Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oh Onegin at SFB

As the curtain fell Friday night at San Francisco Ballet's premiere of John Cranko's 1965 evening-long "Onegin," elegant Vitor Luiz looked spent, and petite Maria Kochetkova gasped for breath as her shoulders curved forward. Moments earlier, they had shot across the stage and spun through space like dervishes lost in the centripetal force of ruined love. Now Kochetkova and Luiz gazed out at us, exhausted. The audience leapt to its feet in a roar of approval. "Onegin" was a home run.

While not everything about this ambitious, nearly 50-year-old work is a success, Friday's production of "Onegin" gripped the audience tightly, because it is a modernist dance arrayed like 19th-century fairy tale ballet, rife with social context yet rich with the competing forces of individual desire. It is one of those iconic stories about passion and morality that has legs, because its themes never grow stale.

Then there is the dancing. The group action starts out heavy on the pantomime and the presentational, and even seems trite at first, but then grows more heated with every scene. The pendulumlike trajectories that begin to build and the almost impossible physics of the catapulting movement dazzle us. Before long, we are deeply committed to the core cast of characters and their story.

At its heart, Onegin is a dramatic quartet between two sisters and two male friends and evolves into a cat's cradle between the bookish Tatiana, danced Friday with transcendent
and translucent purpose by Kochetkova, and her sister Olga, captured with coquettish clarity by Clara Blanco; Olga's boyfriend, the passionate Lensky, impeccably embodied by Gennadi Nedvigin, and Lensky's bored city friend, the aristocrat Onegin, danced with nuanced depth and hauteur by Ruiz.

Onegin, stuck among what he regards as the unsophisticated country gentry, trifles with Tatiana, and she falls hard. At a ball later, embarrassed and annoyed by Tatiana's evident passion, he punishes her innocence by dancing with flirty Olga, not only confusing Tatiana but inflaming his friend Lensky, who is overtaken by jealousy and humiliation. A challenge, a duel and a senseless death aren't far away.

As the ballet moves inward toward the duel, which takes place upstage in a seemingly distant place, it narrows to a series of dangerous trios. Narrowing further, the ballet culminates with a duet between a mature Tatiana, now married to a loving Prince Gremin and a mother, and a spiritually washed-up Onegin, a doomed version of the lovers' duet that Tatiana imagined earlier in the night when she was still an innocent girl.

Movements and motifs we saw earlier are echoed but transformed, and each time these messages worm deeper into our skin. This is the power of "Onegin": the movement itself, not the story line, becomes the potent messenger for the contortions of heart and mind.

Opening night, the principals took Cranko's intentions and shot them to the moon. Kochetkova was an almost translucently dreamy girl who startles awake, seeing Onegin. Her whole body seems to open in response, her face absorbing the world she had previously ignored as she read, and she makes us feel the force of love at first sight.

We know Luiz, too--the defensively callous egotist who takes shelter from emotions in arrogance. Blanco's Olga lets us feel both the insouciance and the shallowness of the soubrette while Gennadi, an elegant version of ballet's man in the shadows, embodies wounded pride, making us feel the moral purpose of Lensky's emotions.

Cranko's craftsmanship is obvious throughout. It appears in such motifs as the innocent game of surprise that happens early on, when Lensky sneaks up on Olga, who is preening at a mirror. This evolves into a motif between Onegin and Tatiana, then is picked up by Gremin.

Leaps defy the courtly trajectories of ballet, whether it is the breathtaking ensemble jetes that course from diagonal to diagonal or Tatiania's enormous bounding into Onegin's arms, or her extreme penche arabesques or her rippling bourrees that suggest a fluttering heart.

Many moments in the ballet, motifs echo the ballet canon, from "Swan Lake" to "La Sylphide" and even "Apollo." Catching the quotes isn't what matters. What does is how Cranko deepens the meanings of the dance phrases this way and alerts us that he is both working within tradition and pushing its limits. He lights a path that contemporary choreographers could follow but rarely do.

Where 'Onegin" falters is in Santo Loquasto's murky dappled d├ęcor and costumes, especially in the opening act, where the walls looked like bad sponge painting and the pastel hues undermine the modernist rigor of the storyline. The geezer dance that launched Tatiana's birthday ball was embarrassingly out of tune, as well -- a bit of coyness that had no place here. The music was also disappointing. While the segments are by Tchaikovsky, they are not derived from the opera but a series of well-cobbled shorter works that includes segments of orchestral and piano pieces orchestrated by Kurt-Heinz Stoltze for Cranko. If you wait for Tchaikovsky's signature musical flowering, you will be disappointed.

But the flaws seem trivial when the full heft of the evening is felt. They keep the night from being perfect, but that, in the end, may be most fitting.

Smuin Feb 4 2010

Review: Bouncy 'Miss Cline' buoys a mixed program from Smuin Ballet

By Ann Murphy

With spring in the air, Smuin Ballet opened its winter run last weekend at Walnut Creek's Lesher Theatre in a program of light, well-executed work that ranged from the sultry to the insouciant. The newest and most cheerful dance came at the end of the program -- resident choreographer Amy Seiwert's cheeky medley, "Dear Miss Cline," set to songs by the pioneering country singer Patsy Cline.

This was a ballet of apparent nostalgia, with the women outfitted in Jo Ellen Arntz's 1950s-style red and white shirtwaist dresses, middie blouses, the occasional neck scarf and low-slung pants, while the men were suited up in cuffed, short-sleeve shirts and bland trousers. In other words, it had all the elements to be temperamentally fitting for Smuin Ballet, where dance and sentimentality are inseparable.

But Seiwert is not the dewy, he-man-she-woman romantic that Smuin was. In fact, valentines' themes of loss and longing are canny ways for the choreographer to push against stereotypes and cleverly encapsulate life as invariably modern, humane and wry.

Part of Seiwert's power comes from her dancing women, who are potent, flawed actors, even when the tales she has to tell are full of heartache or longing. This sharply distinguishes her work from the Americana of choreographers like Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, not to mention Smuin, who too often replicate the weary stereotypes of strong men and weak or shrill and hungry women.

As this polished cast so cheerfully showed, especially elegant Terez Dean and Christian Squires, pistol-packing Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and John Speed Orr, both the men and the women do plenty of pushing and pulling.

While keeping the allusions of '50s playfulness alive, all the members of the cast incised the air as though they were etching glass. Underscoring the work's fundamental optimism, designer Brian Jones created a space of elegantly simple floating window frames and clean, bright lighting.

Nestled in the middle of the program was a lugubrious meditation, "Stabat Mater," a 2002 work by Smuin dedicated to 9/11 in which the late choreographer tried to wrestle the national trauma to the ground.

Set to Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" and danced with purpose and clarity by Susan Roemer and Joshua Reynolds, and with elegance by the company, "Stabat" alludes to the modernist ballets of Antony Tudor, which are at once grounded in the ordinary and weighted and tragic. But unlike Tudor, Smuin runs out of ideas midway and devolves into sentiment. With Reynolds as a ghost come to visit grieving Roemer, the work echoes Giselle, though twisted for an age of global terror.

And if "Stabat" is a nod to "Giselle" then "Eternal Idol" is a bow to a steamy Victoria Secret ad. In a work inspired by Auguste Rodin's sculpture of an amorous couple rising out of and pressed into a boulder, Smuin presents lovers, here the supple Robin Cornwell and elegant Joshua Reynolds, in beige unitards in a pas de deux of kitschy ardor. Relying on suggestive leg battements, basic turns and uneventful leaps -- all orgiastic exclamation points -- "Idol" is inarticulate enough to be right at home in a classy strip club.

By contrast, "Tango Palace" is the kind of ballet the late choreographer excelled at -- a sensual and occasionally comic homage to tango parlors via ballet that makes good use of Smuin's musical theater know-how. This is a dance that knows it is a show piece and sidesteps "Idol" tastelessness.

Smuin may miss the complex nature of tango leg entanglements -- they are a form of battle, not just of sex -- but artistic director Cecile Fushille has sharpened the dance's contours and made the eight-dance medley show off the sultry talent of the company, with a spotlight on Jonathan Mangosing and Mallory Welsh.

To Yvonne, 2010

January 30, 2010

Welcome to Yvonne Rainer

It is my great pleasure this afternoon to introduce you to Yvonne Rainer.

As many of you know, Yvonne grew up in the Bay Area and was one of the founders of the still-seismically important Judson Dance Theater, in New York City, where dance was subjected to revolutionary scrutiny from 1962 to 1964. She herself made history in 1965 with her now renowned No Manifesto, the famous document in which she said “no” to established dance and all its affectations and trappings. The following year she substantiated her ideas in movement with her work entitled The Mind Is A Muscle, notably the segment entitled Trio A, deconstructing and reconfiguring the physical language before you could say “Derrida.” She soon moved into filmmaking when the medium was still a solidly male domain, and in 1972 made her first feature-length work, “Lives of Performers.” She went on to make many more films meant, she says, “to confound in a certain way,” and always of political/feminist import and wit.

In talking about Merce Cunningham, Yvonne writes in her memoir Feelings Are Facts, “He just danced, and when he talked it was with a quiet earnestness that both soothed and exhilarated me….It was truly the beginning of a zeitgeist. You just “do it,” with the coordination of a pro and the innocence of an amateur.”

For over half a century, Yvonne has taken Merce’s ethos of “just do it” to extraordinary heights, as those of you who were here this morning had a chance to experience. Using such tools as task, game, speech and film in her dance, she moved decidedly closer not only to expression of authentic thought and feeling but also to embodiment of transparent authenticity.

In the 1970s she began her long and continued love affair with film and was only lured back to dance in 2001 by Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project, which commissioned After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Trio A Pressured. Since the Yvonne has also choreographed a re-visioning of Agon by Balanchine called AG Indexical, with a little help from H.M. Her reinvisioning of Rite of Spring was presented at Documenta 12 and Performa 07.

Today she is a Distinguished Professor of Studio Art at UC Irvine in Performance and History of Experimental Film. She is the recipient of innumerable awards, including a MacArthur Foundation Award, the Wexner Prize and a Bessie.

In her poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing,” Margaret Atwood writes that “nothing is more opaque than absolute transparency,” and this seems truly apt today. Yvonne demands that we flex our mind’s muscle in order to meet her in the clear land of deceptively simple and unadorned dance. Visionary choreographer have been called mother, goddess, high priestess and pioneer. With Yvonne, we can now add poet philosopher to the list.

Please welcome Yvonne Rainer.