S.F. Ballet's 'Gumbo' a virtual stew of cliches

May 21, 1994|By J. L. Conklin | J. L. Conklin,Special to The Sun

"Gumbo Ya Ya," the new ballet by Donald McKayle that was given its world premiere Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, was not the highlight of the San Francisco Ballet's opening night.

Mr. McKayle's "green" ballet primarily occurred beneath set designer's A. Christine Giannini's sophomoric interpretation of a rain forest canopy that quivered and shook above the energetic dancers. Yet for all its noble efforts and fine dancing to a jazz score by composer James Newton, the ballet was riddled with cliche and confusion.

With a story line reading like an amalgam of the Garden of Eden and "Tarzan," The one-act ballet first introduces an idyllic life in the forest as a band of indigenous people cavorts beneath the trees. Suddenly the Shaman of Tribal Elder (danced by Yuri Zhukoc) appears and his wild dancing causes the others to scamper away. Mr. McKayle blends idioms of ballet, modern, ethnic and pantomime. At one point a group of dancers moves forward en masse in a rain forest; bodies in a crouch, they swing their arms forward so their knuckles touch the floor. Other times the movements careen through their bodies, and they frenetically move in unison.

The second section, "Haven," is a duet for Muriel Maffre and Eric Hoisington. Their dancing looked contrived and overly choreographed. He rolls over her body, like a boa constrictor, and despite the sculptural arrangements of the pair, one isn't sure what they have in common.

The third scene, "Migration" has the eco-couple in the big city. Their lyrical movements don't fit in with the mechanical dancing of the inhabitants who wear semi-military costumes (read Military Industrial Complex). Suddenly the scene shifts and they are back in the rain forest, and so are the urbanites. Everything is different -- a Shaman from the first section reappears, the couple falls to the ground and the ballet simply ends.

Whereas "Gumbo Ya Ya" felt unfocused and rambling, the opposite was true of Mark Morris' ballet, "Maelstrom," which opened the evening, and Balanchine's "Symphony in C," which closed it. Mr. Morris' ballet specifically was performed with perfection to Beethoven's "Trio in D major, Op, 7 No. 1 Ghost" -- a highly unlikely choice for a dance. Set in three sections, the dance sensationally captures the essence of the music.

In the dark second section, the series of light lifts echoed between three couples like reverberating thunder while rapid sequences of entrances and exits by other couples flashed by in the wings. "Maelstrom," with its unpredictable choreography, showed the San Francisco Ballet to be a company of sensitive and technically honed dancers. The performance continues through Sunday. Call (202) 467-4600 for information.

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