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San Francisco Ballet

'Glass Pieces', 'Afternoon of a Faun', 'Dybbuk', 'Other Dances'

by Toba Singer

March 7, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

You get the forest and the trees in this staging by Jean-Pierre Frohlich of Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces.” The “trees” (the three Rubric couples) emerge from the “forest” of movers who walk before they run, and then retreat into the background, as Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Vilanoba join forces to imbue this tapestry with its legend, and then return on bent knee chassées to steward the work through its finale.

At a recent reunion, Miriam Ellner eulogized the High School of Performing Arts’ former Graham technique teacher, David Wood, by reminding alumni of how he began his first class. He demanded that each student simply walk across the floor—not a stylized walk—just putting one foot in front of the other on the diagonal until they reached the opposite corner. Many of them, into their eighth year of dance training, found this very difficult.

“Glass Pieces,” opening to an Amsler Grid backdrop, evokes Wood’s lesson. If the viewer happens to suffer from macular degeneration, the dipping, rising and breaking up of the gridlines provide a benchmark of declining vision. But don’t reach for your opera glasses—you might miss something as everyone walks, however plainly or ungainly, to the pulsing repetitions of music by Philip Glass. There seem to be so many dancers walking that for all you know the setting is intended to be a subway station in Mexico City. They walk, crossing each other on David Wood’s diagonals, fighting self-consciousness, their spandex costumes, each a different send up of the physical culturist.

Out of the perpetual motion come two dancers, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Ruben Martín, dressed alike in yellow. The walkers recede as the couple in yellow stops walking, plots out the coordinates of a pas de deux and then folds back into the folderol. We see two more dancers dressed alike—in mauve—Elana Altman and Moises Martín. They break out, dance against the stream, and are joined by the reappearing couple in yellow. Again with the walking! Then comes a couple in mint green. They are joined by the mauve and yellow guys. Partners are traded and colors intermingled. We have a veritable palette, with colors emerging and mixing, washing up pastel out of the mêlée of walking dancers. The question has been, “How do you walk?” It changes to “How do you run?” You run low to the ground, knees bent, like silent guerilla fighters in a big hurry. Now that you know, the music stops. Blackout.

The bent knees carry over into the next segment, called “Facades.” The program omits the cedilla on the ç, and I must register my protest against any omission—intentional or otherwise—that serves to strip the French alphabet of its sibilance! Sibilant silhouettes appear, knees bent, against the bottom-lit backdrop. The profiled women turn to face the wings as they do a little tippin’ step, the kind of walk pre-teens do when they skulk into a room, hoping to be noticed by working on not being noticed. It looks be-boppy when danced against the Hanon-like repetitions of the music. Maffre is swept in en l’air by Vilanoba. She is dressed in a silver blue latex body suit, and Vilanoba is wearing something in the brick red family. These colors distinguish them from the other dancers, and rightly so because their work registers on a different scale.

As the background dancers vibrate and sway from one foot to the other, Maffre and Vilanoba deliberate over long, sustained stretches and other counterpoints, creating a kind of dialogue with their silhouetted backup. Their held balances are stretched into a different dimension by the violin that accompanies them in a leitmotif that blooms and overtakes the repetitions. This carries the piece into a whole new process initiated by the façadist couple. It is like watching the emergence of a very grave cinematic plot reversal, even as the subplot continues underneath. These two dancers are well-paired shape shifters, giving us pure movement against the vibrating corps, who bend each time the featured couple stretches.

In the Akhnaten excerpt, a drumbeat accompanies dancers running, then thrumming the stage in prances, as six men take the space and then more arrive. As they advance, retreat, and interpolate, it crescendos into a modernist extravaganza. I worried during an earlier piece, “Dybbuk,” that the men were too ballet-balky in their ribs to launch the hold/release percussive movements that were required. Their work in "Glass Pieces" convinced me that there is no problem with the dancers: all that’s really required is better choreography. They are joined by the women’s corps. By the end, we are completely sold on Robbins, Glass, and every pair of coordinates on the grid that the dancers have anointed, reappointed, and marked with their stunning colorations.

