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San Francisco Ballet's Repertory Program 5 opens with "The Waltz Project," choreographed by New York City Ballet Master in Chief, Peter Martins. The music is by eleven modern composers and would challenge the concept of waltz if it wasn't so beautifully done. It opens with John Cage's "49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs." This sets the mood for the entire work. It's full of city noises, the men are in white T-shirts with black jeans, the women in colorful skirted unitards. The ensemble appears here, with the four men, arms locked together at various angles, like a jungle gym. The women appear one at a time and climb on and between the men. Here they seem to explore each other, like a first encounter.

The eight dancers break off into pairs. It starts out as I do this, you do that, then progresses to what we can do together. There's a breathtaking variety of movement, from smooth sensuality to staccato leg kicks and exaggerated arm and torso movements. Seldom have I seen such a variety of lifts. They are backwards, girls rolling over guys backs, spinning lifts, flying splits, and any number of others. It's quite a spectacle. One woman dances in sneakers. It has a West Side Story feel of the 1950's New York, or maybe that sidewalk doo-wop feel: she's smart and sassy with sharp leg kicks, exaggerated torso movements, and a hip shimmy or two. When the guy holds her upside down, she does this little twitch with her sneakers.

There are a lot of modern elements here that add a very piquant flavor. The smoothness of the women, the way their bodies wrap around the men, becomes more flowing as it progresses. Syncopated cascading rhythms carry it along like a rapidly flowing river. All eight dancers come back together for the finale of this wonderfully hip city danscape of young lovers exploring themselves and each other.

Next up is Helgi Tomasson's "Nanna's Lied" to music of Kurt Weill and Friedrich Hollaender. It's set in 1930's Germany at the rise of Adolph Hitler, which is to say, the time of the music. This is about the debauchery of the German dance hall scene of the time, but on a larger scale, the society at large. It's a very complete expression of a society that cares nothing about anything except perpetuating it's own decadence, and is virtually rotting from the inside out. It's about a society that is thoroughly self-indulgent, and will willingly subjugate anyone to preserve itself in that form. The parallels to our country today are as inescapable as they are unwanted, as we march to war to secure the earth's natural resources for ourselves, and move to eliminate anyone who could possibly rise up to challenge us.

When we meet Nanna, she's a young girl, happy and alive, and looking for love. The sets are close, three gray stone-looking walls. An irregular red line runs along the lower part that gives it a subtle bloody feeling, and the ballet progresses down that path. Two women who appear to be street walkers look at her but she turns away. When she turns back, seemingly in imitation, the three are paired off with three men. Nanna is taken by a man other than her partner. They look at each other to varying degrees, then pair off, before he pushes her away. The other men come after her in her distress. She repulses them, then takes up with a third, who's a bit more elegant, in a tuxedo, but not much different. When we see them again they are getting dressed. Her hair is disheveled, and stays that way for the rest of the ballet as she descends into her private torment. This is the first role I recall seeing Yuan Yuan Tan in, and she's simply stunning. It's thoroughly dramatic, but she has a connection with the audience that is nothing short of magical. The seemingly unlimited range of body movements aside, this woman has charisma that forces you to look at her and feel what she feels. In this case, that gradual, but total crushing defeat. Her first lover, Yuri Possokhov returns, pushes her away, then all the other characters reject her one at a time. The walls close in on her, and the curtain falls on this dark drama, "Nanna's Lied" by Helgi Tomasson. One note, at the time he programmed this, Tomasson couldn't have known of the state of the world at this time, but the parallels between the rise of Hitler, when this takes place, and our own march to secure the globe, with the invasion of Iraq, and the new threats towards Syria and Iran, are inescapable, and add greatly to the force and power of the work.

"Connotations" with choreography by San Francisco Ballet dancer Val Caniparoli concludes the evening. This is simply one of the most beautifully lyrical works I have ever seen. There are five couples, purple, red, gray, pink, and black. The first four are on stage by themselves, and the black couple joins each at various times. There are a lot of sweeping lifts and turns to Benjamin Britton's violin concerto. This work is, essentially an affirmation of joy and love. It opens with the two purple dancers. He's standing, she's on the floor, then they reverse it. He lifts her over his shoulder. They're joined by the black pair for the first of the double pas de deux. The red dancers appear alone for the next section. It's a lively, upbeat duet. The black couple come on stage, and the reds pirouette between them, then partner with them. The grays do a climactic pas de deux to a triumphant crescendo. He lifts her to his shoulder, spins her around, then back down. It's a lively and sensuous pas de deux with grand, sweeping arm movements, turns, and lifts that are smooth and flowing.

Next are the pinks. It's fast spins and twirls. She throws herself into his arms, he lifts her, then back down. All the couples are on stage for the conclusion. The blacks do a smooth, lyrical pas de deux, while the other couples line the back of the stage. "Connotations" is about couples and what they can do together. It's pure beauty and love projected in dance. In these mixed repertory programs, the San Francisco Ballet choreographers always win out over the others, and Program 5 is no exception. Helgi Tomasson can do it all himself, but he spreads it around among his company, and gets the best out of everyone. This is the true stamp of the master, that confidence to make everyone else soar. This company is not so much about individual stars, even though a number of dancers are as good as anyone anywhere, but rather, about the company as a whole and the ability to get the maximum from everyone, for every performance. That's how Tomasson has turned San Francisco Ballet into arguably the best in the world. The season continues through May 14.

 

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