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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000

Watching a very talented Russian dancer/choreographer find his artistic freedom in the U.S. is not always the edifying experience you'd like it to be. We are now watching the spiritual growth of the former Kirov soloist Nikolai Kabaniaev, principal choreographer for the San Francisco Bay Area's thriving ten-dancer Diablo Ballet (founded in 1994 and housed in the rich suburb of Walnut Creek, which lavishes a well-equipped theater and a fine small orchestra on them).

Everybody knows that ideology forced on Soviet artists by the state had them present heroic virtue, personify an ideal of life that scorned empty capitalist consumerism, while masking the fact of brutal state power. It's only natural that when an artist gets to speak his mind, some ugly truths may come out. Kabaniaev's fusion of Madonna and the Swan Queen would have its scary moments even if it were a work of genius--for its truth about us, our attitude, our celebrity culture.

Kabaniaev's Americanization, though, is going through a really vulgar stage. "Slutty" would hardly be too strong a word for Pas de Quatre et Pas de Sixe, the finale of Diablo's debut performance at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center. And yet, Kabaniaev has a real dance imagination: The moves are virtuosic, logical, tight and effective, the phrasing is inevitable, and the dancers look sovereign doing it.

Kabaniaev increasingly composes his own quirky music, with help from computer consultants, using Schumann's Carnaval, a suite of character pieces, as the model for a quick succession of fantastic, hysterical, brilliant dances. As music, it's just bearable, but it fits the dance like a glove. PdQ&PdS is a suite for four women in white tutus whose classical taquete pointe work is distorted by hip slams, swivels, bumps and grinds. When all that has wound down and the swans are resting on the floor, and you think it is over, suddenly two men in white unitards slither onstage to occupy a parallel universe. The worst part was a horrible moment when these wormy guys put their hands up, as if to pet the swans' derrieres. The best was a thrilling variation for Lauren Jonas (company director) that summoned levels of daring just this side of knife-throwing: terrifying pirouettes, prestissimo, changing position through various attitudes, finishing on the floor in a swan pose, preening, quiet, stunning.

The evening began with Trey McIntyre's Touched, a gimmicky but at first amusing visualization of Dave Brubeck's wonderful off-kilter contrapuntal jazz. "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" make wonderful dancing music; this was done in the dark by dancers holding flashlights--a trick at least as old as Lew Christensen's Filling Station--sometimes they showed us just their heads, sometimes their feet, sometimes the effect was like watching salmon jumping up waterfalls, when the steps echoed syncopations in the music and dancers would take off in canon. But when the initial four were joined by four more in ugly circus-like gear, the fun turned sour.

And Apollo, staged by Marina Eglevsky--she has mounted eleven Balanchine ballets for Diablo in the last six years--was stiff, except for Tina-Kay Bohnstedt's Terpsichore.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Dance Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001

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