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Drama, beauty in SF Ballet’s Robbins’ showcase

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“The Cage,” Jerome Robbins’ edgy 1951 dance, is a highlight of San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5. (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

In celebrating the centennial of choreographer Jerome Robbins’ birth, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has a simple explanation for how he came up with Program 5, “Robbins: Ballet & Broadway,” which opened Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House.

Tomasson, a Robbins protégé who came to America to dance in 1970 at Robbins’ invitation, and previously appeared in two of the pieces on Tuesday’s lineup, said, “I just wanted to show an audience Jerry’s range.”

And so he has.

The program’s four dances illustrate the late master’s breadth, beauty, genius at melding music and movement, and undeniable flair for drama.

The evening’s most thrilling, truly unusual piece, 1951’s “The Cage” set to Stravinsky’s buzzing Concerto in D for String Orchestra, was as wild and wonderful as it must have been for those at its shocking premiere.

In a pre-concert talk, Ellen Sorrin, a director of the Jerome Robbins Foundation, said of “The Cage”: “It’s really about the insect world and the fact that the female uses the male as prey.”

The corps of dancers, clad in leotards and set against a web-like backdrop, indeed looked like bugs, executing jagged movements with panache and providing the backdrop to the story of how a young, vulnerable creature becomes a killer.

A mesmerizing Maria Kochetkova impeccably detailed the novice’s transformation, from a delicate, twitchy being testing her environment, emerging from a cocoon, to encounters with male intruders. Both end in their death — she pushes them with her toe, and they roll across the floor — but she has a sexy, entwining interlude with the second one (Steven Morse) before she and her clan finish him off.

Perhaps less unique and challenging, the program’s other numbers also were engaging.

“Opus 19/The Dreamer,” with the lithe Carlo Di Lanno as the white-clad protagonist, searching for himself and strong Sarah Van Patten as the woman who meets his match, appealingly opened the performance. (In the 1980s, Tomasson danced the role with Patricia McBride, who was in town for the pre-show chat).

Set to Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D (Cordula Merks soloed nicely), the dance also showcases Robbins’ proficiency for design with small groups; 12 corps members surrounding the couple, clad in blue, illustrate rewards, and obstacles, in the journey.

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco performed Robbins'”Other Dances.” (Courtesy Erik Tomasson)

“Other Dances,” in which Robbins capitalized on his love of Chopin, featured Tomasson and McBride in New York in the 1970s; on Tuesday, virtuosos Frances Chung, Angelo Greco and pianist Natal’ya Feygina playing mazurkas were perfectly lovely onstage — together and apart — in the evening’s most classical, yet folk-influenced, offering.

“Fancy Free,” the Broadway section of the show, served up Leonard Bernstein’s great, jazzy, “West Side Story”-reminiscent score, with the ebullient Benjamin Freemantle, Esteban Hernandez and Lonnie Weeks as the strident young sailors out for a night on the town, circa 1944, and Dores André, Sasha De Sola and Maggie Weirich as the ladies they meet.

At the pre-concert event, ballet master Jean-Pierre Frohlich, Robbins’ friend and colleague who staged this version of the historical piece, said, “It’s a play, not a ballet.”

Calling Robbins “the only choreographer I’ve seen who could tell a story with just movement,” Frohlich’s comments were echoed by McBride, one of Robbins’ favorite ballerinas for decades, who added, “He trusted us to be ourselves; I loved working with him from the first minute.”

REVIEW

Robbins: Ballet & Broadway
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 21-22, 8 p.m. March 23, 2 and 8 p.m. March 24, 2 p.m. March 25
Tickets: $28 to $255
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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