San Francisco’s Opera House is so well-proportioned you may not notice how huge in fact it is – but it seats over 3,000. And it was filled to capacity, with standees three deep, for the farewell performance of San Francisco Ballet’s French diva, Sunday night, May 26. When the curtain finally came down on a one-night-only “Farewell” program that was added to the end of the season, in which Maffre performed in every number on the show, after curtain calls that went on for fifteen minutes, the audience was still reluctant to leave and had to be pushed out by the ushers.
Maffre’s fans are legion: some respond to the generosity, some to the intelligence, some to the courage (I once saw her dance Symphony in C during an earthquake, she kept going, so we stayed). Some respond especially to the control she amasses, the sense of responsibility (the CARE she puts into preparation is something anyone can feel). It is fascinating to watch her move. She’s built like a preying mantis, over six feet tall on pointe, with arms and legs so long and every bone that can be long is long, even the toes. Everyone responds to the presence of mind in body that she reveals. As the critic Keith White once said, “With a body like hers, it’s a wonder she can dance at all, much less with such precision and control.”
Maffre is a product of the oldest ballet academy in the world, the Paris Opera Ballet, founded by the Sun King, Louis XIV. Classical dancing (like opera house singing) developed to fill large houses, to get the “voice” or the gesture to carry long distances. Ballet technique enlarges the image and clarifies it, so that on pointe the smallest gesture shows from far far away. And Maffre enlarges movement on a colossal scale.
But classical ballet “emploi” dictates that certain body types dance certain roles, which would rule out many great roles for Maffre—the Sylphide, Giselle, the heroine of Sleeping Beauty all “belong” to petite dancers, tall dancers get roles like the Lilac Fairy. When she arrived here the rumor was she was too tall for the P. O. B.—a rumor never exactly confirmed but never exactly denied either—but in her career, Maffre has gotten to dance them all. She danced Giselle in Germany, but she gave beautifully thought-out interpretations of la Sylphide and Aurora here (and her fellow dancers flocked to those performances).
Sunday night there were many modern dancers in the house—including her friend Margaret Jenkins, with whom Maffre will be working to help with the new ballet Jenkins will set on SFB for their 75th season next year.
During the evening she danced every number—mostly neo-classical work. In the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Agon, her elegance reminded me that Balanchine based this, his most angular, modern work, on old French court dances. In the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum, another “leotard ballet,” which draws its material from the possibilities for articulating the body and literally ends with a folding–up from 6 o’clock vertical splits through swastika into the fetal position, she made the movements feel spiritual, like Rilke’s poetry.
It was wonderful to see such a queenly creature be willing to make fun of herself—she threw herself gaily into every sight-gag in Kenneth Macmillan’s Elite Syncopations duet, in which she stands a whole head taller than her partner and ends collapsed on top of him. (James Sofranko was hilarious as the little dude.)
Her version of Fokine’s Dying Swan is serious, truly poignant; she peels away the shtick and finds a ritual element, which put me in mind of the similar Yaqui Indian dance imitating the death of a stag that is performed by the ballet Folclorico de Mexico. In particular she could inflect her elbows to make you feel her spirit break.
She’s always treated technique as a prerequisite to the art, but interpretation as the flower of it. She puts so much care into entering the right energy state, you’d think she’d studied butoh or Kathak. In any role, she’d distill the idea of the creature she must become and then deliver it. She could do dark energy (Myrthe in Giselle, Carbosse in Sleeping Beauty), and even more wonderfully, she could do goodness; her Lilac Fairy was astounding, and everyone felt it (the applause at the end threatened to eclipse the ballerina’s).
The evening peaked with the closing number, her awesome performance in Forsythe’s Artifact I—you could see both how much she has learned from guest appearances with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, and also how she was an ideal for the rest of the SFB dancers. They all had her swinging go-for-broke attack, but none more than she—and for a dancer as rangy as she, who’s had to think so hard about how to co-ordinate such far-flung movements, it was thrilling to see control and abandon co-present in equal measure.