February 21-27, 2007

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Ballet San Jose

Photograph by Robert Shomler
Creature feature: Ramon Moreno plays an organism straining to be born in 'Ontogeny.'

Birth Pangs

Ballet San Jose revives Dennis Nahat's strenuous 'Ontogeny'

By Marianne Messina

EITHER THE Thursday-night crowd at Center for Performing Arts was a really vocal group of people or the Ballet San Jose program "A Valentine Potpourri," even with its minimal set design, monochrome lighting designs and understated costumes, was full of subtle delights. In September, the audience gasped and oohed when the callous lover (Maximo Califano) shockingly tossed or dropped his lover (Yui Yonezawa) to the floor.

In this dance of a broken relationship, Yonezawa's repeated returns to the arms of her spurning lover could be projected as hysterical, except for the way she enters the lifts. She hugs Califano's neck or curls into his breast in moves so loving and soft—not frantic—that his rebuffs seem all the more painful. And the suddenness of his rebuffs is a feat of precision. Even for the curtain call, Yonezawa and Califano stand far apart and give each other a dismissive look before they exit.

Il Distratto brought lots of laughter through the house with the help of Lew Christensen's light-hearted choreography and Haydn's playful music full of dynamic changes. Preston Dugger offers a great comedic role as he struggles to partner with 14 women. Trying to pull one dancer out of a huddle, he comes away with a disembodied arm. The most appreciative response came when the disconnected pair of dancing legs, aglow with purple light, leapt into the air and hung there in a suspended split. The dancing arms and head, also bathed in ultraviolet, seemed to be in competition with the legs, and the body parts' curtain call drew as much laughter as their dance.

The hardiest curtain call went to Ontogeny, a strenuous piece for Alexsandra Meijer as the mother of the species and Ramon Moreno as her offspring. Cast in a burnt gold lighting that leaves shadows on silhouettes of taut, muscular bodies and tight flesh-colored leotards, this dance creates dramatic effects from the opening moves when Meijer, on her back, suddenly arches up at the belly. When Meijer unravels the umbilical chord from around Moreno's body to an angry musical argument of plucking stings, tenderness and tension combine. And the image of a limp-bodied Meijer almost collapsing as she backs offstage clearly spells her creature's impending death. The very end of the piece works magic with light and dark as we finally watch Moreno's glistening body—limbs stretched out like da Vinci's Vitruvian Man—slowly, dimly ascend. Having won awards its first time out, more than 30 years ago, Ontogeny is a breath-holder.

The program was not without its snoozy moments, most notably about midway through the opening number, Le Style Classique, set on Mozart's Symphony no. 39. Still, the piece had won everyone back by the leaping and reaching of the final allegro. The piece began with a bright adagio and the humorously formal moves of a court dance. In crisp, white 18th-century dress with purple ruffles and purple bows, Kaleena Opdyke with tall white hair and Damir Emric in a white waistcoat, breeches and hose make formal hand flourishes, curling ever higher as if constantly trying to outdo the previous strokes. This costuming, down to the thick-heeled pumps (accented in purple bows for her and sparkling silver for him), was the most elaborate of the evening.

For the most part, the sartorial fare was as simple as black leotards and white tights in Il Distratto. Ontogeny's skin suits enhanced the sense of stress that birth might cause single-celled beings, though the costumes were a far cry from the originals that choreographer Dennis Nahat mentions in the notes, which were so elaborate as to include 3-D tubing that looked like veins. Again in September, the simple costuming is as descriptive as it is beautiful. Califano's lose-fitting silky white shirt, open to the waist and tucked in carelessly, establishes his power, his elegance and his carelessness all at once. And Yonezawa wears a simple but beautifully fluid pale dress that helps soften her already gentle moves as it flutters—or droops during her exit. After sad cello and a baleful weave of low strings, Yonezawa's slow walk off the stage in utter silence, somehow conveying broken-heartedness within her regal poise, had the power of tear drops.

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