Like birds changing direction in mid-air

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 13, 2010
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"Hats off gentlemen, a genius!" Yuri Possokhov, you rule!

It will take more viewings to assess just how great Possokhov's new ballet Classical Symphony, which had its world premiere last Friday night at the Opera House, actually is, but a) that piece is built to last, and b) the excitement it generated in that building that night, to see classical dancers doing ballet like parkours leaping into trees and over walls, or extreme-skateboarders turning 720s in pipelines, made me feel that this is a big moment. In my experience, this is the first classical ballet to feel totally contemporary since the death of Balanchine. I was out of my mind with joy. Nothing can bring back the excitement of seeing such a thing for the first time, but I immediately wanted to see the whole thing again.

Possokhov is now San Francisco Ballet's choreographer in residence, after being a star dancer here for a decade. But he's Russian by birth. His classicism is in the blood �" he grew up in Moscow, did Russian folk dancing before he got into the Bolshoi school, where he was nurtured by the great teacher Boris Pestov, to whom the ballet is dedicated (Pestov "brought in books for us, made us memorize poetry, taught us about the Greek myths; when videotapes first appeared, he invited us over to watch them; we were with him from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; it was the school of life"). He became a star at the Bolshoi as a young man, and it's fair to say he has the tradition as deep inside him as anyone alive today. But the thing is, Possokhov is using it as if there were nothing studied about it. He was clearly inspired and overflowing with ideas, like Shakespeare in full flow. He's given them the hardest steps in the book, and they're flying around the stage, weaving in and out of each other, as if they were bursting straight out of his imagination. Things catch fire onstage �" a stationary dancer seems to realize "I can do that," and suddenly jumps in, as if Bernoulli's principle picked him up and pulled him into the current. The women are running, the men are leaping, such momentum, but they suddenly stop like birds in mid-air and suddenly go in another direction. They use the air like dancers usually use the floor.

Possokhov has set Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, which has four movements, each with dance rhythms (including a gavotte) that give spring and lightness to a mysteriously powerful alternation between wit, grace, and power; the symphony itself is as hilarious as Rossini or Haydn, and Possokhov has made it into a vehicle for teenaged wit, rather as Clueless brought Jane Austen back to life ("I totally paused"), in idioms that absolutely belong to these dancers, who can hear Prokofiev rolling his eyes and love it, and bring the same elan to their dancing.

OK, this is overheated, but you get the picture. Everyone in it was wonderful. No less. Hansuke Yamamoto sliced into his assignment like a hungry man going for a steak, and danced the larghetto with Maria Kochetkova as playful lovers who were having too much fun to have sex right now. Daniel Deivison actually stole the show. Go see it soon; you'll want to see it again. It's on a bill with Christopher Wheeldon's Rush and Jerome Robbins' genuinely funny ballet The Concert that plays tonight, Saturday (both shows), and Tuesday, and that's it for this year.

Dark matter

That program alternates with a much darker evening that features Renato Zanella's Underskin, by the Italian choreographer Renato Zanella; the stage is very dark, and his intentions are likewise obscure, but he seems to have set an allegory of the soul lost like Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, in a dark forest, subject to the whims of Lady Fortune �" who was spectacularly realized in the person of Sofiane Sylve, Total Diva, rigged in a lizardy, shimmering black costume that let her kick past 180 degrees amidst the tilted trees and S/M guys in the dark leathers. What poor Katita Waldo was searching for never was clear, nor whether she found it, but she did look beautiful the whole time.

These shows mark Waldo's retirement as a ballerina at SFB. It marks the end of an era �" she's the last ballerina to come out of the school, and has danced beautifully in every mode; she was one of the best Sylphides ever, a glorious Lilac Fairy, a totally convincing Street Dancer in Don Quixote; but she's excelled in neo-classical and modern works, where she gets the musicality just right. She's moving without being sentimental. In Agon, in Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, she was spectacularly idiosyncratic and totally believable. And she's been something of a muse for Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballet Rush she made mysterious and wonderful last Friday.

Helgi Tomasson's setting of Mozart's Haffner Symphony pales beside the music itself �" his joinery is first-rate, the phrases are difficult and varied, he gets the rhythms right, but not the harmonies, so the grace, though not wasted and not phony, seems superficial. Best is his use of the corps, whose intricate phrases correspond to the passagework in telling ways. The lead couple Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan danced everything beautifully.

The big disappointment is Alexei Ratmansky's Russian Seasons, which our dancers cannot make the case for. There are many wonderful passages, and several dancers �" Isaac Hernandez, Elizabeth Miner, Sofiane Sylve, Maria Kochetkova Pascal Molat, Tiit Helimets �" are never unconvincing. But Yuan Yuan Tan can not make the ending transcendent, which one presumes it ought to be. You can't tell if she's a bride or a ghost. Perhaps the problem is that Ratmansky did not set it on SF Ballet himself; it was staged by Yan Godovsky. The song cycle that Ratmansky set, by the contemporary Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov, has many ironies it its use of traditional Russian melodies �" but if the dancers understand them, there is nevertheless an event threshold that keeps the meanings locked inside them. The light does not come through to us.