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Flash Review, 7-6: The Ninth Wonder
SF Ballet Elevates New Taylor, Lubovitch, & Wheeldon

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

Photo Copyright Erik Tomasson

PARIS -- My DI colleague, friend, and first teacher in ballet (criticism), Aimee Ts'ao, once explained to me -- probably in response to a very green PBI gushing about what was probably a very bad Helgi Tomasson work, on Tomasson's San Francisco Ballet -- the following: Great dancers can make a good dance look great, a so-so dance look good, and a bad dance halfway decent. At last night's windy, intermittently rainy opening of the brand new Summers of the Dance in the bucolic gardens of the toney 18th-century Hotels Rohan-Soubise (the dancers were somewhat sheltered; the spectators were not), Tomasson's vivacious company -- perhaps the best in the world, certainly the most well-rounded -- made very good, uneven, and bad premieres from, respectively, Paul Taylor, Christopher Wheeldon, and Lar Lubovitch look, in order, fantastic, intermittently good, and occasionally decent.

Let's start with the Wheeldon, "Quaternary," where I have to quote Aimee (not to mention Peggy Lee) again (Aimee was talking about Momix) and ask -- about the choreographer, not the stellar dancers -- "Is that all there is?" In another era, the competent but uninspired Wheeldon would be, at best, busy creating work for third-tier companies who can't yet afford the major choreographic talents. Yet today, judging by his commissions with major companies like SFB and New York City Ballet, this Double-A (that's baseballese for mid-level minor league) dancemaker is fielded with Balanchine and Robbins, when there's just no way he's on the same level, at least based on what I've seen. I know, I know, he's 'musical,' but really -- this is a minimum and not a plateau; shouldn't a choreographer be at least musical? True talent involves more than mere facility. Being a gifted choreographer doesn't mean just being able to set dance to music, it means being able to express the music in new ways, thus revealing both it and the Dance, as did Balanchine on a geometric, imagistic plane, and Robbins on an emotional, theatrical one. I did not see one original use of body or landscape last night in Wheeldon's "Quaternary." What images endure on the retina this morning are inspired by the dancers, not the dance.

And what dancers! It was the eternal Tina LeBlanc, seen in the title role of John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet" with the Joffrey Ballet at San Francisco's War Memorial House, who first turned me on to the power of Ballet. I've been long overdue for a refresher course, and LeBlanc gave it to me last night in the appropriately named 'Spring' section of "Quaternary." The familiar Bach music -- Wheeldon also used John Cage, Arvo Part, and (clearly out of his league) Steven Mackey -- could only have kicked in with a dipping arm from LeBlanc. It's not sufficient to say she inhabits the music -- she always seems to be it's genie. Talk about musicality; watching LeBlanc, one feels one is watching the inner engine of the music. (You should see her in Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena." Actually, we should be seeing her and SF Ballet in Val Caniparoli's "Lambarena," a sure-fire French hit.) If anything's evolved in her performance, it's not so much her talents as her choreographers' growing awareness and exploitation of their vastness. In Wheeldon's case, her fleet yet precise articulation of every body part was on display. No matter how much she's asked to do in how little time, LeBlanc is not a dancer who blurs edges. And she is always light -- the singular quality of her many that places her in the tradition of pure ballerinas dating back to Taglioni.

So what Wheeldon came up with for LeBlanc is fine but really, how could a work danced by Tina LeBlanc that meets the minimum qualifications NOT look great? How could a duet that highlights (in the somber lighting of Jennifer Tipton, who illuminated the entire evening) the goddess known as Muriel Maffre and the demi-god known as Yuri Possokhov fail? Really, it was sufficient for Wheeldon to place the needle on his favorite Arvo Part (can we have a moratorium?) recording, dim the lights, strip off Possokhov's shirt, place the long-legged Maffre in Jean Marc Puissant's slit-at-the-waist white evening gown -- whirled about dramatically by the evening's natural San Francisco-style wind -- and sit back and watch this pair mesmerize us. It's always thrilling to behold Maffre wending those eloquent legs around, through, and towering above her partner, even moreso when it's someone like Possokhov, whose response is so expressive -- but stripped of the magnetism of the dancers, the choreography itself was more gymnastics than dance.

Wheeldon knows how to exploit the talents of his dancers. But if all he's doing is giving them a physical forum to do what they do best, is he really engaging them? Is he really challenging them (or us) with his cloistered ballet dancer's hackneyed conception of 'contemporary' choreography? These dancers -- from the corps to the principals -- may be the most versatile in ballet, at least in the United States. The press quotes in the PR of the last few years is anxious to place the company on the level of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre but such boasting reveals an unwarranted insecurity. As a whole, these dancers are more alive than either New York company (at least, the last time I saw them), and they can do more things. (Tomasson gets some of the credit for providing them with one of American ballet's most diverse repertoires, at the same time that he pushes them on a technical level; my ballet dancer companion of last night was most impressed by their footwork, although she put it better than that.) Wheeldon doesn't realize this capacity. And I think his so-called musicality is over-rated; each choice -- for example, machinistic choreography to John Cage -- was the tonally obvious one. (Also elevating the 'Spring' section to the work's best were Lorena Feijoo, Joan Boada, and Nicolas Blanc.)

