writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Big Time Dance Kicks In

Limón Company
Cowell Theater
San Francisco Ballet Opening Gala
War Memorial Opera House
Dance Theatre of Harlem

U.C. Berkeley
January 2004

by Paul Parish
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish
published 2  February 2004

After a long hiatus, big-time dance kicked back in this week in the Bay Area. Dance Theater of Harlem opened a week's worth of performances on the U.C. campus in Berkeley;, San Francisco Ballet opened its winter season at the Opera House with a gala that spilled over into City Hall across the street; and the Limón Company danced nobly, to a very appreciative audience, in a one-night stand at the Cowell Theater, and set a standard of dance intelligence nobody else met all week.

Nothing else all week, except Concerto Barocco (of which more below) matched the dignity, passion, formal beauty, and rhythmic acuity of Limón 's The Unsung, which I had never seen before and found completely thrilling. The ballet is a paean in honor of the great warrior chiefs Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Metacomet, Tecumseh, Red Eagle, Black Hawk, Osceola, and Pontiac, danced in silence by six men who have each a variation interrupted by appearances of the corps, (I recognized many of the shapes Michael Smuin used in his Song for Dead Warriors, which of course he must have taken from Limón).

The company has an official second residence in San Jose, and performs here a couple of times a year. It would be wonderful to see them truly established here. The current group looks young—new faces, new bodies—but they all danced with great conviction and commitment. Their names are Roel Seeber, Charles Scott, Francisco Ruvalcaba, Raphael Boumaila, Robert Regala, Jonathan Riedel. Ruvalcaba's variation was particularly razor-edged.

Also on he program were Donald MacKayle's flamencoesque Angelitos Negros, a solo danced heroically by Roxane d'Orleans Juste (in a fabulous costume by Lea Vivante), and two thoughtful essays in Limón style: Phantasy Quintet, by the recent Juilliard graduate Adam Hougland (featuring Brenna Monroe-Cook, a very musical dancer, who had with a wonderful way of moving altogether when she moved at all), and company-director Carla Maxwell's highly successful recreation of Limon's "Psalm." The latter is not on the order of "The Unsung," but it's a dance for dark times, and it gave me some comfort.

The very next night came a gala that lacked fizz. Nobody expects to have to think very hard at a gala, but it did puzzle me why San Francisco Ballet's actual performance wasn't more fun. The idea of a gala is to present a lot of superlative dancing, in bits suited to the royal attention span, in a party atmosphere. And they did all this—indeed the party afterward was great, I had so much fun I missed my train back to the East Bay and had to spend everything in my wallet to get a cab back to the BART station where we'd left the car—but the programming of the ballets seemed driven by the concerns of a grant application, not the desire to put together a show that would just overwhelm us with delight.

There was something for each of the ballerinas, a nod to Mr. B, a section of Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet that got such raves at the Edinburgh Festival, and in tough financial times they saved on performance fees by showing a lot of in-house choreography. All that I get —and also that rotating rep started a week later, so rehearsal time was scarcer than none. But still, why wasn't the programming geared towards fun? There were thousands of beautiful pirouettes, cabrioles and doubles and ciseaux galore, and Yuan-Yuan Tan did some of those pointe steps where the working leg flicks like a snake's tongue, which so far nobody I know has given a name to but they are certainly amazing—I guess for the moment we'll have to call them "temps de Yuan-Yuan"—and yet the overall effect was not lollapalooza. At least, not for me.

THe SFB evening began with a parade of tremendously good-looking people in absolutely smashing clothes—the audience promenade. In fact, patrons were still barely in their seats when the snare-drums hit the intro to the "Star-Spangled Banner," which has been the way the season has begun in peace and war so long as I can remember.

