"Symphonic Variations", "RAkU", "Symphony in C"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
February 3, 2011
By Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2011
San Francisco Ballet's second program offered two masterpieces of high style and a premiere that aimed for such but came up short. Much anticipated as Yuri Possokhov's "RAkU" was, the thirty-five minute dance drama ultimately tumbled into histrionics though it provided a thankful vehicle for dancer actress Yuan Yuan Tan. What elicited admiration was Possokhov's dramatic movement language that is strongly expressionistic yet embedded within constraints similar to those seen in Japanese No and Kabuki Theater. He seemed to be pushing against classical demands quite unlike Ballet's but just as stringent. I just wish that the piece had convinced more.
Possokhov built his 12th work for SFB around two contrasting duets, both involving male power. Dropping their kimonos and stepping out of a tight enclosure, the pas de deux for Tan and Smith becomes an epic struggle of churning and kicking limbs. Smith yanks, twirls and pushes his bride into submission through a series of confrontations, precarious lifts and precipitous falls that culminate in her throwing herself at him yet opening herself like a blossom. With huge planted stances, giant strides and powerful arms, Smith was every bit the warrior hero, looking about twice the size of his given body. Possokhov also drew out of Tan that wondrous ability to simultaneously look fierce and fragile.
We first see the black-clad, bald-headed Molat, almost like a passing shadow when he twirls, dives and somersaults across the stage into the wings. As a jealous would-be suitor, he slinks around corners and spys on the lovers -- a melodrama's villain. Yet pursuing Tan, who at first just senses his threatening presence, he grows into a deadly menace. Intriguingly here, composer Shinji Eshima introduces disembodied voices (courtesy of the San Francisco Zen Center) into an otherwise bland score. Twisting Tan legs as if to break them, forcing her head down his back, attempting to choke her, Molat finally flattens the distraught woman above him against a wall. She was to be his trophy.
A series of martial arts inspired dances for the soldiers made extensive use of the torso. Varied as they were, they looked challenging and hopefully of interest to the four dancers.
After the conflagration (excellent scenic and projection design by Alexander V. Nichols), cowering over her urn, I so much did not want Tan open it throw the ashes over herself, yet she did. She also tore her hair and squirmed in extended agony until she finally collapsed under some falling snow (or, perhaps cherry blossoms). It was a bravura performance and I couldn't begrudge Tan the audience's standing ovation. She had worked for it.
The rest of the program was dance at its more refined. Ashton's "Symphonic Variations" received a good though not stellar performance with four of the six dancers (Maria Kotchekova, Frances Chung, Dana Genshaft, Isaac Hernandez) doing their parts for the first time. (Gennadi Nedvigin and Jaime Garcia Castilla performed in the San Francisco premiere in 2004). It was appropriate that Kotchekova and Nedvigin, both fine stylists, danced the center couple. Kotchekova practically threw herself in and out of those lifts. Some of the women's neck in the uplifted, far away glances, however, looked absurdly stiff.
Apparently, in England the ballet is considered as very much of its time--something to do with its being the first work Ashton made after the war. To these eyes "Symphonic" is as pristine and up-to-date as anything created since. It's a ballet about movement and stillness, about isolation and connection, about transparency and mystery. It's setting could be Greece or a drawing board. The unison duet for two women recalled Nijinska's "Les Biches." Much of the choreography looks so simple--the way Ashton used the alternation between the piano and the orchestra, the open hands gestures, the high passés, the invisible threads that tied the women to a single pulse, the four cornerstones anchoring the action, yet what refinement he demanded of those tasks.
Balanchine choreographed "Symphony in C" barely a year after Ashton did his ballet. They make good companion pieces, one for the still modest London, the other for a glamorous Parisian company. SFB has been performing it since 1961 so this was familiar fare. "Symphony" makes you smile; at times I want to laugh out loud at the spitfire exuberance, particularly because the corps -- and they danced with absolue authority -- raises the ante with every entry, every variation on line and circle patterns until you think it can't go on. I have also wondered whether Balanchine had gone to see the Folie Bergere while working on "Symphony in C".
This performance offered a new insight into both Tiit Helimets and Sofiane Sylve who danced the second movement. Helimets, always a fine technician, these days infuses his virtuosity with uncommon warmth and a new openness of spirit. When Sylve gently unfolded her limbs, he held her securely but gently, as if in awe of her. Sylve often gets cast in power roles; so this casting was a welcome surprise. She revealed herself as also a lovely adagio ballerina. For the other movements, Vanessa Zahorian (with Castilla) started the ballet with a youthfully assertive stride; Sarah Van Patten (with Hansuke Yamamoto) rallied the troupes for the finale, and Frances Chung partnered young Taras Domitro -- flying through his leaps -- in the Scherzo.