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Review, 7-6: The Ninth Wonder
SF Ballet Elevates New Taylor, Lubovitch, & Wheeldon
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
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.
Ballet's Kristin Long and Pascal Molat in Paul Taylor's new
"Spring Rounds." Photo © Erik Tomasson and courtesy
San Francisco Ballet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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