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Ballet - 'Out of Breath,' 'Solo for Two,' 'A Sort Of'
With baited breath
by Mary Ellen Hunt
October 14, 2004
-- San Francisco Performances, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Last Wednesday, Sweden's Cullberg Ballet was wondering what they could do
without the sets and costumes for their mixed repertory program, scheduled
to open at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday night as part
of the San Francisco Performances season. Like the Lyon Opera Ballet,
who had to rig a couple of last-minute program changes when some of their
sets were lost on the first leg of their US tour, Cullberg was forced
by circumstance to weigh their options.
As the dancers waited to hear whether or not everything would arrive in
time, they explained that, unlike the Lyon Opera Ballet, they could not
replace any of the pieces on the program. Nor -- as would be abundantly
clear on seeing the show -- was there any conceivable way to perform without
their sets. In the Cullberg's program, dance, costumes, props and sets
are inextricably, beautifully integrated with the concept and execution.
Under the direction of founder Birgit Cullberg and then later her son,
Mats Ek, this innovative company is one of only a handful that has been
able to meld theater and dance in such a satisfying way. With Johann Inger
at the helm since last year, the company remains one of the most innovative
and freshest of modern troupes, showing us how good dancing can be and
how deep choreography can go.
Ek's stamp on this company of twenty remarkable performers can be clearly
seen in all three of the works on the program. His ballets require a degree
of physical honesty and emotional nakedness that can be more than people
on either side of the proscenium can deal with, and in the 1996 "Solo
for Two" the thirty seconds of total nudity is nothing compared to the
twenty three minutes of emotional exposure for company veterans Gunilla
Hammar and Boaz Cohen.
Appearing and disappearing in the square doorway punched out in the long
grey wall of a set, they evince new emotional states from moment to moment.
Like a caged monkey in blue pajamas- hanging from the doorway, springing
across the stage, cowering in a corner -- Cohen paints his character with
broad, assured strokes. Hammar, in a loose grey dress, peeks above the
wall, and then onstage, she seems softer -- perhaps a little less insane,
but no less effective -- and their duet, tentative at first, has the visceral
fascination of two animals encountering one another for the first time.
They strip naked facing each other while the wall shivers and pounds
behind them. It's a deeply affecting moment, and when they dress -- this
time in each others' clothing, an internal shift of tectonic proportions
has obviously taken place. Cohen writhes on a black slug- shaped mound
downstage, Hammar dances a solo -- and we wonder, have they changed personalities,
or is it we, the audience, who have changed in our perceptions?
Ek created the duet, originally titled "Smoke," for Sylvia Guillem's video
project, "Evidentia" (available, unfortunately, only in Europe) but in
revamping it, he has transferred it to the stage seamlessly. Hammar and
Cohen give a spine-tingling performance that reveals the parts of ourselves
which we all try so hard to keep hidden and tamed under manners and civility.
They are curious, vulgar, ashamed, sensual, frightened -- filled with
peripatetic internal monologues, like all of us.
The internal is also on display in Ek's "A Sort Of," of which Ek says,
"A man wakes up - or does he fall asleep? He enters a journey into a deepending
space where various actions appear. Into "A Sort Of reality" -or is it a
dream? Afterwards he is different."
Describing the Magritte-like, multi-layered surrealist scene, played out
to Henryk Gorecki's music, would be nigh-on impossible. Elements are destined
to remain parked in a dark corner of my brain forevermore - Mats Jansson,
in a pink princess coat and Mary Jane flats, folding Johanna Lindh into
a suitcase and taking her through the slim doorway in a yellow wall; a
line of a dozen or so heads and one balloon poking above a segmented blue
fence; a tender duet for Carl Inger and Vanessa de Ligniere; a violent,
disturbing chase for the whole company. In the end Jansson curls up on
the floor, snoring peacefully, and I couldn't help thinking, "Oh, sure,
but the REST of us aren't going to get any sleep tonight."
An undercurrent of menace also runs through Inger's stark "Out of Breath,"
which opens the program. Set to music by Jacob ter Veldhuis, as well as
Hungarian folk tunes, "Out of Breath" admirably shows off the wide, rangy
and yet fast and specific movement of the six dancers. The men-- Christopher
Akrill, Eytan Sivak and an elegantly bold Shintaro O-ue -- have a distinctive
sharp percussive attack, but the women - Carolina Armenta, Yamit Kalef
and Izumi Shuto -- move with the startling, grounded fearlessness that
has always set this company apart from others.
Struggles and encounters sprout all around the large grey wedge which
dominates the centerstage, culminating in a beautiful last picture of
Armenta perched atop the wedge, glancing back at Sivak with a mix of emotions
on her face that seem to perfectly encapsulate the feelings I had upon
the end of the show - immense satisfaction at the range of experiences
we'd all just been though, a kind of wrung out exhaustion, but ultimately,
regret that it was over and what we were leaving behind us in the theater.
Edited by Jeff.
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