After two tantalizing previews on Helgi Tomasson's new work,
Chi-Lin, of which I saw one highly informative work open to San Francisco Ballet subsribers and members of the Asian Art Museum,
San Francisco Ballet opened Program Five with Mark Morris'
"A Garden" premiered last season. This is Richard Strauss' reworking of Francois Couperin music, and danced by a remarkable
cast which included Joanna Berman, Tina LeBlanc,Kristin Long, Gonzalo Garcia,Guennadi Nedviguine and Damian Smith.
This is one of the more charming Morris works with an old-
fashioned accent. The postures remind one of the drawings in Carlo Blasis' manuals and the groupings could easily be statuary on some baroque era French chateau terrace or in a formal garden.
The spaciousness is beautifully accented by the entrees and exits,though Morris insists on adding his peculiar gestural asides,and a pair of refined grinds of the hips at the beginning and end of a pas de deux. Occasionally the completed phrase places the dancer in a puppet-like posture,body tilted forward, head inclined to the hands angled as if holding reading material. One can see clearly how a baroque costume could be slipped on to any one of the black garbed bodies, simply by the port de bras. Another charming accent is the manner in which Morris reflects the sonata allegro form of music, ending with a couple just in from the wings at downstage right and another in a similar location at upstage left. As an essay on the dance ecole,it is satisfying to see again.
Chi-Lin, the new Tomasson piece to the music of Bright Sheng, a 2001 MacArthur Fellow recipient (known in the U.S. as the genius award) was given a surpassingly elegant set and costumes by Sandra Woodall with lighting and projection designs by Clifton Taylor. The production benefited from a substantial gestation period and an obviously felicitous collaboration, abetted by Sandra Woodall's Fulbright-supported sojourn in Taiwan.
Tomasson started Chi-Lin as a solo for Yuan Yuan Tan, supported by four men. When she was unable to dance for the 2001 Gala, he began to expand it to include the other three figures of the four cardinal directions: the dragon (Yuri Possokhov); the tortoise (Damian Smith) who dances a pas de deux with Tan; the phoenix (Parrish Maynard); and chi-lin (the unicorn in Western mythology)
(Yuan Yuan Tan).
Woodall placed the choreography in a setting suggesting a Chinese temple and from old Chinese coins, images were adapted for banners and the initial projections which introduce the audience to the four principal characters. Each character dances in front of banners or projections of their character i.e. the tortoise has water waves. When the phoenix dances, he is framed by five female dancers (cardinal directions also have a center)wearing ceremonial butterfly sleeves covering their hands and flipped one way or another accenting the phoenix's movement. Four men in dark blue uniform,brandishing flags with the four images, flank Chi-Lin.
One respected critic commented to me the choreography doesn't lead up to something.I replied Western minds tend to expect that. We saw an exposition of individual dancers'qualities and their technique against music blending Chinese percussive capacities to Western musical structure and one haunting Yuan Dynasty folk melody as background for the pas de deux.
I need to look at it again to assess the choreography more accurately. It definitely is a spectacular stab at Asian-Western fushion created with the utmost respect for both
traditions. Yuan Yuan Tan, of course, excells in the role of Chi-Lin, combining elements of yin and yang. Her pas de deux with Damian Smith as the tortoise suggests the image of the snake intertwined with tortoise, a frequent combinatioin in Chinese iconography.Parrish Maynard's Phoenix possesses a signature gesture of the hands, and his physique indicates what an elegant Blue Bird he must be.Possokhov's Dragon gained in his formidable quality and by its end I could believe he was a Western dancer capturing the feeling of the Chinese dragon.
It seems utterly crass to call "Chi-Lin" a mood piece. It is far more than other such works I've seen to date. The total production is a knock-out and makes a positive argument for Tomasson and Bright to seek other such fusions. More, perhaps, on second viewing.
After the second intermession we got Joanna Berman's solo, Later, created for her this season by Mark Morris to Schubert music , beautifully played by Roy Bogas. Morris has removed her shawl, but her costume still cuts her line. It still refers to the third position arms and remains almost two-thirds walk through, but Berman phrases so beautifully, and listens to the music so keenly that her gestures on the floor elicited a magical silence in the audience. She was given a few jumps and some arabesques, but Morris didnot provide her the calibre which Robbins' invested in Other Dances for Natalia Makarova. Such calibre would have been worthy of Berman's artistry.
The program closed with Hans Van Manen's Black Cake, with Muriel Maffre and Cyril Pierre replacing Yuri Possokhov and Julia Adams, recently a mother of a daughter. Lucia La Carra and Stephen Legate repeated their glittering,imploring roles and Lorene Feijoo and Guennadi Nedivguine gave us the hesitations and persuasive postures dominating the first pas de deux.
The opening does go on too long. In the supporting couples Peter Brandenhoff and Moises Martin were distinctive. The drunk scene, to Massanet's Thais is genuinely comic and minted hoot. A local critic deplored its repetition, but there is no denying Van Manen has captured sophisticate social behavior with his unusually keen eye.