There are ballets that put all of a company’s bona fides to the test—stamina, virtuosity, ensemble quality, and of course, its ranking dancers’ stage personalities and technical skills. Among them are Harold Lander’s “Etudes,” Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” and John Cranko’s “Taming of the Shrew.” On February 22, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, just a little over a year since former ABT principal José Manuel Carreño took the helm there, presented two of those pieces, “Fancy Free,” and “In the Upper Room,” along with a third major contender, George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.”
How did the company fare? It sailed through with flying colors, reminiscent of the colors on the Cuban standard under which Carreño received his training and in part, honed the work ethic he now transmits to this 31-member company. If these endowments come to the company late in the game, they are no less effective for that. A comparison with BSJSV performances as recent as two years ago, points to Carreño as a one-man argument for lifting the U.S.-enforced Cuban trade embargo. There are many more urgent reasons to do so, but making it possible to send U.S. dance students to receive ballet training and learn studio etiquette under the Cuban hand is not an insignificant one.
“Theme and Variations,” opens to a canned rendering of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No 3 for Orchestra.” As if she doesn’t hear the recording’s tinny protests, Junna Ige is bandbox crisp in her sparkling white tutu, and at the ready to dazzle with clipped footwork. The equally smart-looking Maykel Solas squires her gallantly. In spite of his spotting going awry now and then, Solas arrives with mostly well-placed turns. He brings great energy to his brisé volé, recalling the first Carreño I saw dance this variation—Lázaro Carreño—José Manuel’s uncle, who launched it like a rocket to the heavens. Ige’s variation is stunning. She holds us in her thrall through buoyant yet sculpted saut de chats. In her pas de deux with Solas, the balances impress, and neither partner angles their gaze toward the audience to cue applause. They focus more on the lowing violin notes that Ige mirrors with her torso, as if it were that instrument’s bowstrings. Insouciance in their partnering turns it more kids-next-door-courtly than grandiose. The step-back lifts go high dudgeon, but with an air of temporal discovery that lends poignancy to the blend.
The costumes are reconstructions by the company’s shop, and the fuchsia soloist and black corps tutus that contrast with the principals’ white luminescence, add a lush layering to the panorama. These dancers, who frame the couple in white, work hard to achieve a sanguine ensemble quality. As they move through the piece, they garner more of it. It’s like watching a company come of age before your eyes.
As the audience stood to cheer at the close of “In the Upper Room,” one could not help but feel that great expectations had been met and surpassed by a company that has weathered every tempest in a teapot known to ballet. In a betrayal of two cities (San Jose-Cleveland Ballet was founded in 1986), these took the form of overreach, understaffing, individual largesse, a public trust scandal, unseemly leadership intrigues, and dancers and musicians lining up for late paychecks. If Tharp’s work was the unlikely candidate to usher in a new era of hope and change, the optimism came alive in every fog-engulfed step of this banner work. With the Philip Glass score running like a racing engine, it is a full-out dance of full-out defiance that seamlessly, if ruggedly, moves onto a path of euphoric reconciliation. All dancers wear Norma Kamali-designed black and white prison stripe coveralls, with ballet bomb squad cadres in red pointe shoes. Some came running in sneakers. Explosions of jogging and trotting can go backwards or forwards. Women’s rapid extensions clear their male partner’s heads, or scythe forward and back in syncopated metronome-like cloches, and take sudden changes in direction. Little by little, the reds take over: red leotards, more red pointe shoes, even men in red tights, tipping the relationship of forces away from the prison house and more toward the red hue we associate with fiery, unmitigated rebellion. The red effervescence pours itself into the dominion of the pointe shoe, and what has been unleashed earlier, is now harnessed to create a distilled elixir, more poised yet potent for the elegant penchée or arabesque, and assertive articulation of the classical idiom. Outstanding are Alex Kramer’s whizzing piqué turns, Jing Zhang’s natural musicality, Lahna Vanderbush’s full-body ecstasy, Amy Marie Briones’ rhythmic mastery, and Alexsandra Meijer’s magnetism.
“Fancy Free” is a 1944 period (North) Americana piece, more so for the jazzy Leonard Bernstein score that prompts steps that are equal parts jazz, ballet and stylized Mambo. In recent years critics have impeached it as “dated,” most recently in a Huffington Post review by Carla Escodo. It is indeed a creature of the intoxicating “American Century” proposition, and predates the 1960s youth radicalization, when the renewed discovery of Marx and Lenin unearthed the bitter contradiction that “armed bodies of men” defend only enough democracy to make the world safe for capital, even as they destroy it. War aims gained ground for markets and beachheads in Europe and its colonial possessions more than they extended democracy—or at least the kind the soldiers believed they were fighting for. Robbins’ piece captures the period naiveté, based in the self-congratulatory nostrum that the Armed Services was the social equalizer. It invites a mood that glosses over the prevailing segregated Black quarters, with Blacks consigned to “Negro regiments” as litter bearers, and ditch diggers, while Caucasian Ivy Leaguers headed off to Officers Candidate School to prepare for the perk-enhanced officer corps.
Three sailors (Rudi Candia, Joshua Seibel, and Walter García) are on liberty in New York (Later, the film “On the Town” fleshed out—or outright stole—this libretto). The fraternal hi-jinx theme is set with winking mime, (sanitized) pissing-contest machismo, and thanks to mugs of beer that the poker-faced bartender in a Edward Hopper-style cutaway café serves, devil-may-care braggadocio as tipsy as the off-kilter street lamp illuminating the action. The Bartender is the counterpoint to the callow but endearing show-offs in dress whites. Three stylish young women “work it” as they pass by, teasing out Robbins’ gambit that there is no fool like a young fool.
The camaraderie and rivalry glide in and out of the frame. With Bernstein’s tremulous trombone slides come alternating moods of taunting and forgiveness. All three men are charming in solos that have undergone a few staging modifications. García delivers a spitfire rendering of the short sailor who trumpets his “getting the girl” triumph as if it were a victory at sea. He bounds expertly through pyrotechnic steps, never abandoning ship via character lapses or battle fatigue. Similarly, Ommi Pippit-Suksun is every inch the seductress in violet, as she skims the whitecaps of each sailor’s fervent hopes while keeping one eye out for an escape hatch. Grace-Anne Powers is Pippit-suksun’s opposite number, nose in the air, and a snooty, yet irresistible target for the men stealing her red purse for a game of Salugi. The third woman (Emma Francis) shows up after the action goes into diminuendo, a Marilyn Monroe-derivative sex kitten–the stuff of every sailor’s fantasies.
My own personal fantasy has a live orchestra in the pit when I happily return to see Ballet San Jose’s next installment. A company that reaches for so much virtuosity and frequently achieves it, deserves live accompaniment, and so does its enthusiastic audience.