Blending classical and modern

The highly acclaimed San Francisco Ballet, the USA’s first professional ballet company, will give three performances at Athens’s Herod Atticus Theater, Sunday to Tuesday, in what is the United States’ main cultural contribution to the Olympic Games which coincides with the opening of the Paralympic Games. The company will perform two choreographies by George Balanchine to celebrate the centennial anniversary of his birth («Allegro Brilliante,» with music by Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky’s «Apollo Musagete»), as well as two ballets created specifically for the San Francisco Ballet: the company’s artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s choreography «Concerto Grosso,» with music by Francesco Geminiani, and Stanton Welch’s choreography «Tu Tu,» to the sounds of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano in G major. Although the San Francisco Ballet is one of the few ballet companies to have its own orchestra, this time it will be accompanied by the Greek Radio & TV (ERT) Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the company’s music director Andrew Mogrelia. The performances take place in collaboration with the American-Hellenic Arts Center of Halandri and the American Community Schools of Athens and are sponsored by the American Embassy of Athens’s cultural section. Proceeds will go to the American-Hellenic Arts Center. «The San Francisco Ballet is the premier ballet on the West Coast, many would argue even in the United States,» said US Ambassador to Greece Thomas J. Miller at yesterday’s press conference. He added he appreciated that the company performed in Athens three years ago, shortly after the events of September 11, when many Americans were hesitant to travel, arguing that the performance had sent a powerful message. «When (the current) performances were planned, no one had any idea what the atmosphere would be like in Athens today,» he said and added that they will now take place in the wake of an extremely successful Olympic Games. The San Francisco Ballet was founded in 1933 as the San Francisco Opera Ballet and was only separated from the Opera in 1942, when it also acquired its current name. Under the artistic direction of William Christensen, the company staged the first American full-length productions of ballet classics like «Swan Lake» (1940) and «The Nutcracker.» Helgi Tomasson, who has been artistic director since 1985, has brought about significant changes: Under his direction the company, which has performed all over the world, acquired a reputation for having a wide repertoire that it constantly enriches. The San Francisco Ballet also boasts its own school, also headed by Tomasson. «For the past 20 years, the company has put emphasis on creating new work,» said Tomasson, without however undermining the staging of ballet classics. «Approximately 12 nations are represented in the company and this is something that just happened, not something I sought,» he added. He explained that this is a recent development in the field of dance worldwide, as opposed to a few years ago, when dancers would usually remain in their own countries. «I think it creates a wonderful atmosphere and people can learn from each other. Trying to mold them all to one style is challenging and rewarding.» Tomasson was keen to point out that although the company favors the modern element in choreography, it has always tried to invite choreographers with classical training, which they can then expand on. Iceland-born Tomasson started his ballet training at an early age and in 1969 won the Silver Medal in Moscow’s First International Ballet Competition; a year later he became principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. He was one of the main interpreters of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, both of whom choreographed numerous parts for him. Tomasson has staged several striking productions and has received many awards and distinctions, including being named Commander of the Order of the Falcon by Iceland’s president in 1990 and receiving the Isadora Duncan Special Award in 1995 for «United We Dance: An International Festival» (a celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter). He has also served as a judge of ballet competitions throughout the world. Out of the approximately 70 dancers who comprise the company, 50 will perform in Athens to the sound of live music by the ERT Symphony Orchestra. «We have a very wide repertoire,» said Andrew Mogrelia, who has been the company’s musical director since 2003. An experienced conductor, Mogrelia has released a large number of recordings and has also collaborated with many highly regarded ballet companies, including the English National Ballet, the American Ballet Theater and the Netherlands Dance Theater. «Tremendous joy comes across, articulation, musicality and freedom of movement,» said Tomasson describing the company’s «style» and advised the audience to approach dance the same way it approaches music: «You should let your senses enjoy what you see, the same way you let your senses enjoy what you hear.» Tickets are available at the Hellenic Festival Box Office, situated at 39 Panepistimiou (tel 210.928.2900), and the Herod Atticus Theater Box Office (Dionysiou Areopagitou, Acropolis). Performances start at 8.30 p.m.

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