February 6, 2011

San Francisco Ballet: RAkU, Symphonic Variations and Symphony in C


Isaac Hernandez in Ashton’s Symphonic Variations
© Erik Tomasson

Passion Trumps Charm

Good manners, unreserved passion, and joy all came together on Thursday night (February 3) as San Francisco Ballet began its second repertory program of the 2011 season, showcasing the world premiere of RAkU by Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov and revivals of Symphonic Variations (Ashton/Franck) and Symphony in C (Balanchine/Bizet).
A Passionate World Premiere
A new Possokhov ballet is something SFB audiences have come to relish, and RAkU did not disappoint. Based on a true event — the 1950 burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion — librettist Gary Wang crafted a back-story of love, obsession, and loss. Moving the action to an unspecified past era, the story revolves around a noble couple (Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith) who are separated as he goes off to war. A monk (Pascal Molat) is obsessed by the princess and, in her lover’s absence, assaults her. After the prince dies in battle, his men return his ashes to the princess who then dies. In an outburst of profound anger and frustration, the monk sets fire to the temple.
Possokhov wisely decided to create an impression, more of an emotional arc, than attempt a literal retelling of events in a 35-minute ballet. Luckily, he had quite an assembly of talent to pull this off. First, rather than cobble together musical bits and pieces, he decided to commission a symphonic score, selecting composer and ballet orchestra member Shinji Eshima for the job. Then Possokhov assembled the rest of the team: Alexander V. Nichols (sets and projection), Christopher Dennis (lighting), and Mark Zappone (costumes).
The accessible Japanesque score, Eshima’s first for ballet, used plaintive melodies and powerful percussion-rich sections to outline the characters and propel the action. Dennis’s skillful lighting and Nichols’ set design and multiprojector video projections amplified the music’s effects, using contemporary theater technology in ways foreign to a ballet world more familiar with static backdrops and rigid set pieces. Seamless, quiet set transitions allowed the drama to flow without distractions or breaks in continuity, while swiftly changing projections and lighting cues brought each dramatic incident to life. Mark Zappone’s costumes, from the princess’s silken robes to the warriors’ armor, established position and personality without impeding the dance. Against this, Possokhov created a potent dramatic vehicle.
Everything worked. This is the rare instance of the combined individual contributions exceeding the sum of the parts — a supreme unification of the theatrical arts. And the seven-member cast met the challenges presented by this beautiful dance. Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith’s duet achieves an erotic intensity that makes her eventual reaction to his warrior’s death a reasonable reaction to the circumstances. As the pared-down chorus, warriors Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, and Quinn Wharton provided a strong and precise authority, establishing them as the military elite. Pascal Molat as the menacing and dangerous monk revealed his obsession with the princess, exuding malevolence and instability — a primitive passion that could only explode in flames.
Subtle it is not. There are no understated elements in this ballet. From the sets to the acting, each extreme component unifies the whole into the cathartic final moments. And at the end, the audience members, who had been slammed to the back of their seats, leapt up, screaming and shouting in a true (and well-deserved) standing ovation.

The Charm and the Zing
In contrast, Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, which began the evening, came across as a polite exercise in good manners. The spare choreography is a bit of a test, revealing any lapse in technique in its deceptive simplicity. Led by Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin, the cast captured the delicate phrasing and excelled at making the difficult step combinations look easy. Piano soloist Michael McGraw brought his customary deft touch to the César Franck material.
The ballet, with its iconic Sophie Fedorovitch spring-colored sets and Grecian-inspired costumes, is beautiful to look at. Dancers weave in and out of geometric patterns, sometimes even touching, yet although they interact, they never seem to connect with one another or the audience. It is an exercise for the elite; the gods are on the mountain, and we are merely privileged to watch. Like an outtake from a British costume drama, it resembles a tea party — the surfaces are lovely, the forms are observed, the weather discussed, yet there is an icy and distant quality underpinning it all.
Fortunately, the closing work, George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, always engages the crowd. Even though it plays in the same neoclassical sandbox as Symphonic Variations, it has an exuberance and energy missing in the Ashton work, filling the audience with an awareness that these talented dancers are flesh and blood. They smile, they relate to one another, they have fun — and they bring the audience along for the ride. From the first burst of the orchestra to the final crashing moment, they are present, they are in the moment.
At this outing, the four lead couples and their two supporting secondary duos all handled their assignments with attack and conviction. However, in an unusual lapse for this company, the corps, while keeping its lines and hitting its marks, lost some of the synchronization in the arms and head needed to make for a perfect outing.
Of special note, Sofiane Sylve revealed in the second movement her rarely seen lyrical side. Whether she languorously relaxed into partner Tiit Helimets outstretched arm or floated along as he supported her while she delicately skimmed the floor in long, low carries, the pair embodied romantic love.
There’s not much in the way of lifts and dives for the lead couple in the third movement, though. Like an outtake from a Bournonville ballet, Frances Chung and Taras Domitro danced side-by-side, energetically matching movement for movement, and attacking the quick, low steps and intricate footwork with élan.
Vanessa Zahorian with her partner Jaime Garcia Castilla burst onto the stage with authority to open the ballet, and Sarah Van Patten and Hansuke Yamamoto brought the night to a cheerful conclusion. Everyone left the theater with a smile on their face.

Symphonic Variations, RAkU, Symphony in C
In repertory through February 11, 2011
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House

[Originally published at California Literary Review, February 6, 2011]

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