The curtain went up on Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, with our freshest, eagerest young principals, Vanessa Zahorian and Gonzalo Garcia. This ballet is certainly gala fare—adorable, inventive, sparkling, and full of surprises. BUT….. I could argue with tons of details in their interpretations—Garcia sacrificed turnout for power, and Zahorian attacked so far in advance of the beat her eagerness began to look like nerves, and then when she needed to speed up—on the famous accelerating exit of pique turns, the pedal was already on the floor and she couldn't. And yet they were lovely in their spirits—some of the edges were bruised, but was like looking at flowers in the rain. My friend Ariana, who'd never seen Tschai Pas before, was beside herself with delight.

And she was crazy about Tina leBlanc and Guennadi Nedviguine, who were next up in Helgi Tomasson's Two Bits, which is also sure-fire gala stuff and was the best thing Tomasson (SFB's artistic director since 1985) ever made for Evelyn Cisneros, SFB's long-reigning ballerina, who has not yet been replaced in the hearts of the audience as the most-loved dancer. LeBlanc looked 17 at most, which is probably the number you'd get if you divided her actual age by the number of her children. She was absolutely dazzling in he solo—unbelievable, immaculate, hot. It's total dance-fireworks, danced to a percussive guitar recording ("Introduction" and "Salsa Pasada" by Aaron Jay Kernis), and brought down the house.

But it's got NO depth, and indeed its supported adage begins to give you enough quarter to realize there's not as much going on as you might want, which was not the emotion you wanted to be feeling going into Chih-Lin, which is a Bolshoi-style socko-exotic-bravura ballet Tomasson made to show the men's power and feature our stunning Chinese ballerina, Yuan-Yuan Tan. She gives it all she's got, but its attempts to make something mythic happen, though I believe they are sincere, make no impact on me at all—it's just sounding brass and cymbals, signifying nothing choreographically.

And I realize I'm forgetting Tomasson's forgettable Twilight, a pseudo-adagio to a romantic piano concerto that featured virtuosi dancing many technically difficult things to tedious effect.

It was not till we got to a section of Paul Taylor's Company B—for corps dancers, featuring the very tall, winsome Brett Bauer as "Oh Johnny," that things became delightful again—and then it was intermission.

We came back in for Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations, which was (oddly enough, for a ballet many people around the world seriously dislike) one of the big hits of last year. SFB dances it great. Our corps de ballet really shines in it, they understand the peculiar plastique and the "dance while you can" atmosphere of this sweet-sour ballet quite thoroughly, and its Ragtime syncopations and its turned-in, butt-flourishing plastique evokes some of the same late Victorian raffishness that is part of the Barbary Coast heritage of San Francisco, when the city grew rich and famous. But this ballet did not meet the sense of occasion that a night that starts with "The Star Spangled Banner," in an election year, in a heavily Democratic town that has no desire at all to while away four more years of government by dark powers, requires.

Still, they danced it great—and the corps dancer James Sofranko got to repeat his act of stealing the show as the eager spunky kid who gets to dance with the rapturously besotted ballerina (Muriel Maffre) who's a yard taller.

The company looks marvelous. Maffre is now probably the audience's beloved, followed by Joan Boada, who took the beefcake award in Le Corsaire. It's not a good sign that I have to keep looking up the name of his ballerina, Kristin Long—I find myself arguing with myself about her. I simply adore the way she dances, but she seems to be losing confidence in herself, or not taking to her assignments. I want to see her as Lise, as Aurora, in Tschai Pas. Her classical dancing is so accurate, so rotated, honest, sincere, musical that a role like Medora (or whoever this Corsaire girl is) offers her too little inwardness—and the music gives her no help; there's nothing to it but "do or die." This kind of role is deep-down shallow, and maybe requires Russian or Cuban social conditions in real life, to forge the diamond-like brilliance it takes to make one of these Petipa-Gorsky roles into an artistic triumph.

