They did it their way

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 29, 2008
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The oldest American ballet company in continuous existence is, in fact, our own. Seventy-five years ago, when the Opera House was new, San Francisco Ballet came into being, and they've roared into the home stretch of the diamond jubilee year with a climactic festival of all-new works. It runs through next Tuesday, May 6, at the Opera House: 10 new ballets by leading choreographers, spread out over three nights, playing in rotating rep.

The New Works Festival opened to tremendous excitement on April 22. The house was packed, most of the ground floor was dressed up (black ties, knee-length skirts, but the legs were looking good). Standees were jostling each other, first-chair critics had flown in from London and New York, the press room had laid out champagne and prawns, Bill the usher was in his finest fig ("the last name's Repp, that's 'R-E-P-P'"). Famous dancers were easy to spot in the lobby. Opening night came off without a hitch, even though Daniel Deivison-Oliveira had to replace an injured dancer in Paul Taylor's piece so close to the last minute that he was never given credit. (He aced the job.)

There is not space here to begin to give credit to the collaborators — costumers, designers, musicians — whose talents cram together to make these entertainments. It's fizzy, over-packed, one impression drives out another. What any one of these works is like by itself we won't know for a while. The great lighting designer James Ingalls lit everything, which helped unify the proceedings, since SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson had given the choreographers full freedom to commission music, costumes, to do everything their own way.

It was a shrewd move to focus the anniversary on new works: a) it's a grant-proposal waiting to happen; b) SFB does not have a glorious history to look back on (as, say, the great Russian companies, the New York City Ballet do); c) ballet has, since Louis XIV, lent itself to festival-making; and d) choreographers are inspired by the fantastic motor skills of SFB's dancers, who are perhaps the most talented group of movers in the whole ballet world.

And the dancers were the show. Corps dancer Courtney Elizabeth, who seemed to be in every piece, shone like the sun — transformed again and again, she can do anything.

As it happened, many of the dance-makers went futuristic. Most successful was Mark Morris, whose dancers darted around the stage looking like Oscar statuettes come to life, hitting their poses as if they were chimes, to a brilliantly pointillistic score by John Adams (which Adams himself conducted from the pit). Encased in gold (or pewter) lamŽ, they bore small video screens over their navels on which digital numbers kept flashing and changing, I guess at random. Robotic. Joyride is the likeliest of all these dances to win a permanent place in the repertoire.

But other choreographers such as Jorma Elo and Stanton Welch made their dancers look mechanical to less purpose, and to music that did not seem to require it — just for the chance to show how fast these dancers could move, how fast they could stop and balance forever on a dime, and what amazingly twisty transitions they could make in the meantime. Elo's contortions were so preposterous you could not believe they could be executed. But after a while, it began to seem like listening to a storyteller who's got you buttonholed and can certainly spin the phrases, but has long ago lost your interest.

I'd give the festival two cheers. The dancers were absolutely extraordinary throughout. Again and again, you'd see someone who has not been used much show stunning authority in a brand new role. Molly Smolen, in particular, was absolutely compelling as one of the five heroines introduced in the first movement of Val Caniparoli's new piece, Ibsen House. Indeed, this is Caniparoli's best work I've seen in years, with sharp, simple movement that created tremendous effects with elegantly simple means. Unfortunately, he ran low on ideas before he ran out of music (Dvorak's Piano Quintet). Ibsen's men aren't interesting, and introducing them did not develop the women's characters he'd already so brilliantly delineated, who all bore their constraints about them as clearly as Marcel Marceau made us see the box that confined him.

There are similarly first-rate passages in Julia Adam's setting of the story of Sleeping Beauty to Bach's Goldberg Variations, but rarely do Adam's ideas keep coming as the music does. Sometimes a whole variation is superb, like Elizabeth Miner's as the angry fairy. Gennadi Nedvigin's struggle to figure out how to wake this girl is a parody of the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet as he dances with her inert body, before he realizes that if he kissed her, that might be her on-button. But we had to wait through some tedium to get there.

The work I'd most like to see again is Thread, by the San Francisco modern dancer Margaret Jenkins, which had depth in its falls and releases, thrilling catches and lifts, a score with real menace by Paul Dresher, and a genius set (by Alexander V Nichols) that suggested a labyrinth without getting in the dancers' way.

A festival like this comes rarely — you have to be in a great city like this to experience one at all. Don't miss it.