Dance the Night Away
"Program III: All Balanchine Works." Performed by the San Francisco Ballet. At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), through March 14. Call 865-2000.

Axioma 7, Swansong, and Rooster. Performed by Rambert Dance Company. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus, Feb. 27 & 28. Call (510) 642-9988.

From Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 to the Stones, from "The Red River Valley" to the industrial percussion of Philip Chambon, music played a pivotal role in recent outings with Rambert Dance Company and the San Francisco Ballet. Britain's oldest dance company, long known as Ballet Rambert after Ballet Russe dancer and company founder Marie Rambert, offered up three wildly divergent, mostly modern works couched in ballet classicism; SFB danced an all-Balanchine program illuminating the subtleties and versatility of one of ballet's brightest creators.

Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin's Axioma 7, Rambert's opening work, was arguably the company's best of the night. Looking very much like a raucous dinner-party-turned-strip-poker game, Axioma begins with a full ensemble of dancers seated on chairs arranged in a semicircle, facing the audience. Throughout the first half of the piece, the dancers repeat a rhythmic, witty gestural movement phrase involving standing, jumping, and falling on the chairs; sliding jellyfishlike onto the floor; then hopping back up and doing the wave around the semicircle, ending with the dancer on the far right springing from his or her chair and running into the center for a solo. The dancing is done so briskly and with such joyous abandon that it takes awhile before we notice that the dancers are stripping off their clothing piece by piece and throwing it into a pile in the center as they go. Once they're down to their crisp white skivvies, the pace slows and the mood turns somber; the dancers seem suddenly vulnerable and the dancing takes on a combative feel as performers square off, leaping and swooning in one another's arms. Naharin shifts the direction of the chairs periodically, giving viewers maximum exposure to the supreme physicality of these dancers and the inventive web of placement and interaction within the choreography.

Rambert director Christopher Bruce contributed the night's other two works, and while the crowd-pleaser should have been Rooster, a suite of dances set to vintage Stones songs, it was upstaged by Swansong, a brutal, dazzling vision of police torture as theater, inspired by Oriana Fallaci's novel A Man and driven home by the staccato hammering of Chambon's score. As captors Vincent Redman and Hope Muir literally tap dance through an interrogation, in perfect sync and with breakaway improvisational flair, viewers begin to feel the uncomfortable ability of entertainment to intimidate and manipulate. Rooster begins well, with the company's men strutting and preening to the bluesy swagger of the Stones' take on "Little Red Rooster," but the rest of the piece never quite catches fire, maybe because Bruce never completely escapes the dangers of setting choreographed dance on music that was intended for free-form dance, if dancing at all, and music with which too many people have strong personal associations. Bruce gives us sedate where we want sexy, and gets overly literal with songs like "As Tears Go By," where we actually see the children play, or "Ruby Tuesday," whose iconoclastic namesake dances suspiciously like Martha Graham.

The most anticipated portion of SFB's Balanchine night was the company premiere of Liebesleider Walzer, a collection of Brahms waltzes for four couples, accompanied by two pianists (Daniel Waite and Michael McGraw), and four singers who shared the stage with the dancers. Since Balanchine has been widely blamed (or credited, depending on who you ask) for upping ballet's athletic ante, this genteel ballet-meets-ballroom set piece may come as something of a shock. The men in this piece are mostly relegated to heavy lifting, but the women, who dance the first half in bulky ball gowns and pumps, re-emerge like butterflies from cocoons in long tulle and pointe shoes, stressing the physics of the form. Viewers could also have made use of the ballet's ample length to admire the dancers' control, particularly their epaulment, the carriage and directional shifts for head and shoulders, often the first thing to go when the pace quickens.

In an already good lineup, principal dancer Joanna Berman shone in this regard, as she did in Jerome Robbins' similarly meditative and formal In the Night a few weeks ago. Where Liebesleider was a grand lyrical sweep through a candlelit drawing room, Agon was all angularity and speed, with off-kilter partnering for threesomes, and foot-slapping, chest-beating accents. Lucia Lacarra molded herself in gravity-defying, joint-ripping directions around partner Stephen Legate, and brought a steely strength to even the most delicate balances. Balanchine's ultrapatriotic paean to his adopted homeland, besides Stars and Stripes, is Western Symphony, and Balanchine would have approved of the cheerful aplomb SFB's redheaded Spaniard Katita Waldo and Shanghai's Yuan Yuan Tan brought to his ballet set on the lone prairie, which closed the evening on an upbeat note.

-- Heather Wisner

Sister Act
Antigone. By Sophocles. Directed by John Henry Pearce. Starring Victoria Boesch, Kristi Frazer, Michael Gaffney, Matthew Henerson, and Nicholas Pepper. At Yugen/Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Alabama), through March 21. Call 621-7797.

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