- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Turkeys won't be the only animals in the news next week. A quartet of exotic beasts a dancing unicorn, phoenix, dragon and tortoise also will be making appearances as part of the San Francisco Ballet's engagement beginning Tuesday at the Kennedy Center.

The fanciful creatures are in "Chi-Lin," choreographed by the company's artistic director, Helgi Tomasson. The animals represent elemental qualities, and their solos reflect that: The unicorn signifies earth, the phoenix is fire, the dragon evokes air, and the tortoise represents water.

The ballet, inspired by Chinese mythology, is brilliantly theatrical, with striking costumes and scenery and a strong score by the Chinese-born composer Bright Sheng.

The San Francisco Ballet is bringing a rich mix of works, some especially created for the company, including "Chi-Lin," and others that are classics of 20th-century art.

Among the latter, "Dances at a Gathering," the lyrical ballet created by Jerome Robbins in 1969, is a highlight of the opening night's program.

Mr. Robbins was most inspired when he created "Dances at a Gathering," set to a selection of Chopin waltzes, mazurkas, etudes and nocturnes. There is a tender quality to the movement, which also can be breathtakingly daring as the women are hurled from one male dancer to the next. Through it all, Mr. Robbins maintains an artless quality that creates a profoundly moving sense of community among his small band of dancers.

The multitalented Mr. Robbins was not only the master of Broadway dance, but probably the greatest classical choreographer this country has produced. He is well-represented in the repertoire of the San Francisco Ballet; the group dances more Robbins ballets than any other American company except the New York City Ballet.

The San Francisco Ballet, one of the three leading companies in the country, has shown real creativity in commissioning new works.

One success is "Sandpaper Ballet," by the redoubtable Mark Morris, a modern dancer who has created many successful works for ballet companies and especially for the San Francisco Ballet.

Mr. Morris has a contrarian streak. In "Sandpaper Ballet," he uses lighthearted music by Leroy Anderson, including "Sleigh Ride" and "The Syncopated Clock," and treats it both seriously and with gusto in the patterns and variations he makes in his phalanx of 25 dancers five across and five deep.

To top it off, he clothes all the dancers in unisex costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi: body stockings dyed grass-green up to their chests and sky-blue with white clouds above that a veritable living landscape. It certainly is not Mr. Morris' most profound work, but it is an amusing feast for the eyes.

The company has added a Balanchine ballet, "Ballo della Regina," to the program that includes "Dances at a Gathering" and "Sandpaper Ballet." "Ballo," set to ballet music from Verdi's "Don Carlos," has a zesty brilliance that gives a fine balance to the program.

Another Balanchine ballet opens the second program the rapturous "Serenade" to Tchaikovsky's sweeping score.

In addition to Mr. Tomasson's "Chi-Lin," that program will conclude with his "Prism," a work commissioned by the New York City Ballet that made a strong impression at its premiere in New York two years ago.

Mr. Tomasson was one of Mr. Balanchine's most pristine classical dancers, and his knowledge and experience animate the classical splendor of "Prism." The ballet demands a first-rate corps as does "Serenade" and contains a sustained, extended pas de deux as well as a fiery role for a quicksilver male soloist.

This is an impressive group of ballets that should show the company's strength in both its beautifully trained corps de ballet and its principal dancers, many of whom have joined the company or risen in it since it last appeared here, at the Balanchine Festival two years ago.

Yuan Yuan Tan, who made an indelible impression then in Balanchine's "Bugaku," will dance the title role in "Chi-Lin," a work Mr. Tomasson created especially for her combination of delicacy and steel. Other highly individual ballerinas are Lorena Feijoo, a dancer from Cuba who will perform the scintillating difficulties of "Ballo della Regina," and Muriel Maffre, tall and striking, who will dance the mesmerizing pas de deux in "Prism." All of them, plus many promising newcomers, will appear in the magical "Dances at a Gathering."

The masculine contingent is led by Yuri Possokhov, a great artist who will be seen in "Dances at a Gathering"; Sergio Torrado, Damian Smith, and Parrish Maynard, who are the three striking men in "Chi-Lin"; and rising male stars, including Gonzalo Garcia and Vadim Solomakha.

WHAT: San Francisco Ballet

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Dec. 1 (except Thursday), 1:30 p.m. next Saturday and Sunday

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $25 to $65

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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