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Flash Review 1, 2-13: "White is for Virgins"
Racy Ad Campaign Draws in Younger Crowd at S.F. Ballet for Edgy "Black Cake"

By Therese Poletti
Copyright 2001 Therese Poletti

SAN FRANCISCO -- "I've never seen anything like this before," murmured an astonished usher at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, as she watched the line of people picking up tickets snake slowly around the massive foyer for Saturday's performance of the much-hyped ballet, Hans van Manen's "Black Cake."

Indeed, the crowd seemed as mixed as the San Francisco Ballet had been hoping for. Younger couples in their 20s, 30s and 40s, some wearing leather jackets, funky shoes and boots, or just basic black, mixed with the older socialite types that typically attend the ballet. A racy ad campaign, with one slogan, "White is for Virgins," has obviously captured the attention of younger San Franciscans, as they ride the bus, walk around the city and read newspapers.

The ads, by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, certainly caught my eye, with a woman dancer, SFB principal Lucia Lacarra, wearing a sexy black dress and dance shoes with high heels, more appropriate for the tango. So with a whetted appetite, I went to see if "Black Cake" lived up to the hoopla. In my humble, woman-on-the-street view, it did. "Black Cake," getting its San Francisco premiere, was delightful, not too rich and with plenty of darkness beneath the surface.

The ballet takes place on a sparse set, painted only in black in the first section. As the dancers emerge at a party -- the women in shimmering black or silver mid-calf dresses and black heels and the men in black tops and sheer black pants -- the mood is that of a sultry Argentine tango bar. And the dancers, in pairs, move sometimes as if they are performing bits of a tango and the paso doble, facing each other in the squat of a plie, arms outstretched, eyes locked. Only the sound of Igor Stravinsky's "Scherzo a la russe," and a few moves made to look awkward in heels, remind you that this is a ballet.

A passionate pas de deux follows, with Julie Diana and Roman Rykine entwined in a sensual dance, followed by a humorous pas de deux with Muriel Maffre and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, whose athleticism was one of the saving graces of the otherwise-tepid "Nutcracker" here in December. Maffre and Vilanoba at times dance like mechanical dolls, each popping up and down, as they face each other, playing a game of cat and mouse.

The fifth "layer" of the Black Cake, as van Manen likes to call each section, reunites the ensemble, drinking and laughing together, as a waiter pours champagne. The dancers have real liquid in their glasses and appear to be very tipsy and off balance. The choreography here is more like precise inebriation, as the dancers topple, swagger, and alternate from laughter to crying, then race after the waiter when their glasses are empty. And in that last-ditch effort to find someone before the party is over, the men pinch the women in the derriere, only to end up with chaste kisses on the lips. The scene's humor and sadness is underscored by the music of Tchaikovsky's symphony, Pathetique.

"Black Cake" was preceded by "Sea Pictures," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the retired dancer of the New York City Ballet, a lyrical, haunting story of a fishing village, where the men go off to sea, leaving the women alone, and of their return, which brings joy to all but one woman. The five songs, composed by Edward Elgar, are sung by mezzo soprano Katia Escalera. It was like going to the opera without the libretto, and it was a bit much for this average patron of the arts, who is not fond of opera. But Lorena Feijoo was excellent and her solo depicted a hysterical, frenetic woman, tossing about as she cannot face her grief.

The one highlight of the mostly staid "Prism" by S.F.B. artistic director Helgi Tomasson was Lacarra in a pas de deux with Cyril Pierre. Lacarra was the center of attention and while an amazing dancer, she seems at the same time to be as fragile as a piece of Dresden china. The dancers, though, all seemed especially happy to be back in their toe shoes and pastels, after "Black Cake"'s high heels and black dresses. "Prism" premiered last year at the New York City Ballet.

"Black Cake" premiered at the Nederlands Dans Theatre at The Hague in 1989.


Therese Poletti covers technology for the San Jose Mercury News, and is a former correspondent for Reuters news service.

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