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Nod to Blixen

Choreographer Flemming Flindt opens Isak Dinesen's Pandora's box for Ballet SJ Silicon Valley's 'Out of Africa'

By Marianne Messina

BALLET SAN JOSE Silicon Valley's new production, Out of Africa, concerns Africa about as much as Milton's Paradise Lost concerns Paradise--which is to say, not very much. Rooted in tensions between the artist and the forbidden, this ballet by Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt may even fall prey to the Miltonian flaw: Its devil is as appealing as its god.

The ballet's original title was Lucifer's Daughter, and the years that Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen) spent managing a Kenyan coffee plantation (1914-1931) represent only a small episode in the life of the author and Danish heroine. But Flindt believed that Americans would be more familiar with the Meryl Streep character from Out of Africa, the 1985 film version of Dinesen's famed chronicle of her time in Kenya.

"Apparently, in Denmark, they hate the movie," says Alexsandra Meijer, the graceful 22-year-old blonde who will be dancing the Blixen role. "They think it doesn't follow her life at all, is what Flemming said. [Our production] deals more with her actual writings and her childhood."

Blixen was a creative child with a willful inner fire, raised in confining and insular Victorian Denmark by a coldly religious mother. "Whatever I have read about it," Flindt says, "her and the mother, it was sort of big respect but not big love." On the other hand, Blixen doted on her dashing, storytelling father. And Meijer can identify: "I was a major tomboy, and I'm, like, a daddy's girl." The Blixen character will be her first full-length lead role.

Blixen also suffered great losses in her life. Her beloved father killed himself when she was 10, and her amicable marriage with her cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, was a short-lived marriage of convenience. "She got the title, and he got the money," quips Flindt. "So that was a good relationship." While in Africa, Blixen had a passionate relationship with the English game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton, who died in a plane crash just before Blixen left Africa.

Apart from the galvanizing processes of tragedy and frustration, Flindt is at his best with characters who embody the demiurge, that fiery force, evil or good, that reaches into chaos and pulls out creation. And in this respect, Blixen caught his imagination. "She wrote to her brother that she had made a pact with a fallen angel who was God's favorite, Lucifer," Flindt notes, "and if she would become the greatest storyteller in the world, ... he could have her soul."

Flindt presents an abstract of this Faustian scene, just after "The Woman," as the Blixen character is called, has gone through the tragic loss of her lover. Since Africa represented freedom for Blixen and a return to her core, Flindt includes impressive African dance and music (including a 70-voice choir) in the scene. Heavy on symbolism--Blixen, as a Fool of Possibility, wears a Pierrot clown costume and must open a Pandora's box-like violin case--the scene turns into a carnival of centaurs and devils around a human totem pole and paints the creative decision as a maelstrom of freedom, expressiveness and terror.

In his 40-year body of work, Flindt has created many groundbreaking male roles that flirt with furious creative forces, dancing the edge between controlling the forces and being possessed by them. In his first piece, The Lesson, a demanding ballet teacher abuses and ultimately strangles his ballet student. When Flindt brought the work to his own dance teacher, "he was horrified," Flindt recalls. "'How could my dear Flemming do something so awful?'"

Flindt takes the idea of a pact with Lucifer with a grain of salt, but he is aware that to hit the artistic vein an artist must risk releasing dark forces that may overwhelm him or her. I ask Flindt when, in his career, he may have had a Blixen moment and opened the box of creative chaos. He pauses briefly and then says, "When I did my very first ballet, called The Lesson."

Out of Africa plays Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 1:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $22-$68. (408.288.2800)

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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