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San Francisco Ballet

Les etes de la danse: 'Spring Rounds', 'Elemental Brubeck', 'Quaternary'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

July 5, 2005 -- Hotel Soubise-Rohan, Paris

They say it always rains your first night in Paris and no exception occurred for San Francisco Ballet's opening night at Paris's new Les Étés de la danse festival in the courtyard at the Hotel Rohan, although it wasn't quite the romantic affair one might imagine -- at least until the last ballet.

The ominous storm clouds had apparently given the festival organizers pause for thought, and there were delays even opening the doors to the outdoor theater that had been constructed especially for the ballet's three-week season. Inexplicably, the ushers were operating under strict instructions to seat every ticket holder -- literally, to lead each and every person individually to his or her seat, as if we couldn't be trusted to find our own seats. "Don't they think we know our alphabet?" murmured my companion. We chalked it up to the cultural divide.  This obviously had to be some arcane French custom.

The net result of all this business, however, was that the performance began quite late, not getting underway until nearly 10 pm, at which point the show had the air of a company bravely forging onward, determined to deliver the goods come rain, or, well ... rain. Nevertheless, despite all the fuss, I couldn't help deriving a certain, well, kick out of seeing the home team in Paris.

Throughout the early evening the rain had held off, although the ever deepening chill in the air portended ill. As we peered glumly at the dark gray clouds overhead, a senior dance critic -- a veteran of many an outdoor festival, she told me with a no-nonsense clip to her voice -- beside me observed dryly, "When they announced this festival, I thought, "Well, that's a bit optimistic isn't it?'"

"Optimistic," as it turned out, was a word that appeared in several assessments of this open air festival plan.  Set in the courtyard of the Hotel Rohan, with the neoclassical façade of the building barely visible through a scrim at the back of the covered stage, San Francisco Ballet forged on with a program of world premieres by Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch and Christopher Wheeldon.

Taylor's "Spring Rounds," kitted out in vernal shades of lime green chiffon and set to a divertimento by Richard Strauss, opened the program with a burst of good natured frolicking.  Taylor's loose gambols looked comfortable on the company, particularly on Kristin Long, who does those signature corkscrew turns of Taylor's with uncommon naturalness.  Her partner, Pascal Molat, took tender care of her in a dreamy duet, which reminded me in an odd way of Jane Austen's Emma slowly realizing her romance with a man she'd always viewed in a brotherly fashion.

The seven men included Molat, Steven Norman, Jonathan Mangosing, Garen Scribner, Martyn Garside, James Sofranko, and Aaron Orza, and the women, along with Long, were Megan Low, Pauli Magierek, Dana Genshaft, Maureen Choi, Amanda Schull and Brooke Taylor-Moore. "Spring Rounds" has the larky feeling of a country dance, and informality is obviously Taylor's aim.  The dancers interact casually with each other with an artless ease.  But I have to admit, Taylor's work still doesn't do it for me.  Chalk that up to the drizzle.

The real showers started during Lar Lubovitch's "Elemental Brubeck," to the music of jazz legend Dave Brubeck.  As Gonzalo Garcia bounded onto stage, I couldn't help thinking how life sometimes imitates art imitating life.  In Robert Altman's ill-advised "The Company," a wild torrent of rain and leaves is meant to reflect the emotional turmoil of the ballet onstage, which as it happens, was a Lar Lubovitch ballet.  As an aside, let me just observe here that it is far more romantic to watch such a moment play out from the comfort of a movie theater rather than from under a sopping wet shawl.

Nevertheless, Garcia's jauntiness held the audience and his solos covered all the space the stage would allow.  Katita Waldo and Stephen Legate developed a lovely refined characterization in their nostalgic duet.  They were paired together again after dancing in the same cast during SFB's last season in Lubovitch's "smile with my heart," a ballet whose central duet is the leaf-blown, storm-drenched excerpt that appears in the movie.  See what I mean about it life and art all coming together?

The look here was more along the lines of "Company B," with the women in sherbet colored fifties-style shirtwaist dresses and the men in pants and shirts.  The feeling was something of a sock-hop with a touch of self-conscious Gene Kelly-Cyd Charisse stuff, with the kind of teenage melodrama, as well as the youthful joie de vivre.  Rory Hohenstein and Elizabeth Miner stood out in the midst of all this, though, striking a comfortable balance of self-consciousness and sincerity.

Lubovitch has a very prosaic way of reading Brubeck though, and the sorbet flavor had evaporated almost completely before the evening was even over. Sadly, it made so scant an impression that by the next day; I was already working hard to recall what the details, even the title, of the work had been.  Thank heavens for notebooks, even soggy ones.

I suspect that the real reason for my lapse of memory, though, was that Christopher Wheeldon's "Quaternary" so far eclipsed the other two works on the program. I had half expected to see dozens of cold and cranky audience members make a break for it after "Brubeck" -- and the prospect of sitting there for a 20 minute intermission in the light, misty precipitation made the idea extremely tempting -- but everyone held fast, determined to see Wheeldon.

Wheeldon's body of work thus far has been interestingly omnivorous, though on the academic side.  His approach has the earmarks of a young choreographer trying out anything and everything -- the romance of Edward Elgar, the geometric posiness suggested by Gyorgy Ligeti -- which is indeed what he is.  "Quaternary," however, is his most mature work to date.  Set to an eclectic smorgasbord of music from John Cage to J.S. Bach to Arvo Pärt to Steven Mackey, his choreography on this outing, nevertheless, looks less driven by idiosyncratic choices of music and more by a compelling thread of creative ideas.  One can only hope he keeps up in this direction.

One of the pleasures of being such a sought after talent, no doubt, is that you get your choice of wonderful dancers, and "Quaternary" mined the SFB roster for ten of the company's most fascinating principals.  Divided into four seasons, the ballet is roughly 45 minutes long, and it was well worth sitting out in the cold, wet rain for it.

Leading "Winter" was Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith, a cool and fearless pairing with the length in their lines that shows Wheeldon's intricate shapes at their most interesting.

"Spring" saw Tina LeBlanc paired with Nicolas Blanc and Lorena Feijoo with Joan Boada. With the wind whipping Jean-Marc Puissant's chiffon costumes, the quartet gave what I can only characterize as instinctive performances. The steps, though cleanly legible and unusual, never seemed calculated.

Muriel Maffre and Yuri Possokhov achieved a similar effect in "Summer," set to Part's "Fur Alina."

No one quite builds anticipation like Maffre.  Even after seeing her lurking in the wings swathed in a large coat, her entrance with Possokhov brought a hush from the audience.  Even the rain stopped briefly, though the wind continued to rustle through the trees to perfect effect.

Pärt's music tends to be over-used by modern choreographers, but Wheeldon makes canny use of the space in between the notes, and Maffre and Possokhov's focus made them more imposing in many ways, in the musical interstices.  The duet had none of the lassitude of summer, but an otherworldy kind of pensiveness, like Echo and Narcissus caught beside a stream.

Wheeldon was obviously experimenting with the perennial problem of how to manage and maintain energy in the transitions between sections.  In this case, Maffre remained with her limbs in a twist downstage as a delicate Katita Waldo and Pierre- Francois Vilanoba entered to lead the company in the final section, "Autumn."

The evening was chilly, but the reception was not, with stalwart audience members lingering to give the company a heartfelt ovation.

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