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Choreographer Injects Humor into Classics

“Four Seasons”
Mark Foehringer, San Francisco
September 27, 2001

by Anita Amirrezvani
copyright ©2001 by San Jose Mercury News

Some people think Mark Foehringer is irreverent. Although steeped in the ballet classics, he likes to create funny dances. "I have a really wicked sense of humor, sometimes not very polite," he says.

Foehringer takes revered scores, such as Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," and choreographs comic dances to them. It's an ambitious thing to do, because few ballets attempt all-out comedy and even fewer succeed. Those that do often become repertory favorites, such as Jerome Robbins' "The Concert."

Foehringer's funny streak seems to come, in part, from a recognition of life's little ironies --whether its' his own background as the child of Lutheran missionaries in Brazil ("Missionary kids are like preacher's kids to the 100th power"), his parents' reaction to his antics as a 5-year-old in a tutu ("Could this be a phase? Please, God") or the surprise of turning 44 on Sept. 11 ("I woke up, turned the TV on and there were planes flying through buildings.")

His artistic outlet is the Mark Foehringer Dance Project, a company of eight dancers. The company will open its sixth season Friday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Foehringer, who lives in San Francisco, is also artistic director of Western Ballet, a school in Mountain View that teaches as many as 150 children and 300 adults.

For this weekend's performance, Foehringer has created a world premiere to 10 movements of "The Four Seasons." Countless choreographers have made serious dances to this venerated piece of music, but that didn't stop Foehringer from taking a comedic approach.

"People told me not to do it. They said, "That's like doing a comical piece to "Messiah." 'And I said, 'Well, yeah, but God would probably laugh if I did.'"

The dance opens with Tatiana A'Virmond, who is pregnant and "as big as a barn," in a solo in the spring section of Vivaldi's score. Disney-like cartoon characters, including a butterfly, flowers and a bee meet in a scene where "there's pollination going on."

The dance's other sections are set among teenagers (summer), at a Victorian picnic (autumn) and at an old folks' home (winter). In the first scene of the old folks' section, a woman on a walker moves across the stage to get to the last cookie on a plate. Just as she arrives, another fellow pops it in his mouth. There are also sections where the old folks take an exercise class on their walkers and fight over a pillow.

"Because it's done with humor, I was a little bit afraid that people might be offended," Foehringer says. He showed the piece to a focus group Sunday to get their feedback, which was that it was "very sweetly funny."

As part of the program, Foehringer also has tacked another giant of the musical canon: Rachmanioff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," the 1984 score for piano and orchestra. "It's music that every single dancer who has an extensive career has had to dance or learn," says Foehringer.

In creating his dance "Rhapsodia," Foehringer had two other inspirations: a serious murder-mystery dance made in the 1970's by an Argentine choreographer, and the board game, "Clue," which Foehringer often played as a child and still enjoys.

In the first few moments of "Rhapsodia," an old guy takes a bite of soup at a family dinner and croaks. The rest of the dance reveals the motivations that his wife, sister, an ingenue and others might have had for killing him. "It's comedy with a little slapstick in it," says Foehringer.

The third piece on the program, "Nuages," which means "clouds" in French, is the only one that's not a comedy. In it, a trio of dancers tackle the subject of overcoming obstacles in the form of clouds.

"I don't think that the whole purpose of my dance project is to be funny all the time," Foehringer says, "but I have some funny dancers right now , so it's a natural direction to go."

September 27, 2001
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