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Taras Ballet : Kitschy New 'Francesca' From Abt

February 27, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — When American Ballet Theatre opens its Los Angeles season next week, at least one major item will be missing from the agenda: John Taras' brand-new version of "Francesca da Rimini."

A primitively perfumed opus that flirts shamelessly with Dante to gushing strains of Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy, it was performed a couple of times last month in Miami. Tuesday night, in the midst of a high-priced all-Tchaikovsky program at the War Memorial Opera House, it received its local premiere. Friday, it probably will receive its local derniere.

At first, one felt Los Angeles was being unfairly deprived because "Francesa da Rimini" wouldn't make it to Shrine Auditorium. Now it seems as if we are being generously spared.

Taras' potentially raunchy concoction is an old-fashioned kitsch extravaganza, a hippety-hop narrative that tries in vain to tread the precarious line separating profundity from caricature.

The standing-room-only audience, incidentally, loved it. This was a conspicuous-consumption audience that applauded blissfully whenever a dancer raised a foot six inches or more above the floor. It also was an audience that brought along flash cameras and at least one crying baby. Under the circumstances, any unbiased observer would have to sympathize with the baby.

But we digress.

The curtain rises on one of Rouben Ter-Arutunian's glitz nightmares, a shadowy, abstract inferno inhabited by the red-robed Dante himself (Eric Weichardt) and his friendly alter ego--a tall, attentive fellow in pastel-blue diaphanous drag. The program credits identify him as Virgil, a.k.a. Daniel Baudendistel.

Soon the literary types stroll off, abandoning the stage to a running, grappling, groping corps of Fallen Folk. They resemble rejects from some forgotten Glen Tetley orgy, leotarded dropouts from a provincial Walpurgisnacht exercise, overwound aerobic puppets on furlough from a broken-down Venusberg.

Soon the glitz trappings rise and the frenzied ones temporarily depart. It is time for an amorous encounter between the ever-statuesque Cynthia Gregory as the femme-fatale Francesca and the super-macho Patrick Bissell as the passionate Paolo.

They both wear filmy and flimsy pink mini-costumes. Pink fluff, we discover, looks prettier on her than on him.

Soon the two dance a cramped pas de trois with a book, presumably the inspiring story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Eventually, Francesca and friend throw the book away and go in for some serious, strenuous, pseudo-erotic duetting. They are instantly, sort of fatally, rewarded for their lusty transgressions.

Their reward, in addition to wild San Francisco applause, is banishment to the glitzy nether-region. Here, they immediately join--no, lead--the sinful-rabble chorus line. Here, they exchange their pink finery for earthier garb. Here, they execute an arduous if not particularly ardent dance of acrobatic entanglement.

It ends with Gregory perched on Bissell's manly shoulders. The oddly entwined ballerina and danseur spin in fast, ever-decreasing circles. Finally, as Tchaikovsky heaves his last, she drops upside down, her long and shapely legs still enveloping his head.

Obviously spent, hanging onto the gentleman as if she were a lavish appendage, this Francesca looks like a human albatross around Paolo's neck. Or, perhaps, a living, throbbing, bigger-than-life bib.

The curtain falls, and not a moment too soon.

Gregory, who deserves a far better vehicle than this, dances as if her very life were at stake. Bissell does what is asked of him with good-humored, muscular stoicism.

The ballet grunts, bumbles and stumbles for 24 tawdry minutes. It might look nifty on MTV.

The remainder of the San Francisco program--a patently anti-climactic program--contained previews of coming Los Angeles attractions.

A jumbled Act II of "Swan Lake" found Mikhail Baryshnikov acting very noble, dancing very little and serving as an ultra-considerate partner for the promising Odette of a corps cygnet named Bonnie Moore.

Martine van Hamel brought style, maturity and intrinsic grandeur to the "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux, competently complemented by Kevin McKenzie.

Cynthia Harvey and Ross Stretton, we are told, closed the evening with one more go at the hand-me-down Balanchine maneuvers of "Theme and Variations."

There are Galas and there are galas.

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