`Giselle,' Robbins Work Put Troupe's Best Foot Forward

By Lewis, Jean Battey | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 18, 1999 | Go to article overview
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`Giselle,' Robbins Work Put Troupe's Best Foot Forward

Lewis, Jean Battey, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Any man made uneasy by Glenn Close's harrowing tactics in "Fatal Attraction" might get a jolt from the San Francisco Ballet's performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House next week.

The California company is one of the bastions of elegant ballet style, but it is bringing to Washington two of the most hair-raising examples of men done in by avenging women to be seen onstage.

Next weekend, beginning Friday, the company dances its brand-new production of "Giselle," staged by its artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. This 19th-century classic has the most ethereal of heroines, but the second act also has a band of implacable female characters - the Wilis (maidens who died before their wedding days), whose role is to force men to dance until they drop dead of exhaustion.

A startling 20th-century version of the Wilis' revenge is opening the company's engagement Tuesday - "The Cage," created by Jerome Robbins in 1951. Unlike the Wilis, whose demonic behavior is cloaked in long white tutus and chastely refined movements, the female society in "The Cage" is ferociously brutal in its stabbing and angular movements and wears flesh-colored body suits. This stark ballet about female insects that copulate with males and then destroy them still looks contemporary and retains its power to shock.

"The Cage" is part of an all-Robbins program requested by the Kennedy Center as part of its celebration of master choreographers of the 20th century. The San Francisco company has a rich collection of works by Mr. Robbins, who died last year at age 79. This collection of ballets by Mr. Robbins, who was notoriously chary about giving permission for companies to perform his work, is not by accident.

Mr. Robbins admired Mr. Tomasson for years and played a major role in his career. The choreographer early on became a mentor of Mr. Tomasson after discovering him as a young dance student in Denmark. Mr. Robbins arranged a scholarship for Mr. Tomasson at the School of American Ballet, home of the New York City Ballet.

Mr. Robbins' support didn't stop there. Mr. Tomasson spoke about it recently in his office at the San Francisco Ballet's spectacular home, a fantasy of curving glass walls directly behind the city's famous War Memorial Opera House, where the company performs.

"In 1969, I was going to the international ballet competition in Moscow. In addition to dancing the classical repertory, we were supposed to dance a modern work. Jerry told me I could come watch a dance he was creating (Mr. Robbins' beautiful "Dances at a Gathering"), and he let me learn a wonderful solo for the `Boy in Brown.' Then he watched me dance it and said, `All right, you can take it to Moscow.'

"I was thrilled. I felt I had gold in my hands, and it brought me a lot of luck."

That was the only time Mr. Robbins allowed a work of his to be danced at a competition. Mr. Tomasson went to Moscow, won the silver medal (Mikhail Baryshnikov won the gold medal that same year) and the next year was invited to join the New York City Ballet as principal dancer. Again, he felt Mr. Robbins had intervened on his behalf.

For the next 15 years, Mr. Tomasson was considered one of the finest male dancers of his generation, admired for his musicality and refinement of style. George Balanchine created major roles for him (notably in "Divertimento From Baiser de la Fee" and "Coppelia"). Mr. Robbins did, too, in such works as "Goldberg Variations" and "The Dybbuk."

When Mr. Tomasson was asked to head the San Francisco Ballet 15 years ago, Mr. Robbins was generous with advice - and with his coveted ballets, which he allowed few companies to perform.

Of Mr. Robbins' "The Cage," Mr. Tomasson says: "I've always felt that choreographically it was Robbins at his best. As a choreographer myself, I admire the way he's structured the steps and combined them.

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