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San Francisco Ballet - 'Continuum,' 'Elemental Brubeck,' 'Reflections'

by Toba Singer

April 28, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

“Doctors and doctors first!” was my guess as the odor of smoke intensified, and mostly middle-aged and older men rose from their seats one after the other and left the theater just as the temperature of “Continuum” itself had begun to rise. It was a kind of “staged withdrawal.” Was Stansfield Turner in the house? I could feel my conjunctiva protesting, as my vision seemed to blur, but critics (and I can think of only one possible exception) are inclined to hang on to the bitter end, mindful of the responsibility their comps confer. So I turned to my companion for the evening, tossing my head in the direction of the exiting gentlemen, and whispered, “Wusses.” She seemed unconvinced by my feigned bravado, but remained seated nonetheless.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” opens on a patch of light adjacent to a half drawn traveler curtain that gains more of the stage as the piece continues. Dancers costumed in green, brighten the stage with cross over turns and scissor leg lifts and each little essay in the piece is discontinued by a blackout. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith give us a front-of-curtain pas de deux that initiates the Keith Haring-like developpés which serve as the signature steps of this work: Knees bent, feet flexed and arms crook’d at the elbows with hands flexed, a pedagogical essay demonstrating how simply pointing the foot or extending the leg changes the entire line and look. There are lifts that morph into somersaults ending with the body pulling up while held. The lifts flirt with danger as Smith “walks” his partner upside down as she scissors her legs and feet where her head once was, and then promenades resting on his extended back, ending in what my teacher Svetlana Afanasieva used to call a “port de bras Swan Lake.” Blackout.

Kristin Long gives us her “oops, I did it again” quicksilver echappés, changements and bourées, and backs out of the picture as suddenly as she appears. Rachel Viselli and David Arce are the adage couple, and as with Tan and Smith, they take your breath away, as he lowers her sideways to the floor, her torso held in one continuous line, as she looks out toward the audience. It’s Muriel Maffre and Yuri Possokhov’s impassioned pas de deux that has all the tailings of a last goodbye [Possokhov retires next week] that the smoke begins to insinuate itself into the drama and the more skittish or medically-inclined members of the audience contribute their own interpretive choreography—all but chassée-ing for the nearest exit. Nonetheless, the couple is mesmerizing, and no serious balletomane could think for a moment of abandoning his or her seat.

Gonzalo Garcia gives us a solo that lifts the piece (again), issuing turns that look like saut de basques, but done with both legs opening up (more Keith Haring here) which completely capture what Wheeldon is reaching for. Tan and Smith return and do floor work that recalls the vocabulary of Humphrey-Weidmann, with accompanying music variously taut and trilling, thinning out the synapse across which the tension travels. Long returns as Garcia’s partner, and they are stepping in and out of each other’s serpentine paths, wriggling all over each other on the floor like gummy worms.

Maffre delivers a slow reach across her partner, Possokhov. It is as if they are moving through water. He turns her upside down and her legs mark the seconds like the hands of a clock. They end up in an impossible pose on the floor that looks like a Swiss army knife with all its component tools exposed. Men with propeller arms pilot the piece into a smooth landing.

If you’ve believed, as I have, that classical ballet dancers can’t do justice to jazz, please see Lar Lubovitch’s “Elemental Brubeck” danced by San Francisco Ballet Company. It’s never too late to witness your own shibboleths tested and failing so spectacularly!

Brubeck opens with “Solo” danced by Rory Hohenstein, this season’s emergent male corps member, dressed in red from head to toe, clearly feeling celebratory about something, which causes him to turn the flame up as he pushes away air with both hands. As the remaining dancers scamper in zephyr-like, we repudiate our pet notions, and wholeheartedly embrace the mood they create. They are deft, fast, not prone to holding too long that which should not be held, and in their pastels, look like an anthropomorphized version of the laundry my mom hung out on the line. If you’ve ever read the children’s book “Mrs. McNosh Hangs up her Wash,” you know what I mean.

