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San Francisco Ballet

'Falling,' 'Rubies,' 'Artifact Suite'

by Toba Singer

March 30, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

The linchpin work of the evening’s program comes last, William Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite.” The dancers appear to have collectively fallen in love with Forsythe, having consecrated their bodies to him, and so if there was an impatience to “get on with it,” it showed up ever so slightly, as a zephyr of resistance that blew through “Rubies.”

“Rubies” opens up with an innocent-looking line of dancers, holding hands, dressed in dreadfully cut costumes (“redfully cut”?} that are of course ruby in color, with three giant scallops at the bottom, covered with red sequins wherever there’s an edge. The scallops create a bunting effect, spreading out the tummies and midriff areas on the women who wear them, with the notable exception of Muriel Maffre, who, along with Vanessa Zahorian, was cast as the principal sparkler of the piece. Maffre has such a long line that even scallops can’t bulk it up. The dancers comprise a veritable rivière, which is French for river, but as such, is a metaphor for a shimmering necklace. Maffre steps out of the necklace and into the fray that is about to develop around her. Her partner is Gonzalo Garcia and if the piece contributes nothing else to the evening, it shows that he is the very embodiment of versatility; having just finessed his way through Stanton Welch’s “Falling,” looking like Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones,” he’s now giving us the lightness of Balanchine, proving that he can switch dance styles at the rise of a baton.

Even though everyone is on the counts, they are dancing against the music by Stravinsky—that’s the way Balanchine set the steps. The resulting frenzy doesn’t give anyone an opportunity to relate to, or even much notice, the audience. It’s a dancer’s composition in that it’s a fun house of crazy steps you’d otherwise never get to do—or do quite as fast—and you never have to look at anyone on the other side of the proscenium until the last part. You skip, skip rope, and show “modernist” material that is now, in my opinion, dated—especially those silly, though ubiquitous, prances. It’s a little like window shopping for furniture on Valencia Street. I’ll take modern over modernist. There are only about four dancers who look at home with their contortions, and they are: Maffre, Garcia, Jonathan Mangosing and Clara Blanco. They possess that dead heat concentration and focus that is essential. The four men, who clump around Maffre as if they make up the setting for her baguette, seem distracted and even uncomfortable dancing the roles of precious stones.

“Jewels” is of course the mother lode of which “Rubies” is just one of three facets. The legend attached to it has Balanchine asking the jeweler Harry Winston to lend the company actual diamonds, rubies and emeralds for the show—the bargain being that Winston’s company would receive free advertising, with the dancers doing double duty as artists and models. Rumors have Winston saying “No” to Balanchine, a man who inhabited the world of “Yes.” Others have the dancers bedecked in the borrowed gems. Perhaps Balanchine was hoping to probe the possibility that “all that glitters” is not sold on commission; some of it can be sold to audiences on the necks (not to mention backs) of dancers.

Stanton Welch’s “Falling” opened the program. A pair of dancers in blue hurry upstage and then back down. They dance a bit and then make way for another two in pink, who make their way to the center spot and then give the stage over to two in green. The greenies are Katita Waldo and Rory Hohenstein. I haven’t seen them partner before and their pas de deux is sumptuous. Yuan Yuan Tan and David Arce arrive and we see the musicality that is always at the heart of Welch’s quirkily themed contemporary repertoire. The footwork is sprightly and intricate, but unlike the Balanchine piece, it invites the audience in immediately. Arce leads Tan into a promenade that builds into an adagio featuring scissor legged lifts and multi-level work where she climbs up his torso from the floor.

The couple in blue, Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia, does a kind of metronomic tic-tock lift. The piece is rife with flourishes of this kind, including the signature side-to-side head bob, “amuse tête,” that looks to be Welch’s version of the culinary amuse bouche that most of us learned about by watching “Friends.” And indeed, dance vocabulary may have to be expanded to accommodate some of Welch’s inventions. For example, I think we need to solemnly baptize a certain jump of his “sauté crispé” to accurately capture its frittery morphology. (There’s a kanga in there somewhere, so leave the “s” in crispé: don’t de-Aussie it by substituting an “î”!)

The trio of Arce, Waldo and Hohenstein shows off Waldo’s fearlessness. She’s both lyrical and brave— a combination that’s hella hard to find in one dancer! Welch’s lifts are the kind that nightmares are made of for the dancer en l’aire, but Waldo transports herself mentally first, leaving the physical remainders to her partners to sweat. She doesn’t even blink as Elizabeth Miner makes her entrance under the airborne Waldo, just as the threesome exits via the upstage curtain. Miner’s virtuosity and versatility announce themselves once again in her solo. She makes a great play date for a contemporary choreographer such as Welch. Kristin Long comes along; the two of them scoop up all available energy and send it out to the audience in this piece that might be better titled, “Quizzical Quandary of Quirkles,” or “Three Q’s,” for short.

