San Francisco Ballet

Program 5: "A Garden," "Chi-Lin," "Later," "Black Cake"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

April 2, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt

San Francisco Ballet's fifth program of the season, playing in alternating repertoire with Program 6, brought the premiere of Helgi Tomasson's striking Chi-Lin along with a better look at Mark Morris's solo for retiring principal Joanna Berman and reprises of two solid works from last year. Of the four, Chi-Lin was probably the most successful, with production values and dancing that elevated it above most of Tomasson's previous works.

Tomasson may not have set out to make a Chinese ballet when he created Chi-Lin for the formidable talents of principal Yuan Yuan Tan, but he certainly freely borrowed from sources from Chinese opera to tai chi. In that spirit, designer Sandra Woodall has created a setting for his ballet that recalls Chinese origins while not necessarily being bound by them. The corps of women sport long traditional water sleeves on their tunics, which Chinese artists use to lend emphasis to their movements. The men, looking like the Red Guard, pound across the stage wielding red flags fixed to long poles. There are banners and fireworks. It's dangerously close to looking like "Disney Does Chinese Ballet", but it's still effective and just theatrical enough to give the audience a thrill.

Chi-Lin begins with a projection, on a scrim, of spinning medallions representing the four creatures: the Chi-Lin or Unicorn, the Tortoise, the Phoenix and the Dragon. When the scrim disappears, the stage behind reveals the air of a temple interior, with a minimal pagoda crown suspended in air over projected banners. Tan, Yuri Possokhov, Damian Smith and Parrish Maynard, each representing one of the mystical animals, are seen in the dim lighting moving slowly as if suspended in mid-air. At first they are perched on pedestals, which move discreetly away as they take the stage for their introductory bits, while the other continue to move, tai-chi-like in the background.

Choreographically and conceptually Chi-Lin is a bit thin. Each of the characters has a divertissement, with a specific style and accompanying "scene", although there is no explicit story to be told here; it's more of a parade of magical animals. As the Dragon, the most powerful of the four depicted, Possokhov had some nice moments, but ultimately lacked the fullness of trenchant movement that he often displays. The design of the next scene, in which the Chi-Lin (Tan) and the Tortoise (Smith), a creature that often represents endurance and strength, execute a mysterious languid pas de deux, was absolutely exquisite wateriness. In front of a deep blue projection on the banners hanging under the temple eaves, Smith and Tan's duet was by turns meditative and inquisitive. Both were so effortlessly controlled yet fluid that it almost looked like a battle of the liquid ports de bras. Even a minor break in the flow of the choreography was covered up expertly and the Tortoise proceeded onward in his travels with the Chi-Lin looking curiously after him.

Oddly, Tomasson has given the character of the phoenix, the animal of renewal and joy, to a male dancer, and while Maynard acquitted himself well, I was stuck on the idea that the phoenix is more often thought of as a feminine creature. Maynard gave a preening and self-aware performance, although it had a less of birdlike and more of a violent feeling to it. The five corps women, who left a gracious impression, seemed to evoke flames with the swing of their sleeves.

For the dance of Chi-Lin, the symbol of compassion and luck, Tan's entrance was heralded by the advance of four corps boys with flapping flags which added to the explosive feeling of the music, even if it didn't quite make sense conceptually. Tan exploded out of the wings with boundless assurance finding the musical accents in composer Bright Sheng's idiosyncratic score. Her Chi-Lin didn't look so much compassionate as unstoppable, but Tan never lost her beatific expression throughout the solo. There was so much gusto and fervor in her dancing that I had a sneaking suspicion that Tan had slipped off to watch Eifman Ballet last week.

Tomasson may have been avoiding being slavish to the concepts of Chinese opera, nevertheless Chi-Lin might have been served by considering some of the structure of it a little more. Balance, particularly between genders, is a key element in Chinese culture, as well as Chinese opera; the imbalance of three male leads versus one female and four corps men versus five corps women stood out in the finale. At the very end, the firing of the flashpots and dropping of banners was a little too much spectacle, even for me. Still, the piece is a success, if not an unqualified one and it is always a pleasure to see these four dancers given free rein.

Tuesday evening was also a second chance to take a look at Berman's solo, Later. Both Morris and Berman have been obviously sensitive to the amount of criticism it received at the opening gala in January, and several modifications have been made that improved it immeasurably. Gone are the black tights and black pointe shoes, as well as the shawl that obscured her beautiful upper body. The short tunic dress that some described as lingerie still has a touch of the bedroom about it, but now with added glamour and a much more flattering effect. Then too, the lighting has been altered to emphasize certain moments. And, as my photographer friends are fond of reminding me, one should never underestimate the power of good lighting and costume design. Just think of what it did for movie starlets in the 1930's and 40's.

Context is also a huge part of the enjoyment of this work. As Paul Parish suggested in San Francisco Magazine, its placement in the program last January after Arpino's Light Rain surely did not help this introspective and subtle work. Now that we've seen several programs, including Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering and George Balanchine's Emeralds I, at least, seem to have arrived at a place where Later makes more sense. Berman, too, has had time to digest the ballet, and she gives more marked emphasis to the repetition of the phrases of port de bras with each new set of steps for the feet. The grace and intelligence was always present in her performance of the work, but she is working out a way of translating the work so that the audience can see the qualities that she has found in it. When I first saw the piece, I thought Later might have referred to when we'd see choreography. This time around I think it should be called "Now".

Mark Morris's A Garden, set to music of Richard Strauss after François Couperin, opened the program. The courtliness of the overture was immediately reflected in Morris's usual complex patterns. His choreography tends to lead the eye nicely to key moments and phrases of movement. But while the ballet was performed more crisply than I recall from last year, and the choreography is enjoyable and satisfying, I still find the costumes to be distractingly unflattering. The contrast between the relaxed costumes and the formal music could be interesting, but the brown polo shirts on the men have a way of hiding the line of their upper bodies.

Morris's choreography demands the ultimate in musicality from the dancers and though not all of them were able to deliver, several dancers seem born to perform Morris work. In the "Carillon" section, Gonzalo Garcia's solo was lightly danced and when Jason Davis and Guennadi Nedviguine joined him it was pleasant to see men moving to the kind music usually reserved for delicate girl-steps. Damian Smith seemed to practically inhabit the music and as always, Berman was eye-catching by stretching to a little more extreme length than everyone else. The complexity built into the "Wirbeltans" offered Tina LeBlanc and Kristin Long some fiendishly hard stuff and a blended interplay of patterns, which they tossed off delightfully. Smith and Berman returned in a beautiful pairing for the "Menuett", who had such a rapport that they danced as one entity.

Hans van Manen's Black Cake, which debuted at San Francisco Ballet last year, closed the program. It still has a lot of the sex appeal, but has lost some bite in the ensuing season. With Lorena Feijoo, Muriel Maffre and Lucia Lacarra leading Tuesday's opening cast, Black Cake had more than its fair share of attitude. Still, there was an element of fun lacking in the dancing and things didn't really get fired up until nearly the end of the piece. Cyril Pierre, partnering Maffre was a welcome comic foil to Maffre's straight-faced, business-like manner adding whimsy to their duet. I would have liked to see Maffre move more clearly into and out of personalities and styles, but her dancing is never less than a pleasure to watch. Lacarra and Legate also showed the spark of their humour where her kittenishness worked perfectly. Like all of the pieces on this program, Black Cake was, at the least, convincing, and in the end, was as much as the dancers made out of it.


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Edited by Marie.

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