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Flash Review 2, 4-5: See ya "Later" Ballerina
Morris's Gift to Berman -- and Ballet

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts'ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ostensibly this review is to reflect on "Later," the new dance Mark Morris made for principal Joanna Berman for her last season with San Francisco Ballet. But Berman's name can hardly be mentioned without thinking about her entire career. In the early '90s, I remember going with The Dance Insider's own Paul Ben-Itzak to see Jerome Robbins's "In the Night" because he was smitten with principal Evelyn Cisneros. She was scorchingly stunning, partnered by Rex Harrington, proving again that her strength is the dramatic. I pointed out to PBI that there is another kind of brilliance and artistry and that Berman is an excellent example. More of this next month when I write of her farewell performance in "Giselle."

On hearing that she was retiring after this season, Morris, who has worked with Berman in all the commissions he has created for SFB, told artistic director Helgi Tomasson that he wanted to choreograph a solo for her to honor the occasion. "Later" premiered on January 30 at the opening gala of this season and is scheduled to run through April 13 on this program.

As always with Morris, the music is an inspired choice, Schubert's "Impromptu in B flat" for piano. The theme and variations structure of the music reflects perfectly in the choreography, which begins simply, then explores a range of emotions and elaborations on the steps. Not a tour de force in the usual sense, yet perhaps even more difficult in seeming to be not difficult. Berman says in the program notes that Morris didn't want to see her "performing," and she approaches the piece with disarming naturalness. There is a hint that we are watching her improvising in her living room or anywhere besides the stage. Slowly the piece evolves and we are carried along. The most intimate moment comes at the end, when Berman walks toward the piano and silently thanks the pianist. More than the abstract idea of a dancer acknowledging the music, it becomes a larger context, personally and historically. Roy Bogas has played for the San Francisco Ballet since 1958, long before Berman arrived on the scene, and hopefully will continue for some time, and undoubtedly she also could not help but remember other performances where Bogas provided the essential musical support. "Later" sends out gentle ripples in an ever-widening circle that will continue to be felt in our hearts for a long time. What a gift from Morris to Berman in capturing her so well, and to us for his wanting to create it in the first place.

Tuesday night also featured the premiere of Tomasson's new piece, "Chi-Lin" [Unicorn]. Choreographed for the Shanghai-born ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan to music by Bright Sheng, also originally from the same city (as was my own father), this piece came as a pleasant surprise. I had been dreading hearing Westernized Chinese music that was jokingly said to be composed by committee, but all fears were allayed by Sheng's seamless blend of his own vision of East-meets-West, or more accurately, East and West intermingle. The stage design and costumes by Sandra Woodall are gorgeous. It would have been all too easy to fall into kitschy exoticism, but Woodall hits the perfect balance of Oriental flavors, with excellent lighting and projections by Clifton Taylor. (Two small complaints: I thought Chi-Lin's headdress too ornate and prefer the publicity photo version, and I could have done without the fireworks at the finale.) The four principal dancers, Tan as Chi-Lin, Yuri Possokhov as the Dragon, Damian Smith as the Tortoise and Parrish Maynard as the Phoenix were all excellent. Though the choreography for Tan really shows off her beautiful line and lyrical arms, the variations for the men are too similar and don't read as individual animals.

Also on this program, playing through April 13, are two ballets from last season, Morris's "A Garden" and Hans van Manen's "Black Cake." The company seems to have settled into them and I enjoyed them both more this time around.

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