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Letter from New York, 11-20: West Coast Swing
Dances Across the Spectrum from SF Ballet

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr

(Editor's Note: For more on some of the works reviewed here, see also this piece by Harris Green and this from Aimée Ts’ao.)

NEW YORK -- The San Francisco Ballet returned for an all-too-brief nine-day run with three programs of repertoire. The company is one of America's oldest -- it's 75 -- and best. Program B, seen on October 11, showed the dancers' mastery of classic style with a strong Balanchine influence; artistic director Helgi Tomasson is a distinguished NY City Ballet alumnus.

The first two ballets are both by Tomasson. "The Fifth Season" -- a reference, perhaps, to San Francisco's anomalous weather -- is set to the seductive melodies and luscious harmonies of British composer Karl Jenkins's "Quartet No.2" and "Palladio." The piece -- a nice opener -- is a well-crafted assemblage of classic ballet vocabulary, neatly organized into six sections.

There's no startling invention here, but the dance's lyricism showcases the cohesive style of the company's lithe, attractive dancers. Dashing Davit Karapetyan lends powerful presence and strong partnering to slightly brittle company veteran Katita Waldo, leading four couples in the bright opening and in the subsequent "Romance" pas de deux.

Rachel Viselli is a pert foil for Karapetyan, Reuben Martin, and Damian Smith in the "Tango," and Smith joins beautifully fluid Yuan Yuan Tan for the ravishing "Largo," the heart of the ballet, in which the partners find emotional union, twining through the gracefully articulated continuity of the plangent choreography.

Next, Tomasson's "Concerto Grosso" uses the familiar strains of Francesco Geminiani's Baroque Concerto XII in D minor for a brisk exposition of grand allegro -- leaping, jumping, and spinning -- for five men. Led by Pascal Molat in red tights and tank by Sandra Woodall, Diego Cruz, Daniel Deivison, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto pile on the virtuosity, each new passage outshining the last. They're also expert in adagio movement, pulling off slow side extensions and arabesque promenades in unison, and they end with one perfectly synchronized air turn.

San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris's "Joyride." Photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Mark Morris has worked with the San Francisco Ballet often, and his new "Joyride" is another perfect match. Set to John Adams's roiling "Son of Chamber Symphony" and costumed in sleek gold and silver lame by Morris's go-to costume designer, Isaac Mizrahi, the ballet depicts a futuristic clan. Digital LED random number generators blink from the dancers' bellies like ID tags.

What distinguishes Morris's approach from those of so many choreographers drawn to minimalist music is his attention to the harmonic and dynamic details of the music, not just its overall texture. His interweaving of movement themes parallels that of the music. A motif of two forward-pitched arabesques and two piques to the side recurs in endless spatial variations. Arms stretch on an upward diagonal like tree branches or shoot out straight and end in a flexed hand, rising one over the other like the itsy bitsy spider of the childhood rhyme.

Each of the four couples begins its duet in a wide second position, which curves to one side and rises into a parallel front attitude. Then, each duet veers off on its own journey. The couples' relationships are purely physical but open to our emotional interpretation, if we're so inclined.  In the final movement, the dancers resemble avatars from some computerized civilization like Second Life, chirping a highly organized kinetic chatter. But Morris doesn't squander their energy trying to top the music. Instead, he uses its dense texture to support a reinforcement of the cyborg nature of his stiff-limbed bots. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls modulates the light and shade with deft articulation.

Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" closes the program. Created in 1946 by the master to a score by Paul Hindemith, the movement innovations are still startlingly original. Elyse Borne staged this production. Not only did the dancing zing with dynamic subtlety but the emotions were startlingly vivid.  With his hyper-flexible spine, waif-like Taras Domitro throws himself into the deep arches of the Melancholic variation. Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets dance a cheerful Sanguinic. Sultry, French-born Pierre-Francois Vilanoba twines, hand in hand, with four women in Phlegmatic. And Sofiane Sylve, the most artistically mature of the women, gives Choleric a sensuous petulance.

