Salome, a world premiere at San Francisco Ballet

Program 5, 2017 Season

Written by:
Toba Singer
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An argument favoring bilingual education: When a child whose first language is not yet well-established is placed in a classroom where only English is spoken, the child develops “subtractive bilingualism,” making mastery of both languages difficult. Something along these lines may account for the weaknesses in Arthur Pita’s world premiere of “Salome,” a retelling of the Biblical story in the argot of an Ameri-trash decadent culture, where every great fortune, as Balzac put it, “starts with a crime.”

Here the subtractive element finds a home where the story meets the choreography. Vocabulary that could unite the two, looks to be just out of reach. Setting up the story involves a series of non-dance events: a town car-style limousine arrives lit in shadow (Jim French) in a surround of dry-ice fog. Herodias (Anita Paciotti) emerges from the vehicle dressed in a Kelly green cocktail dress. Herod (Val Caniparoli) is in a black suit, and lights up a cigarette. A cohort of Hostages shrouded in black, and looking like they were sent by Quentin Tarantino, hangs back in the shadows. Dores André, in a sumptuous apple-red dress, steps out of the car. She could have been harvested from the last tree in the Garden of Eden. Cannons go off, sending out projectile confetti. It is not clear whether the objective is terror or humor, or terror gone so clichéd that it reads as humor. What goes missing in the first moments of this cinematic prelim is dancing.

Salome is made to drink a potion from a brandy snifter. The Hostages take off their clothes, only to reveal rudimentary tops and bottoms (costumes by Yann Seabra) that might have been worn in hot weather under barbarism—if there had been motorcycles then. The Hostages surround Salome, with one of them, John (Aaron Robison), appearing to self-select as Salome’s suitor. Salome is passed overhead from one Hostage to another, as they tender an offer she can’t refuse. She breaks into a seductive dance, undistinguished in its concept from all other seductive dances, except that it offers André an opportunity to work up a head of steam that motors the plot out of its fog. John is also forced to dance to foreshadow a special plan meant for him, and we see that standing behind the terror is a cabal that originated with the matriarch and patriarch, that has now drawn in a housebroken daughter. No matter how many times confetti is blasted into space (“That again!”), it heralds no innovative break in the vacuum where steps would elucidate a story. While the concept is intriguing, the dancers do no harm, and story ballets don’t always require linear librettos, a variation on a time-honored theme deserves a coherent idiom.

Yuri Possokhov’s joyous piece, “Fusion,” makes a comeback, as the evening’s opener. It starts with four men on the floor dressed in Sandra Woodall’s blue and white Baku-esque costumes. They rise from their knees to deliver low-to-floor tour jetés, inviting the folkloric into the balletic in a parcel of stage lit warm and intimate by James F. Ingalls. The eye goes to Lorena Feijóo and Lauren Strongin, whose long indigo-coated lines detail Possokhov’s flights of fancy with artful subtlety. While Posskhov paints with all the colors he can mix and match from choreographic chromatics, here the folkloric and the jazz meet classical in a posh expo of the many kinds of steps dancers long to explore in one work, and their appreciation translates into plenty of élan.

Liam Scarlett’s “Fearful Symmetries” returns, danced to a driving score by John Adams. Dancers twist, gyrate, and run about with clenched fists, demonstrating under bright lights (David Finn) and in an urban outfitted (Jon Morell) way, that they’ve got game. Frances Chung, Isabella DeVivo, Lorena Feijóo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Ellen Rose Hummel, Emma Rubinowitz, and Jennifer Stahl, power through their jumps as if they have springs where the rest of us have metatarsals, and the impact ripples through the house, lifting the mood, as the evening’s program ends on a high note.

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