San Francisco Ballet

Program 8: 'imaginal disc,' 'Carnaval des Animaux,' 'Tu Tu'

by Toba Singer

May 1, 2003 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

If I were one of that strain of caustic critics whose hubris outdistanced his or her humility, I’d be tempted to dub this program “Bag o’ Cells, Bag o’ Tails, (or even Bagatelles) and Bag o’ Gels.”

But I’m not that kind of reviewer. I admire amusing scribbles as much as the next person, but not at the expense of dancers and choreographers whose work gives me great pleasure. So suffice it to say that Program Eight did deliver great pleasure -- three bags full.

We had three world premieres by relatively young choreographers in one evening. There is a strong temptation to compare them, but each work was distinct and for the most part incomparable to that of its partners.

The program opened with Julia Adam’s “imaginal disc.” Conceived in a parallel universe with Adam’s daughter’s conception, the grid she elaborated, where the axes of art and nature intersect, didn’t work conceptually as well as it did kinetically. Still, in the interstices, Adam created some lovely venues for dancers to show their lyricism and polish. This was especially the case for Ruben Martín and Leslie Young, whose solos were poignant and sensitive, and captured the mood of discovery that Adam was perhaps attempting to enunciate.

Women spaced across a line upstage hold high a scrim curtain that acts as the backdrop to a coryphée of male dancers. The men are engaged in gentle horseplay, as would be boys in a schoolyard. The choreography is a randomized series of traveling movements that set the dancers up like dominoes, pairing, matching, falling to the floor, one after another and then up and down again. The original score by Adam’s collaborator, Matthew Pierce, gives her note-by note correspondences to the steps that at times make the relationship between the dance and music seems a little incestuous. The men lift Martín and travel the stage with him. Is he the inseminator? Once he is returned to the floor, the guys break off in a cellular fission sort of way. We see a screened image on the scrim. Are they undifferentiated cells? Martín disappears under the scrim. Zip. Gone.

Young unfolds from a group of men behind the scrim. Then three women -- no four, no five -- are bonded in a tableau resolution. The men then lift the scrim and become the backdrop for the women. Adam’s natural world is nothing if not egalitarian!

The choreography for the women is more literal. They seem to form the protein strands on a gene allele. Or are those caterpillar phalanges? Wait, stop! Let me consult my biology text. It gets a bit studied at here, and the choreography wends its way into the cannons that are familiar to us from previous works by Adam. Balancé en tournant a few times and then stop, pose and several more balancés en tournant. The men return; the scrim is scalloped now.

At first the women cling and then intersperse with the men. Martín is muy sensible and quite irresistible and his pas de deux with Young is gently exquisite -- a confection of complementary poses, held positions -- and balancés. She tries her delicate wings in his arms as he turns slowly. Then the corps is back with more balancés -- without arms, with arms, round and round we go. The scrim becomes a cocoon. Up and down go the women inside it.

Each (predictably) breaks off and (predictably) leaves the stage, and only our Leslie Young butterfly remains. She explores and finds she has wings and tries them. A Chinese dulcimer and Young’s dancing with Martín combine to create a low-intensity shiver that blows gently through the pas de deux and spirits the entire piece into its own in the end.

“Carnaval des Animaux,” a work by Alexei Ratmansky, doesn’t take the notion of humans dancing animal roles very seriously. In fact, it seems to turn the entire process on its head by posing the question, “If animals had to dance the roles of humans to music, what would it look like?” Throw instinct and natural locomotion to the four winds. Substitute depredator for predator, neurotic for exotic and you’re looking at a ménagerie of dancers who rollick and roll through sendups of dying swans, prancing elephants and horses surviving divorces.

The stage opens with the King of the Jungle, the Lion, sprawled center stage. Carnival celebrants probe the sleeping lion’s lair. They are tentative, cowering, cringing, but ever curious. Out of the lion’s skin (costume) jumps Pierre-François Vilanoba, sporting a red mane of his own and raring to roar. There is more theater than dance here for much of the piece until the frightened disappear and a parade of critters; red-crested hens, dysfunctional kangaroos, poorly lit turtles, and birds (minus their homing skills) vie for attention. Lorena Feijoo’s Elephant is a swayback-contorted bunhead, bent out of shape, but bonkers for ballet. She overshoots, but under-achieves her jetés, and is dizzied, while still dazzled by chàinés that spin a foot or two past their intended terminus.

Muriel Maffre as the dying swan shows us once again that there’s only one thing she can’t do: be boring. She is a female Charlie Chaplin en pointe. You’ve just been watching the birdies and admiring their work, when Maffre takes the stage as a shop-worn swan whose life is so pathetic you’re forced to concede that she’d be better off dead. And yet she’s there, and your eyes refuse to régarder les oiseaux encore. Her swan’s life lurches to a close after her bellows-like arms have flapped double time to the music of her swan song, and the birds show us that they haven’t been so aggrieved since four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie. We feel it. We really do.

With “Tu Tu,” Stanton Welch accomplishes what has been tried many times on the Opera House stage -- to bring a neoclassical piece which every dancer loves to dance as much as the audience enjoys watching it.

Kristin Long and Gonzalo Garcia open the piece with a buttery, almost Gershwin-like jazzy pas de deux. Behind them is a backdrop of two black panels separated by a swath of white light that is color-coded to each set in the piece and its mood. Mood is the key to this work. While some of the choreography is intricate and complicated, the one comparison that can be made here with “imaginal disc” is that “Tu Tu” is never literal.

Welch appears to choreograph to the mood of the music instead of the notes. This confers a kind of abstract sophistication -- even in the context of the specificity of the steps - -that elevates the work. There are lunges during the descants, while couples hit grace notes with contrapuntal jumps. Then suddenly the dancers are transitioning into swing-y lifts and then we have Maffre again in a blue tutu, languid to harp rills. The light changes color and Yuan Yuan Tan appears in a gold tutu as piano notes chime. The tutus seem to act as media for the lights. Even when some of the choreography and the strange pairing of halter tops with tutus are unflattering to women who are normally flattered, we see that they and their costumes are reflecting back to us contradictory images about beauty and its inversion, with an intensity that unerring beauty tends to hide.

We were treated to shimmering châinés by Gonzalo Garcia and an off-balance solo by Maffre, where she reaches through the air and the tentative moments in the music to deliver a sustained, if complex adagio. As the corps dancers wash in, we see that this choreography has them finding, finding, finding the movement.

This entire piece is innocent of clever conceits. Instead, there is an organic panorama of discovery through motion. Here is a choreographer who is able to reveal a side of Parrish Maynard’s inner life and artistry that has never before been available -- seemingly to him, nor to the audience. Chidozie Nzerem’s artistry also emerges rather triumphantly here. The center strip of light gives way to eight crossed spots that point up the violin and piano in the Ravel music.

Someone steals in with this change and it is Maffre emerging from the shadow. The light forms columns with two dancers fading out. Maffre’s tutu undulates and then stops. Suddenly the corps is speeding in with échappés and clattering, nattering fanfare. Garcia is back, clean as a whistle, until his pirouettes throw him off just a tad. He and Kristin Long have a generous partnership that eclipses everything else onstage. The overall message from the dancers is “Look at me -- no at ME, no at ME -- having a great time dancing this work. Please give us more of this to dance!”

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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