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New Territory 

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
Few great dancers become great choreographers. I'll never forget an interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov in which Shirley MacLaine asked, incredulously, why he did not see himself becoming a choreographer, as if that were the natural crowning achievement to his career. But the skills just don't transfer so easily in dance: A great technique won't make you a great dance-maker.

Nevertheless Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet and a great dancer-turned-choreographer himself, has chosen four SFB principals with creative yearnings -- or, in some cases, compulsions -- on whose creations to take a chance. The company supplied six weeks of rehearsal, sets, and costumes, a roster of consummate performers, and a glorious venue; the dancers provided sheer nerve. After all, Julia Adam, Christopher Stowell, David Palmer, and Yuri Possokhov are accustomed to being billed as star dancers. Next week, however, they assume the identity of "emerging artists" when their works premiere in two alternating programs alongside new dances by Hungarian choreographer Vladimir Anguelov and New York City Ballet up-and-comer Christopher Wheeldon.

But emergence is an ongoing process, and S.F. Ballet's emerging artists are in remarkably varied stages of development. And therefore the big question is: Who gets to do the discovering in this "Discovery Program" -- the audience or the choreographers? If the disparity of experience in the lineup is any indication, the answer is likely to be "both," though the scales are almost certain to tip back and forth dramatically. The whole situation lends itself to speculation: Who will come out ahead next week? Who will be around five years from now?

Julia Adam and David Palmer are the safe bets. Adam is already something of a darling of the Bay Area dance world -- she won an Isadora Duncan Award for her 1997 Thirteen Lullabies -- though for the first time she's finding her reputation as "a choreographer to watch" a burden. "There's a lot of pressure because my name's been out there a bit more, so there's a higher expectation," Adam said recently during a break from tightening up her premiere, Night. But having made 15 dances to date ("some tiny and some bigger"), Adam has already found both an unconventional style and a sound working method: Choose an episodic concept with which to structure the work's progress. This time her device is seven dreams, six of which are set to a commissioned score by Matthew Pierce, brother of SFB principal dancer Benjamin Pierce.

David Palmer co-directs his own dance company in Miami, Fla., and has created about 20 dances to date; like Adam, he immediately set purposefully to work on his dance, Concerto Romantique, set to Max Bruch's Concerto No. 1. "I danced another ballet to this music in the past, and it's something that's been in the back of my mind for 10 years now," he said. "I wanted to do it with classical technique, bravura style, and all that, having so much tremendous talent to work with."

But whereas critics are already rubbing their hands in anticipation of Adam's future masterpieces, Palmer hasn't yet accepted the mantle of choreographer. "I consider myself more a dancer and a director at this point," he said. "I enjoy choreography when I feel I really have something to say, or that I can make something beautiful."

Meanwhile, Christopher Stowell, the third emerging dance-maker, is so lacking in ego you'd think he'd be disqualified from dancing. "I don't think it's a masterpiece," he said of Opus 50, his classically styled ballet set to the last three movements of Tchaikovsky's Trio in A. "In general I'm happy with it." His hopes, while modest, speak to the point of such a program. "If people saw promise, that would be a good thing," Stowell said. "I hope people notice musicality, some kind of polish and finish to it. I mean, does it look like a ballet, not like an attempt or an academic exercise?"

And now here's the real wild card: Yuri Possokhov, SFB's pre-eminent dramatic danseur, who -- one month before the premiere -- still had seven minutes left to choreograph over the course of just five hourlong rehearsals. "I'm in a panic now," he said, when asked about the new work, an evocation of Rene Magritte's paintings set to Yuri Krasavin's refinagling of Beethoven. "It's my first ballet. It wasn't clear for me, not just the choreography but the relationship between choreographers and dancers. In one year I learned a lot."

But he may hold off on future lessons. "I enjoy working like this, but I'm not thinking I'll be too productive," Possokhov said. "If I have an idea it is slow to come out. To realize the idea takes time. Maybe with experience it will be easier."

About The Author

Rachel Howard


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