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Olympic Arts: the night the San Francisco Ballet turned superficial

By David Wilck / August 13, 1984



Los Angeles

It's almost as if the San Francisco Ballet thought it was playing Las Vegas. Here it was in Los Angeles at the prestigious Olympic Arts Festival, and the show it put on - a 16-piece repertory evening full of glitz, glitter, and blatant sensuality - was an embarrassment, not only to the company but to its country.

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In more than 50 years of fine and innovative dance, the San Francisco Ballet has amply proved its status as one of the premier ballet companies in the world. It was with great expectation that crowds here jammed the Pasadena Civic Center July 25 and 26 to see what was announced as ''highlights from their 50th anniversary gala.''

But what they got in no way matched the depth, grace, and power this company is capable of. Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer wrote of the performance: ''The San Francisco Ballet can do better. And Los Angeles deserves better.''

The evening began with George Balanchine's famous ''Serenade.'' The costumes were beautiful and the ensemble work commendable. But it was a fleeting moment of simple grace.

The low point came in the third number, a pas de deux entitled ''Windows,'' by co-artistic director Michael Smuin. What started out as an enchanting romantic encounter turned into a repellent strip tease, as dancers peeled off clothes to their undergarments.

Other numbers in the first half, including ''Filling Station'' and ''Mobile, '' would have been fine if they had been truly entertaining or powerful, but absolutely nothing was coming off the stage - no feeling, very little energy. The leaps were low, the turns had no sparkle, and the mood was heavy, almost sleepy.

Another big disappointment was Smuin's ''To the Beatles,'' a much-awaited work that was 10 years in the making. The four selections from this piece included such old favorites as ''Day Tripper,'' ''The Long and Winding Road,'' ''And I Love Her,'' and ''Help.'' Of these, only the dance to ''Help'' projected any power or excitement. A continuous chain of men strutted across the back of the stage while Andres Reyes put some much-needed sparkle into the evening with bounding leaps and dramatic tournes en l'air.

The first-half finale, a would-be showstopper called ''NRA,'' with kick lines and '20s-style female razzle-dazzle, was so thin it was almost laughable.

Thankfully, the second half improved. In fact, probably the best piece of the evening came just after intermission.

''Song for Dead Warriors'' is a five-man elegy to heroic American Indians. The theme is graphically illustrated by old photo engravings of the warriors which are projected onto a scrim in front of the dancers. The dancing, for the first time in the evening, was compelling, and even thrilling at points. And the choreography was nearly brilliant in its marriage of traditional Indian and modern balletic movement. It was a moving statement about the heritage of the West, a far more appropriate offering for an Olympic Arts Festival than Las Vegas glitz.

Unfortunately, in the end style won out over substance. The finale - ''The Fifth Campaign'' from Balanchine's ''Stars and Stripes'' - is one of those numbers that even the Dr. Seuss Grinch would stand up and cheer about. But the company's version put more emphasis on costumes and lighting - which were beautiful - than on precision and pizazz. It was a disappointing end to a disappointing program. It is hoped that the company can rethink or refocus these repertory pieces before the rest of the country (and the world) sees it again.