Where other companies have seasons, California Ballet of San Diego seems to define itself by galas. However, director Maxine Mahon usually approaches such splashy events not merely as exercises in cultural titillation but opportunities to upgrade the dancing and choreography of her 20-year-old institution.
The stellar Soviets that she somehow borrowed when guest visas were unprecedented not only attracted an audience, they set an example. And, however misguided some of her choreographic novelties may have been, they too widened the horizons of the resident dancers.
On Tuesday, Mahon followed her recent anniversary gala and Sea World gala with a Winter gala in the Civic Theatre. The performance featured the same two Soviet husband-and-wife teams lately touring with John Clifford's so-called Ballet of Los Angeles: Alla Khaniashvili-Artyushkina and Vilali Artyushkin (Bolshoi Ballet) and Evgenia Kostyleva and Anatoli Kucheruk (Kiev Ballet).
Characteristically, Mahon also brought in a guest choreographer--Betzi Roe from Three's Company, San Diego's best-known modern dance ensemble--and thus balanced the short-term glamour of the occasion with an investment in the company's artistic development.
Created for five women in Mahon's company, Roe's new "Dry Roses" began with loose, dreamy group dancing superbly attuned to its exotic accompaniment: Russian jazz-singing of the 1920s. Sudden surges of unison or cooperative activity, surprising shifts into gestural specifics or formal structural gambits all enhanced the sense of sisterhood--between dancers and with the women of another time.
Unfortunately, Roe soon sacrificed the remarkable sensitivity and cohesion of her piece with a series of punchy, quasi-competitive display solos to driving percussion. Her ending attempted to cross-fade and synthesize the clashing components, but the work remained fatally divided. And perhaps that's the point: Contemporary women do have new roles estranging them from their forbears. But, unfortunately, Roe's depiction of those roles proved unimaginative compared to her atmospheric evocation of an earlier reality.
Still, "Dry Roses" achieved a level of conviction utterly missing in Marius Zirra's "Miraculous Mandarin," with its volcanic Bartok score and high-risk plot line about an inscrutable Chinese nobleman lured to the room of a prostitute and there beaten, smothered, stabbed and hanged before expiring of too much l'amour.
As the trapped, hungry-for-love hooker, Denise Dabrowski clearly absorbed everything the visiting Soviets could teach about full-scale dramatic attacks, and as the Mandarin, Patrick Nollet exuded enough intensity to wear impossible costumes and makeup without courting snickers. But Zirra hadn't a clue how to tell this story to this score without ricocheting between approaches: hyperkinetic Soviet modernism with its unmotivated spasms of virtuosity, Anglo-American dance-mime with its dogged, plodding literalism, first grade show-and-tell . . . .
The previously reviewed Bolshoi and Kiev guests danced the same showpieces for Mahon as for Clifford. The dainty Kostyleva and the flamboyant Kucheruk again earned cheers for their athleticism in Vainonen's "Flames of Paris" pas de deux--though terminations and other niceties were still often rough.
Artyushkin is suffering from a knee injury, so his solo was omitted in the Petipa-Gorsky "Don Quixote" pas de deux and the coda simplified. But he partnered Khaniashvili-Artyushkina capably, and she delivered dancing of maximum power and scale, though not much warmth.
Full of crude sight gags and hard-sell bravura, Clifford's "Verdi Pas de Quatre" once more showcased the Soviets' ability to laugh at the obvious glitches and excesses of classical dancing. They continue to perform it with disarming sweetness, but it is largely an imposition on their talent and willingness to please an audience. While they're in Southern California, can't somebody introduce them to Stanley ("Dmitri") Holden?