Program C, seen on October 17, features three New York premieres of ballets which had their world premieres in San Francisco earlier this year. Their contrasting styles attest to the dancers' versatility, although there's certainly not a masterpiece among them.

Tomasson's "On a Theme of Paganini" is another of his tidy packages of academic ballet steps, craftily arranged to show off the skills of his dancers. It opens on a symmetrical picture of the forces involved: two female and three male principals, in front of three solo couples, flanked by a corps of six women on one side and six men on the other.

To Sergei Rachmainov's familiar "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" Op. 43, Tomasson arranges the steps for Vanessa Zahorian -- a lovely, sharp, allegro ballerina -- and her two partners, Joan Boada and Molat, who take turns lifting, supporting, and tossing her between them; Helimets and Tan, after each dancing a solo variation, backed by the six corps women, join for a romantic episode.  Bursts of big jumping by the male corps or petite allegro passages by the women divide the sections. Each of the three main couples does a brief pas de deux, and it's all tied up neatly in a full company finale that culminates with a wittily understated flick of 22 wrists on Paganini's last, staccato note. Piano soloist Roy Bogas does his usual superb job, and conductor Martin West gets the most out of the orchestra.

Val Caniparoli uses five of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's heroines as the focus of his "Ibsen's House." There's a strong tone of feminism -- take-charge independence -- in all these women. Each ballerina has a signature gesture to distinguish her, and the textures of their solos are somewhat distinct. But ultimately, their individual identities and the details of their lives are unimportant. The women represent prototypes but don't engage our sympathy for their emotional dilemmas.

Hedda Gabler (Lorena Feijoo), Nora Helmer from "A Doll's House" (Sylve), "Ghosts" heroine Helene Alving (Waldo), Ellida Wangel, the "Lady from the Sea" (Courtney Elizabeth), and "Rosmersholm" heroine Rebecca West (Nicole Grand) do overlapping solos to introduce themselves. The set -- a dramatic white French door upstage right revealed by a swooping black curtain -- and beautiful dresses, both by Sandra Woodall, do more to distinguish the characters than the movement.

The men in their lives -- Hedda's George Tesman (David Arce), Nora's Husband Torvald Helmer (Helimets), Mrs. Alving's syphallitic son Oswald (Karapetyan), Wangel's mysterious lover, The Stranger (Villanoba), and West's husband, John Rohmer (Anthony Spaulding) -- add nothing to elucidating the plots but serve as functional supports for their partners in five pas de deux.

The choreographer tries to mitigate the predictability of five solos and five duets by inserting interludes along the way, but it's daunting to sustain a character study like this for 38 minutes without some actual plot. Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81 provides stolid accompaniment. The dancers relish the chance to chew the scenery, showing off considerable dramatic chops, but we tune out before the end.

Popular Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo departed from his usual formula when he made his successful "C to C: Close to Chuck" last season, which premiered on American Ballet Theatre's City Center run. It was restrained in its pyrotechnics and turned out to be dramatically evocative. His "Double Evil" for San Francisco reverts to his natural habit of cramming as much stretchy neoclassic motion as he can into time and space.

Here, he pokes fun at conventional ballet style with crotch-splaying lifts of women in stiff tutus. Alternating musical passages by contemporary neoclassical Russian composer Vladimir Martinov and postmodern minimalism by Philip Glass, Elo sends up the classical canon by stirring jazzy torso ripples, head bobs, and even break dance moves into his contemporary ballet lexicon.

A ballerina kicks her partner's leg into a grand ronde de jamb; later he drops and skidders backwards in a pushup position. Whether Elo is attempting to shock us with the forced eccentricity or genuinely trying to stretch the style, he's trying too hard. The apparent parody comes off as a little disrespectful to the art form that's been pretty good to him.

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