Neoclassical to Now: San Jose Ballet Review

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I went to the San Jose ballet this past Sunday. There was a half-off deal on Amazon local, plus they were performing Serenade. I've seen a lot of photographs of Serenade, and read a lot about it, but I'd never seen it in person, so it was really exciting for me.

The opening was gorgeous, as expected. The tulle of the skirts floats so lightly that the dancers resembled moon jellyfish. The blue lights, the harmony of the movements, it was so transcendent. It's not difficult to understand how Balanchine took the ballet world by surprise with the fluidity of the choreography; the scenes shift flawlessly, unlike classical ballets where solos and pas de deuxs and trios are so precisely separated. Neo-classical is the perfect word to describe his work. He didn't directly violate the principles of the old Russian ballets, he just stretched them. The backs of the dancers are more arched, the legs are lifted into what Allegra Kent described in her auto-biography as "over the rainbow extensions." The dancers extend their arms to one another at some moments, and at others they blind their counterparts by covering one another's eyes. It was so playful and innocent at parts, and lurid in others. It was subtle and sad and lonely and pretty. I loved it. 

There's a clip from PNB here, they were a *little* more in sync than San Jose Ballet, but who's judging?

The second piece was  Philip Glass choreographed by Jorma Elo, who to be honest I had never heard of. The ballet was debuted in 2006 by American Ballet Theatre. It paired really well with Serenade, because it had similar themes in terms of structure: pairs and groups of dancers seamlessly blended from one portion into the next. The sexuality was a little more overt, and the choreography was much more dark. The picture on the front of the program was from this act.

The third and final piece was confusing, because it started with the house lights up. How avant garde! *Eyeroll* Anyway, the choreographer is an Israeli named Ohad Naharin. One dancer, in a black suit and white shirt, pantomimed an old man getting up to dance. More and more dancers joined him on stage in identical outfits, and soon an entire company of old men were cha-cha-ing stiffly as the lights finally dimmed. It looked like this, except more funny and less scary:

From this scene, the curtains and a surf version of Hava Nagila started blasting. When the curtains came up, the dancers were seated in folding chairs making a U-shape on the stage. The music began, it was a version of "Echad Mi Yodea," or "Who Knows One?" This is a classic Passover countdown song for kids to learn some basic elements of Judaism. It's like the twelve days of Christmas, for Jews! I saw the show with a Hebrew-speaking friend, so we both started cracking up at the music choice. You start with one and work your way up to thirteen, because we can remember one more thing than Christians, because we're smarter. JOKES! This version took the original song and put some scary music underneath so it kept getting increasingly nerve-racking. I don't know if I can explain it better than this video, since most of it was recorded by an Israeli dance company here:

Then we were taken from Judaism to Catholicism with a pas de deux set to Stabat Mater by Vivaldi, which was lovely if jarring given the total lack of transition.

Finally, the "old people" dancers came marching into the audience and chose some members to dance with them. Breaking the fourth wall! OMG! 

Actually, skepticism aside, it worked really well. The audience members were as wooden as the opening dancers, so it made sense that they kept the house lights up in the beginning because WE WERE THE OLD PEOPLE and therefore the focus of the show. The audience members were paired off with dancers and mambo-ed along with them for a few minutes before being ushered off the stage. Then, in a finale that had as many fake endings as the Lord of the Rings, the dancers continually switched between ballet, and then party-dancing, as the curtain rose and fell again. And again. And again.

The Naharin stuff was good, and interesting, but really disjointed and thrown together with the exception of the beginning and end. However, I do have to admit that the postmodern elements were among the best I've ever seen incorporated into a show. 

Overall, the program did a good job of providing a brief tour of ballet from neo-classical to now, as promised. If I had my choice though, I would go with more 'neo-classical' and less 'now.'

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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