It was a jittery night at Segerstrom Hall. While San Francisco reeled from a massive earthquake on Tuesday, the San Francisco Ballet tried to pretend it was touring business as usual in Orange County.
Obviously, this wasn't just another opening, another show. But the show did go on, gamely. And, despite some understandable lapses in concentration, the company performed a very mixed mixed-bill with resourceful bravado.
Helgi Tomasson's company really looks bright, tough and handsome these days. It is a young company, more notable, perhaps, for spirit than for polish. It is a well-schooled company, however, and it is a company willing--no, eager--to take chances.
The calling card for Costa Mesa seemed designed to show just how many different things the San Francisco Ballet could do at the flick of a toe. The program began with the glittery neo-classicism of "Theme and Variations," a testament to Tomasson's long and fruitful affiliation with George Balanchine. To cheer those who must equate lofty ballet with Soviet circus rituals, there was the comfort of the inevitable "Corsaire" pas de deux.
To demonstrate sympathy for fashionable modernism, Tomasson also ventured an unmatched pair of experimental indulgences. Stylistic meekness is not his forte.
David Bintley's "The Sons of Horus" (1985) revealed a convoluted network of pseudo ancient-Egyptian rituals involving quasi-animals and semi-mythological gods, who do their assorted exotic things neatly in ballet slippers. William Forsythe's "New Sleep" (1987) dealt a mechanical maze of slick, murkily symbolic, darkly da-da-esque maneuvers to 15 tireless virtuosos wafted by electronic burps and deafening rumbles.
If the repertory presented something for everyone, it did not--could not--offer very much for anyone. Still, this turned out to be an unusually interesting grab bag, as grab bags go.
Ironically, the two traditional items on the agenda echoed repertory danced on the same stage only weeks earlier by the mighty Kirov Ballet of Leningrad. Tomasson does not shrink from lofty comparisons.
The San Franciscans may not find "Theme and Variations" a stretching challenge, as the Russians must. The American dancers can take Balanchine's cool, brisk abstraction and relentless complexity in stride.
On this occasion, the central roles were performed with compelling exuberance, if not with steely precision, by Evelyn Cisneros and Anthony Randazzo. The demi-soloists and corps seemed a bit ruffled in composure. Deprived of the lavish Kirov decors, the stage looked oddly barren. Conducting the Pacific Symphony in the pit, Denis de Coteau worked his wonted wonders on behalf of Tchaikovsky.
Conversely, lingering memories of the Kirov did little to enhance one's appreciation of the "Corsaire" showpiece in its familiar, dramatically illogical duet version. Ludmila Lopukhova (herself a Kirov alumna) dispatched the ballerina duties crisply enough to enchant anyone who hadn't just seen Tatiana Terekhova in the same trial. For all his eager bravado, Andre Reyes could not compete with the smoldering specter of Farukh Ruzimatov as the flying slave.
The two trendy pieces baffled those in the audience who regard ballet strictly as fouette haven and tutu heaven. The new items also baffled those out front who want to take the program notes seriously.
"The Sons of Horus," we read, is a ballet about minor deities who protect mummified central organs of the abdomen as body and spirit seek afterlife. The dramatis personae includes the goddess Isis (Joanna Berman), a falcon-headed protector of the intestines (Lawrence Pech), a jackal-headed protector of the liver (Christopher Boatwright) and an ape-headed protector of the lungs (Christopher Stowell).
Forget the pretentious mumbo jumbo. Sit back, relax and enjoy the disciplined, witty, mildly moving performance. It is easy to savor Bintley's imaginative movement patterns--the quirky monkey dances, the flapping bird imitations, the quaint rituals of priestesses in poses lifted from tomb illustrations.
This clever, gently satiric pastiche rippled pleasantly to orchestral inventions by Peter McGowan. Terry Bartlett's set and costumes resembled a nice advertisement for the British Museum.
"New Sleep," we are told, explores the tribulations of a family engaged in applied-science research, with progress hampered by an insufficient grasp of basic principles. Oh dear.
Ignore all that. Concentrate instead on the witty combinations and permutations of balletic gesture and meaningless mime as enacted by a woman wearing a black unitard and bearing a flexible measuring stick, her dunce-capped sort-of son and a stoic fellow sporting a mortarboard.
One can't tell the players here, even with a program. The stage is dark--some sudden, dramatic flashes notwithstanding--and Forsythe's color scheme is black on black. It is best to surrender without question to the bold, possibly profound, probably inspired foolishness.
Forsythe knows his way around formal ballet procedures and structures. He knows what he wants to distort, what he wants to splinter, what he wants to freeze and distill. He plays beguiling games with dynamic contrasts, has special fun with such unlikely props as a potted plant and an ever-multiplying collection of black-and-white globes (his answer, perhaps, to Twyla Tharp's top hats).
"New Sleep" affords no sleep to stubborn hippety-hop traditionalists. For the rest of us it is mystifying, irreverent, raucous, slam-bang fun. And it does have a look.
The San Franciscans performed it with brisk, straight-faced, gutsy authority. The Costa Mesans applauded timidly.