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Out of AfricaBallet San Jose - 'Out of Africa'

by Dean Speer

March 26, 2004 -- San Jose Center for the Performing Arts

Flemming Flindt’s re-working and staging of his 1992 ballet "Out of Africa or Lucifer's Daughter, a Lyric Poem" for Ballet San Jose/Silicon Valley is far away from Seattle, geographically and artistically. I found this appealing to my balletic diet.

This kind of virtual, literal story-telling ballet is even now a rarity in the ballet world and certainly even more rare are new creations in this genre. And I don’t mean storytelling of the Nutcracker type. I'm thinking closer to works like "Billy the Kid" or "Prodigal Son," or even Petipa’s "Raymonda."

Flindt’s work is based on the book "Out of Africa" by his compatriot Karen Blixen who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen (who wrote her books in English!). Using music by Carl Nielsen, another great Dane, Mr. Flindt has put together Blixen’s story of the perils and joys of running a coffee plantation near Nairobi in 19 scenes. Act II also used some effective traditional Burundi Music. I was thrilled that we got a live chorus for the three – by my feeble count – choral pieces, courtesy of the fine and well-rehearsed San Jose State University Chorale.

My only reservation about the construction of the piece is that I felt some sections could have used some judicious tweaking or editing; re-writing if you will. For example, the plane crash of Blixen’s paramour could have been done off-stage and I think would have been more powerful and effective than showing this guy coming across from the upstage right diagonal, strapped to a rope struggling forward and back, forward again before crashing into a heap on the stage floor. Instead of making us feel sorry for him or intuiting a sense of tragedy or high drama, it ended up being border-line silly and too “real..” Better for us to have had the choreographer make us use our imaginations.

While there was no Meryl Streep here, the artist dancers depicted through excellent characterizations, the “inner” story or landscape or each principal protagonist. Artistic Director Dennis Nahat has assembled an appealing and lively company of dancers who dance with superior technique, artistic refinement, and a deep sense of what being an artist and what theatre is. As Martha Graham is reported to have said, “Theatre was a verb before it was a noun!”

A large-scale work by any measure, "Out of Africa" showcases the entire Company and gives many good dancing assignments across the board. Alexsandra Meijer was terrific as “The Woman” -- for those of you who weren’t able to attend or who have the extensive program notes handy, this is the Meryl Streep part. Stephane Dalle has lovely male technique and was most pleasing and satisfactory in the difficult role of the caddish husband. Before he crash-landed on stage -- the fatal plunge described above -- Alex Lapshin’s dancing of “The Lover” role was great and allowed us to feel and think how these two star-crossed people might have found each other in steamy and sometimes, lonely Africa.

A river runs through the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts complex, and it was nice on intermission to retreat to the garden glade that this bifurcation makes, imagined myself in period Africa and certainly to enjoy the air and surroundings. This garden of botanical and artistic delights, only a few hundred yards from the San Jose airport is still miles and generations from Blixen’s Africa.

Kudos to Ballet San Jose for taking courage in hand and commissioning this extraordinary work.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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