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On Your Toes 

The majesty and imagination of American Ballet Theater

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
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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 Giselle has been called sexist and outdated, but it is worth seeing for its strength -- it tests the resolve of its dancers (and sometimes its audience).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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Slideshows

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    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

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    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
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    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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