RAkU, SF Ballet

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Yuan Yuan Tan (center) and San Francisco Ballet corps members in Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU”
Photo © Erik Tomasson

‘RAkU’—Possokhov’s Fusion of the Damned

Program 2: Symphonic Variations (choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton, music by César Franck)
RAkU (choreography by Yuri Possokhov, music by Shinji Eshima)
Symphony in C (choreography by George Balanchine, music by Georges Bizet)
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
Feb. 3-11, 2011

Snicker all you like—and there’s plenty in Yuri Possokhov‘s tenth creation for San Francisco Ballet to make you sneer (if not snort)—but sooner or later someone has to acknowledge that the quality of the choreographer-in-residence’s output has swung like a quake-rocked pendulum over the last few years. Then, once that wide gap is admitted, ask: How could this latest expensive mess manage to arrive on the stage of the Opera House? How could a dance-maker who last season delivered “Classical Symphony,” a composition of such impressive originality that it gave great hope for the future, turn around and offer this confused tangle of styles and story and scenic design? Moreover, how could an artistic director not exercise his firm hand and guide “RAkU” back from the precipice? Where were you, Helgi Tomasson?

If that seems harsh, consider that “RAkU” challenges every commonsense rule of balletic convention. Based on a real-life event—the torching in 1950 of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto by a mentally unstable monk (an intriguing concept to say the least for a story ballet)—the narrative jerks back to some vague medieval period, where a princess loses her prince to war and is raped by a monk who pines to be loved by her. A quartet of warriors acts as a sort of chorus, expounding the melodrama in movement (and, curiously, offering the best choreography in the piece). There’s a lot of gesturing (some of it absurd—the monk’s weird ticks, the princess’s contortions), which is intended to evoke butoh, a Japanese dance style developed post-World War II. Why this is considered appropriate to a story reset centuries ago is one of many questions prompted by this work, whose answers are ultimately nowhere to be found in it (beginning with the title, and its annoying cap-and-lowercase spelling of what is presumed to be a reference to Japanese tea-ceremony pottery—but why?).

Possokhov has said he “would like to make this ballet not be about steps, more about aesthetics.” Sorry, “steps” are a choreographer’s stock in trade, and Possokhov seems to have drawn a dud in leaning heavily on “aesthetic” gimmicks like projections of still photos and video fire or coup-de-théâtre contrivances such as having the princess pour handfuls of the dead prince’s ashes on her head, then swing her hair about, showering the stage with what looks like sand. It’s supposed to elicit pity, but this act of self-abasement only makes you feel sorry for the poor ballerina, wondering how in hell she’ll shampoo that stuff out. Possokhov, it seems, needs to confine his experiments to the workshop or rehearsal space; some of his past works (“Damned,” in 2002, and “Fusion,” in 2008) emphasized gimmick over coherent choreography, with expected heavy-handed results. Here, too, he’s more fascinated with machinery (a kimono that shoots off the princess into the flies) than setting mood and expressing emotion from movement coupled to music.

And therein lies the real shame: “RAkU” has such a beautiful score (a commission from Shinji Eshima, a longtime bass player for both the ballet and opera), with haunting string passages and some vibrant marches, all thrillingly conducted by Martin West. Possokhov squanders his opportunities here, however, never using the music fully to make the story compelling or its main characters anything but clichés: stoic prince, lovelorn princess, lustful monk. Given the limited choreography, then, it’s no wonder the principals appear lost in the muddle. As the princess, Lorena Feijoo (assuming, in the last three performances, the role presumably created for Yuan Yuan Tan) throws herself into the part in her customary fashion, which only exaggerates the paucity of interesting steps she’s given. Daniel Deivison plays the prince, and he did the best he could with the awkward poses and partnering. Vitor Luiz, an otherwise fine dancer, gave a clunky rendition of the monk, projecting in his overly menacing leaps and flailing arms not so much a tormented soul as a man bent on mayhem. Only the four warriors convey power and substance, twisting their hips in a grinding fashion one moment, then pounding their impressively muscled legs on the floor the next. Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, and Quinn Wharton—corps members worth keeping your eye on—somehow lend credibility to the over-the-top storyline. Here’s looking forward to seeing them soon, perhaps in the next program, when Possokhov’s more felicitous steps are on display in “Classical Symphony.”

The opening work of Program 2—Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations,” set to César Franck’s eponymous score for piano and orchestra—has plenty of steps, but most of them had a less-than-finished look on this night (Feb. 8), well into the run of Program 2. Though this piece has come to be known as a landmark of Ashton’s style, drawing on Greek ideals of purity and economy of means, a slavishly reverential approach toward the choreography, supervised here by Wendy Ellis Somes, has hardened over the decades (Ashton created it in 1946) and frozen it in a kind of choreographic amber; as a consequence it feels ponderous and a bit leaden, particularly when the dancers have not fully worked out its subtleties, which means absolutely precise positioning and uniform (though not stiff) symmetry. Frances Chung and Dana Genshaft got most of the stylized épaulement right, looking appropriately ceremonious and poised. But Maria Kotchetkova was overeager in her attack, cocking and popping her head and snapping her shoulders during an exaggerated backbend. She dances not with a sense of community, but as a ballerina preoccupied with standing in the glow of a nonexistent spotlight on a hyper-lit stage. (This is supposed to be an ensemble piece, after all.) Her partner, Gennadi Nedvigin, looked bewildered, not altogether present in the spirit of the ballet as he strained during lifts. He was somewhat better than Jaime Garcia Castilla, who seemed to be just plain lost as he sought to catch up with Genshaft. And though Isaac Hernandez exhibited a serene exterior, he too had unsure moments, as if he wondered if he were standing where he should be. In all, they gave what ought to be a memorable ballet a rather workmanlike treatment, demonstrating the dance without inhabiting it.

But the memory of these two misfires was softened by the program’s finale, a most pleasing rendition of Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” Set to Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, this classic of the repertoire was created a year after Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations,” in 1947. Performed with vigor and wholehearted enthusiasm by this company, however, it looks as fresh and radiant as if it had just arrived from the Paris Opera Ballet, on which Balanchine originally set the work. Its four movements, each danced by a pair of principals, two supporting couples, and six to eight corps members, glows with an infectious appeal as lilting as the score. Sarah Van Patten and new principal Vito Mazzeo were all smiles and swift turns, lending layers of charm to the allegro movement, followed by the noble pairing of Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve in the adagio. Sylve, an alumna of New York City Ballet (where “Symphony in C” is among the most performed from the Balanchine canon), offered up an exquisite performance that perfectly captures the movement’s majesterial grace. She clearly knows her way around the piece, and her execution and technique are so breathtaking as to overshadow the ballerinas in the third and fourth movement (Courtney Elizabeth and Nicole Ciapponi, a corps newcomer), who nonetheless give excellent performances, offering amazingly fast footwork (they are energetically partnered by veteran principal Pascal Molat and new corps member Lonnie Weeks, respectively). The triumph of this work (staged here by Elyse Borne) lies in the sheer pleasure its patterns and gorgeous balance elicit: watching it performed by more than 50 magnificently trained dancers, you can’t help but smile and sigh in utter contentment.

John Sullivan
(With thanks to Brian Wines, a fellow balletomane and dancer with the Barbary Coast Cloggers, for suggesting the title of this review.)

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