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DANCE REVIEW : Sans Sugar Plums, S.F. Ballet Moves Toward the Abstract

November 30, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

COSTA MESA — A reminder, just in case you've been off the planet lately: It's "Nutcracker" time.

'Tis the infernal season. But no ballet company can live on sugar plums alone.

I take that back. As far as the general public is concerned, most ballet companies could survive very nicely, thank you, on a diet of sugar plums guarded by toy soldiers in the vicinity of a magically growing Christmas tree. Everyone loves the big caloric storybook ballets, and if the masses can't have the one about little tippy-toe Clara, at least give them the one about the long-dozing princess or the one about the schizoid swan trapped in a tutu.

These are the challenges that keep the box office busy and the bank account healthy. But they don't tell all. Evenings of mixed repertory--especially those that dare embrace some novelty--are the challenges that test the head and heart of a company.

And so it was Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The noble San Francisco Ballet gave the Yuletide confectioners a night off and turned to more serious, more sophisticated matters. Although ticket sales weren't particularly brisk (surprise!), the bona fide balletomanes in town knew where the action was.

Pledging allegiance to the great god Balanchine--artistic director Helgi Tomasson's erstwhile Svengali--the company opened the festivities with "Ballo della Regina," a New York City Ballet staple since 1978. Then came a couple of local premieres: Tomasson's own "Sonata," a brooding-sweeping translation of Rachmaninoff ecstasies and agonies first performed in San Francisco last March; and "Terra Firma," a quirky-busy etude by James Kudelka set in February to the post-minimalist noodles and doodles of Michael Torke.

*

The dancing, for the most part, was wonderful. The essential training in this ensemble is strictly classical--OK, neo-classical--but versatility remains the stock in trade. Unfortunately, the choreography on display here proved uneven.

Uneven doesn't apply, of course, to "Ballo della Regina." Using the rinky-tink ballet music usually discarded in performances of Verdi's "Don Carlo," Balanchine devised a breathless series of technical hurdles for a super-fleet ballerina and a leaping cavalier seconded by a corps of calmly frantic women. Miraculously, the showpiece flows organically, in sympathy with every impulse of the score. The trick, of course, is to make the complexities look natural if not simple.

Balanchine originally set the piece on one of his most mercurial muses, Merrill Ashley. She, in turn, has set it on the San Francisco company, in collaboration with Bonita Borne.

The central ballerina on Tuesday--attempting the daunting role for the first time--was Tina Le-Blanc. A former Joffrey divette, she isn't exactly to the Balanchine manner born. But she has been borne to it with striking persuasion. She maneuvered her way--with dainty, sprightly ease--through a maze of contradictory combinations, unprepared jumps, rapturous extensions and tricky pointe configurations.

Christopher Stowell, also taking on an unaccustomed assignment, offered ample bravura pizazz, some rough transitions notwithstanding. The fine quartet of supporting soloists happened to include Sherri LeBlanc, Tina's sister, and the calmly frantic women of the corps flitted on and off with savoir-faire.

Denis de Coteau and members of the Pacific Symphony served Verdi very nicely in the pit. Live music is alive and well with the San Francisco Ballet. One can't take that elemental virtue for granted with all comparable companies in these impoverished times.

In "Sonata," Tomasson deals knowingly, even tellingly, with hand-me-down romantic cliches. While Michael Mermagen and Roy Bogas pay sensitive attention to Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, Opus 19, on a platform behind a scrim, seven dancers play out a tangled drama of thwarted love on the forestage. The body language is old; the accents are new.

Elizabeth Loscavio swoops and swoons, both exquisitely and ecstatically, as the inevitable loved one. She is splendidly courted by an ex-Bolshoi prince, Yuri Posokhov, suitably cast as a passionate outsider confronting rejection from a dark quintet that surrounds the amorous magnet.

*

The dancers, trapped in ugly modernist costumes by Lea Vivante, perform this non-specific soap opera by and for their boss with obvious dedication. Tomasson may not be a trail-blazing innovator, but he knows a thing or two about form and style and sentiment. Even when one questions his somewhat simplistic appropriation of Rachmaninoff, one has to applaud the melancholic grandeur and poignant lyricism with which he defines the slow-movement love duet (for which the skirted heroine strips to a white unitard).

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