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Flash Review 1, 2-15: Great Expectations
Robbins's 'Dances' Uplifts Dancers in SFB Premiere; Expecting Adam Falls Short of Expectations in Newest Work

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- With any dance company, I always look forward to what a new season will bring, both premieres (world or West Coast) and new restagings of works from other companies, as well as being able to note the dancers' artistic progress. San Francisco Ballet opened its 69th season last week at the War Memorial Opera House with a program of choreography by Jerome Robbins, featuring the newly acquired "Dances at a Gathering" and with a mixed program that included "Angelo,"a world premiere by emerging choreographer and SFB principal dancer Julia Adam. I had hoped to say that both endeavors were unqualified successes, but unfortunately I will have to work much harder at being a kind critic than I thought.

I confess that the last time I saw "Dances at a Gathering" in a live performance was close to thirty years ago in London at Covent Garden, on the Royal Ballet. The cast included Lynn Seymour as Green and Antoinette Sibley as Mauve, and Anthony Dowell and David Wall among the men. I did not have time to dig through boxes of old programs to refresh my memory of the other dancers, but I think Alfreda Thorogood was Yellow. The opportunity to see this dance again after all these years and compare casts is a welcome challenge and pleasure.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of this ballet is how it changes depending who is dancing which part. There is both chemistry between the dancers and alchemy between the dancer and the role. The program notes quote Patricia McBride of the original cast: "He [Robbins] wanted us to be ourselves. He didn't want us to play anyone else.... It was a wonderful learning experience. He was so specific about what he wanted in terms of expression. He taught me a different way of dancing, of relating to people, of being more of a person on stage." And remarkably, even after Robbins's death, the piece continues to do all of that with the dancers in this company.

Wednesday's (2/6/02) cast opened with Roman Rykine as Brown. Every season Rykine grows more expressive, a far cry from the cool perfect technician he was when he first arrived five years ago, and he brings his growing range to the role. For the first time I also felt Lucia Lacarra as one of the peasants, though somewhat timidly, instead of the aristocracy disdaining them. As Pink she brings a tender sweetness, while Joanna Berman on Friday night (2/8/02) in the same role is warmer and earthier. The trio of women (Pink, Blue and Mauve) were strikingly different on the two nights. Wednesday's cast with Sherri LeBlanc as Blue, Yuan Yuan Tan as Mauve, and Lacarra lacked a true sense of camaraderie, though LeBlanc was so expressive and generous, as in all the roles she interprets. On Friday, Berman with Katita Waldo (Blue) and Julie Diana (Mauve) were wonderfully involved with each other on both the emotional and physical levels. I have never seen Waldo look so genuinely radiant and move with such natural ease, and Diana, with her gorgeous line and nuanced movement, continues to be one of my favorites. Fortunately, Berman danced a different role in each cast, as did Gonzalo Garcia. As this is her last season with the company, I am happy to be able to see her more often. Wednesday she was Green, a light-hearted tease having fun with the men, flirting and pretending to be hurt by their rejection. Lorena Feijoo created an entirely different character on Friday. Far more impetuous and invested in getting the men's attention, when left alone at the end she seems to say, "I don't care," but part of her is still upset.

Both Tina LeBlanc (Wednesday) and Kristin Long (Friday) were terrific as Yellow. LeBlanc's energy and decisiveness cut through the air as she jumps and turns, while Long brings a bubbling girlishness to the role. The men in general are good and seemed to grow into their roles as the piece went on, though it will be a while before they are really at home in the ballet. But the important part is that this masterpiece brings out the best in all the dancers. And that is ultimately why it is so satisfying.

On Thursday (2/7/02), the big disappointment was Julia Adam's latest ballet, "Angelo." While I have enjoyed a number of Adam's pieces in the past, and her "Night" was hugely successful the past two seasons, this one just didn't gel at all. She shouldn't feel too badly, however; all choreographers, even the greats like Robbins and Balanchine, have their flops. It's unrealistic to expect a choreographer to produce a great dance every time out.

The music for "Angelo," various selections by Vivaldi, was fine in itself, but often the lightness of it didn't support the heavier thematic material on stage. Possibly this could be remedied by using other compositions by the same composer. In previous Adam creations I found the visual aesthetic more in keeping with her movement style and vocabulary. Here, both the costumes and stage decor were at odds with the choreography. The bright colors -- red dresses for the women, and variously colored velvet jackets for the men -- were lacking in subtlety, as were solid hues on the cyclorama. The apple tree seemed like a cartoon, and the blatant symbolism made it's existence even more odious. Had the stage ambiance been more in the style of "Night" or "The Shroud" and "Allegoria," which Adam set on the Lawrence Pech Dance Company in recent years, it would have helped.

Another shortcoming involved the steps themselves. First, they were very repetitious and didn't develop into more complex patterns. And second, in the program notes Adam says she was very excited to work with Guennadi Nedviguine, whose technical abilities are nothing less than amazing, but then she failed to give him any choreography that would show him to the best advantage. I had the same feeling watching Baryshnikov dance with the White Oak Project. Anybody in the corps de ballet could have done it. The best part was the curtain call. Adam came out on stage, very pregnant, which could explain why this piece wasn't up to her usual level of craftsmanship. With all those extra hormones churning around it's hard to concentrate. She and the dancers got a lot of applause from all the San Francisco Ballet dancers sitting in the orchestra behind me. I was really touched. Her colleagues were cheering her and the cast, were being supportive in the face of a less than successful premiere. I'm looking forward to her next production, which obviously isn't choreography, but is certainly far more important in the grand scheme of things and will most likely contribute to her growth as an artist.


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