The United States premiere of “Artifact Suite” starts off darkly. Out of the obscurity, surrounded on three sides by the corps de ballet, come Muriel Maffre and Pierre-François Villanoba. Elana Altman is facing them, with her back to the audience. She is leading the corps in calisthenics restricted to the arms, head and shoulders. They mark the locus of their heads with their arms and hands in response to her commands. There are two couples; Lorena Feijoo and Pascal Molat join the first pair. It is like looking at this set of dancers for the first time, as they perform work they’ve never seen themselves dance before. The intense Molat is no longer the easygoing guy gamboling through a pas de deux. Feijoo is working beyond her acquired aplomb on a new plane of uncertainty, Villanoba is frankly a little scary, and Maffre is probing the fault lines of her composure. It’s a push-pull partnership for all four, and nobody is slacking off. The men are dressed in pea green from head to toe, and the women in pea green tops and black tights. It is a surprise when the fire curtain comes crashing down onto the stage, but it reminds us that we are borderline voyeurs here, seeing something new in the dancers onstage as they are seeing it themselves for the very first time. It feels like someone has slammed shut a dressing room door.

A minor adjustment forges a major set change—the backdrop is lit so that the dancers’ silhouettes appear on it, giant-sized, as they perform life-sized before our eyes. Do we focus on Maffre’s delicious stretches or Feijoo’s fierce attack? Neither—because there’s another curtain crash to settle the dilemma. The curtain then rises on a diagonal mad dash of the corps doing arms again. Crash! The tower of strobes we noticed at the top of the piece is now illuminated and blinding two quadrants in of our field of vision like a slit lamp. Maffre is exultant and giving her all as she works in front of the corps. They lie upstage on the floor, heads pointing downstage, lattice-armed, until they change arms so that each arm lies across the adjacent back and shoulder of the person next to them. It is a stirring moment when you think of all that happens in the world of dance to destroy camaraderie, and all that can happen creatively to re-knit it in a single performance—or slam the curtain down on it forever. All elbows rise, trimming the upstage fringe of the curtain with a band of scalloped arms. These scallops are not garish, like on the “Rubies” costumes. They are more like seashore mementos, softening the memory and the stage as well. If the dancers appear to be in an extraordinary moment of flow and responding to an elevated level of artistry, it doesn’t prevent Feijoo from feeling right at home in the new accommodations, as she and Molat perform a dazzling series of turns during which she opened and closed her legs as if they were steering the couple along their trajectory. CRASH! And then violin music by Bach suffuses the Opera House.

This time when the curtain rises, it is on a corps that looks to be doing their morning ablutions as artists, or what Svetlana Afanasieva used to refer to as “Brrikfyest (Breakfast)”: warm-up exercises. The port de bras and dégagés are shown on diagonals, lit so that you cannot see faces, only light playing on shoulders and forearms. It is a simple, familiar lexicon, and yet the repetitions of combinations are presented in the context of a definitive compendium of dance syntax. There is no aftertaste from what might have waxed derivative were it just a snapshot of the piece ripped out of its organic whole. They are followed by the tiniest of prances, just footwork really. How fresh they look compared to the hobbyhorse “Rubies” prances! Then come the piqués and the contrapuntal clapping, and if there is such a thing as fundamentalist ballet, where the deity is Terpsichore and the spirit is kinesiology, its secular pastor is without a doubt William Forsythe! How is it possible to create such an uplifted, elevated work when the accents are all down? The template for this seems to emerge from the simplest movements turned choral and three-dimensional, combining hip thrusts with pas de chats. Five men are led by Rory Hohenstein in this choral kaleidoscope of downward accented movement, which then flips into another five men being led by Jaime Garcia Castilla. They thread through the stage, leading with their sternums until you can hear them breathing in row N of the orchestra, the men twining their arms as they work their feet, the pianist repeating the same three or four notes, finished with a one-handed chord.

Nobody has succeeded in evincing this level of artistry, camaraderie, esprit de corps, or commitment to their art from this company before. William Forsythe has teased out the best in one of the finest companies in the Western Hemisphere—irrefutable evidence that if you live right and work by the Golden Rule, the value of what results can prove to be more precious than rubies.

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