May 2-8, 2007

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Middle Kingdom--Ancient China

Photograph by Robert Shomler
Swirl-wide web: Karen Gabay's ribbon dance is one of many show-stoppers in 'Middle Kingdom—Ancient China.'

History Lesson

The Chinese past comes alive in dance at Ballet San Jose

By Marianne Messina

BALLET SAN JOSE'S Middle Kingdom—Ancient China flows lavishly through the lore of Chinese history—from warring tribes in horned, fur-ball hats to emperors in gold silk with tall beaded headdresses—and celebrates China's great discoveries, compass to gunpowder. Every moment of this production strikes the senses from all angles, starting with Karen Gabay's ribbon dance. As the Earth Goddess Nu Wo, she spins out humanity from the shores of the Yellow River with elaborate swirls of long ribbon, yellow merging to orange. Rising on toe as she sweeps the stage, Gabay's wide arm movements keep the yards-long ribbons aloft in figure-eights and spirals, cutting an image that looks like beauty and femininity but moves like the determined impulse of creation. Kenneth Keith's memorable light fade to end this scene—deep red fading to a dim smolder—makes the new humans glow like embers of a dying fire.

One of the most dramatic sequences comes early: the battle between the Huang emperor and the Yan Emperor. First off, the way choreographer Dennis Nahat has staggered the line of swordsmen and their jagged swords seems to multiply the simulated hacks and slashes for an impression of aggravated fury. Atop his mechanical compass, Yellow Emperor Huang-di (Maximo Califano) hunts down his enemy Chi Yau (Easton Smith streaming long black hair) in the thick rolling fog. On foot and crouching low in surreptitious sounding music, Yau appears to be totally outmanned, and yet he and his men are able to sneak up on their mechanical superior.

Music, fog and movement combine to give us an eerie awareness of the stakes: the dangerous prey, the mismatch, the longtime tension between nature and machine or between reading nature and mastering it. But the overriding tone is one of doom. Easton gets kudos for this ambitious stretch beyond traditional ballet (not to mention going for those acrobatic flips in a cumbersome hat and obstructive cape). And though I'm itching to spoil the Yan warrior's surprising demise, I'll just say it's most dramatic.

At intermission, people were still raving about the scene. In a whole different way, the pas de deux between Califano and Alexsandra Meijer as the Yellow Emperor meeting his future wife Leizu was equally breathtaking. A Yan princess who discovered silk (we're told in the notes), Leizu will therefore become forever known as the Silk Empress. Meijer pours herself into the gliding, purring, sensual, East-meets-West music of Phil Young (who was in the house this performance) as if it speaks to her on every level. This soft pas de deux twinkles with an aura of mutual humility and respect. She's demure, he's gentle; she circles him respectfully, he admires; she kneels, he raises her up; she faints into him, he embraces her. The couple take to this dance with a mesmerizing chemistry, and when he lifts and rolls her gracefully upside down behind his back, it looks like love, not just a whole lot of precision, skill and strength.

The costumes in this production bedazzle over an exceptional range, sparkling white-robed wizards, cheerily colorful fan dancers, feathers and fur of steppe peoples, peacock dancers and creatively rendered creatures of the Chinese Zodiac. Nahat ignored advice against breaking the epic solemnity of China's history to stage his comical Zodiac sequence—Haley Henderson's bobbing pink pig in black trotters; Hao Bo as a sleek golden dragon, Akira Takahashi's wiry tailed yellow monkey (an audience favorite), Tiffany Glenn's powerful tiger (only too nice to give Erena Ishii's fluffy pink rabbit a hungry look)—but what a wonderfully conceived (and danced) crowd-pleaser the Zodiac turns out to be.

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