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[whitespace] SJ Cleveland's 'Carmina Burana' is a 'Messiah' for hedonists

By Philip Collins

THEY SHOWED UP in droves last Friday night at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. San Jose Cleveland Ballet's Valentine's bash featuring Carl Orff's thoroughly secular cantata, Carmina Burana, obviously struck some kind of chord in the community. There were more snuggling couples in attendance than at a Michael Bolton concert.

Never mind the company's stunning revival of George Balanchine's ingenious and prim Serenade, which opened the program with pliés and port de bras. The lyric impressions it left are deep, but it was the Orff that packed the house.

Orff's 1936 paean to earthly desire and cosmic fate cemented itself into the standard repertoire long ago, and in past decades, it was encountered all over the place. Carmina Burana, quite simply, is the hedonist's Messiah. The composer's setting for chorus with soloists and orchestra, including maximum percussion of 13th-century songs and poems by university students, minstrels and monks, is a masterstroke of musical dynamism. Orff considered the score adaptable to theatrical treatments, and the music calls out for company.

With a running time just shy of an hour, Carmina Burana is a formidable undertaking, especially when one considers the high standards already set by Michael Smuin and others. San Jose Cleveland Ballet Director Dennis Nahat regrettably went for sensationalism rather than sensuality, and cheap tricks instead of clever ones in his adaptation.

Staged with the hokiness of a '60s sendup, replete with a huge zodiac symbol and assorted Gothic pretensions, the affair looked doomed from the start. (The headbands and wax garlands came later.) The opening features a long file of dancers in monk robes, plunging, turning and striking poses synchronized to the choir's blasting minor chords. The desired effect was anybody's guess.

Although this scene, "Fortune Empress of the World" (which also concludes the work), failed to evoke seriousness of purpose, it did include one of the more engaging dances. During the chorus' hypnotic whispering, the dancers took up a flowing circle dance that gracefully overlapped the music's bite-size phrasing.

One looked in vain for other such counterpoints to the score, but they were rare. For the most part, Nahat chose to mirror the music's rhythms and tempi literally. The choreographer's obedience to this approach accentuated the score's segmentation to the point of distraction. The insertion of countless details compounded the problem, further impeding the flow with needless clutter. The epic design of Orff's vision was nearly impossible to recognize.

Ramon Thielen sizzled as "The Roasted Swan." Plucked naked save for a skullcap and body tights, he writhed magnificently while being gouged by colleagues. This must have been what the warnings of Adult Material were all about. Steamy stuff, indeed.

Karen Gabay's "Lonely Young Girl" floated like a pearl amid the sweat and debauchery. Elegant as she was, her role afforded little choreographic interest. Nor did Raymond Rodriguez's assignment as Gabay's eventual mate, "A Sad Young Man." The scene in which the two lovers finally join is as corny as the similar moment when Tony and Maria come together in West Side Story.

The ensemble dancing was, on the whole, impressive, but the aim seemed excessively aerobic. Rather than gradually building sexual tension, the company erupted with scant continuity from relatively normal behavior to seething erotica. As a result, the dancing was more related to exhibitionism than expression.

BALANCHINE'S remarkable setting of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for String Orchestra made a gorgeous opener. Created in 1935 as a project for his classes at the School of American Ballet in New York, Serenade primarily focuses on technique studies, although there's a twist. Balanchine incorporated the variability of class attendance as a compositional element in the piece.

For instance, as the first evening of class had 17 girls and no boys, the piece's first tableau does also. At a later class session, a girl fell to the floor and cried. Balanchine incorporated that dramatic event in the adagio section, and so on.

Despite the work's random aspects and Balanchine's stated indifference to plot, Serenade exerts tremendous dramatic strength. Balanchine's choreography is so smartly interwoven into the expressive qualities and structure of Tchaikovsky's music that each of the movements radiates expressive purpose.

Some juxtapositions are humorous, and others sublime. The adagio began with an especially beautiful gesture in which five women in tight formation slowly knelt, forming a sea of chiffon upon the floor. It was magical--and very chaste.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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