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S.f. Ballet--a Season Of The Unexpected

May 17, 1987

Think of the most difficult showpiece solo or pas de deux you've ever seen and then imagine it simultaneously performed by a dozen dancers of equal quality. That's Kudelka's method: achieving an accord between dancers of similar ability--and then sweeping them up in something larger than themselves.

Set to Schumann's second symphony, the ballet began with an exhausting bravura solo shared, tag-team-style, by a whole platoon of men. Meticulously crafted transitional passages preserved the flow, the sense of choreographic unity and, miraculously no sense of competition intruded.

As the scale of the ballet expanded, Kudelka's structural ideas locked the dancers into increasingly complex group interaction, with the solo dancing eventually emerging from (and always seen in relation to) a nonstop procession across the stage.

Among the other new ballets of the season, one offered a vision exactly opposite to Kudelka's: Where "Dreams of Harmony" reshaped conventional notions of star dancing to emphasize group endeavor, "Narcisse" by San Francisco Ballet staff member Val Caniparoli depicted the estrangement of a glamorous ballet-idol from the world (and dancers) around him.

The best ideas here--the dancer obsessed by his own reflection, human relationships perceived as ornaments to one's image, etc.--came straight from Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," a ballet that, like "Narcisse," is danced to music by Debussy and takes place in a mirrored ballet studio. Even some of Caniparoli's movement ideas (the sensual coiling/stretching on the floor) looked awfully familiar.

This tacky retread found some defenders--especially when danced by the magnetic Gil. But more general admiration greeted the company's productions of Taylor's meditative "Sunset" (both deeper into the psychology of the work and more comfortable with its movement demands than the recent staging for American Ballet Theatre) and Robbins' comic "The Concert" (boasting two sly Edward Gorey act curtains designed for the Royal Ballet restaging).

The company also ventured in the same season the single most- and least accessible masterworks of the Balanchine/Stravinsky canon: "Rubies" (a.k.a. "Capriccio") and "Agon." Both works are packed with thorny inversions of classical placement and technique but where "Rubies" comes on like show biz, "Agon" comes on like New Math.

Ironically, the San Francisco "Agon" featured more incisive dancing, with the cast not just executing the step combinations impassively (City Ballet-style), or adding personality (a la Dance Theatre of Harlem), but setting up the unexpected movement events of the ballet as if they were punch lines.

When, for instance, Marc Spradling suddenly stopped supporting Maier in a deeply cantilevered extension and reclined underneath her (revealing that she'd been supporting herself all along), his action had the flair of a master magician amusing and amazing the audience at the same time.

Next to such panache, "Rubies" looked a bit staid, with Gil working too hard at being playful and Cisneros not quite on top of the showgirlish McBride-isms.

But give them time: Right now, the dancers and audience at San Francisco Ballet are mutually exploring new artistic horizons and, if obvious problems occasionally spoil the view (those Smuin revivals, for starters), the sense of delighted discovery is palpable though all the new repertory.

Plans for 1988 include acquisitions from David Bintley, Peter Martins and Roland Petit, plus a complete "Swan Lake" that Tomasson will stage himself and lots more Balanchine. Pretty conservative on the whole, though not so embalmed by quiet good taste that we need utterly despair. In the afterglow of Tomasson's 1987 season, it would be foolish of us not to expect the unexpected.

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