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Blixen as Vixen: Alexsandra Meijer (as the Woman) dances wither her lover (Alex Lapshin) in 'Out of Africa.

Into Isak

The ballet explored the inner life of writer Isak Dinesen in Flemming Flindt's 'Out of Africa'

By Scott McClelland

TURNING Out of Africa into a movie, or a ballet, means starting with a self-analyzing, psychological, archetypal autobiography. This is no small challenge. In his romantic movie, Sydney Pollack reduced author Karen Blixen (pseudonym, Isak Dinesen) into a Scarlett O'Hara, and her memoir into a gushy love affair that might have taken place anywhere but happened to be set in Africa (and might have been about Dick and Jane but happened to be about Meryl Streep and Robert Redford).

Given his background, both personal and professional, it's all but impossible to imagine any other choreographer than the Danish-born Flemming Flindt taking on this subject. His new version just got its premiere at Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley and, because of its brisk pace, color and energy, stands a better than even chance of getting staged elsewhere (though a ticket-buyer's lack of familiarity with the program notes will likely lead to confusion). As against Pollack, Flindt embraces the whole of Dinesen's life, including the early years of the nonconformist artistic Blixen and the mental torments that came later.

Except for the abstracted latter sequence, the scenario (19 scenes altogether) pits narrative pantomime against terpsichorean invention. But it is dance itself that finally carries the day in the last three scenes, the heavily symbolic passages that distill the archetypal essences of Blixen's early-life traumas and her ultimate apotheosis (a curious "happy" ending that seems a non sequitur).

With fewer characters, a simpler and more inevitable narrative and constant musical tension (blame Philip Glass), Flindt's Phaedra, staged in San Jose in 2001, achieved great impact with far less complexity. By comparison, Out of Africa demands exceptional vision and discipline to give the piece its deserved integrity and to keep it coherent. Compiling a score of miscellaneous movements from the orchestral and chamber works of Carl Nielsen (also Danish) actually helps clarify the narrative since Flindt assigns a different musical episode to each scene.

San Jose staged the work on a bare stage, adding an occasional stick of furniture and decorating the whole with projections and colored scrims. Costumes fit their contexts, only becoming exotic for the African dance ensemble and those final passages where the hapless Woman (Blixen) stands between the four men in her life: her father, her husband, her lover and Lucifer. (The ballet's original title was Lucifer's Daughter.)

While Flindt's narrative pantomime tells the story clearly, the reflective dance passages often consist of recycled material that lack freshness (notably in the big ensemble, high-energy African scene). Then again, the love scene of the Woman and the Lover flowers in emotional vulnerability and sensual allure.

As the Woman, Alexandra Meier created the complex character demanded and stayed in character despite all of its conflicting facets, from youthful angst to adult madness. In orbit around here were the Father (James Strong), the Husband (Stephanie Dale), the Lover (Alex Lapshin) and Lucifer (Halo Bo). Lapshin got and delivered a big performance, Dale a bit lower-key. As the Two Sisters, Karen Gaby and Maria Jacobs were scene stealers. So was student dancer Kathleen Dahlhoff, the child alter-ego of the Woman. The Servants (Tiffany Glenn and Willie Anderson) got their biggest moment in the African ensemble dance. In addition to Nielsen's music, and the Burundi drums, Elena Shark ova's San Jose State Chorale roamed and intoned in formal ceremony.

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From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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