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San Francisco Ballet

'Naked,' 'Ibsen's House,' 'in the middle, somewhat elevated'

by Katie Rosenfeld

January 31, 2009 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Stanton Welsh’s “Naked,” commissioned for last year’s New Works Festival, is an enjoyable if lightweight romp, at times delightful and surprising. Perhaps this is a simplistic read on the choreographer’s intent, but it seemed that the women, properly outfitted in tutus and pointe shoes, represented the roots of pure classical ballet, while the men, in earthtone unitards, embodied forward-thinking modernity. Brought together, the two elements blended into movements that erred on the side of classical ballet with a twist.

Rachel Viselli, partnered ably by crowd favorite Brett Bauer, brought an elegance to the tricky partnering and fancy footwork that made the steps shine. Quinn Wharton made Jennifer Stahl look weightless in a series of overhead press lifts that drew a ripple of surprise from the audience. Clara Blanco, Dana Genshaft, Benjamin Stewart and Matthew Stewart provided a cheerful group dynamic, the ladies matching the men’s vibrancy step for step. Hansuke Yamamoto danced with his usual clean, effortless perfection. Elizabeth Miner was a slight disappointment, coming across as disconnected from both the steps and her partner. Perhaps the casting changes announced at the start of the performance were as much a surprise to her as they were to the audience.

Another New Works piece, Val Caniparoli’s “Ibsen’s House,” showed off the strengths of the corps de ballet. From Pauli Magierek’s fiery interpretation of Hedda Gabler to Shannon Roberts luscious Ellida Wangel, the women took and held the stage with a mastery more expected from Principal dancers. (Katita Waldo, the only principal woman on stage, was splendidly dark as Mrs. Alving.) Truly exceptional for ballet, though, is that the five women characters are so strong and vivid in their own right, even as their relationships with their male counterparts mold and shape their lives. This was especially true for Blanco, dancing the role of Nora, which carries with it the weight of generations of women trapped in destructive marriages by social expectations and tradition. Blanco’s portrayal of Nora was heartbreaking, each small gesture conveying her inner strength and the struggle to break free of the bonds her husband Torvald (an imposing Luke Willis) has used to imprison her.

When William Forsythe’s “in the middle, somewhat elevated” was announced for the 2009 season, there were some cries of dismay that a ballet so perfectly suited for Muriel Maffre was going to be performed after her retirement. There are few ballets that require such a specific type of dancer; most story ballet roles can be interpreted a myriad of ways, and most contemporary pieces may have technical requirements but don’t demand a particular sensibility. Not so with Forsythe because his choreography works beyond the body and into the spirit, the innate nature of the dancer. And for “in the middle,” the nature of the work is technical precision coupled with a strength and fire only a few dancers in the world truly own, Maffre among them. Taking all this into consideration, and adding an unfortunate string of mild injuries, the casting changes for Saturday afternoon’s performance were mildly troubling.

Two of the women on stage, Sofiane Sylve and Katita Waldo, danced with the brilliance necessary to carry the piece. Most of the other dancers, including Blanco, Maria Kochetkova, Erin McNulty and Courtney Elizabeth, kept up with Sylve and Waldo’s dominating presences. Joan Boada, James Sofranko and Ruben Martin brought the masculine strength to balance the women, who, as seems to be typical with Forsythe work, dominate the stage. As the dancers smashed through the music, at times in unison and at times breaking off from the group as though urged by some higher power, the energy built up to what would be the culmination – the final pas de deux.

And here is where the casting changes were sadly apparent. As Waldo worked through port de bras and tendus to one side of the stage, Viselli, who shone so brightly in “Naked,” labored over the steps, seemingly dragged down by the music and not helped by Ivan Popov’s unintelligible partnering. Where they should have burst into flames from the friction and passion of the movements, they barely sparked. It was an unfortunate ending to an otherwise astounding performance. That said, when the final note struck, the audience responded by jumping to its collective feet and showering the exhausted if exuberant dancers with hard-won applause.

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