Saturday, May 10, 2008

hard works

all photos copyright of erik tomasson

April 24, 2008. It may be the end of the 2008 San Francisco Ballet 75th anniversary season, but it felt Tuesday night that the year's festivities have just begun.

The night marked the gala opening of the much-anticipated New Works Festival, with the launch of the first three of 10 newly commissioned works by as many choreographers, and as disparate as local modern dance luminary Margaret Jenkins and little-known Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

A house overflowing with dancers' families, artists, press from the far coast as well as Europe, and a suffusing warmth underscored both the intimacy and intensity of artistic director Helgi Tomasson's undertaking. And while such an undertaking seems like it would be a snap for a large ballet company with great dancers and enormous resources at its disposal, in fact it is no easy trick at all. Bombing at the box office is not in any ballet's financial cards these days, and this means that artists' daring has to be tempered by success — people have to like the work enough to fill the seats in order to ensure the continuation of the company.

It is these implicit terms that can tamp down innovation. That was clear Tuesday — a night of exquisite dancing and pleasant beautifully dancey dances--but real dance daring was going on somewhere south of Market Street, not in the Opera House. One hopes that the next two programs shift the paradigm just a little.

On the bill for Program A was "Fusion" by Yuri Possokhov, "Within the Golden Hour" by Christopher Wheeldon and "Changes" by Paul Taylor — not a crowd-killing choreographer among them, and each a veteran of San Francisco Ballet commissions, which made them reliable choices. Ukrainian-born Possokhov, a former principal with the company and now Tomasson's choreographer in residence, is an inventive dancemaker with a strong sense of sculptural space, while British-born Wheeldon incises space with line, crisp musical pattern and a bag of intricate moves. Both handle music ably, and both on Tuesday employed their scores with sophisticated verve. Taylor was a maverick in the 1960s and '70s, but settled into self-parody some time ago.

Possokhov's beautiful "Fusion" suffered most from a kitschy Turkish male quartet stationed in a row in white billowing clothes and fez (reminiscent of harem guards from 19th century ballets), doing jazz isolations set to Rahul Dev Burnam's Bollywood music. Their phalanx was repeatedly ruptured by magnificent dancers in dusky-hued leotards who paired up gloriously, darting and diving to Philip Glass-inspired compositions by British composer Graham Fitkin. The whole looked as if it was meant to hold timely geopolitical allusions, but when one tried to add them up, it was just a mirage.

Fusion seemed equally to be on Wheeldon's mind. Oversaturated colored backdrops and all, he presented "Within the Golden Hour" to the work of Ezio Bosso's wryly global lounge music.

The result was sexy whimsy and novel and mesmerizing male/female motifs that seemed to talk back to Possokhov. His vocabulary included Graham floor positions, Japanese flexions, decorous Via Veneto lounge dancing, box steps and waltzes, but like Possokhov, he broke no real new aesthetic ground. The cast danced joyously.

So did Taylor's group, shimmying and boogalooing to a medley of the Mamas and Papas and John Lennon and Paul McCartney's lyrical '60s songs that was lost on half the crowd and elicited wary stillness from the other half. Nowhere in this sweet choreographic agglutination with its banal take on the counterculture of the '60s was there a hint of relevance or a shred of contemporary consciousness, no matter what claim the program notes made to an eternal social impulse for change.

This was a trite and empty cartoon of the dope-smoking '60s portrayed as trite and empty. Taylor has produced such fatuous work for his own troupe. To share it is not only unkind, but a waste of an opportunity for a once-great choreographer. (Because they would look divine reading the phone book, the dancers were glorious anyway.)
The festival continues through May 6 with choreographers Stanton Welch, Julia Adam and James Kudelka on Program B, and Margaret Jenkins, Val Caniparoli and Jorma Elo on Program C.

reprinted with permission