Elizabeth Miner, in peach, looks as enticing as a scoop of sherbet on a summery afternoon. All Bambi Lynn-ish, she is partnered by Damian Smith, who wears a slate blue shirt appointed with a smart white collar. The movement and lifts that rise out of it feel more like a tribute to the music and its composer than a composition set to notes and counts.

Each duet is washed away by a wave of the other cast members, who overtake the stage like a rinse cycle, as Laundry-Presses-Onward-Into-The-Machine-Age. “Combo,” set to “Theme from Elementals,” opens with an intriguing guitar strum and then violins straining towards something ominous, and is danced gleefully by three couples, Megan Low, James Sofranko, Frances Chung, Garrett Anderson, Courtney Elizabeth and Matthew Stewart. Chung is a tensile, yet playful jazz dancer. Both Elizabeth and Stewart are scarily fearless. There’s waltzing and those big scoopy Astaire leapin’ lizard turns that work the arms so as to make it look like the dancer is miraculously parting the waters of the Red Sea. The announcer can deny that there was smoke in the house, but she can’t deny that there was fire: Hohenstein returns for a coda called “Elementals.” It is burning down the house!

Yuri Possokov’s new piece for this season is “Reflections.” Eight whitely luminescent panels form a backdrop. Cannons of dancers in white disk tutus confer a modernist “Theme and Variations” energy, sending the message that the piece is reaching for transparency of spirit. Vanessa Zahorian captains the crew, flying stage left to right, and landing on the floor in a kind of home run slide that almost looks like she’s fallen. When she repeats it later, we realize that it’s part of the choreography. The many dancers in white are like floating islands, so pristine that it is almost a necessity that Lorena Feijoo arrive driving downstage center in red. Red! More red dancers follow her example, and then they form two lines and the lines break into alternating segments, some in, some out, some up, some down. Lines and refractions of lines have dancers turning outward and inward, in their groups and individually, as they bourrée toward and away from their counterparts. All women—and they are so in charge that they could be conducting the orchestra collectively. Where are the men? There’s scarcely time to consider this separatist question because the andante music opens and the stage is differently lit.

Mirrors descend almost imperceptibly. They infiltrate into the space where the white panels were. A rivulet of light opens from stage right to stage left. I am reminded of Maggie Black’s advice to Gelsey Kirkland when Kirkland was having trouble interpreting Balanchine: “Imagine a stream of light!” Male dancers wear black muscle-man shorts and tanks. Women are in white. The dancers in black and white are reflected in the mirrors, and the audience shares their vision with them. We now see what they see in the studio. That essential missing link to the ballet world is imported for all to witness. Katita Waldo, ever the generous fairy, is partnered by Pierre-François Vilanoba in a heartrending pas de deux, Waldo draped like white crepe over his shoulders.

Davit Karapetyan’s bravura solo invites four, and then many more, muscle men into an entire world of just men—where were they?—denizens of a habitat that seems inscrutable, even as they make an earnest effort to explain with testosterone-driven battue, double tours, and fouetté-propelled jumps to arabesque. If it were crude, it would be the leather bathhouse of ballet theater, but it is not crude. It is imploring in its way: asking us to see really and truly once and for all what men want, and exploring what they want as dancers, harmonizing with light feet and weighted bodies. Is it all about the men? Yes and no. Women in red return. Pascal Molat dances a solo that is the capstone of the piece. There is a cinematic sweep to his mastery of the stage, very much in the Ruzimatov style, and anointed by his stiletto turns. Molat and Karapetyan pair up for a stunning duet, as the white women return and there are three colors on the stage, with more mirroring than ever, as they take little lunges, dragging a foot a beat behind the music. The mirrors give us more visual, and the orchestra more auditory volume, as delicate prances dot the mirrored inscape, and the dancers emerge for their Révérence.

As we bobble our way to the exit, rubbing our smoke-fumed, swollen eyes, my companion asks, “What does that piece mean?” “If you’re Russian, the colors white, red and black could stand for reaction, revolution and anarchy,” I say, reaching wistfully for political symbolism that might reconcile the refracted elements of what I assume to be choreographer’s life so far. What I really want to say is how very much I will miss him.

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