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Flash Review 2, 2-8: Bravura and Boredom at the Ballet
Vertiginous Coasting on the Coast with S.F. Ballet

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco Ballet's Program II (of eight this season) features the premiere of Val Caniparoli's "Death of a Moth," the San Francisco premiere of Jerome Robbins's "A Suite of Dances," the San Francisco Ballet premiere of Robbins's "Fanfare," and William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude." Admittedly, I am something of a contemporary dance snob, and though you can regularly find me enjoying the guilty pleasure of ballet class, I do not necessarily frequent "the ballet." At its best, yes, ballet can leave me exhilarated, impressed, awestruck and reverent of the art form and its performers. But, at its worst, ballet leaves me bemoaning its irrelevance and artificiality and complaining about how it is an antiquated patriarchal institution that perpetuates gender, race, and other stereotypes and causes unhealthy eating habits and weight and self-esteem problems, etcetera. This program offered a little bit of both the good and the bad, but the evening, overall, had me pirouetting home because the best was, and I do not throw this word around, SUBLIME.

"Fanfare" is remarkably awful. Meant to be a visualization of an orchestra, its various sections, and how these sections work together, "Fanfare" is an embarrassment and, while potentially charming and informing for an elementary school repertory concert, does not belong on the program for mature ballet patrons. Wearing tutus (women) and shiny unitards (men) with instruments displayed over their chests, the performers take the stage and execute movement with their respective instrument sections, though they do not even dance along with their respective instruments at all times. For example, in one section, a dancer portraying a brass instrument takes his cues from the percussion. Now, if Robbins is going to be so straightforward and blatant as to have pictures of instruments affixed to the costumes, he really ought to have the dancers dancing to the right instruments. Of course, too, the instruments are gendered -- flutes, piccolos, and violins are female while percussion, trumpets and tubas are male. Throughout the piece a courtly narrator comes out and gives us a blow-by-blow of the action ("These are the violins, they play in two sections, first violins and second violins, now they will perform a variation"). Even if this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it is insulting. The end is promising for a moment: the orchestra begins a fugue with the choreography responding appropriately. Unfortunately, the potential formations and layering of the fugue quickly disintegrate into standard neat ballet formations, then it (thankfully) is over. While the dancers performed with admirable earnestness and technical competence, the piece was generally painful, and I used the intermission afterwards to rant with my friend about how ballet is so archaic and out of touch, and how it is appalling that it receives so much money and support, especially compared to modern dance.

The next piece, "A Suite of Dances," also by Robbins, has its moments, and left me feeling like the night might not be a total bust. Originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov and his White Oak Project, and set to the divine Bach cello suites, "Suite" is a tasteful piece. It consists of four uniquely shaded sections, showcasing simply one man, this time Yuri Possokhov, and a cellist, Stephanie Cummins. With the all-star design team of Santo Loquasto (costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lights), the look of the piece is subtle and elegant. Unfortunately, Possokhov lacked the charisma to carry off the 14-minute solo. His gestures felt a tad artificial and his acting and interaction with Cummins seemed indicated rather than felt. Where Baryshnikov has the ability to tease, flirt, and clown with his phrasing of both quirky movement and virtuosic technicalities, Possokhov seems to just have a handle on the movement and does not yet live in it.

Brief pause in the program where my friend and I agree that we might survive the evening after all.

Then BAM! William Forsythe's "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" -- which is exactly that. Even I, who initially laughed and mocked the title ("How pretentious!" "Does Billy actually think his dance can live up to that title?"), could merely sit with a wide grin on my face shaking my head periodically in disbelief at the meticulously crafted choreography and the tour de force performances. The movement is unpredictable and ever-changing -- sharp, clean, clear, and controlled, yet thrown, off-center, and risky. The lime green and orange costumes by Stephen Galloway are fun, bold and edgy, as is the projection on the back wall which announces "Sky Blue Backdrop" layered with a shade of sky blue. Whirling, flowing, striking and pausing with precision, dynamism, virtuosity, artistry, endurance and bravura, the entire cast of Tina LeBlanc, Kristin Long, Katita Waldo, Gonzalo Garcia, and Parrish Maynard rocked my world. When the piece was over I was left wanting more, but I also knew that if it had gone on any longer, it would have been too long.

This intermission we spent gushing

Caniparoli's premiere felt anti-climactic, particularly after the Forsythe piece. Set in three movements and featuring, for the most part, a series of duets, Caniparoli took inspiration from the music of Carlos Surinach and from authors Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard and Virginia Woolf and their depictions of a moth's attraction to a flame. The undulating movement was mesmerizing in a hypnotic way, and the partnering work was fluid, intricate and effortlessly performed. The duets, while slightly different from each other qualitatively, had no distinguishing vocabulary or real dynamic differentiation. The lighting, which periodically flashed and left shadow-puppet-like images of moths, floating pixie-like bodies, and outstretched hands was a little gimmicky and distracting, and Surinach's eerie score became grating after awhile. Because of the steady ongoing pace, nothing was framed, and therefore, nothing was memorable. As a result, the piece entered and left my consciousness like beautiful sights seen during a long solo road trip, leaving only faint impressions of fluttering wings, writhing and a kiss of death.

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