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Chi-Lin

Composer: Bright Sheng
Choreography: Helgi Tomasson
Scenic and Costume Design: Sandra Woodall
Lighting and Projection Design: Clifton Taylor
Music: Flute Moon; The Stream Flows; ¡°Fanfare¡± from China Dreams

World Premiere: April 2, 2002 ¡ª San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House;
San Francisco, California

When Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's Chi-Lin premiered at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House last season, the audience roared its approval. And last fall, ballet-goers and critics in New York and Washington, D.C., received it with unanimous enthusiasm. San Francisco Chronicle critic Octavio Roca called Chi-Lin ¡°a gift,¡± exclaiming over the fact that an Icelander had created an Asian American work that ¡°enhances the multicultural mosaic that is American dance.¡±

Tomasson has dug into Chinese mythology to find the framework for his homage to the artistry and heritage of ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan, on whom he created Chi-Lin. The interactions of mythological creatures of good omen that represent the four elements¡ªthe chi-lin or Chinese unicorn (earth), dragon (air), phoenix (fire), and tortoise (water)¡ªprovide the work's structure. Together, they symbolize harmony. This ancient aspect of Chinese culture gives the ballet a grand scale and sense of timelessness.

Chi-Lin opens with the four creatures isolated in individual spotlights, their animal natures revealed: an arm extending beyond the head suggests the unicorn's horn; the dragon and phoenix appear to have wings; the sea tortoise is poised mid-stroke. The starkness of the opening and the stripped-down sets and costumes¡ªswatches of burnished gold fabric, a pagoda-like cornice floating in midair¡ªecho the ballet's theme. Tomasson has gotten down to basics, elementally and visually. Designer Sandra Woodall's set pieces are fragmentary; her costumes, while descriptive, are little more than modesty demands. By only suggesting time and place, and a world that isn't quite real, Tomasson allows the viewer to appreciate the complexity of the movement¡ªmovement that is enhanced by the visibility of the dancers' muscles. We see every ripple, every contraction, every release.

But the music does more than suggest. Tomasson's inspiration for the ballet (which he chanced upon in a music store one day) was a piece called ¡°Chi-Lin's Dance,¡± from Flute Moon, by Chinese composer/pianist and MacArthur fellow Bright Sheng. The score is an amalgam of portions of several works by Sheng: Flute Moon, The Stream Flows, and ¡°Fanfare¡± from China Dreams. In the April 2002 San Francisco Ballet program, Sheng explained that by the time he wrote Flute Moon, in 1999, he no longer thought about blending Chinese and Western influences; it just happened. ¡°The fusion . . . has to be deeply rooted in the tradition of both cultures . . . . Otherwise, it will be gimmicky.¡± Before the ballet's premiere, Tomasson said that Sheng was alarmed that his music would not be played in the sequence that he wrote it¡ªuntil he saw how Tomasson had shaped it to the ballet. The composer, said Tomasson, ¡°loved seeing his music become visual.¡±

The choreography, created by a Westerner on a Chinese ballerina who imprints the steps with cultural authenticity, also shows true fusion in its mix of contemporary, classical, and Chinese-influenced movement vocabularies. There are just enough flexed feet and hands, tilted heads, and ceremonial bourr¨¦es to suggest the work's Asian roots without resorting to clich¨¦s. Tomasson uses what he calls ¡°the essence¡± of traditional Chinese dance, particularly in the steps for the five women who, with their long, draping sleeves, symbolize the flames from which the phoenix arises and provide a counterpoint to the bird's fast steps and expansive jumps.

The creatures have their signature poses and kinetic styles, but Tomasson does not relegate himself to the representational; he gives them distinctly human traits that captivate far more than their bestial qualities ever could. But the work's power is in the interaction of the chi-lin with the other animals; there is never a moment that the unicorn is not in control. Tomasson has offered Tan a role that emphasizes her gentle magnetism and stunning technique but also allows her to show range as an actress. Her chi-lin is playful, powerful, flirtatious, sweet, and above all (as befits the embodiment of benevolence and rectitude) serene. Alexandra Tomalonis wrote in The Washington Post that Tan has ¡°an exquisite, supple line and a quality of stillness that Tomasson's choreography shows off beautifully.¡±

¡°Stillness¡± is an apt term to describe the peaceful chi-lin and her companion the tortoise; and even the fiery, powerful dragon and phoenix have their moments of rest. In fact, despite a celebratory finale, there's a sense of quietude implicit in the ballet's overall message. Call it inner peace, if you will. Or, perhaps, call it harmony.

¡ªCheryl Ossola

The 2002 world premiere of Chi-Lin was underwritten, in part, by The Edward E. Hills Fund, with additional support from the Phyllis C. Wattis New Works Fund.

The 2003 encore of Chi-Lin is underwritten, in part, by ENCORE!

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