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July 28, 2006

San Francisco Ballet and the Ballet Pantheon

San Francisco Ballet’s visit to NY has been interesting as much for the good dancing as the calculated PR. I don’t feel “slimed” by the company's publicity efforts but I do feel like they’re here to show off. I talked to someone within the company who admitted as much. It was said off the record so I’m not ID’ing the person, but I doubt this is a secret, nor is it a bad thing.

The opening gala was well chosen to do show off. It was an assault (14 Ballets! FIRE ONE! Vertiginousthrillofexactitude! FIRE TWO! SwanLakeActII!) that deployed almost all of the soloist and above ranks at the company – and that is its strength. I’ll be writing more about the company for Dance View, Dance View Times and Ballet Review, but SFB’s ambitions got me thinking about what it means to be a top ranked company today.

The generally accepted Big Guns today are (in no order)

New York City Ballet
Royal Ballet (England)
Paris Opera Ballet
Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
Bolshoi Ballet
American Ballet Theatre
Royal Danish Ballet

I don’t know that the companies can be ranked, but I’ve seen them all.

New York City Ballet – there for one simple, enormous reason. Balanchine. But his legacy assures its position in the top ranks. Their performances of full-length classics are becoming more frequent and with a few exceptions can best be described as an accommodation.

Royal Ballet – the repository of Ashton’s work. People who have been watching longer than I have rightly complained that their versions of the classics are not as good as earlier versions. I can’t argue that, but I can say that their versions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are still better choreographically and logically than any other company’s on the list. With Monica Mason’s tenure, the company has also been in a period of consolidating its identity and strength. Right now, I find them inspiring.

Paris Opera Ballet – The best trained dancers of the lot. When these dancers bring their feet to their knees in retiré, they don’t fool around. The position is impeccably, perfectly isolated with level hips and shoulders and imperturbable placement. The Nureyev versions of the classics may “be discussed” as the French would say, though not his tenure as director. Tempestuous as he was, his eye for dancers was incredible and the company is still running on the momentum he gave them a decade and a half ago. The company has rarely had great repertory and today is no exception; it consists of a lot of barely ballet foisted upon it by a directorship uninterested in the classics. Paris is a sleeping giant; because of the excellence of the school it can lay moribund for years and awake at full strength – and it has before.

Mariinsky Ballet – I have not gotten to watch either of the Russian companies in the same detail as I have the previous companies. The Petersburgers are also well trained, though the French beat them on placement. I’m not fond of the Soviet versions of the classics (Swan Lake has a mandated happy ending in the Sergeyev setting) but they’re not the worst versions out there. At its best, it is magnificent but on my trip to St. Petersburg it looked like it was running on fumes (many people have said this is a company that is better on tour). The Russian coaching system (their top dancers are assigned coaches who mentor them in roles) is a wonderful thing but the company right now is in a leadership struggle between the director of the theater (Gergiev) and the director of the ballet (Vaziev) that has not yet erupted into its denouement.

Bolshoi Ballet – I’ve only seen the Bolshoi 3-4 times. There are a few ballets they own – their Don Quixote is delicious excess. What I have seen fit the stereotype; it’s the big passionate company where the Mariinsky emphasizes refinement. The company already went through its period of fighting in the directorship and with the relatively new tenure of Alexei Ratmansky seems to be heading into a good period.

American Ballet Theatre – Presently it has two New York seasons; a larger one at the Met where it performa mostly full-length ballets for economic reasons and then a shorter fall season in Oct. Nov at City Center when it does shorter works. Of the major companies, the one with the weakest identity. It has had some major works made for it (Antony Tudor worked here for many years, but after Lilac Garden; Balanchine made Theme and Variations for ABT), but its great selling point has always been stars – mostly imported but some home-grown. Though it has had a school intermittently, it hasn’t yet made a mark on a company style. The company's full length classics suffer because of this. It does a fine Giselle but its Swan Lake is execrable. Its eclecticism hurts them in the end; it's a company that's good in many things and great in nothing.

Royal Danish Ballet – also on this list for one reason only: the ballets of August Bournonville. Without them, it's another European state company.


San Francisco Ballet is not at the level of these companies, but it’s breathing hard down their necks. At the soloist level and above, they can compete. The corps is a notch down. Not all the top companies (metaphorically) have a corps; the heavy hitters are Paris and both Russian companies. NYCB’s corps, like everything it does, is particular to the Balanchine repertory. The Danes have never had that sort of institutional corps, it doesn’t even suit their theater where the stage is only 31 feet wide.

If San Francisco wants to move into the pantheon it needs to do one of several things. If it wants to compete with the Russians in the classics it needs to develop a corps de ballet on that level. If it wants to compete with the French it needs to be developing dancers of that caliber in its own school. If it wants to compete with NYCB it needs to produce, rather than import, repertory. Or it can take a path I haven’t even thought of, but the final requirement to join the top rank is that rather than following trends impeccably, the company will have to create them.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at July 28, 2006 7:42 PM

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