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There's camp...and then there's Camp

February 17, 2012

The difference between camp and Camp was very much in evidence last night at the San Francisco Ballet.

The crucial factor distinguishing the small version of the word from the one with the capital letter is a sense of humor.

First, camp with a small c:

Alexei Ratmansky's entertaining choreographic take on Camille Saint-Saens classic Le Carnaval des Anuimaux score bristled with cheekiness. The waif-like Courtney Elizabeth, trussed up in a pink, taut tutu, danced the role of the elephant with weighty aplomb. Hens Elizabeth Miner, Dores Andre and Clara Blanco bustled and bossed their way around, ruffling the feathers of the entire menagerie as they passed. And in Ratmansky's tongue-in-cheek homage to Mikhail Fokine's famous choreography for "The Dying Swan," dancer Sofiane Sylve used her impressive height and uncommonly thin, long arms to daring effect. Her limbs crumbled beneath her cartooninshly as she skittered around the stage, causing the audience to titter. But the death was so moving, that the laughter felt uncomfortable.

Now, for camp's big brother:

Yuri Possokhov's world premiere ballet Francesca da Rimini, which received its inaugural performance last night, pushed characterization and storytelling way too far and ended up being a total turnoff. Drawing on Dante's legendary adulterous lovers Francesca and Paolo for inspiration and set to the swirling, lush music of Tchaikovsky, the piece heaved under the weight of its attempt to create emotion and drama. Dante's poetry is beautiful, but I don't think I have ever seen such palpably ugly dance in all my life. The core de ballet led with their elbows, Alexander V Nichols' gates of hell set design, consisting of several massive murky-colored panels covered in bars, had the effect of flattening the stage and making it seem two-dimensional and dark, and poor Maria Kochetkova spent most of her time as Francesca being slung around by Joan Boada's Paolo like a mistreated rag doll. Her hairdo even came undone as a result of the battering she received. The choreography was fussy and brutish and the whole thing so heavily perfumed that I could barely contain myself from rolling my eyes. I came close to laughter, but couldn't quite get there.

Helgi Tomasson's 2011 Trio, a suite in three (or four depending on how you look at it) movements set to Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky which kicked off the evening at the ballet, was largely luminous. The sense of ensemble was particularly striking, as was the clarity of Tomasson's minimalist choreography . The only thing that I didn't quite understand was the use of slavic folkdance-inspired steps in the third movement of the piece.

Last night's performance goes to show how Tchaikovsky's music -- which is inherently dramatic and danceable -- can be used to great and poor effect. Tomasson got the balance elegantly right; Possokhov crashed and burned.

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