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On Your Toes 

The majesty and imagination of American Ballet Theater

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
The Bay Area is home to so much good dance that it can be hard to choose from among the many top-notch offerings. But this week presents a stellar collection of works from the American Ballet Theater, a company that despite its age (61 this year) can still surprise. ABT is an institution, of course, called "the most spectacular dancing in the world" by the New York Times. But if you're looking for both majesty and imagination on the stage, here's where to find it.

The three shorter pieces created for Program A are the most intriguing. The first is Gong, the second ballet Mark Morris has created for ABT. Its inspiration is Indonesian, from a score by Colin McPhee reminiscent of Balinese music to motifs from traditional Indonesian dance to tropical costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. This Bay Area premiere combines Morris' modern, sometimes abstract staging with a spectacle worthy of any classical work.

The second show is Paul Taylor's Bay Area premiere of Black Tuesday, a joyful suite of dances set to eight classic Depression-era songs from Irving Berlin and others. The titles of the tunes seem especially apropos during this recession -- or whatever it is: "Are You Making Any Money?," "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" among them. A tribute to American popular music and to the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, Taylor's first creation for ABT is sublime fun.

Third in the Program A lineup is Jabula by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir, who also designed the costumes. The title means "joy," and Weir must have felt some when the original piece, a solo work, received such a strong response that she was commissioned to expand it to this ensemble. The score is derived from original music by Hans Zimmer, who has won seven Academy Awards for his film scores (among them Gladiator and The Lion King). Athletic, earthy, and playful, Jabula earned standing ovations when it debuted last year.

The full-length ballet Giselle, playing as Program B, is ABT's appeal to tradition during this run. Giselle has been called sexist and outdated, but it is worth seeing for its strength -- it tests the resolve of its dancers (and sometimes its audience). The story is a simple romantic tragedy, the titular character being a peasant girl who falls for a count dressed as a peasant; he is already engaged to a princess, and Giselle goes mad in the discovery. Critics often emphasize Act 2, which can take your breath away with what may seem like anachronistic wholesomeness. But the seemingly pathetic story goes right to the heart of romance, and Giselle delves much deeper than its sweetness. ABT presents it with a live production of the score by members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.

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Karen Silver


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