Letter from San Francisco #5

San Francisco Ballet
William Forsythe, “Artifact Suite”
March 28 and 30
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco

Diablo Ballet
12th Anniversary Concert
March 25, 2006
Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts
Walnut Creek

by Rita Felciano

copyright 2006 by Rita Felciano

Having seen William Forsythe’s “Artifact” in Frankfurt several years ago, I must confess to a degree of discomfort at the idea of an “Artifact Suite.” The 1984 four act piece had explored the possibilities of languages—ballet’s and verbal, life’s and the theater’s—and what and how they communicate. The original “Artifact” had bombarded its audiences with contradictory impulses, leaving one exhausted, puzzled and—in my case—thoroughly exhilarated by the sheer audacity of its sweep. In the current version, the discussion about semantics is largely absent. Gone also are  the three actors—a garrulously aggressive queen figure,  a dry academician with a megaphone and the silent Beckett-like character, the object of their attention, who lived half in and half out of the earth. The latter, however, seems to have been transmogrified into a “Single Female Figure” (Elana Altman). While the loss of most of “Artifact’s” admittedly somewhat arcane intellectual properties may be regrettable, Forsythe gained a practical show piece that is guaranteed to wow audiences for years to come. Anarchy is out, but there is something to be said for order.

In Frankfurt, the Bach Chaconne from Partita No. 2, (on tape), played on an almost painfully high decibel, with San Francisco Ballet it sounded almost wan. My ear drums were grateful, though once in a while, there is something to be said for that skin-against-skin rawness that is part of a violin’s characteristics.

Part one set of “Suite” set up homogeny in the ensemble against two very different couples; firebrands Lorena Fejioo with Pascal Molat  and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba with Muriel Maffre, more reserved but no less intense. The centrifugal force of their breakneck duets almost yanked them apart but they managed to hold each each other up. Cantilevered stretches followed broken lines that followed switchblade attacks—every move denied center and repose though at one point Maffre sank into Vilanoba’s arms as if with a sigh. Forsythe planted these periphery-challenging encounters  into architectural spaces, defined by SFB’s two dozen ensemble dancers. Altman, as their general/leader/coach/ballet mistress marshaled them into rigid unisons.

The corps did what corps have always done. They framed the principals, at first in an embracing U-design, then in a more restrictive inverted V-shape, but also as a single crumbling wall stage left and, lying down upstage, as a series of abstract designs (drawn by the supine dancers’ arms). In the end two opposing lines marched towards each other and simply swallowed up the principals. Rarely have I seen the power of unisons—their beauty as well as their individuality denying essence—been so effectively used. These  almost monolithic lines, with their semaphoric, precisely calibrated arm language, set up a disconcerting tension with the principals’ limit-defying duets. In part this may have been due to Forsythe’s undercutting of whatever expectations this tension, these images set up. Repeatedly, the stage curtain came down with a big clunk, as if determined to destroy any sense of stability. This was the young Forsythe’s answer to Yvonne Rainier’s “no.” At the end, with a touch of wit, the dancers raised their arms and welcomed the —gently this time—descending curtain.

The “Suite’s” second half  starred the magnificently performing SFB dancers in a series of intersecting episodes to a suite of piano pieces (pianist Michael McGraw) by Eva Crossman-Hecht. The section again featured unisons but broken up into smaller groups of threes and fours, of men only, women only. Sometimes Forsythe had as many as six different units traversing, intersecting, playing off each other simultaneously. Here his use of contrapposto—not only within the individual dancer but within groups--came into full bloom. Vibrant and pulsating, the dancers pushed every cross step, every switching arm, jutting hip and unsupported stretch to its fullest.

