S.D. Ballet’s ‘Carnival’ a night of wild fun
By Janice Steinberg
October 27, 2008
Ballet is never more fun than in the hands of Javier Velasco, the cheeky co-director and choreographer of San Diego Ballet. Velasco gleefully mixes high art and high camp, and at his best, he comes up with dances like the delightful “Carnival of the Animals,” which debuted on Saturday at the Lyceum Theatre.
Humor abounds in this new dance, which unfolded beneath four vivid banners featuring jungle animals, painted by students at the School for Creative & Performing Arts in Chula Vista.
Frogs, their legs splayed in second position, hopped en pointe, appropriately froglike except for giant sunglasses. As an emerald-green crocodile glided by, the frogs, a frolicking lizard, and a school of fish formed a 10-critter conga line.
To a recording of children singing in French about the naughty rhinoceros, a rhino menaced a girl in red and a quintet of pajama-clad monkeys acted out a kids song about monkeys jumping on a bed.
The lively international score, from Latin American rhythms to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” often made you want to dance in your seat. But there were quieter moments, too, like “The Swan,” the one selection from the Saint-Saens musical suite, “Carnival of the Animals.” And along with all the giggles, Velasco’s “Carnival of the Animals” featured substantial dancing. Saint-Saens’ “Swan” movement was used for the poignant “Dying Swan” solo by Michel Fokine that became Anna Pavlova’s signature. Velasco adapted the Fokine choreography for Rachel Sebastian.
Unlike the top interpreters of this solo, Sebastian didn’t seem to possess an extra arm joint. Still, her arms fluttered like convincing wings, and her feet were wonderfully tremulous.
The rhino (Pal Udvarhelyi) partnered the girl in red (Stephanie Maiorano) with exciting lifts. Maiorano was called a flamingo in the program, and that was hard to see, but who cared? She was sassy and a pleasure to watch. And Abby Avery did joyous extensions as a bluebird.
Several of the high points came from guest dancers. Flamenco artist La Reyes stalked out as if daring the audience to breathe the same air she was inhaling and let loose with a line of harsh-throated song. Then her feet took over. While flamenco artists will insist that everything depends on the music, it was thrilling to hear nothing but the clarity of La Reyes’ steps.
Barata Natyam artist Uma Suresh danced with fiery precision, and two guys from Capoeira Brasil San Diego threatened to kick each other’s heads off.
What the guests had to do with “Carnival of the Animals” was something of a mystery – La Reyes was supposed to be a snake, Suresh a peacock, and the Capoeiristas apparently-homicidal caterpillars – but they were all last-minute replacements for artists from the hip-hop troupe Culture Shock who had a conflict, and everything came together, more or less.
At 40 minutes, the piece as a whole could use tightening. And even though unforeseen events can sideline an individual performer, it’s hard to understand how a show billed as a collaboration with Culture Shock had only one Culture Shock dancer, Raul Esparza, who did a brief bit as a cat.
Despite the problems, Velasco’s “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” energy made “Carnival of the Animals” work remarkably well.
The program also included “Rhapsody” (2006), “Arthur Murray’s Dance Secrets” (2001) and two pas de deux.
“Rhapsody” felt under-rehearsed, with shaky lifts and many of the 20 dancers looking a bit harried trying to keep up with allegro sections of the Rachmaninoff score. Kirsten Thorne stood out in a crisply leaping solo.
In “Seleah,” choreographed by former San Diego Ballet staffer Kirsten Heinrich last year, Askar Alimbetov and Corinne Emmendegger did angular, muscular partnering but lacked chemistry.
For ballet purists, the program’s highlight was the “Adagio from the Grand Pas Classique,” the 1949 work by Russian-born choreographer Victor Gsovsky. Bernadette Torres and Trystan Loucado rose to this work’s technical challenges with elegant balances from Torres and dramatic, confident lifts.
Irreverence, however, is San Diego Ballet’s trademark, and, like “Carnival of the Animals,” the Arthur Murray piece is a comic romp. Actress Shannon Wride, onstage in schoolmarmish specs, read from Murray’s 1930s writing about how mastering ballroom dance will make you popular, as eight dancers attempted to follow the instructions. Abby Avery was a particular treat, practicing counting a song’s beats and trying (unsuccessfully) to ignore the lyrics: Oh, do it again.
Janice Steinberg is a San Diego dance critic.
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