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Conveying the Brilliance and the Chaos of a True Genius: John Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier's "Nijinsky" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” (photo by Erik Tomasson)

A few people straggled almost unnoticed onto the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before the house lights had dimmed, and they began to talk. Even before the dancing had begun, their presence was an announcement that one had better not expect to see a traditional narrative ballet that opening night. However, the ambition to create a piece that comes close to the innovative prowess of its subject—Vaslav Nijinsky—would require more than an opening gimmick. Nijinsky is still one of dance’s towering figures, and one of the very few who merit the term “genius” both as a performer and a choreographer, blessed with abilities of the practitioner and the visionary. This is the man who envisioned a young faun as a masturbating nymph-chaser, and disguised a ménage à trois as an innocent game of tennis between two women and a man (and that was the cleaned-up version; his original idea was for an all-male cast and even less ambiguity). His ballets incited riots and still look modern today, while other examples of innovative and even revolutionary art softens and grows quaint with time.

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Exhilaration for Days: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Zellerbach Hall

Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (photo by Paul Kolnik)

The experience of attending an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance is slightly different from that of most other dance company productions. The audience is more diverse both in age and race, and often treats the performance not as a spectacle to sit still and watch in reverent silence, but as a series of invitations and provocations, a sort of call-and-response with movements and shouts, spontaneous applause, and whistling. That was true the first time I saw them perform at New York’s venerable City Center, and even more so earlier this month at Zellerbach Hall, as part of the Cal Performances season. Even before the performance started, there was a buzz in the air—a joviality in the ticket line and loquaciousness among the already-seated that usually only precedes the performance of a particularly famous dancer, a Carlos Acosta or Sylvie Guillem.

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Righteous Passion: S.F. Ballet’s Program 3 — ‘Trio,’ ‘Animaux,’ and ‘da Rimini’

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's "Francesca da Rimini" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

Helgi Tomasson, the San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, combined elements of modern and classical ballet to create “Trio,” set to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. While much of the ballet recalls the aggrandized ballroom prancing one sees so often, softened arm positions and unusual footwork modernized the movements. The women’s richly autumnal-colored dresses, though shaped like a slightly less stiff version of the lampshade skirt (ballet’s frumpiest costume), were slit to the hip, and allowed a leg to swing out in many steps and kept the piece from looking as primly traditional as it might have otherwise. But while the first and third movement of “Trio” seemed trapped in a sort of generalized exuberance, the middle piece offered a heartbreaking, and ambiguous, drama.

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Dressing the Parts: S.F. Ballet’s Program 2 — ‘Chroma,’ ‘Beaux,’ and ‘Number Nine’

San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris's "Beaux" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

The San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2, which finished its run late last month, started strong. Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma” — one of three works making up the program — looked more like contact sport than ballet, an effect strengthened by the horn-and percussive-heavy, action-film score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. MacGregor was not trained in classical ballet, and his choreography diverges from the classical in several refreshing ways. Ballet’s traditional “lift”—the illusion that the dancers do not share our subjection to the laws of gravity—was tossed out. The dancers seemed to revel in their weightiness, often moving in ways emphasizing horizontal rather than vertical lines. Pas de deux resembled the alternately combative and aggressive sexual grappling between equally powerful forces, rather than the stylized chivalry of the traditional male-female duets. It was exciting and sometimes scary, and the only bad call was the costuming—loose mini bandeaux in flesh tones that obscured the dancers’ waistlines and gave the impression they were wrapped in giant dental dams.

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How Do You Dance ‘Honor’?: SF Ballet’s ‘Onegin’ by John Cranko

Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova in SF Ballet's production of Cranko's 'Onegin.' (photo © Erik Tomasson)

Often, the thing we love about the work of a great author is the ability to describe a moment, an emotion, some nuance of experience, in such a way that it is immediately recognizable to us, however foreign to our experience it actually is. We feel they somehow rummaged around in our mind and conveyed our lives back to us with different plots and more elegant language. The months after I graduated from college and was struggling to find work, feeling like I was both fabulous and doomed to uselessness, was probably the worst time to read The House of Mirth. And who would not recognize his own moments of mortified infatuation in Tolstoy’s description of Levin: “He avoided long looks at her as one avoids long looks at the sun; but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.”

Ballet can elicit the same recognition: it doesn’t matter that most of us are too stiff, short-limbed, paunchy, or weak to even think without strain of the movements we see performed. Though we speak a different language, we can “read” dance and transcribe its expressions as our own. In Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” when Romeo has left Juliet’s bedroom and fled the city, she pulls the window curtain aside, arches her back, thrusting her chest toward the dawn light streaming into her room. Somehow, we know she is asking the gods to assist her in her helpless, entirely vulnerable state, that this is the physical manifestation of heartfelt entreaty. Though dancers portray human experience in a way that most people couldn’t and wouldn’t do themselves, they are able to evoke sympathetic experiences through their movements; we (ballet lovers, at least) watch and think, “Yes, this is what love/lust/fear/jealousy/etc. looks like,” and momentarily, feel it along with them.

But there are limitations. A story like Romeo and Juliet’s is ideal for translation through movement; the emotions are extreme, the characters’ actions are driven by those emotions rather than by complicated intellectual calculations, and the plot, is easy to follow.

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