Last year, when board members of San Jose Ballet came face to face with American Ballet Theatre star Jose Manuel Carreno, who was performing on stage at the Center for the Performing Arts as Basilio in Don Quixote, they believed they had found their man. They asked him to take the helm of the struggling company, and though his dancing shoes still hugged his feet, the Havana-born Carreno saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
That was last June. Now, in slightly longer than a heartbeat, this star dancer has brought life to a vision much grander than a chamber ballet company yet humbler than a vast metropolitan institution.
Carreno may be mounting his season minus the flash of a gilded concert hall and, at least in last weekend's program, live music. And he may not yet be able to pack the theater with bodies or contract all the dancers he wants. But the program performed Friday through Sunday proves that trappings aren't essential. Vision, daring and holistic thinking are.
Helgi Tomasson, watch out.
In an echo of another beginning, Carreno opened the program, called "Neoclassical to Now," with George Balanchine's beautiful, modernist "Serenade," the Russian choreographer's first American ballet. Created in 1934 on a handful of his students, this was Balanchine's first effort to muster interest in a new ballet company. It proved a harbinger of pathbreaking advances in the art to come.
Saturday, "Serenade" began as it must -- with a diaphanous corps of women, facing front, their right arms raised and wrists bent as though in an effort to shield their faces from the sun. A work with no recognizable story line yet full of poetic figures, technical rigor, and fragments of the ballet classics, it is a paean to the formal magic of dance, paying poignant, often beguiling homage, to love, beauty, death and transcendence as these forces seem to materialize from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C.
None of the dancers missed a beat, and they moved with a precision that not even New York City or San Francisco Ballet tend to muster. Ommi Pipit-Suksun, formerly of San Francisco Ballet, was liquid elegance, her torso supplely bending, her long limbs incising the air. Alexsandra Meijer made constant and quick work of Balanchine's deviously difficult and insouciant steps, while Nathan Chaney was elegant and cool despite a great deal of complex partnering.
With curatorial canniness, Carreno followed with Jorma Elo's postmodern "Glow Stop" from 2006, which echoes "Serenade" by deconstructing it. Dressed in dark red, dancers in "Glow Stop" engaged in athletic, fractured movement to the fourth movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 28 in C major and Philip Glass's Tirol Concerto.
While the choreography struggled to keep up with the grandeur of Mozart, often emphasizing the music's melodic line and making the dance far heavier and busier than "Serenade," Elo created postmodern complexity with fragmentary utterances performed alone, in unison, or in counterpoint. The fractured language became a physical analog of both language and thought where, despite shared concepts, none is fully comprehensible to another.
The night ended with Ohad Naharin's wild and wildly funny "Minus 16," a veritable mixtape of various dance excerpts of Naharin's works from the 1990s, which threads us back in history while moving viewers into the present.
It begins with a clowning dancer in intermission warming up the stage, moves to a comic, tamped-down collective cha-cha, and includes a ritualistic chair dance where, with fairy-tale import, the last figure repeatedly falls to the ground. When the ensemble strips itself of shoes, then shirts, and finally pants, all tossed into the center of the stage like a pile in an induction center or a death camp, a darkness beneath the comedy bubbles forth.
Not for long, though. For the finale, company members scouted audience members to be onstage extras in one of the most touching participatory dance exchanges I know. (A shout out to the woman in brown, the downstage woman in blue, and the adept mover with the beard.)
Carreno seems to have a vision of a dance company that pulls together myriad streams of dance with both heart and soul. As the Rockefellers knew when they built Lincoln Center, a world-class city has to have world class arts.
This may be San Jose's moment. Let's hope so.