Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris France; July 15, 2014

Tom Ferraro

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins' Glass Pieces.  Photo © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ Glass Pieces.
Photo © Erik Tomasson

The fact that the Théâtre du Châtelet is adjacent to the Seine and only three blocks from Notre Dame meant that the evening’s atmosphere was calm, serene and exciting. The performance appeared sold out, with the audience largely French except for a few overweight unexceptional Americans including myself sitting quietly and feeling out of place among all this high level aesthetic.

“Caprice” is by the company’s Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson and set to 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ “Symphony no.2” with an additional adagio from “Symphony no.3”. Tomasson aligns himself the romantic music and dresses his dancers in soft gold with a set consisting of warm yellow lighting and shifting classical pillars on the back wall with special soft neon lighting.

“Glass Pieces” has adagios galore, but the most stunning dance came from the remarkable Yuan Yuan Tan who has that rare ability to captivate all eyes simply by walking on stage. It has been said that Chinese dancers have an inner depth that gets translated to the audience. Her remarkable gift and stage presence allows her to conjure up feelings of love and longing. She reminded me of the glorious lines of Natalia Makarova and of how she used her hands and feet. In the ballet, her partner Luke Ingham often slides her around the stage with her legs outstretched. She was a delight to behold.

“Agon” was choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Igor Stravinsky. The choreographer and composer were friends and they worked on the piece collaboratively in the early 1950’s. Using Stravinsky’s 12-tone asymmetrical modernistic music, Balanchine dressed his dancers in black and white and offered a plotless ballet based upon 17th-century French court dancing. Adorno described Stravinsky’s work as hebephrenic and schizophrenic with its effort to divorce itself from time or logic. “Agon” was one of the first of the modernistic masterworks, but watching it, whether performed by San Francisco Ballet or New York City Ballet is sheer agony. It is a battle indeed between the audiences need for narrative and understandable music and Stravinsky’s desire to prevent that from happening.

“Glass Pieces” from 1983 is a post-modern masterpiece choreographed by Jerome Robbins to the music of the American composer Philip Glass. The white tile work on the back wall of the set is reminiscent of that in hospitals or lavatories. The movement consists of individual dancers walking swiftly across stage in every direction all dressed differently. On occasion you see one arrive, perform some lovely balletic move and then leave. The movements were set to mimic that of people in Grand Central Station. The haunting, repetitive music has an unyielding pulse that builds throughout and becomes addictive to the ear. The second movement uses dark blue lighting with a long line of silhouetted girls slowly working their way across upstage, waving goodbye as they did so. Front stage is a duet moving gracefully to the music. The final movement has bright lighting and swift and strong movement by both male and female dancers. Some of the men reminded me of Popeye running along making his muscles big. The 35-minute piece finished far too fast and was met with a ten minute standing ovation by the French audience.

The night’s selections had a logic, starting with the romance of the 19th-century Saint-Saens which led into the modernism of the mid-20th-century “Agon” and finishing with “Glass Pieces”, a masterwork of post-modern dance and music. Judging from the audience the French love postmodernism. I left the theater with the unexpected realization that two American artists, Robbins and Glass stole the show. In “Glass Pieces” they have given  the world a piece of dance so compelling and enjoyable that for the first time in my life I no longer felt like an ugly American but instead a proud one. I have never liked the term ‘American exceptionalism’ which has frequently been used to connote our superiority over other nations but in this case and on this night American choreography and American music expressed by the able bodies of San Francisco Ballet was as exceptional as it gets.  I left the theater very happy to be an American in Paris.