A Day of Ballet in San Francisco

Audrey and I departed her Scotts Valley home at 8:00 sharp Saturday morning and arrived at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park within 90 minutes. I’m continually surprised by how close we live to one of the world’s greatest cities…when there’s no traffic. We parked and walked over to the museum to view its exhibit of costumes from the career of famed ballet master, Rudolph Nureyev.

The de Young had also just opened a joint exhibit of Dutch Masters and Rembrandts. Since we were there so early we snagged a spot for the 9:30 group and before we knew it we were surrounded by 15th century culture. Collectively, the etchings tell a fascinating story of that era with its frivolous aristocrats cast against its grotesquely poor, its passions of the flesh and of the spirit. Best of all, of course, was the Vermeer, Girl With A Pearl Earring. She’s been called the Dutch Mona Lisa for good reason. The brilliant lighting on her face and beautiful head wrap against the black lacquered space draw you into her mysterious world. I have become completely enamored of her—and I have the 10 oz coffee cup to prove it. But I think, in our enthusiasm to see the Nureyev exhibit, we passed perhaps too quickly through the Dutch exhibits.

Rudolph Nureyev was one of a small handful of ballet dancers whose names are known by the general public, and not just by balletomanes. His dramatic defection from Soviet Union in 1961 at the height of the Cold War gained him international attention. The perfection of his dancing, though, was what made him an international star. His legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn has gone unmatched. Really, all “Rudi” had to do was stand there in that regal posture and intriguing face to command the stage. He was a giant of classical dance.

And yet, he was a very small man. We were shocked to see one of his princely torso-fitted jackets: his waistline was sooooooo small! Twenty inches, maybe. I kid you not: he was tiny. And he was short, too. One story has it that he was very self-conscious of his short legs so he had his jackets cut short to make the legs appear longer and had his ballerina’s tutu’s cut long to shorten their legs. Its good to be a star.

In one darkened corner, against a large black wall were suspended a dozen tutu’s at various heights and depths. In front of them was a scrim upon which images of ballerina’s were projected performing the memorable sequence from La Bayadere in which 36 “shades” in white tutus perform arabesque penches along a long winding ramp. Standing back from it, the dancers stream across the dimly lit tutus bringing them to life again. Lovely and effective.

A room of costumes on ballet-posed mannequins (they must have been specially made) included pieces from Bayadere and Raymonda, both of which Nureyev performed in and staged. I particularly enjoyed seeing the “Gypsy” costumes for their insight into Russian Orientalist visions—remember, Russia shares borders with both Western and Eastern cultures making it both occidental and oriental. (Gotta do some research on that interesting factoid.) Nureyev is ethnically Bashkir and Tatar from the southern Urals and undoubtedly brought that aesthetic with him when he began creating his own ballets.

If you are a fan of ballet or of costuming, this exhibit is worth seeing. It closes on Feb 17 so if you want to see it, go quickly.

Later in the afternoon we saw the San Francisco Ballet matinee performance of two pieces neither of us had ever seen. In fact, I had never seen the SF Ballet company perform. Audrey, however, had seen their performance of the Nutcracker last Christmas and simply had to see more. We saw Suite en Blanc by Serge Lifar and In the Night by Jerome Robbins. (There was a third piece, Borderlands by Wayne McGregor which we did not stay for.)

Serge Lifar was one of the last stars of the original Ballets Russes and then choreographer for the Paris Opera Ballet. Ah, just to name them brings a sigh. The ballets created in the first half of the 20th Century remain my favorites. Anyway, Suite en Blanc is a lovely, neoclassical ballet in which all the costumes are white. Sounds dull, but the whiteness set against a deep, black set and skillfully lit made the dancers glow brilliantly. There were many beautiful solos, duets, et al as well as complex tableaus—sort of reverse silhouettes. (Sadly, I couldn’t ever see these in their full panorama because my little peanut-sized head was trapped behind a large-headed, tall woman. I moved my seat for the next piece.)

Despite being stuck behind a column, I loved this ballet. Simple, graceful, charming. I loved In the Night for the same reasons. This one was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, better known by the general public for his Broadway work on West Side Story and The King and I. But this was pure ballet, even set to the music of Chopin and you can hardly get more ballet than that! Three couples dancing out their passions. Simple, graceful, charming.

It has been a very long time since I went to the ballet (that’s pronounced with the accent on the bal’) (aside from a Nutcracker here and there). I’ve missed it and I’m really happy to know that the San Francisco Ballet—so close to me when the traffic’s good—is a world class company.

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2 Responses to A Day of Ballet in San Francisco

  1. Michael Gruber says:

    Anything about Smuin & if Kylian is working with him?

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