Everyone knows that the members of San Francisco Ballet can dance. Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, America's oldest ballet company has earned itself an international reputation for the unparalleled technique and lyricism of its performers, as well as artistic director Helgi Tomasson's forward-looking yet steeped-in-the-classics vision. From the minimalist precision of Tomasson's beautiful 2004 work 7 for Eight set to a series of seven Bach keyboard concertos for eight black-clad soloists to the corps de ballet's shimmering collective port de bras in George Balanchine's "Diamonds" (part of the 1967 suite Jewels), the first program of the company's 2008 season cannot help but dizzy audiences with its eclectic and frequently exhilarating approach to movement. Stanford dance scholar Janice Ross recently told me that she thinks the San Francisco Ballet ranks as one of the top couple of companies in the country and one of the best in the world. Obviously I'm elated that its prima ballerinas can execute 32 continuous fouettés while appearing to exert about as much effort as you or I do when we're strolling to the shops. But the burning question on this theater critic's lips is: Can those dancers act?
The simple answer is yes. Though now corny in concept, the ballet's former artistic director Lew Christensen's 1938 classic, Filling Station, provides the perfect outlet for the dancers' thespian skills. As the first of the three ballets that comprise Program 1 (alongside 7 for Eight and "Diamonds"), it's a quirky, nostalgia-packed ode to small-town American life. In the same way that "Diamonds" fittingly celebrates the company's diamond anniversary, Filling Station is a touching homage to Christensen, who, along with his brothers, Harold and Willam, laid the foundations for the company's present success. But more importantly, this ballet serves to illustrate the power of movement as a vehicle for characterization.
Like many silent-movie stars, the Christensens had their roots in vaudeville. As a dance act known as the Christ Brothers, the siblings went on the road with the Orpheum circuit in the 1920s and eventually shared the bill with such stars as W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, and Bob Hope. Set against Paul Cadmus' vaultlike gas station backdrop to Virgil Thomson's wholesome orchestral score, Christensen's narrative ballet is steeped in the vaudevillian tradition. It follows a night in the life of happy-go-lucky gas station attendant Mac as he interacts with a series of larger-than-life visitors. Over the course of an evening, a family of lost tourists, a couple of local lads, a soused society dame and her only-marginally-less-inebriated beau, a cop, and a gangster all make appearances. Vaudevillian "bits" provide much of the work's cartoonish humor, from Mac and his sidekicks making fun of a tourist's obsession with golf by elaborately mimicking teeing off and other golf moves to the cast suddenly breaking out of their characters to perform a cheesy social dance number, a version of a popular 1930s boogie called the Big Apple. In nearly all of these moments, the performers imbue the effervescent atmosphere and Singin' in the Rain–like steps with cracking comic timing.
The only "bit" that lacks definition is near the beginning, where the tourists first enter the gas station to ask for directions. As Mac, Rory Hohenstein gives a jaunty, athletic performance. His perpetual high spirits come across through his gravity-defying leaps and the way in which he intermittently slaps his thigh, cocks his cap, and grins and wheels about the stage on his heels. But when faced with the tourists' blank looks, Hohenstein suddenly starts gesticulating wildly. His face does little to explain what he's doing, and it's not until after the tourists leave that we realize Mac was giving them directions. Even then, we don't know whether he is as clueless a map-reader as the vacationers, or whether he's trying to confuse them on purpose.
The most memorable creations in Christensen's ballet are the characters themselves. As the drunken swells heading home after one too many glasses of champagne, Katita Waldo and Val Caniparoli deliver hilarious caricatures that are as sharply drawn as they are technically virtuosic. Accompanied by a slurred cello line and, later, some honking melodic snatches from the orchestra's brass section, the two proceed to perform a drunken pas de deux in which traditionally serene classical steps comedically warp and wobble on the brink of collapse. Teetering on her toes with alternating looks of bliss and near-sickness on her face, Waldo lurches into a deep arabesque while Caniparoli props up his girlfriend as if her body were a sagging fence-post. He then clumsily clambers under her splayed legs and grabs her again, just in time to stop her from keeling over. The brilliance of the duo's performance stems from their ability to make their characters look completely out of control even while executing Christensen's technically audacious steps with perfect poise and timing. It takes a lot of skill to act drunk convincingly onstage. Dancing drunk convincingly demands even greater levels of accomplishment.
Why should ballet companies and audiences care about acting skills? After all, it's the dancers' bravura displays of athletic prowess, rather than scenes of dramatic depth, that cause convulsive waves of midshow clapping during any evening at the War Memorial Opera House. Yet a gripping performance, as the members of San Francisco Ballet well know, owes as much to the dancers' ability to communicate feeling and emotion to the audience as it does to their technical mastery of the steps. Even pure dance (i.e., non-narrative) works like 7 for Eight and "Diamonds" test the dramatic skills of their casts to a degree. Tomasson's piece comes alive for the audience in the tension between the formality of the choreography and Bach's music, and the ballet's chaotic heart. Meanwhile, the softness the dancers bring to the formulaic patterns of Balanchine's choreography almost entirely mitigates the blandness of the chintzy "Diamonds."
Early last year, I experienced a workshop production of The Tosca Project, a dance-theater collaboration between San Francisco Ballet and the American Conservatory Theater based on the colorful history of the Tosca Cafe in North Beach. As I watched theater-trained actors interact with ballet company dancers, I was struck by an alarming fact: The dancers were embodying their characters more convincingly than the professional actors were. This leads me to think that members of the Bay Area theater community should spend more time at the Opera House over the coming months. They might learn something.