For Lubovitch's "Elemental Brubeck," set to some elemental Dave Brubeck tunes in recordings by the Brubeck Quartet, the dancers had a tougher field to hoe. If the selection of Brubeck -- the emblematic figure in West Coast Jazz -- was inspired, the choreography, the first Lubovitch has created expressly for this company, was not. He seems to have culled every bad jazz/jazz dance cliche in the book and stuffed them into this dance and onto these dancers. Pointed fingers, diabolocally curved preying hands, clapping circle -- even an opening swivel-hipped faux jazzy solo for Gonzalo Garcia that makes one think of bad (David) Parsons -- this dance has all this bad jazz. Stephen Legate is, as ever, a tender partner, this time out for Katita Waldo, but only the dreamy '50s bobby-soxer throwback Elizabeth Miner, solidly and warmly partnered by Rory Hohenstein, is able to push this dance beyond the boundaries of it's third-hand choreography, in an arrested-movement, '50s-like sequence where three couples get lost in a jazz trance to a symphonic Brubeck composition.

Of course, Lubovitch himself had a tough field to hoe following Paul Taylor's new "Spring Rounds," the program-opener and PT's first work created for SF Ballet. (Taylor -- wisely -- doesn't create 'on' other companies, even when commissioned, but makes the work on his own company first. In this case -- if I'm reading the program notes right -- veteran Taylor interpreter Patrick Corbin set the work on SFB.) If you've seen this company's breathtaking yet nuanced interpretation of Taylor's "Company B," you know these artists not only rival Taylor's own company but occasionally surpass it in the depth they bring to his works. With "Spring Rounds" they had another surprise in store for us. Perhaps simplistically -- yet not alone among dance insiders -- I classify Taylor's oeuvre into "Dark Paul" (maybe "Ominous Paul" is more accurate) and "Happy Paul." I much prefer the former. Some of the older Happy Paul dances can't help but triumph because of their, well, musicality, but theme-wise, I usually want to ask the dancers to wipe those silly grins off their faces; I don't buy it.
San Francisco Ballet's Kristin Long and Pascal Molat in Paul Taylor's new "Spring Rounds." Photo © Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Perhaps because the SFB dancers have more ballon than most of PT's own performers did the last time I saw them (there will always be a Lisa Viola) and, well, are ballet dancers, they don't rely on their faces alone to express Happy Paul, but do it with their physical verve, speed and, yes, musical timing. (Santo Loquasto's Springy green, back-revealing costumes also helped.) So you don't just buy the youthfully optimistic good cheer -- you're swept up in it. The dancers were hard-pressed last night; cheapo SF Ballet had them performing to taped music which, being that of Richard Strauss, told at times. (With taped music, among other things if you lose even a nano-second of a beat you're playing catch-up for the rest of the dance.)

The revelation -- for me, anyway, having not seen this company since 2000 -- was Kristin Long. Aimee, who has monitored Long's progress more closely than I have in recent years, put it better than I can, Flashing her performance in Balanchine's "Ballo della Regina" in a 2003 review: "For me, Long had always been a soubrette dancer, very spirited and charming. Now a new dimension is emerging, as she has developed a more elegant and serene side, a feeling of length and breadth that dancers of smaller stature almost never achieve. She still has that crisp attack when she needs it, but she has also found a regality, a quiet authority."

In terms of surrendering herself to the music, Long approached the rarified terrain of LeBlanc and NYCB's Wendy Whelan last night. Performing Taylor's central duet opposite Pascal Molat, she found her own Elysian fields. The best dancers sometimes have a way of addressing or regarding the stage floor as sacred ground, and even though they close their eyes when they do this, you don't mind because they're not cutting you off but taking you with them to a special place, revealed to them on the inside of their closed eyelids and to you by their enchantment. Long took these journeys sparely -- her eyes weren't always closed, I mean -- but when she did she almost seemed to forget physical limitations and gravitational awareness. My favorite moment came when Molat lifted her and she bent her knees easily as she clung lightly on his side, head inclined towards his shoulder -- a position that might seem strained but in which she floated. But the most admirable thing about this 'new' (to me) Long is that she hasn't tossed out the soubrette with the bath water. She called that quality into use too when needed, particularly with an energizing entrance at the work's beginning.

You know -- he said, tears welling up -- I have to tell you that it's been a long, long time since I was this inspired at the ballet. (Paris offers some fine dancers too, but these days they're usually hobbled by their director's choice of nihilistic choreography, to the detriment of the classical and Romantic canons.) Notwithstanding the mixed quality of the repertoire presented, this company -- as it did the first time I saw it (not counting a "Nutcracker" seen when I was but a scrub) -- still sweeps me away. I don't think I'm alone in this. The open-air audience -- the dancers were somewhat protected under a canopied stage -- withstood intermittent showers and a lot of wind (SFB seems to have brought the wintry San Francisco summer weather with it) with nary an umbrella raised, and I don't think it was just because they'd already paid for their tickets. They were swept away too, and not by the wind.

San Francisco Ballet's Paris run continues through July 23, with this program repeating July 13, 15, and 16. Catch LeBlanc again tomorrow in Balanchine's "Square Dance," on a program with his "Who Cares?" and Tomasson's "Concerto Grosso" and "7 for Eight."

Props Department: A special tip of the Dance Insider Paris beret to SFB company manager Robert Russo for a timely rescue from the inept clutches of a local French publicist. And special props to SF Ballet brass for having the foresight to hire their own publicist for this engagement out of London, the five-star Debra Boraston. If you're looking for a conscientious rep. for your company's next European gig, contact Debra at debra@henrymoorestudio.co.uk.

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