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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Wheeldon's Rush: Fresh and Familiar

Rush, Grosse Fugue, and Valses Poeticos, imaginal disk
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco,  California
February 24 , 2004

by Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 1 March 2004

Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush, the center piece of San Francisco Ballet’s third program surprised with its freshness and conventionality.

If you live in a Northern climate, you will understand the contradiction. There are days in late March or early April when Spring is just around the corner. The air has a blustery quality to it and feels fresh; breezes are almost, but not quite balmy. It’s an experience you go through year after year, and yet the experience is new every time. That’s how Rush felt.

Wheeldon chose for his third SFB commission a lovely little score by Bohuslav Martinu, the Sinfonietta La Jolla for Chamber Orchestra and Piano. Even though written relatively late in the composer’s life, it had a vernal quality about it which no doubt contributed to Rush’s atmosphere.

The piece embraces classical hierarchy: five couples form the corps who support and frame the two principals (Julie Diana and Damian Smith) and the soloists (Tina LeBlanc with Nicolas Blanc and Vanessa Zahorian with Pascal Molat). At the end they all rush forward with Diana and Smith at the center of a surging phalanx of beauty. Symmetry pre-dominates: opposing lines, double diagonals that reverse direction, women against men, lifts in canons and staggered entrances. Some of it felt inspired by the Prologue in one of those Sleeping Beauty productions in which not only are the fairies accompanied by cavaliers but Lilac has a retinue of attendants, both male and female. It’s all very orderly but also packed with activity.

Wheeldon may love Papa Petipa but he is also a son of Balanchine. Rush splatters and explodes symmetry and order. The choreography plays with off-kilter balances and segments the upper body and the arms. There is a robust quality to these dancers, in part emphasized by the strong colors in both costumes (Jon Morrell) and lighting design (Mark Stanley). The choreography has a wind swept, pushing ahead quality to it. But the title seems wrong. It didn’t look rushed. There was no urgency, it just looked fast and a little jerky. Like pressing the fast forward button on the VCR.

Casting the two new French dancers, Blanc and Molat, with their impeccable sense of style, with two of SFB’s fine women classicists, LeBlanc and Zahorian, was inspired.

As it behooves a neo-classical work, Rush’s center piece is the pas deux. It is elegant, elegiac and dark, just like the black costumes of its protagonists. It’s a partnership in which the man sets the woman soaring but also where he turns her from an arabesque penchée into an upside down lift where she rests as if this was where she belonged. At another point Smith slides Diana on point and spirals her around him with her legs violently swinging.

Towards Rush’s conclusion, the lights darken. Smith walks Diana backward, his hands cupping her eyes, when the corps couples gush in, all knotted up and gnarly. But as they head across the stage, their intertwinings open up, and the men end up by leading the women out by their fingertips. By the time, Smith removes his hands, the corps, like a bad dream, has evaporated. Diana leans over, cups his head, and he sinks to the ground as she disappears into the wings. As lovely an image as you would ever want to see from two dancers who are working on what may become an important partnership.

The other (SFB) premiere introduced Hans van Manen’s 1971 Grosse Fuge, a work for eight dancers which has become just about a staple in European ballet companies from Naples to Munich. It’s easy to see why. You can’t missed its intent. Grosse Fuge is about as subtle as a tank. The choreography is extremely simple, mostly blocky unison though, to give van Manen credit, the duets invest the dancers with a modicum of individuality. Some of the steps show traces of Spanish dancing. At one point Lorena Fejoo, head lowered, looked as if she were in an arena. And not as the matador.

The topless men wear the long black skirt-pants of Ninja soldiers. At one point, in a side to side step, they lift them daintily. Later they strip to black belted underwear. The belts we should be grateful for—more about that later. The women are in skin-colored bathing suits, They also move in unisons. Starting up stage they surge--sort of—with raised fists that open up into Flamenco-tinged arms and steps. Of course, there is a confrontation between the black clad men and the white suited women. That’s where the belts come in.

When the women don’t tunnel under the supine men, the men do it to the women. After the women have buried their faces—just for a moment, we don’t want to be crude, this is ballet after all-- in the men’s crotches, they hang on for dear life to these belts, and the male of the species drags the female cross the stage again and again. Fortunately, the belts were strong. Who knows what otherwise could have happened.

One also wonders why van Manen felt obliged to use a string orchestra version of Beethoven’s Op. 133 and the Cavatina from the String Quartet No. 13. If you have ever heard Op. 133, this felt like enhancing a very forceful statement with layers upon layers of forced impact. Beethoven may not be the best composer to choreograph. But as long as van Manen chose him, he should have trusted him. Beethoven knew what he was doing.

For a pop piece like this to work, you need brashness and absolute certainty of conviction. These dancers didn’t have it. Maybe it was the slippers. If van Manen at least had put the women on pointe, they might have been able to invest their steps with some of the force and power that the blocked shoe is capable of putting across.

Helgi Tomasson stated in the program notes that he wants SFB audiences to see work not often performed on American stages. Good idea. But now that we have seen Grosse Fuge, let’s, please, send it back.

Tina LeBlanc, who gave a brilliant and inspiring performance as Kitri a few weeks ago, was paired with Joan Boada in Tomasson’s 1990 Valses Poeticos. It’s a piece which I initially couldn’t relate to. I remember thinking that these Enrique Granados’ piano pieces were just to simplistically pleasing, and that the choreography matched them only too well. I have since come to appreciate the individuality of these seven little jewels; they flow so beautifully from each other. Granados’ pianism—exquisitely realized by company pianist Michael McGraw—and his flair for melody have quite captured me.

LeBlanc, whose technique is still pure (though one wonders for how much longer), invested the waltzes with a wonderful lyricism in which developpés felt like exhalations and bourrées like stitches in a piece of precious fabric. More than anything else LeBlanc moved inside the score. Boada was a fair enough partner though his boyishness has a self-involved quality about it. Also he can be very heavy in his descents.

Opening the program was Julia Adam’s lovely imaginal disk, choreographed last year for long-time soloist Leslie Young. On second viewing, the piece still strikes with the purity of its clearly articulated vocabulary and the imaginative, even striking imagery. There is an attractive and perky quality to these formal encounters. It is a place where in line and circle formations a dancer can shoot up as if released from snapped open springs and the next moment plop to the ground like a baby that hasn’t quite found its feet.

The initial momentum doesn’t quite carry through to the end, and the use of the white curtain as a separating and cocooning device looked more problematic than it did last year.

First:  Julie Diana and Damian Smith in Wheeldon's Rush; photo: Andrea Flores
Second:  Van Manen's Grosse Fuge; photo:Andrea Flores
Third:  Adam's imaginal disc (courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
1 March 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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