But the celebratory spirit couldn't block out a strange buzz of dejà vu. With every move of the colorful little homunculi poinging against miked walls and those invisible sensors in an eerie symphony of techno-noise, as if they were caught inside a huge pinball machine, I could barely think at all. Of course, what I thought about was The Fly. In David Cronenberg's sad horror film, sweet and nerdy scientist Jeff Goldblum accidentally mixes up his molecules with those of a fly. No problem -- he looks good, he feels great. He thinks that with the help of a machine he's become a perfect embodiment of his human potential. It's only later that he fills his medicine cabinet with his former ears and teeth while growing an extra pair of legs.

Goldblum too takes to flying through the air, walking on the ceiling, smashing through glass, and mounting everything in sight (including Geena Davis). And like Streb, he believes he's expressing humanity in its purest form. Both are expressing something pure, but it's not human. The Fly depicts technology's power to magnify and distill human intelligence into a purity that comes uncannily close to insect brutality. Streb also uses technology, to enable humans to emulate pure physical principle. Inside the machine of Elizabeth Streb's art, something incalculable has gotten lost.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Time and Again
San Francisco Ballet. At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), through Feb. 15. Call 865-2000.

Dance Theater of Harlem. At Zellerbach Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus, Feb. 4-8. Call (510) 642-9988.

Time is ballet's enemy; besides dance's inherent evanescence, there's also time's physical effect on its practitioners, as the dancers race to keep pace with allegrettos and slog through marathon adagios before the gradual, treacherous desertion of strength and flexibility begins. And choreographers, like other artists, are subject to the effects of time on their work. In just one week, two of America's better dance companies, San Francisco Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem, gave local audiences a compelling crash course in the complexities of time.

Following its season opener earlier in the week, San Francisco Ballet presented an evening of work by choreographer Jerome Robbins, a mainstay of the New York City Ballet since his acclaimed Fancy Free in 1944 -- and also the director of myriad Broadway hits, West Side Story among them. Robbins is too prolific to be contained in a single show, but SFB Artistic Director Helgi Thomasson compiled an appealing capsule retrospective with ballets spanning 32 years of Robbins' career.

Strangely enough, the work that looked freshest wasn't 1983's Glass Pieces, but the much older The Cage. Many dance patrons were repulsed at the 1951 premiere of the 12-minute ballet, which is set to a nervous Stravinsky string score and is about bugs. Robbins may have been thinking praying mantis when he created this den of fright-wigged females who attack and kill male intruders, but much of the speedy, skittery dancing also evokes daddy longleg spiders. Muriel Maffre's Queen was deliciously terrifying, all haughty gestures and sinuous lines; recent SFB addition Lucia LaCarra responded with a Novice who progressed from bewildered to defiant. There are obvious pitfalls to such stylization, but The Cage looked thoroughly modern, and the company's attack provided an extra shot of adrenalin.

Glass Pieces, by contrast, has early '80s written all over it, from the hammering of Philip Glass' score to the pale yellow grid of the backdrop and the pastel unitard-headband costume combination in the first variation. Still, there are some exceptional passages in this urban sprawl, like the opening segment, a kaleidoscope of color and motion with dozens of dancers in practice clothes barreling across the stage from all directions, like a terpsichorean Koyaanisqatsi. The "Facades" pas de deux between Katita Waldo and Stephen Legate showcased Waldo's articulate pointe work, and was framed by corps dancers who shuffled along the upstage perimeter like La Bayadere's Shades transplanted from their peaceable kingdom to the wilds of Gotham City.

In the Night, a series of lyrical pas de deux for three couples, rounded out SFB's Robbins program. Dance Theater of Harlem's ensemble piece Adrian (Angel on Earth) provided a similar gentle interlude during the group's recent San Francisco visit. But In the Night was a bittersweet comment on the various stages of love, with couples who literally fail to connect or who struggle against one another's arms; Adrian, by contrast, was pretty but lacked clear direction. It was supposed to be about one man's spiritual homecoming, but through no fault of the company, which demonstrated typically fine form, it was mostly unmemorable, save for a few lingering images: a dancer in quiet contemplation, one leg crossed over the other in plie, arms outstretched, birdlike; the men's joyous, loose-limbed jumps; and the women's hip-swiveling struts.

The other new piece, young South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Mantsoe's Sasanka (Pride), would also have benefited from a tighter focus; its kitschy combination of tribal drag, hanging vines, and a score pairing African drumming with toy piano had the baffling feel of a dated American take on Africana. This muddied some spectacular, witty dancing that called to mind panicked ostriches and gazelles bounding across the veld.

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