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Out of the Fog, 6-6: Ballet to Breakers
10 New Works in Three-Day Decathlon from America's Oldest Classical Troupe

By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2008 Aimée Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the dance world, longevity is cause for celebration. Many dance companies are born and die within a short period of time because of a number of factors. Companies are often started by a single choreographer and succumb to lack of funding or the retirement/death of the founder. Ensuring the long-term survival of the work itself is also more difficult than in other realms. Unlike a painting that can hang on the wall of a museum for centuries, dance productions must be constantly resurrected and every single performance brought to life on the stage by ever-changing casts of dancers. That takes a lot of work and a lot of money. So San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary is an opportunity to acknowledge a feat of honorable proportions. Not many people remember when the company nearly went bankrupt in the mid-1970s, more than 30 years ago. I still recall the dancers in tutus panhandling in Union Square for the "Save Our Ballet" campaign. It is sobering to reflect on this company's history and acknowledge the thousands of people on both sides of the footlights, from the dancers to the standing-room balletomanes, from the costume seamstresses to the generous donors in the boxes who have kept it alive all these years.

San Francisco Ballet's 75th season went all out, with five programs of repertory works, one program of performances by three visiting ballet companies, display cases of artifacts and memorabilia in the lobby, lectures, a historical exhibit of stage design at the Museum of Performance and Design (formerly the Performing Arts Library and Museum), symposia on the future of classical ballet, and a reunion of former company dancers. The season culminated in the New Works Festival, a three-day marathon of ten new ballets by ten choreographers, eight of whom have worked with the company regularly over the past two decades.

On Tuesday, April 22 the War Memorial Opera House is aglitter with evening gowns, more in line with a season-opening gala than a program of new work. On Program A, the first out of the wings is Yuri Possokhov's "Fusion," created to different musical compositions by Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman. Four men in dervish costumes sit in a square left of center under Benjamin Pierce's row of hanging gauzy rectangles, which span the width of the stage. They thrust their torsos forward and backward, side to side. They kneel and fall to the floor before rising to circle the stage, their movements suffused with an Eastern flavor. Four couples dressed in modern unitards in shades of blue and gray gradually join and replace the first four men. Their dancing is in a different vein -- modern ballet with a jazzy touch that reflects Fitkin's music, which is also very different from the Burman composition which opened the work. In the end the four modern men sit in a square recapitulating the opening sequence of movements by the dervishes. What is significant about Possokhov's choreography is that he uses both the contrasting styles and the gradual adaptation/appropriation of the first style by the second group of dancers to communicate an idea. This is not just an arbitrary juxtaposition of steps and styles. The evolution of Possokhov's movement phrases is always clear and he carves out space in a compelling way. The sense of volume is reminiscent of his 2004 "Study in Motion."

Next is Christopher Wheeldon's latest work (his fourth commission and eighth piece presented by this company), "Within the Golden Hour." The entire ballet certainly has its moments, but the real strength lies in several of the pas de deux. If he were an opera composer he would be writing glorious love duets set against overly busy ensemble singing that often fails to further any narrative or even frame the duet. Perhaps I am distracted by Martin Pakledinaz's eclectic and fussy costumes or the rather predictable music from Ezio Bosso, but Wheeldon also doesn't have much new to say, no matter how well the dancers articulate the choreography.

Wheeldon is often touted as one of the next great choreographers. He is a solid craftsman and he turns out ballets that are pleasing for the most part, but at this point in time, I'm still waiting for work that leaves me deeply moved or has me floating breathlessly out of the theater. As a panelist at the symposium earlier in the afternoon, discussing the use of technology in his piece "Electric Counterpoint," he confessed that sometimes he just wanted to be in the studio with a beautiful piece of music and the dancers. I hope that as a choreographer he gives the process a bit more reflection in lieu of simply trusting the inspiration of the moment. Given that Wheeldon has created 44 ballets in the past 11 years, some time off might allow him to rejuvenate and indulge in some artistic exploration without the pressure of an upcoming opening night.

The program closed with Paul Taylor's "Changes," set to music by John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, and John Hartford, sung by the Mamas and the Papas. This piece attempts to do for the '60s What Taylor's "Company B" did for the '40s. Nothing innovative here. And unlike "Company B," with its chilling subtext of young men fighting in World War II, made even darker in contrast to the singing of the Andrews Sisters that accompanies it, "Changes" fails to show anything of the political unrest and opposition to the Vietnam War that so powerfully shaped those times. Perhaps the section in which one dancer pushes the first person in a row of other dancers, causing each to fall back on top of the next one, is an oblique reference to the Domino Theory that dictated foreign policy in Southeast Asia at the time. "Changes" successfully captures the psychedelic swirl of individual and sexual freedom of those times, but unlike "HAIR," the tribal rock musical that was created in 1968, it does not address the entire socio-political-cultural landscape of the era. The dancers, however, are exuberant and turn a tired period piece into nostalgic fun.

The next night proves to be brutally long, with four ballets on Program B. Stanton Welch's fourth effort for SFB, "Naked," is aptly named as it leaves the dancers completely exposed while they work hard to meet the tough demands of this very classical piece. The five couples do succeed, fortunately, but I find this piece less innovative than Welch's "Tutu" from a few seasons back.

