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[whitespace] Fate and Phaedra

Philip Glass' score adds powerful drama to Ballet's 'Phaedra'

By Scott MacClelland

IF BALLET San Jose Silicon Valley successfully stages Phaedra, can Joseph's Legend be far behind? The two ballets, of equal length, have more in common than the opera world's most famous pairing, Cav and Pag, and their reputations in recent years shine with legendary brightness, despite their relative obscurity.

Legend, after all, lies behind both, Phaedra from the ancient Greek and Joseph from the Old Testament. In their balletic resurrections, each depends on four principal dancers. Each casts a married woman as the erotic pursuer of a younger man. Each also enjoys the considerable benefit of music composed specifically for their purpose, powerful scores by Philip Glass (Phaedra) and Richard Strauss (Josephslegende).

Glass' score actually began life as a movie soundtrack, but gained additional material for Flemming Flindt's original Phaedra at the Dallas Ballet in 1987, and a full orchestration for the San Jose company's live performances under conductor Dwight Oltman. Glass' notoriously obsessive ostinatos work especially well in the context of strict, even militant, ritual.

At once ominous and anxious, they give the drama of Phaedra a tone of inexorable doom. Indeed, this score fits the context better and makes a more memorable impact than much, if not most, of the composer's music. Flindt's ballet unfolds, therefore, with increasingly tragic inevitability as Phaedra is propelled into lust for her stepson, Hippolytus, by the goddess Aphrodite, now furiously jealous over Hippolytus' attentions to her rival Artemis.

Two giant statues signal the start and the close of the drama while the corps de ballet serves as the Greek chorus. Introduced one by one are the principals, Theseus (Stephane Dalle), Phaedra (Joanne Jaglowski), Hippolytus (Ramon Moreno) and the Nurse (Emi Hariyama). Even as the principals play out their gods-manipulated roles, they seem to know what is happening to them.

This knowledge, however, does not extend to the hapless husband and father, Theseus, who, in the climactic scene, angrily kills his innocent son, Hippolytus, before he learns the truth.

According to the program notes, Flindt sought to explain Phaedra's lust in human terms, as a desperate search for meaning in her lonely life. In fact, that does describe the visual and dramatic impression he makes with his dancers. But his scenario follows a sequence of brief scenes all prompted by quotes from Euripides' Hippolytus of c. 428 B.C.E.

With such efficient choreographic organization, and Glass's driving music, Sunday's 50-minute performance flew by. Jaglowski carried the lion's share of the narrative, expressing a full emotional range, torn loyalties, tender love, guilt, remorse and despair. Her performance as the finally dead queen, dragged about by her grieving husband, was a miracle of technique.

As the Nurse, Hariyama echoed Phaedra's agonies with equally expressive emotion. The richness of the narrative apparently convinced Flindt originally to eschew the use of pointe. But for San Jose, these two women actually enhanced expressiveness from those heights.

Moreno made Hippolytus his own, idealistic, awkwardly attracted to his stepmother's attentions, increasingly fearful as these events spiraled out of control, respectful of his father, hesitant, naive. His one stumble even stayed in character.

Dalle, as Theseus, presented a more technical than expressive persona, efficient but wanting a more convincing characterization. The corps continued to struggle to achieve those designs whose choreography deploys them in precision patterns across the stage. As the ensemble came to rest, the implicit angles and spaces were too often uneven and misaligned. On the other hand, a moment that produced four groups of three women distilled the essence of the Three Graces.

To complement the Flindt, Léonide Massine's witty and stylish Gaîté Parisienne bubbled over with its well-known champagne frivolity. Raymond Rodriguez created a carpetbag masterpiece as the Peruvian while Sean Kelly tripped the romantic fantastic with Maydee Pena, who delivered a particularly graceful performance. Daniel Gwatkin maintained a fine military authority even while pursuing the girls and engaging in fisticuffs over them. Grethel Domingo charmed the audience while unsuccessfully pursuing a beau on stage. Kwang-Suk Choi whipped up a sparkling frenzy among the Can-Can dancers whose own solo star was the fetching Dalia Rawson.

The company wore the venerable piece with ease and grace. And it's safe to assume that Offenbach would be happy to know that his music was still being enjoyed 120 years after his death in a ballet he never even heard of.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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