Cellist Maya Beiser and dancer Wendy Whelan appear in “The Day” at Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Hayim Heron)

Cellist Maya Beiser and dancer Wendy Whelan appear in “The Day” at Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Hayim Heron)

Dance in ‘The Day’ lacks urgency

Beiser, Whelan, Lang, Childs collaboration feels self-couscious

“The Day,” which opened Thursday in Herbst Theatre in a two-night run presented by San Franciscco Performances, was launched by avant-garde cellist Maya Beiser with support from prominent backers.

The young artist brought together an all-star roster that included herself, postmodern choreographer Lucinda Childs, Bang on the Can co-founder composer David Lang, and 30-year veteran of the New York City Ballet Wendy Whelan, now the NYCB’s associate atistic director.

It was a night that seemed to hold a great deal of promise. Lang’s compositions draw from the prosaic for their haunting political and existential themes. Thursday’s score, “the day,” became fitful and urgent in Beiser’s hands on her electric cello, with a text of disembodied sentences in voiceover: “I remember the day,” “I forgot her voice,” “ I found it very well,” “I found out.”

Sara Brown’s projections of a vast dance studio space with tall arched windows, followed by film footage of a rumbling sea, also seemed haunted by absence, while Whelan’s costumes, designed by Karen Young, evoked ancient Greek dress that, in turn, harkened back to Greek-inspired ballets of George Balanchine and late 20th century dance wear.

While Lang’s sound and text had a stringent urgency in the here and now, the dance seemed to exist on another plane — not that of the soul, as program notes suggest, but one of self-consciousness and nostalgia in face of one’s own mortality.

Was the problem the dancer or the dance? Both appeared to misstep.

Whelan tackled the assignment to dance with props in part one, called “the day.” Aided by rope, Greek-inspired garments and two thin poles, she conjured images from Balanchine’s “Apollo” and “Prodigal Son” (which she danced during her NYCB tenure). Yet though the weighted mystery of the sound and text was touched on as Whelan moved through geometric forms that pointed to Platonic ideals, her anemic and too-pretty execution robbed it of the down-to-earth yet iconic purpose the night demanded.

On the other hand, Childs faltered as she tried to depict the soul as something stylized, but located in a realm beyond style. Asking Whelan to present geometric forms including spheres, rhomboids, triangles and Platonic solids handled like props rather than totemic objects came across as pretentious and sophomoric, not edgy.

In part two called “world to come,” Whelan appeared in a stripped-down costume in black, again harking back to Balanchine. Here the world to come seemed to allude more to mid-century modern dance forms than the soul. Once again, the dancer’s stylized execution (from decorative hands to mincing steps) undercut the life-and-death force generations of dancers both modern and neoclassical have brought to existential struggles.

The keystone of 20th century dancemaking was the idea that a worthy dance can stand on its own — without sound, décor, lights or even program notes — and can engage equally with other theatrical elements. Perhaps if “The Day” had Martha Graham executing the actions, forming the same isoscles triangles with rope, playing with the fabric container or stalking about in a white tube dress with Amazonian intensity, she might have given Child’s assignment another quality. But Graham is dead, and dance has since taken radical turns.

While Lang and Beiser took us into a liminal space through music, the dance did little to help us understand how life and the eterenal are intertwined.

REVIEW

The Day

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28

Tickets: $45 to $65

Contact: (415) 392-2545, sfperformances.org

Classical MusicDance

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