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From Rote Tears to Ravishing Lands at S.F. Ballet

February 18, 2014

San Francisco Ballet

TearsTears, Val Caniparoli’s new water-inspired ballet set to a Steve Reich score, is sadly dry. It’s especially disappointing from Caniparoli, a 40-year San Francisco Ballet veteran and one of its three principal character dancers. Caniparoli created the vivacious Afro-Bach Lambarena (1995), an S.F. Ballet repertory stalwart, among many others for troupes everywhere.

Tuesday night’s world premiere looked and felt becalmed, due in no small part to the dullness of Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979), nonetheless sharply conducted by Music Director Martin West. Instead of using Reich’s repetitive motif as a goad to high-energy action, Caniparoli chose to mirror its flatness, creating a dance proportioned like the music itself, repetitive and rote. The good news is that Caniparoli worked with great dancers; simply watching them extend their legs can be a pleasure.

Three couples (Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz; Sasha de Sola and Tiit Helimets, and Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison) are presented in turn. Their dance becomes increasingly challenging with each couple's port de bras more eloquently expressed and accentuated, lifts more vigorous, extensions more exaggerated. The dancers look fine, particularly Hummel and Deivison in the most taxing duet. But there are no climactic moments.

From Foreign LandsA male quartet arrives onstage by rolling beneath Sandra Woodall’s clever relief mural. Via Clifton Taylor’s lighting, the mural’s appearance changes from watery to parched. Another panel, white lines scratched on black, definitely looks like rain. The quartet, spaced just so, frequently and energetically makes hand signals whose meaning is unknown. Sometimes they look worried, possibly about flooding, when the lights are cool, and global warming, when they blaze. A message on the program notes that “our individual actions have consequences throughout the world.” It certainly seems relevant, given California’s drought. The ballet concludes with the cast as community, clustered in bright light beside that desert mural, looking hot and definitely bothered.

On second viewing, Alexei Ratmansky’s premiere of last year, From Foreign Lands, set to music by Moritz Moszkowski, was a delight. The first time, it seemed rife with folk clichés, overreaching for humor. Now the whole thing feels like a living, charming document on the wealth of folk idioms that influence, but never dominate Ratmansky’s artistry. Russian, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish — each divertissement was strictly styled, redolent of its nationality. Performed on a bare stage with only Colleen Atwood’s designs to set the scene, each dance came across fully, all twinkles and flourishes, thanks to the dancers and their choreographer.

It was impossible to pick a favorite. Soloist Simone Messmer, a recent hire from American Ballet Theatre, shone as a graceful figure in green, borne aloft by Luke Ingham, Myles Thatcher, and Shane Wuerthner. In the Italian tarantella, Pascal Molat tore up the stage with explosive leaps and grand pirouettes, gleefully abetted by Dores Andre, Rebecca Rhodes and Sarah Van Patten. Gennadi Nedvigin and Maria Kochetkova shared their gifts in the Russian and Spanish dances. And for an added fillip in the Polish dance, Luke Ingham and Andre executed a subtle one-two-kick-and-throw, neatly catching a stray piece of cummerbund lying onstage and tossing it into the wings.

BorderlandsIf Wayne McGregor is going to continue making dances as good as Borderlands, another 2013 premiere, it will be necessary to stop thinking of him as Captain Underpants. That’s the costume for Borderlands, as it was, mostly, for his recent and marvelous Random Dance shows at YBCA’s Lam Theater.

It is, one supposes, a good choice — you can see every hyperextension of every leg, and the close-fitting long-sleeved tops show the rest — the isolations of the head, neck, and torso, the beats of the arms. But it would be interesting to see how the dancers look in something else, maybe architectural and softly angular in design a la Jil Sander.

At any event, this evocation of the art of Josef Albers, with music by Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney and décor and lighting by Lucy Carter, has a gleaming choreographic richness that cannot be quelled by the set’s myriad shades of gray. In the cast of 12, Frances Chung, Sofiane Sylve, and Sarah Van Patten were particularly radiant.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.