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San Francisco adventure.

Most brilliant ideas are obvious. Even the principled Archimedes, as he toweled himself down from his immortal ducking, must have said to himself, "Eureka! But why didn't I think of this earlier?"

I was sure much the same reaction must have come to Helgi Tomasson, the ever-enterprising artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, after he first saw the light and the connections among San Francisco, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, and an international ballet festival. Here he was with his company, in the War Memorial Opera House, the twin building actually adjacent to the one in which the charter was signed back in 1945 - did you know it was signed in this city? No, neither did I; why San Francisco? But we digress - in a city that was not unnaturally organizing a celebration. One and one and one made a glorious two (higher mathematics) and the idea was inevitably born.

But surely easier said than done. The notion of playing host to ballet companies - Tomasson decided to restrict himself to classic troupes - sounds splendid. But how do you persuade people to come to your party? How do you finance it? How do you make all the arrangements - travel, accommodation, scheduling, rehearsing, programming? How do you give it a theme - something other than just dances-across-the-sea and all that usual international hype, which might sit well with United Nations types but would butter few parsnips for the dance aficionados of San Francisco, much less the tourists and press, domestic and foreign, hopefully to be the first intrigued and inveigled by the festival's prospects?

Tomasson decided to make his "UNited We Dance" - that was the sales-pitchy title they decided on - not simply a kind of Olympic games for classic companies, but also a measure of their creativity. The overall object was to take a temperature reading of international standards in both dance technique and style, and also, more daringly, choreography. The participating companies were given ground rules that not only made provision for length, number of dancers, and elaboration of production (only basic scenery was practicable), but also requested that each troupe provide a world premiere choreographed by a national of the appropriate home company.

So what we had in basis was not only a convocation of dance, but also a choreographic festival designed, probably unwittingly, very much on the lines of the New York City Ballet's biennial Diamond Project, although, of course, the respective choreographers would not be all working with the same company of dancers.

There are few surprises left in the naughty world. Any intelligent observer faced with the prospectus for the festival would almost certainly have prophesied that the standard of dancing would be high to stratospheric, while the standard of choreography would be low to zilch. Through no fault of its own, the festival proved that observer right in the worst possible way - the standard of dancing rarely went above high (stratospheric was pretty much out), and the standard of choreography hovered dangerously above the low point of zilch.

As it happened, the San Francisco Ballet itself came out covered with roses. If Tomasson had planned his San Francisco adventure to demonstrate that his own company was now indeed a world-class troupe comfortably capable of holding its own amid any international hierarchy, he could hardly have planned it better. But no one could or would have taken that much trouble both with funding and logistics to demonstrate what must already have been evident to the hometown crowd - even accepting that all hometown crowds are traditionally skeptical, irrespective of the hometown.

But there it was. Some of the best dancing came in the revival of Tomasson's own Handel - A Celebration, while choreographically top honors were shared by Mark Morris's Pacific, a premiere for SFB, and Christopher Bruce's Meeting Point, for Britain's Rambert Dance Company. In the choreographic stakes, no one else came even close, apart from young Stanton Welch's honorable and interestingly styled version of John Antill's score Corroboree, for the Australian Ballet.

A great deal of the dancing while generally less than heartstopping or even breathtaking was pretty good - I noticed, for example, the excellence of two Royal Danes, Silja Schandorff and Kenneth Greve, in an oddly patterned duet to Bach by Anna Laerkesen, while four rough and tough Venezuelans - Luis Serrano, Christian Perez, Robert Wohlert, and Servio Perdomo - danced up a cliche storm in Vicente Nebrada's Fever for the National Ballet of Caracas.

On the whole the choreography was feeble - Morris with his soft imagery and Brace with his cheeky United Nations gloss on Kurt Jooss's Green Table were virtually hors concours. There were such oddities as Amedeo Amodio's modish confection for his Aterballetto company (where was Bejart when we, or perhaps Amodio, needed him?); a startlingly self-indulgent doodle by John Alleyne for his British Columbia troupe; and choreography by the yard from the Leipzig Ballet and the Dutch National.

The most depressing entry was the Bolshoi Ballet's Infanta and the Jester, drably choreographed and indifferently danced, and the prize for the most ruthless amid alien corn was shared by the Tokyo Festival Ballet and the Shanghai Ballet Company, a twain which aesthetically Western ballet seems fated never to meet. And the saddest spectacle was presented by the National Ballet of Cuba in something called - with sublime mistiming - In the Middle of the Sunset, showing the once-splendid Alicia Alonso, surrounded by an attendant pleaid of aging dancers in a kind of geriatric garden party scene. Regrettably, the time has come when prudence not merely tactfully suggests Madame Alonso's retirement, but forcefully demands it.

So, at the end of three long programs what did we learn from this fascinating San Francisco foray? Well, primarily, that choreography, like death, is not for sissies, and that there sure ain't much good (forget great until beyond the millenium) choreography around in the world. Interestingly, the international standard was neither as inventive nor imaginative as the domestic brand as demonstrated by those sorely criticized Diamond Project excursions provided by City Ballet. Finally, was it significant that both of the better choreographers, Brace and Morris, are, although variously classic-oriented, of the modern persuasion? What would it mean if dear old Terpsichore kicked off her pointe shoes?

Clive Barnes has been contributing to Dance Magazine for thirty-seven years.
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Title Annotation:UNited We Dance dance festival in San Francisco, California
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:Ronald K. Brown.
Next Article:Citizenship.

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