“Dybbuk” is long, and layered in the lexicon of the mystical Hebrew Kabala tradition. This is very much in vogue among those who react to violations in the rationalist realm by turning to obscurantism. I am not at home on this mystical plane and am feeling somewhat rebellious. Pleasantly, the music has many textures, with shofar-like horns and violins going easy on the schmaltz to better serve the choreography. It begins with the incantations of two male voices, as spines twist around the music. We get regulation raised arms, with hands that meet in claps, "spirit"-driven bent knee runs, held, droop-burdened walks and similar tailings left by Diasporaic men, led by Gonzalo Garcia. The women, led by Sarah Van Patten, are busy being haimische angels. Van Patten’s facility improves with each succeeding week in the season. She suffuses her work with warmth here, as the angel of angels, in a white bell-sleeved costume—as sweetly triangular as a hamen tachen, someone with whom you’d love to celebrate Purim.

And on it goes, with men in white in fourth on the floor in splayed-ribbed backbends, the angel babes rocking from side to side, and men and women marching en relevé—after all, who can ever really relax while waiting for the inevitable jack boot on the stair? Kabala symbols appear stage right on a screened backdrop. Garcia’s conversion is evidenced in lunges and leaps and possessed, if contemporary, cabrioles. As the dancers in white start to assume the primitive shapes of cave drawings, a male dancer with red fringe on his white sleeves runs through the composition like a stray thread. Could the red be the blood of the lamb? Egads! Is he the Dybbuk? As the women halt their arm movements to the punctuation of a bell sounding, the overall motion becomes less disjunctive. They civilize the piece—such nice Jewish girls! Little dramas unfold and disappear and there is a pas de deux with Garcia and Van Patten, where they show that they’ve finally got the spirit, skipping and twining, and then the music slows and their explorations end on the floor with him on top. There is no way out of the torment of this patriarchal labyrinth—even as a b’rucha (blessing) is intoned and in the end, Van Patten finds herself as alone on the stage as Dorothy was when she awoke from her dream of Wizards, Lions, Tin Men and Ruby Slippers.

This was my first time seeing Jerome Robbins’ version of  “Afternoon of a Faun” and like “Glass Pieces,” it could just as well be a painting that has moving parts. The set within a set is a ballet studio that is actually a three-dimensional diorama, drawn in perspective, and placed somewhere where night has fallen. The gray walls and ceiling admit the indigo evening through a skylight, windows and a door. It is starkly riveting. Ruben Martín lies on his back on the floor in front of the studio’s mirror, and we, the audience, constitute that mirror. He stretches a leg and rolls over randomly into those half-nervous, half-deliberate stretches and explorations that dancers do before class begins—studying their flaws, their strengths, while hoping that whatever extra effort they make here will reward them during class. He is shirtless, wearing black tights, which contrast with the pastel gray set: in other words, a perfect adornment.

Just as you were thinking that he is perfection, Yuan Yuan Tan steps out of the evening and into the studio, dressed in a powder blue belted tunic and tights, her dark hair unloosed and streaming about her. She gives us big ballonés and then stops where he is. They stare at the mirror (us) together. She goes to the barre and takes a grand plié in second, and then rises. He lifts her and she raises and extends her leg into developpé á la séconde, and then moves into arabesque. What seemed so stark just after twilight is becoming more complex in the shank of the evening. As she returns to the barre for a long cambré back, he runs his hand slowly down the length of her hair. She bourrées away to the other side of the stage and each dancer is now stationed on opposite sides of the studio, pinioning and defining the space between them. They lunge deeply toward one another. He lifts and turns her parallel to the floor, as she stretches her long body stage left and right into something unattainable for the vast majority of humanity. This is portraiture within a landscape. It is the phenomenon of their partnership that is reflected back to them in the mirror (that is us), and she watches him in that same mirror as he kisses her. Then she brings her hand to the place on her face he has kissed, and disappears, hand to face, out the door and back into the night.

This “Afternoon” explores an inclusive, declarative narcissism. If you are prepared by other versions for a particular kind of stroking, you will find this kind to be its opposite: selfless, with its self love split generously in two, well, three ways if you count how it forges a fourth dimension by taking it from the context of the studio into the theater, where the audience is the mirror. It is a lovely homage to what it means to let go of the studio and move onto the stage—where art is made in the crucible of its audience.

Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada pair up for “Other Dances.” There is an onstage piano, and Michael McGraw plays the “other” Chopin. LeBlanc is light, fast and assiduous in her interpretation of the piece. Boada is not turned out enough to “let it go” in all the indicated contemporary directions. Instead, he pushes too hard from almost turned in preparations. It’s just not his thing. The piece was originally set on Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and my best guess is that it was meant as a deeply felt personal statement that only those two dancers could fully interpret. Makarova has said that it was her favorite contemporary piece to dance because it fit like a glove. Perhaps it will be best remembered as a charming accessory for those two dancers.

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