A women’s ‘Hypno Dance’ was full of tendus and developpes, realized in a relaxed yet ever so precise manner in which epaulements easily flowed into swinging arms. At one point, the women walked in with dainty low port de bras, as if resting their wrists on hoop skirts, except for two women who could have strolled down Broadway. A two part ‘Boys’ Canon’ was led by “General Altman” who wove the men into a women’s handclapping chorus. They looked like part of a drill team. Forsythe brought the men on in two different sections of hip and arm thrusting encounters that ended with Molat’s whipping turns sweeping everyone off the stage. The ‘Pas de Deux for No-One’, to a pointillistic accompaniment, opened with Feijoo sprinting towards Molat only to miss him and dive into the floor. They had popped up from an ensemble line up stage, leaving a big hole behind them. Their encounter sent currents of isolations through their torsoes, giving them a curious cat-like look as they wearily nuzzled each other. The final ‘Herd Dance’, in best tradition, brought the ensemble in orderly rows marching towards downstage. Their canonic port de bras looked like waving flags. Altman probably approved.

Early this year Oakland Ballet folded. This leaves Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek as one of two professional ballet companies--the other is the much younger Company C—in the East Bay. Diablo’s policy of hiring dancers with experience in other professional companies for the most part still works well. Even though rehearsal time is not what it should be, the performances have a certain polish which at least partially accounts for the company’s popularity on its home turf.

Even though the company employs ten dancers, for some reason the 12th anniversary season repertoire only used six of them in each of three pieces. This made somewhat for a sameness of look though, individually, the works were quite different from each other.

The most attention-deserving piece was the new “3 A.M. Suite” by former company dancer Viktor Kabaniev , current Director of Diablo’s Apprenticeship Program. Set to Sam Chittendon’s eponymous score—vaguely minimalist, vaguely disjointed--and bathed in Matthew de Gumbia’s absinthe-infused lighting , Kabaniev exhumed the dark forces that plague pre-dawn insomniacs or other prowlers of the night. Tina Kay Bohnstedt, all sinews and muscles looked like one of Kirchner’s nudes, as the sleepless, disoriented outcast who wanders into her own nightmare. The central pas de deux between her and David Fonnegra—a very attractive dancer from Venezuela—was framed by two other couples (Cynthia Sheppard and Matthew Linzer, Mayo Sugano and Edward Stegge) who went through their own walking dreams. Kabaniev invested the major part of his choreographic portfolio into a fiercely expressionistic pas de deux which had something of a living-dead quality to it. Acrobatic, often in slow motion, Bohnstedt seemed to gather some kind of temporary life force from fusing her body with  Fonnegra’s. Languidly inclining on his  push-ups, for instance, she then rolled off his back into a frozen handstand. Throughout gymnastics and dance supported each other in this roiling exchange of forces.

The opening “Who Cares?”, in the condensed version, received a tasteful performance; a few times too much Broadway nostalgia endangered the work’s crisp classicism. Fonnegra, however, hit just the right note of arm-swinging swagger and sharply articulated footwork in his show stopping ‘Liza.’ Newcomer Amy Foster, by way of Miami City Ballet, may have strolled in on a quasi cutesy note but she threw herself with precision and insouciant grace  into ‘Stairway to Paradise’s’ lexicon of turns and jumps. The teasing flirtations between Fonnegra and Foster in ‘Who Cares?’ bubbled like champagne.  Jekyns Pelaez and Cynthia Sheppard’s tender ‘The Man I Love’ flowed with a lovely sense of wistfulness and longing across space but, as in previous viewings, I again wished that this duet came later in the piece. On one level Sheppard’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ sparkled but its quicksilvery rhythms should have been more articulated. Matthew Linzer proved to be solicitous partner to Lauren Main de Lucia in ‘Embraceable You;’ she shone in the fiendishly fast turns in ‘My One and Only.’

I have come to accept with more equanimity Nikolai Kabaniaev’s hodgepodge sound collage for “Pas de Quatre et Pas de Six” though I must confess that its supposed wit—putting ballerinas in white tutus and pointe shoes and choreograph them to a rock beat and billowing fog—continues to elude me.

San Francisco Ballet in "Artifact Suite." Photo: Eric Tomasson.

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView