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SF Ballet opener at City Center

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I'm glad I went to San Francisco Ballet's opening night. It's been awhile since I've seen them, and it was good to get reaquainted. Every time I see them I'm struck by the transformation wrought by Helgi Tomasson, from the schlockiness of Michael Smuin's repertory to the company's current classical strength and depth. Maybe they're not quite up there with NYCB and ABT (well, NYCB), but they're pretty damn close.

Last night's program started with Continuum, or, Yes, Virginia, Another Ligeti Piano Ballet, by Christopher Wheeldon ©. I'm not sure when or why he became a ©, but this certainly confirms his current status as a Hot Property. So why shouldn't he copywrite himself, or his name, or whatever the © is all about? Anyway, Continuum looks very much like outtakes from Polyphonia (or, doubtless, Morphoses, if I'd actually seen it). Here we again have four couples in a drifting, dreamy and, well, dim environment, thanks to Natasha Katz's atmospheric (if occasionally smoggy) lighting. I would just pan this as a case of Wheeldon breathing his own exhaust, except, well, he's just too damn good. Sure, I'd seen the upside down lifts (Muriel Maffre and Benjamin Pierce do a commendable job of what would be the Wendy-and-Jock duet had this been made for NYCB), hands-to-the-floor and butt-to-the-air poses, extremely flexed feet and knees and general rolling around on the floor before, but that didn't stop me from being drawn into Continuum, just because I wanted to see what happens next. While, as has often been noted, Wheeldon is working in Balanchine's familiar Agon/Episodes/Violin Concerto territory, the fact is, at least on a purely visual and spatial level, he's pretty good at it. I just wish I could take more away with me from these Ligeti ballets than Wheeldon's intoxicating logic and sensuality. He makes beautiful landscapes, but doesn't take me on a journey.

Oh yes, the mens' unitards and womens' belted leotards are dark, dark green here. Not dark, dark purple. And Muriel Maffre has legs to die for (of course she's going to do the big-girl role in Rubies -- let's see if she can top the memory of Pavlenko!), but the other women didn't leave me with a profound impression of their individuality (although they're indeed profoundly flexible). The men all have a nice air of geniality and warmth rather different from their more high-strung NYCB counterparts (and somewhat grander hair and thighs).

Thank goodness I'm not getting paid by the word, so I don't have to say much about Yuri Possukhov's Damned, a disjointed yet still overblown telling of the story of Jason and Medea. Possukhov uses a large corps here much like a Greek chorus, and, indeed, their striking costumes by Thyra Hartshorn -- deep white skirts for all, bare-chested for the men, and fake bare-chested for the women, surmounted by white domino masks which give them something of the enigmatic smiling quality one sees in some of the most ancient Greek statuary at, say, the Met. Of course, there was nothing ancient about the garb of Jason (Guennadi Nedviguine, who can jump) or Medea (Lorena Feijoo, who can flare her nostrils) nor, for that matter, for the choreography. Hatshorn's scenery created some telling effects, particularly the immolation of Jason's beloved (not, of course, Medea!) at the hands of the gift of a magical scarf from Medea (will these ballet heroines never learn?). The scenery must've also been sturdy to withstand ceaseless assaults from Feijoo's teeth. Perhaps I'd have found it all a bit more moving if I hadn't seen this mythological thing done much, much better by Martha Graham, among others, and if Feijoo, called upon repeatedly to pose with one gorgeously-arched foot stabbing the stage like a weapon in her black dress and toe-shoes, didn't keep on making me think of Mercedes on a really bad hair day.

I knew nothing of Mark Morris' Sandpaper Ballet. I thoroughly loved it. It's set to Leroy Anderson's extremely smarmy orchestrations of schmaltzy music from the forties or so we hear most often in elevators or embedded in chips on greeting cards. (Oh, I forgot to mention the orchestra sounded fabulous. Were you listening, Peter? Kevin?) As with most of Morris' work to popular music (or just most of his work), Sandpaper flirts with excessive cuteness, but this time never quite tumbles into that abyss. I loved his wit, good-natured silliness, and even the two-tone green Isaac Mizrahi costumes with the arm-length green gloves for all. A big, bustling ensemble piece, Sandpaper shows us the company's dancers in a very appealing light. Morris is a genius in responding to music, perhaps not at the deep structural level of a Balanchine, but in his own ironic and visceral way. Yes, the jokes came fast and furious, but they mostly fit with the amiably silly music. Moreover, he does a masterly job of grafting his signature loose-limbed and vernacular movement style with ballet's more formal and grander vocabulary. It just looks like so much fun to go galoomphing across the stage with big, hammy sissones and assembles on almost every big beat. I'm going to try to see this again Saturday, and I wouldn't at all mind seeing it in the repertory of ABT or NYCB (instead of Eifman -- say it ain't so!).

At the risk of sounding like a recurring poster on alt.arts.ballet, who is that gorgeous redhead? One of the LeBlancs?

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You hit every nail right on the head. I actually liked Wheeldon piece the best of his three Ligeti ballets. Minimal as the internal connections and structure were, the piece seemed to have more of both than either of the other works, which were more held together by mood and tone. Enough of Ligeti after this, however. To paraphrase Kierstein on de Valois. Ligeti is not Stravinsky and Chris Wheedon is not George Balanchine.

One thing I like very much about Wheeldon is his ability to make a dance which shows off and even grows out of the specific indivduality and perfume of a particular dancer. The piece for Maffre was beautiful. She has a long foot and superb control of herself, and Wheeldon's passages of slow unfolding, showing off the foot tensing, pointing and rotating out were gorgeous for her.

As for "Damned," Alison Garcia's comments in last summer's "Dance View" were apt: the Gershwin-esque Ravel score was inappropriate to the action and the plot was poorly conveyed by the choreography. Feijoo did not dramatize anything much to me besides hyper-wrought tension. Still, I am happier watching this kind of effort, even when it fails somewhat, than Diamond Project fare.

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Michael, I'm afraid we may be in for a lot more Wheeldon/Ligeti. In the SFP program for "Continuum" I remember him mentioning the great affinity he feels for Ligeti and there's more to come. I'm trying to keep an open mind, but may pack some earplugs next time, just in case. :)

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I liked the music Possokhov used as music, and also the use of the Pavane as a motif, but I did think it odd that he chose a jazz-influenced selection as a musical setting for this particular story -- those Gershwiney notes seemed anachronistic in that context.

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