Tuesday, March 11, 2008

east of eden

On the heels of last week’s celebration of the great populist, Jerome Robbins, San Francisco Ballet continued its romance with romance Friday. Four works were on the boards for program 5, three of them paens to Robbins-style lyricism, and one about as romantic as a day in divorce court.

Christopher Wheeldon’s 2002 Carousel (A Dance), which opened the program, is beloved in certain sectors for replicating the dreamy dance pairings that Broadway made famous. Taking his cues from the 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, he stages the budding love between a carnival worker and an unknowing girl. It’s romance on the other side of the tracks, where, in the original, tragedy comes calling.

Jerome Robbins is dance’s lyric poet, and his archetypes—sailor, dreamer, gang member, dancer—transform dance into popular folklore. Although talented, Wheeldon is not in the same class –he can’t pull off the kind of musically stunning, characteriologically perfect distillations that make Robbins Robbins. Overstating characters, packing too many steps into a phrase to make a point, he gives us top-notch sentimentality and likable prettiness rather than essences.

So while Sarah Van Patten as the girl and a too-nice Pierre-Francois Vilanoba as the carney danced lusciously and proved they were in full command of their material, their yearning was fraught with clichés of innocence, breathlessness and surprise. Through no fault of their own, rather than dangerously mismatched lovers they seemed like middle class teens on a blind date at a local amusement park.

Wheeldon fared better in his evening’s second work, the Pas de deux from After the Rain. If the Richard Rogers score was a shower of melody and waltzing, Arvo Part’s radically slow, minimalist piano/violin duet from Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in a Mirror) was a call to sustained restraint, and Wheeldon met it.

An angularly thin and iron strong Yuan Yuan Tan in a sleeveless leotard and bare legs, and Damian Smith in bare chest and p.j. pants engaged in unspooling movement that defined relationship in often awkward, interesting patterns of vulnerability and surprise. This was a pair of lovers who explored rather than wallpapered love.

Helgi Tomasson’s On A Theme of Paganini, which followed, gave love numerous, beautiful shadings that veered from the individual to the group and back again. The sparkling quintet of Maria Kochetkova, Vanessa Zahorian, Joan Boada, Davit Karapetyan and Pascal Molat married the zest of Robbins to the purity of Balanchine. Rachmaninov’s lush score was pulled from the brink of excess by Tomasson’s Calvinist cool, while the whole was delicately designed by Martin Pakledinaz in Apollonian shades of white, twilight grey, Prussian blue and lilac.

Then, like a mutant gene, Eden/Eden (2005) crashed the love fest. What a welcome jolt.

Wayne McGregor’s dystopic ballet, which premiered at SFB last year, posits two edens—past and the future--and an anti-heroine named Dolly, the sheep cloned in Scotland in 1996. The resulting relentless, multisensory work is set to Steve Reich’s onrushing music for Three Tales plus video artist Beryl Korot’s visuals.

De-gendered dancers begin decked out in beige unitards and skullcaps, performing extreme undulations, matings and recombinations at reckless speeds in a dance language that is Cunningham squirmingly recombined. Overlaid with harsh and anguished discourse about cloning, the body, and the nature of life, it is one of the most provocative ballets in memory—frightening as well as riveting, beautiful as well as hideous. While it isn’t exactly about romance, it is, indeed, about life and our love of it.
all photos copyright of Erik Tomasson

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