Well, I'm sure she'd know what to do if she were ever to guest with Dance Theater of Harlem in Michael Smuin's St Louis Woman, which closed the DTH show in Berkeley on a boffo note. The whole evening was a success. Concerto Barocco went very well, the corps especially danced thrillingly, and the Second Violin-girl had some tremendous moments. As for the ballerina, it's such a difficult job to pace it (she's almost NEVER offstage) I gave the child full marks for carrying us through it so quietly.

I was not there on a first-cast night—indeed, Ashton's Meditation did not look good —but Smuin's looked SO good, I found myself wondering WHAT it would like with the first string, since the back bench did it so extremely well.

The most interesting thing about it for us in San Francisco, which is of course Smuin's home base, is to see what a work of his will look like without his laissez faire direction. He lets his own dancers get away with seemingly anything they want to do, whether it's appropriate or not. (SmuinBallet's recent Zorro had tremendous potential as a super-hero ballet. It was brilliantly conceived, but the ballerina who danced the ingenue made no attempt to play a circumspect convent-bred girl. Instead she filled it up with silly mannerisms and destroyed the atmosphere; nothing the superb Shannon Hurlburt could do, as the boy who idolizes Zorro and adores her, could save it.)

Smuin's invention is SO fertile and easy, the combinations are so logical, so beautifully put together, the polyglot lingo he's using is so idiomatic, that kick-ball-change fits as neatly into a phrase as temp de fleche—it all makes up in interest for the lack of real story interest. There's enough story—and as Mr. B so famously asked, "how much story you WANT?"

Arthur Mitchell is a fanatic for detail, and St Louis Woman showed NO indulgence of dancers' notions. It's beautifully disciplined popular theater, and all the details are right. In popular theater, Broadway-style, there's a particular tone-color—and maybe even a separate light-cue—for each little word in a song. The dance equivalent is to change movement quality all of a sudden, come barreling around a corner and freeze in a pose that is essence of fragile. I was particularly impressed with Kellye A. Saunders as the delicate heroine, whose gangster boyfriend (danced by Kip Sturm) ditches her for the voluptuous beauty danced by Akua Parker.

The ballet is too long, but not by much, and the roles, though shallow, are very expressive, and Smuin's invention is top-of-his-bent. The build-up of animosity between the rival men, was well handled and prepared us for a tremendous angry solo for Sturm, which had real feeling—well, the kind of "feeling;" you get in a Piaf song, is that feeling or WHAT? Whatever it is, it's larger than life, and theatrically priceless.

Ramon Thielen was astounding as Death—unbelievable amplitude in his movements, turns in grand plié, lunges ALL the way to the floor, cakewalks where he'd kick himself in the nose, and all completely appropriate. Duncan Cooper was both thrilling and charming as his rival, and Willa Kim (Smuin's favorite costumer, all the way back to The Tempest at least) outdid herself in appropriate and atmospheric costumes. For example: the way Kim used white pointe shoes and white stockings, with some brown thigh showing, on the brown legs of the corps girls, and left the legs of the ballerinas bare, established the background feeling—the hopes, fears, fragile egos, insecurities, jockeying for status and place in the community in this unstabilizable demi-monde community. These rankings drive the plot and make up so much of the social world of African-Americans, then and now. Leaving the show, I found myself pondering the "Quadroon-Ball" ballet that Arthur Mitchell kept circling back to, in remarks he made speaking to a forum at San Francisco's Performing Arts Library and Museum last week. Mitchell is of course the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, and he said he'd gotten the idea for his Creole Giselle from the interest that both Katherine Dunham and George Balanchine at different times had expressed in the idea of doing a ballet about the Quadroon Balls.

Smuin's world is not as genteel as that, not as layered, but it IS casually complex. The dancers look very comfortable in his world, familiar, grateful for the chance to do something BIG and lay the audience in the aisles—which they certainly did. The ballet has a built-in encore. The music continues through the bows (like at the end of Revelations), and after everybody in the house has jumped up and cheered, why they JUST HAPPEN to have another dance up their sleeves, and out it comes. I enjoyed myself enormously.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 5
2 February 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish




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