Julia Adam's "A rose by any other name" recalls more Gertrude Stein's famous line "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" than any Shakespearean idea. Though some might debate whether both mean the same thing, I am not speaking literally, but stylistically. Adam's ballet is her own interpretation of the "Sleeping Beauty" story. The missteps along the way that derail the realization of her vision include the choice of music, Bach's "Goldberg Variations" -- which, in the past two years, I've heard accompanying Jerome Robbins's ballet of the same name, Ohad Naharin's "Three" and Brenda Way's "Investigating Grace." Ironically, Matthew Naughtin and Martin West's orchestration takes the edge off the music at the same time Adam is trying to put the edge on the movement. The shapes she creates are flattened into two dimensions a la Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun," or like an Egyptian frieze. The loss of one dimension reduces the ability of the dancers to move freely in space. They appear a bit awkward and the flow of movement is greatly inhibited. No matter how much I appreciate the ideas behind this work, the very well thought out conceit doesn't become clear until the very end of the ballet, by which time it is too late.

Elana Altman and Aaron Orza in James Kudelka's "The Ruins Proclaim the Building was Beautiful." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

"The Ruins Proclaim the Building was Beautiful" is by James Kudelka, another repeat choreographer with a few ballets for SFB under his belt. It has both shortcomings and strengths. The costumes and lighting evoke the ambiance of a Leonor Fini painting, hazy decadence with a feminine touch. (Fini also, incidentally, illustrated Pauline Reage's "The Story of O," which resonates a tiny bit with the less than gentlemanly treatment of the women in this ballet.) The music, a commissioned orchestration by Rodney Sharman of several pieces by Cesar Franck, including his devastatingly evocative Prelude, Fugue and Variation for Organ, Opus 18, gives a diluted version of what was once more potent. The choreography, often intriguing in its asymmetry, is also so repetitive that it becomes totally hypnotic, to the point that you surrender to it. The one stroke of genius is Kudelka's ability to sustain the mesmerizing atmosphere for the entire 32-minute ballet.

The evening wraps up with Mark Morris's "Joyride," which is quite servicable but not up to par with the best of his ballets. Morris works extensively with SFB, having choreographed five shorter pieces and the evening-length "Sylvia" on the company since 1994. John Adams's score provides driving rhythms that the dancers can push against and Isaac Mizrahi's costumes in various metallic shades keep us in today's high-tech landscape, though the flashing LED numbers on each chest are very annoying.

Program C Thursday completes the festival and three days of choreographic premieres. Margaret Jenkins has had her own modern dance company in this city for more than 30 years, so this commission is a welcome stretch for everyone involved to cross-dance, so to speak. What a pity the resulting ballet lacks focus and direction. "Thread," based on the myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth at Knossos on Crete, seems to have gotten lost in the maze. The video projections onto the set in front of the back scrim and the taped voices reciting Michael Palmer's poetry only contribute to a feeling that we are watching a piece from the 1970s. The cerebral choreography is disjunct; the sequences of steps lack kinesthetic logic, though the dancers do an excellent job of shaping phrases as best they can. The closing words are, "Say nothing twice and twice again." I couldn't have put it better.

Dana Genshaft in Val Caniparoli's "Ibsen's House." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Val Caniparoli is a dancemaker of the exact opposite persuasion. All his sentences flow and swirl from an intuitive sense of movement. He sweeps us away physically and often emotionally with his choreography. On this occasion, the audience responds to his "Ibsen's House" like parched Beduins at an oasis. While the actual choreography is extremely well-crafted, the overall concept of the ballet is not. Just one of Ibsen's heroines is enough to fill an entire evening-length ballet. Having five complex women shortchanges them all. There is no time to reveal depth of character or show the emotional complexities of each woman's life, let alone compare their unique circumstances. Many of the individual character traits are reduced to gestures, which gradually lose their power with repetition. With one exception, the women interpret their roles too emotionally. After all, this is the Victorian era in a Scandinavian country, or repression times two if not three. Only Dana Genshaft, as Mrs. Alving from "Ghosts," uses the requisite restraint to great effect. She shapes every movement. Every "word" has intention and hints at more than what appears on the surface.

Like Jenkins, Jorma Elo, Boston Ballet's resident choreographer, has never worked with SFB before and his "Double Evil" provides little new terrain for the dancers. The choreography belongs to the William Forsythe school of quirky neo-classicism and does show just how technically grounded these dancers are. It also points up their ability to add a new flavor at the whim of the choreographer. The first time I see the piece, the twists are so overwrought that they detract from the excellent contrasts in movement texture of classical steps gone awry. The second time around, the dancers tone down the quirks and establish better rapport with each other, with much more satisfying results.

Pauli Magierek in Margaret Jenkins's "Thread." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

In the end, the dancers are the real stars of the New Works Festival. They are versatile, moving through the gamut of styles with aplomb, giving their best even when the choreography lets them down. That is what makes SFB an excellent company, from the corps de ballet to the principal dancers. Some of the dancers who normally don't get as much exposure as those who seem to be overworked (not to the detriment of their performances, but possibly their bodies) deserve to be mentioned. Pauli Magierek, who dances everything from Taylor and Jenkins modern to Elo's neo-classical with a strong stage presence, transforms herself with each new role. Both Elana Altman and Dana Genshaft are simultaneously letting go and digging deeper. They now display an abandon, a willingness to not care about technique which, in fact, actually helps them to be completely secure in it. And with that freedom they are now exploring the emotional sides of their roles. (A week after these performances concluded, I saw Dana Genshaft in class and learned that both she and Magierek had been promoted to soloist rank.)

This New Works Festival is somewhat akin to a 75th birthday party for a favorite uncle. The guests are long-time friends for the most part, telling the same stories with slight variations. All laugh politely, and nod their heads with satisfaction. No one wants to rock the boat, or ruffle the congenial ambiance of such a memorable gathering. Unlike in "Sleeping Beauty," the powers that be remembered to invite Carabosse. She is happily circulating, chatting with everyone, and the story ends with no threats of revenge and death and no ensuing drama. A drunken guest provoking a fight might have been a welcome diversion.

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