writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Living Graham

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
San Jose, Caliifornia
October 17, 2003

by Rita Felciano
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano

What do you do as an artistic director if you program a masterpiece that will outclass nearly any other ballet you choose to stand beside it?  Add to this conundrum a budget that has just been cut by twenty percent and a deficit of over a million dollars. You also have thirty-five dancers who want to be on that stage and who will not relish doing so in front of empty seats, of which there are 2665 for every performance.

One thing that you can do is rely on what you already own and then you call on your friends for help. Which is exactly what Dennis Nahat, the ever ebullient and ever resilient artistic director of the struggling, but dancing better than ever, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley did for its first program of the new season.

Framing an excellent performance of Graham’s Appalachian Spring were two guaranteed crowd pleasers, Michael Smuin’s 1982 Stravinsky Piano Pieces and Nahat and Ian Horvath’s US from 1975. They were safe choices. Clearly, even if he were inclined to do so, Nahat did not feel that he could take risks.

What can one say about Appalachian Spring? Spare in its eloquence, resonant with a spirit of can-do that has all but evaporated and speaking with a wisdom grounded in the ages, Appalachian Spring remains one of Graham’s and American dance’s most sublime achievements.

The San Jose dancers—Sayaka Tai (The Bride), James Strong (The Husbandman), Daniel Gwatkin (The Revivalist) and Jenni Chiarelli (The Pioneering Woman)—did themselves proud. One of the ways you can tell world class choreography is that it can stand up in many interpretations.

Coached beautifully by Yuriko, who donated her services as a gift to her native city, these ballet-trained dancers came remarkably close to what Graham might have wanted to see. Tai’s bride was most convincing in her relationship with her husband: flirtatious, ebullient and trusting, yet only dimly believing in that darkness that would inevitably also be part of their life together. She seemed very much still under the wings and in need of the Pioneer Woman’s presence.

Strong’s Husbandman was excellent. Every gesture, every leap, every turn of the head was placed with self-confidence and exactitude. Yet he also almost burst with the excitement at the prospect of plowing the earth, planting crops and steadying the fences for his family.

Gwatkin’s may be the piece’s most difficult role. He hurled into the raging sermon, his body almost torn apart with frightful intensity. However, the outburst didn’t quite jell with that other part of him, the quasi-sensuous, seductiveness of his upfront personality. Gwatkin didn’t dance The Revivalist as a hypocrite, or as a troubled would be soul-saver, or even as a self-satisfied authority figure, but more like a modern man, unsure of himself. Surrounded by the adoring Followers who couldn’t resist putting just a little too much bounce in those mincing steps the minute they heard the first giggle from the audience, he looked almost like a benign pater familias.

The Pioneer Woman, who has seen life and knows what the future will bring to this young couple, , as danced by Chiarelli appeared almost wistful, as if acknowledging that she would never—or never again—experience the joys and the sorrows of marriage. The heaviness with which that angled leg extension hangs in the air was simply heartbreaking.

A least minute deal worked out with the musicians’ union allowed for performing Copeland’s score in the original 13-piece instrumentation. Whoever negotiated that is owed thanks.

Smuin assembled the music for his Stravinsky Piano Pieces from a number of the composer’s early compositions. They were exceptionally well performed by Roy Bogas, whose sensitivity to dancers’ needs is surely the gods’ gifts to Bay Area dance. Smuin, however, didn’t seem to realize that the music is terse, sometimes even acerbic. For the most part his choreography simply used it as a convenient background. Willa Kim’s simple white costumes, accessorized where needed—leggings for “Russian” males, a shawl for a tango—looked glamorous.

Smuin’s dance-making here is inoffensive though expressively limited, in part because he doesn’t develop material. He just piles it on. He also likes vignettes, and the musical pieces here are short enough for him to do so with a modicum of success. However, these one-shot deals do not accumulate into something bigger than its parts.

Shingo Yoshimoto in ‘Vivo’ could show his jumps and ended up at the pianist’s feet; in ‘Neapolitan,’ Stephane Dalle traveled the stage and displayed clean beats; ‘Balalaika’ echoed with the body slaps of Russian folk dance. The ‘Serenata’ in which the male ensemble manipulates Catharine Grow so that her feet never touch the ground may not be an original idea, but it was well done, save for that annoying upside-down split that is one of Smuin’s trade mark poses. ‘Ragtime’ had Erin Duffy and Raymond Rodriguez tap—not very well. Yoshimoto returned with a tiny student, who of course stole the show, in an exuberantly chasing ‘Polka.

Smuin also has an unfortunate predilection for winks at the audience which he throws out like the punch line of a joke. ‘Romanza’, a lovely little, nicely nuanced pas de deux for Alexsandra Meijer and Alex Lapshin, ends up with her butt in the air, being carried out like a bag of potatoes. Why?

US, from 1975, is the piece with which Nahat and Horvath introduced themselves to Cleveland audiences when they were thinking of establishing what became Cleveland Ballet. Commissioned by The Garden Club of Cleveland, the piece delivered what it, probably, promised: ballet is fun, ballet is entertainment, ballet is American, everybody loves ballet.

Performed to a collection of popular music, which ranged from Irving Berlin to Herbie Hancock and Tommy Dorsey to “Jelly Roll” Morton, US takes a look at the history of American social dancing. It starts with square dancing and ends with hip-hop. Badly in need of more rehearsal, even for choreography as thin as this, the dancers tore through its eight sections with more gusto than taste. Best were Dalle and Meijer in ‘Hunk-Dory’, a suave, witty turn of the century number, and Tai and Lapshin in ‘Dancing on a Dime’, a Fred Astaire/Ginger Roger inspired ballroom dance, shadowed by a sextet female trailing white boas. Nahat also invited a local community group to perform—badly as it turned out—their versions of hip-hop and break dancing. Didn’t he look at these kids before he hired them?

The costumes by David Guthrie ranged from suave and elegant l for ‘Hunk-Dory’ and ‘Dancing on a Dime’ to atrocious in red and white checkers in ‘Honor Your Partner’ and outrageous—orange/brown body stockings and Afro wigs for ‘Do Your Thing.’

‘Apple Pie’, a high-kicking, drum majorette style finale brought this Miracle Whip version of American social dance to its conclusion. “Fun” was the most overheard comment when leaving the theater. Maybe it was, but how sad that, after all these years of presenting, Nahat still feels constrained to bring in and keep his audiences with such light weight fare.

First:  Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring. Left to right: Jenni Chiarelli as the Pioneering woman, James Strong as the Husbandman and Sayaka Tai as The Bride. (Ladies in background are: Maria Jacobs, Mirai Noda, Christina Hall and Rika Onizuka/partially hidden.) Photo by Robert Shomler.
Second:  Catharine Grow and the men of the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley in Michael Smuin's Stravinsky Piano Pieces. Photo by Robert Shomler

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 20, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano




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