It was a pleasure to see the San Francisco Ballet back at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night after a two-year hiatus, launching a week's engagement in typically gracious and spirited form. Having passed a half decade under the artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson, the troupe has reaffirmed and palpably bolstered its position as one of the nation's outstanding classical ensembles. Even a less than prepossessing opening night program, surprisingly devoid of a single major choreographic opus, couldn't seriously dampen the gratification of watching this splendid band of dancers in action.
All in all, the evening's most satisfying entry was Tomasson's own, recent (1989) "Handel -- a Celebration." t's an extended, 45-minute suite set to selections from mostly familiar Handel scores, including the "Royal Fireworks Music" and the "Water Music." Like other Tomasson ballets we've seen -- he's been choreographing for the better part of a decade, having begun toward the close of his illustrious dancing career with the New York City Ballet -- it falls comfortably and unprotestingly within the bounds of academic convention. It doesn't aspire to innovation, and contains nothing that could be called daring. That's not to say it's lacking in invention. In fact, it's so gracefully compounded and so full of felicity of detail that it transcends the banal functionalism that so often attends the company showcase format. It does neatly show off a large cast of dancers, but for all its modesty of means, the choreography is more than a vehicle and charms in its own right.
The first and last of the work's 10 sections feature the full ensemble. Conspicuous last night in the more chamberlike intervening movements were Pascale Leroy, for her suavely poetic phrasing in the third; Katita Waldo (formerly of the Washington Ballet, and just promoted to soloist rank in this company), for her technical flash in the fourth; Elizabeth Loscavio and Christopher Stowell (both newly named principal dancers) for their disarmingly sprightly chase in the especially attractive fifth movement; Mikko Nissinen and Andre Reyes for their virtuosic flair in the eighth; and the regal Sabina Allemann, stalwartly partnered by Gregory Osborne, for her stately lyricism in the penultimate Adagio.
The evening began with a historical curiosity, Leonid Jacobson's "Rodin," a series of moving tableaux vivants inspired by celebrated statuary of Auguste Rodin. Jacobson (1904-1975) was that rare creature, a maverick among Soviet choreographers, an experimentalist who intrepidly broke with the prevailing traditionalism of his contemporaries. Washingtonians with long memories may recall his intriguing solo character study "Vestris," introduced to American Ballet Theatre audiences by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the '70s.
Jacobson's widow, Irina, who joined the faculty of the San Francisco Ballet School in 1987, staged "Rodin," originally choreographed for the Kirov Ballet in 1958 and amended in 1970, earlier this year. The curtain rises on five couples, barefoot and in flesh-colored unitards, holding poses simulating the Rodin statues -- "The Eternal Spring," "The Kiss," "Eternal Idol," "Paolo and Francesca" and "Minotaur and Nymph." The first three movements are set to music by Debussy; the two added final sections use music by Alban Berg.
The idea is a dance counterpart to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition": translating imagery from one, essentially static, medium to another that moves through time.
The first three movements ring changes on the theme of erotic rapture; the last, and more interesting pair, invokes nightmarish expressionist elements, replacing the prettified plastique of the earlier parts with a more angular, demonic look. The problem is there's no perceptible dance momentum to the choreography; the poses are put into motion, but it's like a succession of freeze-frames. The movement, and with it the emotional turbulence of the sculpture, never comes alive. The ballet reduces the implicit drama of Rodin's stone figures to greeting-card platitudes.
A graver disappointment was James Kudelka's "The Comfort Zone," commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet and given its premiere last year. We know enough about the gifted 35-year-old Canadian choreographer, through such earlier work as "The Heart of the Matter" for the Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco's prior commission, "Dreams of Harmony," to recognize that the new piece is way off his highest mark. The choreography for this 35-minute abstraction, set to Beethoven's "Triple Concerto," still displays Kudelka's ability to mold large-scale structure intelligently, as well as his knack for avoiding cliche and his robust spirit. Otherwise, however, it shares too liberally in the defects of its score, which to be sure here and there betrays signs of its creator's genius, but on the whole seems a labored exercise. Both the ballet and music pour forth a profusion of undistinguished ideas, leaving one with a sense of effortful but empty activity. The result was often to make the fine dancers of the cast look unnaturally awkward, and even the warming presence of ballerina Evelyn Cisneros in the most prominent role, ably partnered by Lawrence Pech, could not stave off a feeling of mechanical busywork.