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Flash Review 3, 5-19: Guide to 'New' Dances
At SF Ballet Season-Closer, Ratmansky Starts the 'Carnaval,' Adam Stiffens the Torso, and Welch Meanders

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts'ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- In recent years San Francisco Ballet began what looks like the start of a tradition, having one of the last programs of the season be a showcase for new works by emerging choreographers. This year was no exception, and I went expectantly to the opening of Program 8 on Thursday, May 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, when Julia Adam, Alexei Ratmansky and Stanton Welch unveiled their latest creations for the company.

Adam's "imaginal disc" is the first work she has made since the birth of her daughter last spring. In the program book there is even a photo of a rehearsal with the dancers where she has the baby in a carrier strapped to her chest. I note this because 20 years ago I used to do the barre of Alonzo King's ballet class with my son in his snugli and I know exactly how it feels to move with the added weight and different center of gravity. In "imaginal disc" Adam's tendency toward having the dancers move with stiff torsos is even more noticeable. Is there a connection? While the dance appears rather innocuous, I find the constant repetition of choreographic phrases, albeit in a different order, growing tedious as they are without variation or development. Even the music reflects this and doesn't really have extreme contrasts or memorable melodic elements. The piece of fabric stretching across the stage and slowly moved forward by the women hidden behind it seems odd, even out of place. This visual flaw is especially noticeable in contrast to the women's costumes by Christine Darch and Benjamin Pierce, which are stunning white filmy sheaths. The dancers all do a solid job in their ensemble work, yet I sense they could be so much more convincing with more complex and challenging choreography.

Things literally start waking up with Alexei Ratmansky's "Le Carnaval des Animaux." The curtain rising to the familiar score by Camille Saint-Saens reveals the sleeping Lion (Jean-Francois Vilanoba) in the middle of the stage. The odd menagerie of dancers rouse him from his nap and he tears around the stage frightening them and tossing his mane while tossing off some pretty demanding jumps and beats. Here we have choreography that doesn't try to make the dancers into animals, but rather suggests that they are fooling around, playing at making caricatures of animals. Kristin Long leads the trio of Hens that scurries across the stage and kicks the Lion off into the wings. The Horses wear jockey caps and jackets and suddenly I see how ingenious the costumes are for the whole ballet. Sandra Woodall has surpassed herself, giving the Jellyfish a skirt that looks like an umbrella around Muriel Maffre's waist, but with tentacles dangling down inside. The Kangaroos sport coats with the tails wired to arch out behind, echoing the curve of a real marsupial appendage.

While my eyes feast on the gorgeous visuals (Woodall also undertook the scenic design, which consists of mirrored wings that reflect the projections on the cyclorama in a distorted way) my mind and kinesthetic sense are reveling in some of the best choreography I've seen this season anywhere. Not only are the steps interesting for each animal, but Ratmansky plays the texture and rhythms of each variation off against other groups of dancers on different parts of the stage. He also captures the sly tongue-in-cheekiness that Saint-Saens wove into the music. Originally written for his students, he refused permission for it to be performed publicly during his lifetime, except for "the Swan." Just listen to the slower than molasses "Tortoises" ("Turtles" in the ballet) and you might recognize that it's fellow Frenchman Offenbach's famous can-can at a speed appropriate for geriatric reptiles. Ratmansky turns the rivaling "Pianists" section into a testosterone-driven competition between the men, only to have the women triumph over them all. Maffre dances a gawky deadpan Swan, parodying the Fokine version, while the rest sit on the floor and execute exquisitely lyrical port de bras a la "Swan Lake." After dying, though a more apt description would be croaking, she is awkwardly carried limbs akimbo, belly down, off stage.

While all the dancers are enjoying themselves immensely and communicating that to us, Lorena Feijoo as the Elephant has us laughing hysterically. In her bedraggled tutu and disheveled pigtails she stumbles and hops around on pointe, does grande jetes with her torso hunched over her front leg and creates a trunk by extending one arm out from her chin with the other wrapped around the elbow. It's hard to believe that the fiery and sensuous Kitri who opened seven weeks ago in "Don Quixote" is now a complete buffoon, a comedienne extraordinaire.

Ratmansky shows real talent for integrating all the elements of a production. His choreography is engaging, his musicality instinctive, and his meanings and humor multi-layered. "Le Carnaval des Animaux" is fabulous and very funny. Slated to run again next season, it is not to be missed.

The final premiere of the evening is Stanton Welch's "Tu Tu," and it certainly is too, too trop pour moi. In reality it isn't enough of anything. This meandering for three couples and a corps of sixteen through Ravel's "Concerto for Piano in G Major" is pretty pointless, despite program notes to the contrary. (I also saw it again the following week with a different cast, proving it isn't the dancers' fault.) The costumes by Holly Hynes are an enigma. The men's shorts look like striped swimming trunks and I am led to expect some beach-related activities. The women's tutus have a beautiful metallic overskirt that seems a bit art deco, but the faux exposed stomach and the halter top are unflattering. The choreography itself doesn't seem to develop in any direction or give me any impetus for serious thinking. The one high moment is Muriel Maffre doing a solo. She moves with such feeling, imbuing every gesture with such nuance that I momentarily forget that the choreography itself is actually not that good. "Tu Tu" is scheduled to be performed again next year, though I can't imagine why.

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