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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

Making Connections - The San Francisco Ballet

By Seán Martinfield

May 1, 2006

Time was when the world of Grand Opera was singled out as the only arena where all other art forms might converge and produce one glorious product. It certainly will be evidenced this coming season at the War Memorial. For the ever-green Viennese favorite DIE FLEDERMAUS, singing actors will stand beside dancers as a host of instrumentalists play under the guidance of the conductor - who might rest his baton during "Prince Orlofsky's" party of Act II when the Traditional and yet-to-be announced "Guest Celebrities" arrive for a cameo performance of some variety. Carpenters, lighting technicians and sound engineers, (sometimes a few plumbers) and painters - each with their own Union - create and maintain the plans of individual designers. Costumers and dressers collaborate with the teams responsible for make-up and wigs - all of them creating an "Image" which can register to the Back Row, entice the zoom lens of a video camera and satisfy the curiosities of those with binoculars. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson proves that the San Francisco Ballet has all that too. Maybe better. Everything and everyone one involved in the three dances comprising "Program 8" certainly proved it, especially the instrumentalists - live and otherwise.

Throughout many of this season's individual programs have we been connected to a great variety of music never intended for the Ballet Theatre - let alone be fleshed-out by the top tier of international dance companies. Our own resident concert pianist Michael McGraw played the first of three segments comprising Program 8, CONTINUUM. The second, ELEMENTAL BRUBECK, connected the original early '60s recordings of the Dave Brubeck Quartet to the sound system at the War Memorial, warming up sweet, sweet memories. Now available on the CD collection, "For All Time", the pieces included: Iberia, Theme From Elementals, and Elemental. For those jazz aficionados clinging to their original LPs and (maybe as) someone's date being dragged to the Ballet, it must have come as quite the surprise to hear vintage recordings magnified in a 3000-seat opera house. Of equal splendor, was the unexpected (Guest Star) appearance of corps de ballet member, Rory Hohenstein, proving himself a fiery jazz interpreter - as hot as his hot-red outfit. Apparently, he did more than connect with his audience. Come his solo bow, came a rise in the decibel levels of applause and climactic shouting. One of us hollered, "Sir, yes, SIR!" Third on the bill, distinguished Conductor Martin West returned with the orchestra and breathed fresh elegance to an Encore Presentation of REFELCTIONS, Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony #1 in C minor. With costumes, backdrops and lighting in black, white and fire-engine red - this mature opus from 1824 was yanked into much-consensual association with the younger present, particularly during the final and 4th movement - the allegro con fuoco, i.e., Italian for "fast, with fire", featuring/starring Principal Dancer Pascal Molat. And for me, yet another surprise connection with Lorena Feijoo, The Lady In Red. "I've never seen so many men want to be there by your side."

With the very-much-alive Dave Brubeck floating above our heads via recordings, I question our very-vibrant pianist Michael McGraw being buried in the pit for CONTINUUM. Mr. McGraw delivered magnificent and other-worldly renderings of a dozen multi-complex compositions by the also still-joined with the living - composer György Ligeti. The only difference with any worthy counterpart appearing at the Symphony Hall is that the ballet pianist must watch and breathe with his dancers. With occasional frontal lighting projecting the ensemble's shadows onto the back wall, had Mr. McGraw been on-stage, a sometime and equally special lighting effect would link all of us to the prowess of the pianist. After all, there was no "story" to interrupt. Moreover, long-time fans of the film 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY come to know bits of Ligeti's works extremely well. (Even in outer space, music does not fall out of the air.) Many first-time viewers of the film undergo a first-time exposure to inner murmurings and spiritual disquietude as Ligeti's abrasive harmonies and structures are coupled with director Kubrick's disturbing celestial landscapes and pulsating Black Monolith. As choreographer Wheeldon observes, "Audiences shouldn't just be entertained, they should be challenged."

So what does Christopher Wheeldon, a former piano-student turned choreographer, hear in Ligeti's music that then ignites his dancer's imagination? Glance at the piano scores. Even if you cannot read music, the flow of shapes between the right and left hands resemble a seismograph's recording of a catastrophic quake - all the before / during / and after. What pianist Michael McGraw had to do to keep his fingers from colliding or tying into permanent knots somewhere in the middle of this lateral tension is what the composer labels as "micro-polyphony". To the discerning ear of choreographer Wheeldon, these landscapes of sound, emanating from a huge black grand piano, pulsating through the vastness of the Opera House - provoke and arouse latent bodily responses, inspire seemingly impracticable combinations of traction and release, of thrust and collapse, of irritation and joy.

Show us Mr. McGraw's fingers flying over those keys! Let us observe how Ligeti's sustained notes are created with the same tension, agility and strength observed in the muscled Olympic forms of dancers Moises Martin, Ruben Martin, Gonzalo Garcia and David Arce. Connect to that the counterpoint / the counter-balancing of ballerinas Vanessa Zahorian, Dores Andre, Kristin Long and Katita Waldo - and what we the audience are left with, as all are finally reduced down into rounded back-lit pods, are the sounds of McGraw's piano wafting into the darkening, deep silences of space.

Michael McGraw is not always so out of sight and anonymous. During "Other Dances" (from Program 4), with mazurkas and waltzes by Frédéric Chopin - again, not necessarily intended for the Ballet - he and his grand piano were strategically placed on stage for the solos and duets of Lorena Feijoo and Gonzalo Garcia. Programming being what it is at the SF Ballet (including the subscribers not being able to know in advance who might be dancing which night) and even allowing for the unanticipated injuries and last-minute replacements - by pure chance, it is the breath-taking talents of Prima Ballerina Lorena Feijoo who has been my most-frequently observed Leading Lady of the Season. Film goers will soon be connecting with this internationally acclaimed star (who rose up and out of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba) as she makes her screen debut opposite a very handsome member from yet another Garcia family, Mr. Andy Garcia, in THE LOST CITY, opening May 12th at The Embarcadero. [Stay tuned for my review.] Ms. Feijoo is the kind of Superstar who makes a hero out of whatever Leading Man is lucky enough to be assigned the job. When she was not in a romantic pas de deux with Mr. Gonzalo Garcia, it seemed her lingerings and loiterings around the piano were all about the pianist. (And I only have eyes for you.) Hey, what was that sudden surge of whatever from what's supposed to be an Accompanist? And how does she DO that?

Lucky Mr. McGraw. He's the keyboard player I might have become if only SOMEONE had gotten through to my parents about the differences between Liberace and Van Cliburn and those who rehearse with and perform at the Ballet - that is, if we could have even discussed Ballet, the San Francisco School being just down the street on 18th Avenue, not like we could ignore it. Next season, when reading Mr. McGraw's bio and its listing of major appearances with symphonies all over the world, I would add to his Credits what we can only read about the male stars of major Films and certain varieties of Musical Theatre who get connected to the likes of Lorena Feijoo:

MICHAEL McGRAW - Leading Man.




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