothing like first seeing a company, and a foreign one at that, for giving your eyeballs a jolt and stretching your sensibilities. And Sadler's keep bring them in, for which a massive hooray.
Of course there are no guarantees in life but one had one's suspicions that San Francisco Ballet, making their London debut this week, would be good. But as the opening gala unfolded a very warm glow of satisfaction descended on the audience, accompanied by much grinning as it dawned on everybody just how good SFB are. Of course it's unfair to jump to absolute conclusions so quickly, but this was a special night.
As galas go it was inspired; yes there were pieces from classical all the way through to modern but, joy of joys, many have been rarely seen in London. And of course they seemed to have pieces that made the most of the dancers we had all come to see. Of course it seems so obvious that it should be thus, but it is not always so in practice.
But over and above the 'good show' aspects the thing that really grabbed the attention was the overall style and training on display. There is something about American schooling and the speed and precision it brings, that makes watching such dancers so exhilarating - particularly in the works they were showcasing.
Their legs are thicker but it's all toned muscle and even at the end of a long extension one can see that they are totally in control. And such speed. Now one might think all this could lead to regimented, unfeeling dance and I suppose it can, but not here I thought.
There were 12 pieces in the gala and sadly none of them are being repeated at Sadler's. At the classical end there was Tarantella, Le Corsaire pdd and La Esmeralda pdd. Kristin Long crisply opened the Gala in Tarantella and warmed us all up to 'the shock of the new' along with Christopher Stowell, and in Karinska costumes too. Karinska?! - Tarantella was actually choreographed by Balanchine but it slots in pretty seamlessly amongst the pdd from the past.
Le Corsaire came late in the evening and by then I was starting to get a little more picky perhaps, but Tina LeBlanc did not do so much for me. This seems a heresy given what others are saying about her, and I'm certainly not saying she was bad or anything horrible like that.
Yuan Yuan Tan in Esmeralda. Photo by Lloyd Englert
For me the star of the entire evening was Yuan Yuan Tan in Esmeralda. She reminded me of Sylvie Guillem, but warmer in character, and looked just as home in her party piece as Guillem does in Grand Pas Classique. But I prefer the Esmeralda choreography. Tan is still in her young 20's and I really hope we get to see her again in Europe. My sadness is that she is dancing Swan Lake but that performance is sold out and I just can't get a ticket.
There were more Balanchine pieces (Embraceable You from Who Cares and Tchaikovsky pas de deux) and a piece of Hans van Manen - Solo - but actually for 3 boys. Once again it was the speed and attack of the dancers that impressed - particularly the soloist Guennadi Nedviguine who I can still see shuffling backwards with the smallest and fastest of steps. Oddest piece of the night was Vestris originally choreographed by Leonid Jacobson for Baryshnikov portraying the 18th century French virtuoso. Moments of high drama were rolled in with send-ups of the very worst hammy acting of the time. Joan Boada was making his debut and gave his all, even if the audience were a little incredulous!
Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre were impressive in Adagio for Strings by the French choreographer Gerard Bohbot. Lacarra has also been likened to Guillem and impressed many when she guested with ENB at Christmas 1997. She is real imp of a dancer at times and must be double jointed: how she bends so far back and does not snap is hard to say. But she connects on a very emotional level as well and in some respects is like Viviana Durante on one of her warmer nights.
Scariest dancer was Muriel Maffre in an exerpt from In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. SFB obviously cottoned on early to Forsythe and got the piece only 2 years after it was created in Paris. Maffre is very tall and pretty thin, and she sure knows how to be scary and fast. But even better was to come from her. I do like Middle and it was nice to see even a snatch of it again in such a gala context.
The evening ended with Handel - a Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, the company's artistic director. It's much more a company piece and we saw some of the corps for the first time. Perhaps the choreography was not so hot but it was not really the point, as the dancers were terrific, the music enthralling and we were all (dancers and audience alike) so happy to be there anyway. I went away feeling that I had seen another great company and was just as pleased as I had been on first seeing the Kirov, NYCB, Paris.
Two nights later (Wednesday) we caught the last performance of their mixed bill programme which features a new piece of Mark Morris. But the evening started with Balanchine's Theme and Variations with lovely turquoise and gold costume designs by Nicola Benois.
If you like Petipa and Tchaikovsky then all you need to know is that this ballet has the same feel as a Petipa set piece and is both lyrical and formal by turns. I'm a sucker for it every time, but it is very demanding on a a company and I don't think I've ever seen a definitive performance. That's not to say I have not enjoyed seeing it and SFB seemed to pull it off as well as any. I was particularly impressed by the soloists who lead it all out - Vanessa Zahorian (quick, if with the odd wayward leg!) and Guennadi Nadviguine (high soft jumps). The important thing was that they went for it and enjoyed it.
The Cage followed, a piece by Robbins about the female of the species preying on the male - not viewed in human terms but as spiders or some such. Lucia Lacarra was the Novice, and Muriel Maffre was the Queen. Maffre (the scary lead in Middle) was even scarier in this - such long limbs, and like a spider's each was totally independent and controlled. Her extensions seemed more extended than Guillem's even. Not to mention a look that we all knew could kill a man at 20 yards. Lacarra is a little more conventional, but that's not perhaps saying so much in this company. She too seems to have long limbs, so delicate and yet strong. I would love to see Lacarra in some MacMillian, I suspect it would fit her like a glove. A cross between Guillem and Durante has to be strong.
Helgi Tomasson's Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers used Handel again and was created earlier in the year. Joanna Berman and Yuri Possokhov danced for each other and together with some delicacy - they are perhaps a little smoother and more rounded than the others. But they still have speed that would embarrass many English dancers.
The evening closed with Mark Morris's Sandpaper Ballet, which he mounted on them in April this year. What a glorious and witty piece it was and it made me feel sorry for all the other companies who will not have it. Somebody in the UK should grab this and grab it quick. The music is by Leroy Anderson and if you ever wondered who composed the Sleigh Ride/ Jingle Bells tune now you know...
The dancers are all in pea green costumes from the chest down (including build in gloves) and look very strange and comical en masse. Morris responds to the 10 tunes (many of which you will know) with his usual natural inventiveness and fun, but of course this being a ballet company there is much more pointe work about. The group keep returning to a formation of 6 columns of dancers, constantly rearranging themselves, sometimes getting it wrong and sometimes being oh so cleverly right. But I also love the processions he brings out along the diagonals - the dancers skip and pose individually, but the overall chain looks balanced, natural, joyful and utterly beautiful. This was a team piece, but Muriel Maffre stood out again for her comic timing and sense of fun.
Sandaiper Ballet has the same feel-good factor of Bintley's Nutcracker Sweeties. But it could just be better - which is high praise indeed.
SFB have continued to bring us great pieces and the boys in particular are tall and strong to our UK eyes. The corps girls look fine, but we will know more when we see their Swan Lake. But there is no time to lose and I would urge anybody who is thinking twice about seeing SFB, to try and get to Sadler's. But you have to be quick, the last performance is on Saturday.