Tuesday, March 11, 2008

flaming the fans

all photos copyright Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins' fans cheered San Francisco Ballet when the curtain came down on the company premiere of "West Side Story Suite," and leading the pack was Rita Moreno, the slight, tough-minded Anita of the 1961 film "West Side Story," who was the first to leap out of her seat.

The lineup on Thursday consisted of three eminently fluent and deeply pleasing Robbins dances, each fueled by a sexy, casual-looking elegance worn either by upper-crust characters or, more often, by likable proletarians. All of the works sailed into and through the music like well-made boats.

All also knew how to wear their angst near the funny bone. Even in a work as traditional-seeming as his 1970 "In The Night," the choreographer insisted on making us laugh. Here Robbins presented three versions of Chopin-girded love--young, settled and falling apart--and it was the deteriorating kind that flared bigger, louder and wittier.

Lorena Fejoo and Damian Smith erupted repeatedly from their silken reverie to balletically feud, which was as irresistible as it was apt. In Robbins' world, the stunning idyll performed by Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin and the beautiful accommodations elegantly exacted by Elana Altman and Tiit Helimets are the foil to Fejoo and Smith's messy, comic unraveling.

The night got off to an old-fashioned start with Robbins' very first ballet, "Fancy Free" (1944). Rendered with slapstick sweetness by Pascal Molat, shapeshifting humor by Davit Karapetyan and boyish physicality by Garrett Anderson, it is a tale of three World War II sailors on shore leave soft-shoe-ing, clowning and competing for drinks and love. When two "Passers-by" materialize, the girlish Vanessa Zahorian and a sultry Erin McNulty, trouble of the charming kind ensues.

This was tender small potatoes, giving the audience a taste of the big stuff to come in "West Side Story Suite," which is a mini "Romeo and Juliet." Packed cleverly into 35 minutes, "Suite" required half a dozen forms of dance, five solo singers (one of them from the company), a street rumble and gangs breaking into song. In place of Officer Krupke, a police whistle repeatedly trilled.

Straddling Broadway theater and abstract ballet is a demanding stretch, yet the corps tenaciously rose to the challenge, capturing the competing New York street punk styles-- one white (note: needs more grit and sex), one Puerto Rican. They also inhabited the broad characters and sang tunefully enough after relentless dancing. Pierre-Francois Vilanoba was a hunk of a Bernardo and Shannon Roberts was the pistol-hot girlfriend Anita. Garrett Anderson's Tony was aptly sweet and loyal.

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