Wednesday, April 26, 2006

SF Ballet's "Sylvia," 4/22/2006

A Slight Error in Eros
San Francisco Ballet’s
Saturday, April 22, 2006, 8PM

Last year when I heard that Mark Morris’ Sylvia wouldn’t be presented during San Francisco Ballet’s 2004-2005 Season, I was bummed. Was it the orgy in the woods, the confusion of nymphs with potential nymphos, or the drunken topless slaves that did Sylvia” in? After 30 seconds of debate, I came up empty and moved on with life as I knew it. But luckily a year later, SF Ballet decided to bring the shirtless minions and story of female empowerment back to the stage.

I enjoyed Sylvia the first time I saw it. With Megan Low as a charismatic and youthful Sylvia, she easily convinced everyone to root for her, and had we been at a baseball game, there would have been foot stomping, drum beats, and the wave. Morris’ version spotlighted the story; it served as the primary focus, with the choreography more about imagery and ideas as opposed to superfluous sautés and promenades. (The choreography itself seems much debated, with several saying that Morris’ ballet knowledge is flimsy at best, but I disagree. Maybe they haven’t seen A Garden, Sandpaper Ballet, or Later, but trust me, Morris knows ballet, and it seems in Sylvia he decided to take a more organic, au natural approach to the majority of the movement vocabulary.) In short, your heroine needs to be believable in addition to a superb technician, and that is where this past Saturday night’s production failed.

Yuan Yuan Tan is no doubt an amazing dancer, with steady balance, a lofty presence, and extensions that reach beyond the pillars. Way back when, in Lar Lubovitch‘s (also modern-based and highly debated) Othello, she played the naïve card, with batting eyelashes and a big grin, and it worked, but this persona hasn’t been seen since. More recently she’s been known for her cool demeanor on stage, and not her girly, likeable personality. It’s tough to want Sylvia to find love when she literally looks like she wants to kill Aminta, who was played boyishly yet fully by Gonzalo Garcia. Now here’s someone whose performance quality speaks leaps and bounds -- he can perform technical feats with unabashed maturity yet exhibit the look and feel of a young boy in love with just a simple développé.

The supporting dancers proved willing and able, and while much of the movement is more modern based, there are still lovely attitude turns, arabesques, and piqués that remind us this is a top-notch ballet company. Jaime Garcia Castilla, as a last-minute substitution, served as our golden boy Eros. While not as warm as James Sofranko, he appeared ethereal and a good match to the goddess in silver, Muriel Maffre’s omnipotent Diana. (And did you know that Eros and Diana have the same tailor?) Brooke Taylor Moore, whose technique continues to evoke crispness, performed admirably as Sylvia’s friend, and several corps/soloist members stood out as ones to watch, namely Lily Rogers, Courtney Elizabeth, and Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun. Yuri Possokov, whose dancing career is on its last legs with retirement in sight, played the sketchy yet lonely Orion, and I couldn’t tell which he was grasping for more: his performing career or Sylvia. Martin West led the ballet's orchestra in a rousing and lustuous performance of Léo Delibes' score.

Syliva, while very true to the original story, varies from the traditional ballet in many ways, but as always, the success lies in all the pieces coming together, including the featured dancers. It’s not just about the dance, but also the theater, the dramatics, and the emotion, all combined into one big event that you hope will leave you elated but could just leave you hanging. The big picture is there, though, along with hope that other casts will succeed where this once didn’t quite gel.

Photo ©SF Ballet

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Doug Varone and Dancers @ YBCA, 4/7/2006

Varone and Company Rise to the Occasion
Doug Varone and Dancers
April 7, 2006 8PM
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

15 years in the making, and Doug Varone and Dancers have returned to San Francisco. I wasn’t here the first time, as I was in middle school and probably off at a slumber party order pizza and talking about first kisses. But last night’s performance inspired me to hopefully catch the company again before another 15 years goes by. Presented at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by San Francisco Performances, the company of nine dancers (including Varone himself) swept in for the first night of a three-performance run featuring three West Coast premieres, all focusing somewhat steadily on relationships and couplings.

The big hit of the night proved to be Varone’s Castles. With Prokofiev’s hauntingly eerie Waltz Suite, eight dancers paired up and flew around the stage with each other in a powerful dance of match, mismatch, and rematch. I had fleeting memories of the ballroom scene in Cinderella, processional and all, with each dancer searching for his or her special someone. The duet between Eddie Taketa and Natalie Desch proved particularly moving with emphasis on the pause, the thought, before each one advanced upon the other. And not only was their reflection and care evident with each place of a hand or the curve of the back, but Varone’s choreography proved thoughtful in itself. There’s no superfluous moves, no unnecessary gestures, no extra bold lighting cues. Instead, the dancers, the dance, and the costumes and set design-- it all comes together into a statement of hope and continuation, fully seen at the end with a flurry dancing spotlighted by the warm and touching lighting design by Jane Cox and Joshua Epstein.

Varone’s Rise, choreographed in 1993 and commonly referred to as the company's signature work, opened the program. Set to John Adams’ minimalist yet moving Fearful Symmetries, the work spotlighted four distinct couples dressed in violet, purple, teal green, and red. Emphasizing freedom of movement and solid release technique, the dancers overlapped in a smart study on the flow of motion. From mile-high leaps to steady balances in arabesque and supported lifts overhead, these dancers didn’t stop; even in a “resting state,” there’s plenty of emotion and dedication in their faces, presence, and line. Time doesn’t pause, and neither does the dance, with the pace charging onward and upward with fierce determination.

The Thing of the World showed us that Varone isn’t just about large group pieces that make you lean on the edge of your seat for 28 minutes. A duet for Varone and John Beasant III, The Thing of the World focused on what happens to a relationship when things go wrong. Stressing repetition in slightly different situations, we saw that not only do things not always happen according to plan, but that many times our emotions and actions get out of control, to the point of disastrous results. While including more gesturing and posturing than full on dance phrases and not as visually stimulating as Rise or Castles, The Thing of the World is an interesting study in its own right.

Doug Varone and Dancers marries contemplative, intricate choreography with talented dancers in what might be one of the most successful modern dance performances I‘ve seen for awhile. Yet Friday’s house looked only half-full at best, so let’s hope others catch on as well. While New York City is lucky to be home to Doug Varone and Dancers, San Francisco has received a gift with these three performances, and let’s hope that they return again soon.

Photo by Phil Knott