writers on dancing



Program Two
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
February 3, 2005

by Paul Parish
copyright © 2005 by Paul Parish

The big news about Program 2 at San Francisco Ballet, which opened last Thursday night at the War Memorial Opera House and will run in tandem with another mixed-rep show through next Sunday, is that Stanton Welch's new ballet is Hellzapoppin. It's called "Falling," it's made for five couples (dressed in pastel costumes by Holly Hynes that make the girls look soubrettish and the boys adorable), and set to some divertissements by Mozart.The total effect would be dazzling if there weren't interspersed a lot of fleeting moments of tenderness, intimacy, charm.

The audience is agog, and though I don't quite go that far, I can't resist its energy, playfulness, sweetness, and I am SO grateful to see how classical it is and how inventive Welch is at finding the fun in doing things classically. He's also made a ballet that's grateful to the dancers, every one of whom looks smashing in it.

I didn't expect to like it. This is the first of Welch's ballets I've seen that has not that has not tried to bowl us over with bare-chested men hurling themselves about, women doing almost raunchy-sexy things (grand pliés in second while throwing their skirts over their heads, in "Corroboree;" I'll never forget that). At some level, we're always grateful to see dancers pouring out their energy for us. But… I don't trust that. In the past I've always felt that Welch was driving his dancers to win us over (though I have to admit, I did get the feeling that many of them were totally into the movement. Nevertheless, I felt as if he'd put them under some questionable spell, that the result was almost hysterical—yet another run at "The Rite of Spring.")

With "Falling," he's lightened up. My only reservation was that the movement did not fit the music with an admirable exactness, as it does, to an uncanny degree, in the piece which preceded it, Mark Morris's mysterious and fascinating "Maelstrom." (of which more below). On the other hand, this is not "serious" Mozart. It is almost Tafelmusik, charming gallant movements with no great density of argument, over which you could maybe even carry on a light conversation without missing any important point—which is what the dancers seem to be doing, tumbling and playing and using each other like horsies.

And what playfulness, what invention. They enter and exit through a black curtain in the back that has many slits in it, so in effect they just appear and disappear, in all kinds of configurations. Two boys may be carrying a girl; maybe she's upside down. Some rapid vanishing acts. Several delicate kisses. Much deft gymnastics, with (something like this) the girl going out of a pirouette down between his knees, rolling up his back, across his shoulders, and down onto the floor, where he suddenly joins her and they both look like they're watching TV. That's an afterimage I'm very dubious about. Can't wait to see it again.

The passage that stays with me best, because it was simple, was a duet for two boys (one of whom was Nicolas Blanc, whom I never took my eyes off of) making a lot of classroom ballet steps look elegant, delicate, beautiful, and amusing. There was a certain softening in the arms and head, 'modern" stylings, that warmed up the combination and made it seem cubbish, delightful.

The only other passage I can remember was a moment danced in silence and mostly in the dark by Kristen Long, and what made it memorable was that it seemed like these big kicks were just exactly what she felt like doing at that moment, and then she was gone.

The dancers were Tina leBlanc, Kristen Long, Elizabeth Miner, YuanYuanTan, Katita Waldo; David Arce, Nicholas Blanc, Gonzalo Garcia, Pascal Molat, and SergioTorrado.

The evening began with "Maelstrom," beautifully danced, and ended with Paul Taylor's "Company B," which was spotty but had great moments.

"Maelstrom" moves me in ways I cannot explain. I don't understand it, cannot follow it, but I love it. The ballet gives the impression that you're only seeing a small portion of the dance, as much information as you'd get if you were diving near a coral reef and different schools of fish, sea horses, rays, etc, came and went according to their own reasons.

Morris made it in 1994, before he became a fan of the SFB orchestra, and set it to a trio for piano, violin, and cello by Beethoven—the "Ghosts" Trio in D Major. The music was beautifully played by Roy Bogas, Roy Malan, and David Kadarauch, and for the most part beautifully danced by fourteen members of the company. Outstanding among them were Elizabeth Miner, Moises Martin, Guennadi Nedviguine, Kristen Long, Stephen Legate, Garrett Anderson, Megan Low, and above all, Muriel Maffre, whose long limbs inscribed the eloquence of Morris's phrasing deep into the heart. The adagio is one of Beethoven's most moving—and he above all, could write slow movements that bring you to tears. Their dancing is worthy of the music.

"Company B," Taylor's ballet set to songs by the Andrews Sisters, is both a great and a problematic ballet. The music instantly recalls the epoch of World War II, even for those of us (who now outnumber the rest) who were not yet born then—when "orders from headquarters" drew millions of young men into a giant military machine and posted them willy-nilly to the war-zones. The emotions they felt, and the girls who were their friends, lovers, who married on an instant and maybe never saw their sweethearts again, or who maybe became our parents and grandparents, must matter to us. This is where I was conceived, I have no doubt, and there are millions of my generation for whom it is so.

Taylor explores these American issues better than anyone else. His career-long attention to such themes makes Lincoln Kirstein's interest in Americana look epicene, and Martha Graham's look hieratic. Taylor is willing to look at the effect of the Yankee dollar on the social structure of little marginal islands—and indeed, Lorena Feijoo's fabulously unapologetic reading of "Rum and Coca-Cola," #8 in the "Company B" suite, put me in mind of the prostitute's great speeches in "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Feijoo is outrageous and irrepressible, one of the glories of this company.)

But there are two problems in its structure. The first is that it's all three-minute songs, ten of them. It's too much the same. The other is stranger—three minutes of leaping and springing about is far too long for a solo; we in the audience have to pull and pull to help get the soloist through a dance like "The Bugle Boy of Company B." The weird thing is that Taylor knows this. When his own company did the ballet here a dozen years ago, the man dancing the Bugle Boy was huffing and panting and barely getting off the ground; one must assume that's the effect Taylor wanted. But it's grating. We see and accept the men dropping into slow motion, falling back to the back of the stage and falling into line, marching off to die during "There Will Never Be Another You," but that's in the tone of that song. The Bugle Boy should be a Mercury, eternally young, making hey-day out of the wake-up call.

Aside from Feijoo, Pascal Molat was outstanding in "Tico-Tico," and Sarah van Patten danced like Rita Hayworth in "I can Dream, Can't I?"

All in all, it was a very good night in the theater.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Paul Parish


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