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San Francisco Ballet

Program 2: 'in the middle, somewhat elevated,' 'Naked,' 'Ibsen's House'

by Becca Hirschman

February 3, 2009, 8pm -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet’s initial program may show off its dancers’ liquid limbs, but Program 2 displays their steely attack and strength.

William Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated” uses stark shadows and a cavernous stage to display wham-bam dance paired with Thom Willems’ synthesized romp full of wrps and zings. Dressed in teal with additional black hip-slung cropped tights for the women, the dancers, below a suspended duo of gold cherries (hence, the work’s title), whizzed about in contortions and jagged angles while enunciating the in-betweens.

This rollercoaster of a ballet featured 10 incredibly strong dancers who complemented each other so well that they delivered one of the most high quality events I’ve ever seen on the Opera House Stage. Vanessa Zahorian, the ever-dependable technician, showed muscle and power as she plowed through some intense pirouettes and partnering, and Sofiane Sylve, with her tight ringlet curls, proved that she’s “on” even when hip-jutting off balance. The dark haired and He-Man-like Simon Ball, joining the cast as a guest artist (thank you, Houston Ballet!), matched up with Katita Waldo and later Sylve, in two dynamic duets based on trust, guts, and impeccable timing. The cast also included Elana Altman, Frances Chung, Lorena Feijoo, Pascal Molat, Joan Boada, and Ivan Popov. Without much grandeur, Forsythe has showcased raw, abstract ballet at its best. And to think “in the middle” premiered in 1987!

The evening also included encore performances of Stanton Welch’s “Naked” and Val Caniparoli’s literary “Ibsen’s House.” “Naked” is filled with fun yet irrelevant choreography. This isn’t a dance to save mankind, but it was a pleasant opener for the evening. While Rachel Viselli seemed a little hesitant throughout, Elizabeth Miner and Pascal Molat more than made up for it with their spunky toe tapping. Molat, in particular, moves through space in a rare-to-find organic way, connecting phrases together beautifully so as not to highlight sections of eight or four. Instead, even with somewhat mundane choreography, his pristine movements follow a continuous build-up of energy that puts the dancing at the forefront while the choreography becomes an afterthought. Also, Frances Chung has built upon her spectacular performance last year (this time with Quinn Wharton), infusing more richness and emotion into the adagio with effortless partnering. Again, I wonder why this pair isn't singled out on the casting sheet like the other featured couples…

With the orchestra playing Dvoràk’s haunting score, couples surged ahead in “Ibsen’s House.” Set against Sandra Woodall’s set design, which could either be a giant floor-to-ceiling window covered in flowing white and black drapes or the bottom edges of a woman’s dress and petticoat (take your pick; they both could work!), the five women play out their gender roles and attempt to break free or face their hardships. Lorena Feijoo passionately led the crew as Hedda Gabler, and Clara Blanco has grown even more in her dress smoothing, don’t-put-your-arms-around-me Nora Helmer. Perhaps the most touching moment came from Katita Waldo’s Mrs. Alving and Davit Karapetyan in his debut as her son Oswald. She protectively wrapped her arms around him as he thumped his chest, as if a reminder of his impending death.

Speaking of death (which isn’t a hot topic on any writer’s to-do list), the Opera House seemed better filled than early last week, but I still spied empty pockets of seats throughout the orchestra. In this economy, let’s not forget to support our local arts organizations, both big and small, as they also weather the storm.

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