The panting sound you hear is me rushing to get this review written when you still have two chances, tonight and tomorrow afternoon, to see “Ballet on the Edge,” City Ballet of San Diego’s annual show of contemporary work. Last night’s opening offered not one but two star-is-born moments – a premiere by up-and-coming dance maker Geoff Gonzalez and a show-stealing turn by apprentice company member Laura Kaufman.
Gonzalez, a dashing company dancer whose performing career includes touring with the Bad Boys of Dance, did his first major City Ballet choreography for last year’s “Ballet on the Edge.” It was a promising debut, and this year’s “Inter-Nocturne” is even stronger – authoritative, smart, and sexy. To piano music by film score composer Ludovico Einaudi, Gonzalez uses a varied vocabulary of jazzy moves, tight pirouettes, and leaps that end in panther-like crouches, in which the six-woman, four-man (including himself) cast looked beautifully at home. Tiny Erica Alvarado was a standout, quick and lithe. In the first third or so of the piece, men and women occupied the stage separately, and it’s not until they started to mix that I realized how much tension Gonzalez created by keeping them separate; their connecting brought a thrill of release.
Gonzalez designed the fine streamlined black costumes and the not-so-fine set – two large metal baskets hanging above the stage, each containing what looked like a giant golf ball. I kept expecting the baskets to open and the balls to fall down, but they just hung there and distracted. So, set design may not be Gonzalez’s forte. But exciting choreography, strong dancing, smart music choices, and sleekly sexy costumes make him a quadruple-threat.
Kaufman’s show-stealing turn came in “Leave the Light On,” resident choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich’s 2004 piece to driving rock music by Beth Hart. To lyrics about battling drug addiction and feeling “Broken and Ugly” (the title of one song), the women literally let their hair down – they released those tight ballet buns and swung their long tresses, dispensing with pointe shoes and going for a down-and-dirty style. A few looked like they were slumming, but not Kaufman. She brought joy and grit to a gymnastic pas de trois with Gonzalez and Segey Kheylik, and I haven’t seen a City Ballet dancer with such instinctive musicality since the terrific Mira Cook was in the company.
Choreographically, this year’s “Ballet on the Edge” may be the best-ever, with Gonzalez’s premiere, the infectious fun of “Leave the Light On,” and a Wistrich premiere, the complex, stark “C-Squared.” There were shades of Balanchine’s “Agon” in hip-jutting, angular moves, and Dale Stokes’ set – three large X-crossed metal bars – reminded me of Noguchi’s stark designs for Martha Graham’s mythic dances. Partly performed in silence, this was one of the most interesting contemporary pieces I’ve seen from Wistrich, with highly geometric body shapes, thrilling bits where a line of men faced forward in deep, powerful pliés like Maori warriors doing a haka dance, and intricate lifts – for instance, when Gonzalez pressed Alvarado’s hips up, and she angled her legs up in a tight pike. The most technically challenging of the three dances – and the only one performed en pointe – “C-Squared” had a few shaky developpés and moments of ragged unison in the silent sections when there were no music cues. But who’d choose perfection, when you can have work of substance like this?