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San Francisco Ballet ends season on a high

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San Francisco Ballet wraps up its 2014 season with works by the two master choreographers of the 20th century - George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The program features Balanchine’s Agon and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, and Robbins’ Glass Pieces.

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Agon was the last of three collaborations between George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky based his work on a book of 17th century French court dances, the influence of which wasn’t lost on Balanchine, as evidenced throughout the ballet. Although Agon was created as long ago as 1957 (for New York City Ballet), “It looks like it could have been choreographed yesterday,” says stager, Elyse Borne, from the Balanchine Trust.

One of Balanchine’s “black-and-white” ballets - no costumes, it’s performed in simple practice clothes - Agon is a series of pas de deux, pas de trois and ensemble dances in which he uses the ‘canon’ principle to great effect (sets of dancers executing the same steps, one group after the other).

The title remains something of an enigma, since “agon” in Greek means a contest, or struggle, but Borne describes it as “full of humor”, “a fun/serious abstract ballet, but it’s a human-relationships one”.

Balanchine’s second work in the program, Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, features four diverse but related ballets - ranging in style from the neoclassical, to the Romantic, then classical, ending with an exuberant gypsy-type work. Staging for San Francisco Ballet is by Francia Russell, former co-director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, who says that although this isn’t one of Balanchine’s iconic works, to her it’s one of his great works, because of the variety in the four movements. Staging this ballet, she says, is all about the “music, music, music”, and beyond that “it’s always a challenge to persuade dancers to be free”.

The music in question is Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor piano quartet - prompted by his quoted statement that, although he liked the piece, “It is always played very badly, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings ..... I wanted [for] once to hear everything, and this I achieved.” (Conductor Robert Craft). Balanchine apparently felt that chamber music wasn’t suitable for large ballets, because the pieces are "too long, with too many repeats, and are meant for small rooms." (George Balanchine Trust). An obvious meeting of minds!

When Jerome Robbins choreographed Glass Pieces for New York City Ballet in 1983, it was, according to one of his biographers, Amanda Vaill, “quite unlike anything else” in the Company’s repertoire. For the score he chose music by minimalist composer, Philip Glass - Glass Piece # 1 (Rubric), Glass Piece #2 (Facades) and Glass Piece #3 (Funeral from Akhnaten).

Representing the pulsating rhythm of city life, Robbins’ dancers (dressed in a colorful array of practice clothes), move purposefully hither and thither across the stage, too intent on their own lives even to notice when they’re joined by three pairs of seemingly other-worldly characters who appear in their midst. In the next movement, a line of dancers shuffles in silhouette in front of a grid-like backdrop, behind a couple dancing “a coolly erotic neoclassical duet” (Amanda Vaill) - which, according to Ballet Master Betsy Erickson, “is like life going by while this couple is having this beautiful, breath-filled moment”. It’s followed by a wild, almost tribal-style, finale.

The remaining performances of Program 8 take place at the War Memorial Opera House on May 6, 7, 9 and 11. For further information on performances, times and tickets - as well as some video clips - visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

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