Fancy Free, Theme and Variations, In the Upper Room
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, San Jose, CA: February 22, 2015
José Manuel Carreño had simple but ambitious goals when he took the artistic helm of California’s Ballet San Jose in September 2013: elevate the regional troupe’s repertoire, and raise the quality of the dancing to meet it. In MasterPieces, which opened BSJ’s second Carreño-led repertory season, the company showed notable progress in both regards. The varied program challenged the dancers technically but also shone a light on their real strength in contemporary work.
George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” commissioned for ABT in 1947 and choreographed to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major”, opened the program. Chandeliers, a gauzy backdrop and glorious tutus set a grand scene for the fiercely technical choreography, inspired by Imperial classicism.
In the principal roles, Junna Ige showed pretty extensions and lively quickness while Maykel Solas delivered on the double-tours-into-pirouettes variation, though overall the male role needs more refinement than momentum. Missing were the crisp direction changes from effacé to croisé that give the piece its zing and contrast with its lyricism. As the grand corps de ballet, the four soloist and eight corps couples looked focused and disciplined, with Jing Zhang a standout for her elegant carriage. In fact, throughout the program the company exuded a refreshing sense of unity, likely due to Carreño’s leadership.
Unity was less consistent in the company debut of Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free”, created for Ballet Theatre in 1944. A 25-minute vignette about World War II sailors on leave and looking for liquor and ladies, “Fancy Free” is as raw as its Leonard Bernstein score (the premiere made stars of both choreographer and composer), in spite of its happy-go-lucky name and in contrast to the sanitized romance of the Broadway and film versions, retitled “On the Town”. This staging took after the latter more than the former.
As the three sailors on leave, Rudy Candia, Walter Garcia and Joshua Seibel leapt and turned with verve, but missed the wolf-pack hunger of sailors on a time limit. While bartender James Kopecky poured drinks, the men’s jazzy charm worked perfectly during their solo attempts to win the short-term affections of Grace-Anne Powers and Ommi Pipit-Suksun: Garcia’s whipping turns and double tours into easy splits; Seibel’s lovely ballon and smitten grin; Candia’s endearing tango, barstool bongo rhythms and ‘how about them apples’ eyebrow raise.
Powers and Pipit-Suksun brought grace and fine technique to their roles as the outnumbered gals who are both hassled and cajoled. Women were as eager for companionship as men were during WWII, but here the performances were more “Brigadoon” than barfly; the women seemed to lose interest because of propriety rather than indecision. The siren call of Bernstein’s horn section went unheeded.
Everything changed when the company emerged from the theatrical fog to dance Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.”
Set to a commissioned Philip Glass score and costumed in black, white and red, the piece looks and sounds every bit its 1986 vintage. But BSJ made it fresh, relevant and exciting with impassioned dancing, enthusiasm and technical consistency across the whole ensemble. Tharp’s high-octane postmodernism seemed to inspire them, and they gobbled up the steps with revived energy.
Lahna Vanderbush and Sarah Stein nearly stole the show with their side-by-side petit allegro in red pointe shoes, but Seibel, Kopecky and Kendall Teague, dancing as three shirtless muses, battled them for the title of audience favorite. The crowd hooted and hollered when any of the five were on stage, and deservedly so. They embodied the music’s driving energy, which only increased as more red (and more skin) emerged from under the striped pajamas.
Cynthia Sheppard and Cindy Huang zipped through their unison phrases as well. Partnered alternately by Ihosvany Rodriguez and Solas, Alexsandra Meijer struck arabesques and promenades that created refined pauses in the midst of the whirl. By the finale, the audience was in a rapture, and their standing ovation demanded at least five rounds of bows. BSJ’s
upcoming program will be all contemporary dance, and that might be
just what the audience, and the dancers, want most.