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San Francisco Ballet - 'Spring Rounds,' 'Magrittomania,' 'Rodeo'

by Toba Singer

February 21 , 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Clue: Muriel Maffre in the red dress on the Opera House stage with a turned-in knee. She kills! The piece is Yuri Possokhov’s “Magrittomania,” and if Magritte’s surrealistic images strike you as static, be assured, Possokhov confers upon them an animus that will forever change how you see them. The piece opens with a blank canvas of a screen, upon which moving images of the painting Golconde appear. Tiit Helimets, wearing the Magritte-identifiable black suit, introduces us to and squires us through the piece. To the sound of chimes, a square of light opens in the backdrop that then becomes the blue sky with clouds canvas, and the dancers arrive in suits with apple balloons in front of their heads. You could say that the scene is set, but just as we register recognition, it changes, and now we have dancers in black suits with bowlers on their heads. They break into pairs, cavort, and fall into formation. The women in deep lavender dresses with fake breasts on the outside, dance as unselfconsciously as such ungainly costumes permit. The costumes are otherwise beautiful and the line of the dancers wearing them, otherwise evocative.

The glass-roofed and elongated depot-looking painting is up on the screen next, with an adjacent silhouette of the bowler-hatted man. A trio of men—Peter Brandenhoff, Gonzalo Garcia, and Moises Martin execute pirouettes to piano music. There’s an intimacy among them—neither macho nor fey—a not-quite secret entente that informs, as their movements grow and become more exalted, and the music drives them to break out into a bigger relationship with the painted world and the floor below it. Upstage, a different pattern emerges, as the men in black and the women in purple return, hovering over Helimets, who is rolling downstage. "Tic toc, tic toc"—a cuckoo clock is more urgent than the subtler chimes we heard earlier. The dove painting appears over the skyline of a European hamlet. The buildings that are silhouetted carry the imprimatur of the history of a continent: sacrifice, abandonment and sturdiness in the face of studied adversity. The dove is their witness. The three men join with Helimets in elongated falls to the floor, arms extending wing-like and up go their bodies into columbine sautés.

A flashlight trained on the now-dark stage stops its search when it locates a swatch of red fabric belonging to the dress worn by Maffre. She emerges, long, longer, and longest, as Beethoven’s “Für Elise” rises out of the score. The trepidation of the first few notes against the certainty of Maffre’s trajectory is arresting. She arranges herself in the most impossible poses, and then drops the upper half of her body onto a turned in knee. What Maffre does with that turned-in knee in a split second’s time renders Magritte’s composition unworthy by comparison. For me, and not only in this piece, she and Possokhov have changed the course of dance history.

There’s more Beethoven to accompany Maffre, and the text is rich because of her urgent need to give the authority over to the music. It’s Baltic, Slavic, and Saxon and she is equipped with the artistic transducer to make it universal as she is partnered by Helimets, both his and her head swathed in white bridal veils. He tosses her out of lifts, drags her along the floor; she is isolated, sacrificed, betrayed, but remains unsullied and unbowed. The elaborate and theatrical orchestration of the score propels the work to attain its highest values, elevating it to the realm of genuine performance art. There’s an atavistic polymorphous perversity in the interaction of the men/men, men/women, their habits and habitats elucidated by color, motion and the imbedded surrealist instruction for release from time by flight from a Europe that is little more than—in the unflinching words of Lenin—“a prison house of nations.”

After rockin’ round the Christmas tree all winter, it is high time for “Spring Rounds,” a Paul Taylor piece that celebrates the season and its rondure by recreating its power in concentric circles. A close-up of the center of a dandelion is projected onto a blue screen and under it sits Pascal Molat with his head in Kristin Long’s lap. An affable corps, dressed in green and looking like a lovely bunch of asparagus, pal around with one another, showing what one presumes is great relief that the end of the Nutcracker season gives way to something so gently powerful as circles of alternating hops and split jumps. Knees are slightly crooked, like the interstices of the above-named vegetable, and now that the dancers have given us a beguiling introduction, they leave the stage to Long who, after an open-armed series of chaînés, shows her grit by pushing through a taxing adage, where she keeps moving through one en dehors arabesque after another, with no respite. But then, spring is the season when all are taxed!

