February 14-20, 2007

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Ballet San Jose

Photograph by John Gerbetz
The long and short of it: Maximo Califano towers over Yui Yonezawa in 'September.'

Gamete Yearning

Ballet San Jose gives new birth to Dennis Nahat's controversial 'Ontogeny' for 'Potpourri' program

By Marianne Messina

I THINK THAT I have seen too many episodes of Inside the Actors Studio. The guest actors are always going on about how in some acting class or other they became a tree or a baby pushing through the birth canal. Watching Dennis Nahat's choreography to Ontogeny, I expect the dancers have somehow merged with the experience of "an individual organism from its inception through its death," as the dance summary describes it.

In Karl Husa's tense, award-winning String Quartet no. 3, violins screech as two, then three, male dancers converge in an athletic struggle over Alexsandra Meijer. They pull and twist her, lifting her off the ground by her feet or tossing her into locked arms. "They're all trying to get the girl," explains Rudy Candia, one of the male dancers in the scene. "But only one can have her."

I ask Candia how he prepares for the role, as if, Actors Studio style, he is going to offer some insight on what it is to be a gamete yearning for zygotehood. But I learn that a dancer's connection to the content is more practical and quite probably more directly attuned to the music. From a practical standpoint, Candia is concentrating closely on the other dancers, making sure their movements are perfectly in sync. But Candia adds that this dance can command subtle effects as well. "I notice I get into a very focused space," he says thoughtfully.

In a later sequence, Ramon Moreno, the next generation of organism, slides on the ground through Meijer's wide, low squat—and, yes, it conjures up the image of birth. Moreno's neophyte being hesitates, creaks, moves haltingly as Meijer performs difficult pirouettes that he later imitates.

"I'm teaching him to walk by doing that," Meijer explains. She says that in the practice space it's much harder to inhabit the role (of mother organism), adding that it's easier "staring out into the darkness to create something rather than staring into someone's face."

As the new creature's strength and coordination improve, Moreno spends what looks like an agonizing duration on his toes. Danced to an edgy, fidgety score that can sometimes sound like train brakes, the moves seem under stress. Perhaps Husa's music sets people on edge in a way that can both encourage and frustrate concentration. The piece's controversial American debut at New York's American Ballet Theatre, in 1971, incurred some booing, and a fight erupted in the audience.

In this run-through of Ballet San Jose's upcoming "A Valentine Potpourri" program, Ontogeny was followed by Il Distratto. Set to Haydn's Symphony no. 60, this dance was also at a disadvantage in the rehearsal hall. According to Lew Christensen, who choreographed Il Distratto (first mounted in 1967), the dance literally illuminates the way dancers learn by "training each part of the body separately." The effect of the dance depends heavily on ultraviolet lighting to isolate body parts so that the audience may see the hands of one dancer and the legs of another. During the well-lit rehearsal, we see women dancing with their hands on top of their heads, whereas theater audiences will only see the glowing lower half of their bodies, their hands safely hidden away in darkness.

The "Potpourri" program will also include Le Style Classique, in which Karen Gabay revisits a role she performed in 1982. The fourth work features company newcomer Yui Yonezawa in September. Yonezawa dances a hopeful lover scorned by partner Maximo Califano. The tall Califano towers over Yonezawa, matching her lithe, delicate moves with heavy, blocky moves of his own. The power imbalance is visceral as well as visual as Califano's forceful, spurning movements include flipping Yonezawa over his back. She rolls off, rejected, onto the floor. These human pangs are perhaps more easily related to than protoplasmic angst, but taken together "Potpourri" promises a lot of range for expansive minds.

Ballet San Jose performs Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 1:30pm at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25-$78. (408.288.2800)

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