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Photograph by Robert Shomler

Not Phaedra Away: Karen Gabay and Alexsandra Meijer pay a visit to a napping Ramon Moreno in 'Phaedra.'

Out Of the Tragic Ashes

Phaedra and a flaming bird take flight at Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley

By Marianne Messina

WITH WILDLY varied emotional textures, the twin billing of Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's season opener fulfills the classical ideal of catharsis—sublime programming by artistic director Dennis Nahat. The taut tragedy of Flemming Flindt's contemporary Phaedra (1987) is told with dancers in stark white costumes against blood-red back curtain and red-lit floor. From presentation to plot, Phaedra leaves no emotional quarter—in fact, leaves you in an emotional knot.

Queen Phaedra (Karen Gabay), wife of King Theseus (Raymond Rodriguez), falls in love with Theseus' son, Hippolytus, is spurned by him and commits suicide. Then, suspecting his son of foul play, Theseus kills him—not a happy scenario. Philip Glass' music for this piece has both an urgent beauty and a coldness, a sense of movement and of confinement by repetition, like a rat wheel. The string arpeggios that accompany Phaedra are bounded by a circular progression, a sonic prison of chimes and low strings.

The idea is picked up visually when the ensemble men encircle Phaedra with their vertically planted staffs, forming the black bars of a circular prison. The staffs also double the sense of rigidity. But long before that, when Phaedra first dances with her husband, you can read in the body lines that she has no theater for expression in his world. Gabay's body forms curves; her arms sweep out arcs. In angular moves, Rodriguez sternly instructs her in the ways of rigidity. Their tense pas de deux expresses two forms that cannot blend.

Like Theseus, Hippolytus (Ramon Moreno, strutting powerfully from his center of gravity to a military snare drum) and his pugilistic ensemble all move in mechanistic conformity, arms turned into mechanical levers or trained to repeated martial arm blocks. Though young and beautiful, Phaedra's nurse (Alexsandra Meijer) has succumbed to the same rigid movements and wears the same pugilistic jock as the rest of Flindt's Grecians. This tribal signature suggests energy powered by sublimation—and Phaedra is simply out of sync.

Even the lighting patterns on the floor (Kenneth Keith following Tony Tucci) enforce the dichotomy. Phaedra dances her solos within lighted circles, but when Hippolytus curls up in fetal sleep, he lies within a rectangular picture frame of light. Moreno seems made for this part. His compact muscularity and virile flair help him maneuver easily between the tones of discipline, self-love and hot indignation. His (and Rodriguez's) moves with Gabay's lifeless body, as when she pours off his back onto the floor, are masterpieces of coordination, aided by Gabay's careful placement in the face of an incredible rag doll limpness.

So, after intermission, when the curtain opens on the snow-capped boughs of a deep, mystical forest—Ian Falconer's three-dimensional, rich-hued scenic drops for the classical ballet The Firebird—you can almost feel the pent-up emotion of Phaedra letting go. Igor Stravinsky's music provides an expanse as unfettered as nature, and the scintillating, orange-red bird (glorious Maria Jacobs) hovers center stage. Fused to her skin-tight costume, the slight Jacobs merges her every expression with that of a bird (including arms that seem to have sprouted extra joints).

Of course, The Firebird has its own kind of darkness in the perfectly ghoulish villain, Kastchei (Maximo Califano). Moss-strewn cape twirling, Kastchei's descent from his dark inner cave as he sets upon Prince Vladimir (Stephane Dalle) is a time-stop (and as it happens, kid-frightening) moment. This performance of Nahant's spinning choreography—creative turning lifts, traveling turns and pirouettes—was filled with transcendent moments. Jacobs' Firebird could cause mind shifts. And in her pas de deux with Dalle, the pair sometimes blurred the separation between moves so fluidly they made time skip.

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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