The men are handsomely aerobic as they sauté circles around each other, and the women arrive in a line comprising the shaft that drives the men’s wheels. There's a little breakout duet from Megan Low and Amanda Schull, and then Long returns in a burst of energy, with an open style and those lightning feet of hers. The men are pumping it up; the women are fleet. Sooner or later their polarities will give way to what nature requires. Long has a pas de deux with Pascal Molat, a tinkling waltz, featuring careful crossovers in plié, chassés followed by lifts made gentle by Long’s willingness to jump, as the partners spur each other along, their weight shifting seamlessly. The corps resumes its unflagging lightness and it looks to be Jim Sofranko who springs into action in a memorable solo just before the finale.

This production of Agnes De Mille’s “Rodeo” set to the familiar score by Aaron Copland, is the juiciest in memory. It was a thrill to see this jubilant rendering, directed by Christine Sarry and staged by Anita Paciotti.  Sarry gives each dancer a distinct character to play and play playfully: the “special” Ranch Owner’s Daughter on her very high horse, danced by Pauli Magierkek; her cultivated Eastern Friends from Kansas City, and a shank of Women-folk who, along with their Cow-Hand pard’ners, stake out the territory so we know where we’re at. Where we are at is in front of a richly hued prairie sky, which depending of the time of day, turns an entire chromatic scale of orange tones or a brilliant light blue.

The head wrangler, danced by Stephen Legate, surveys the stage with a low-key, slightly bowed swagger, and more than meets his match in the The Champion Roper danced jovially by Rory Hohenstein, who has been calling out to us from the ranks of the corps for at least six years. Hohenstein delivers a slow, steady buildup, as he butts heads and other body parts with his antagonist and The Cowgirl danced with comic genius by Kristin Long . She is that counter phobic not girly girl that we see in “West Side Story” as Anybody’s, in “Grease” as Rizzo, and in “Oklahoma,” as Ado Annie, but here, instead of a supporting character, she’s dead center in the bull’s eye of the piece. She's sure she’s got everyone corralled, even though she's the one who's gonna get roped!

Because of the Agnes De Mille “flavor,” it is tempting to think of “Rodeo” as a Broadway spectacle, in the very best sense of the word, and not a ballet piece.  The comedy is subtle here, and put in the service of teaching us about what runs deepest in ourselves, however much it may be contradicted by what we find convenient to show externally. Because that is the case, there is a wide range of possibilities here for the dancer with the right stuff—namely, virtuosity. Kristin Long as the Cowgirl couldn’t be more perfect for the role. She brims over with a confidence that issues from the ranch hand world, where the measure of a man is his work. Her problem is that she’s not a man, and that stubborn fact hasn’t been much of a problem until the Champion Roper gives her a little more to work with than the Head Wrangler. Even when Hohenstein plays her like a fiddle, she manages to give him the slip when the time comes to fish or cut bait. He occupies himself with the other ladies, lifting them hither and thither, while she goes off to chill, only to return with an elevated temperature. In the meantime we get a nice little front-of-curtain square dance divertissement, while a behind-the-curtain scene change is effected. I’d have preferred a professional caller to whose voice did the calling, because a Southwestern twang would have added a dash more authenticity to an otherwise clever aside.

Hohenstein shows the little Miss his tap dancing skills as she gets down to ground level to have a better look at exactly how it’s done. She falls backward in shock after receiving a genu-INE cowboy kiss from Hohenstein, sealing her fate as a member of “the rest of us,” who swoon whenever he reaches for his lariat. It just goes to show that maybe you can’t get a man with a gun, but with a dosado here and a promenade there, you can occasionally sidle up to one with a rope.

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