Phenomenal dancing

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 1, 2011
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San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's <i>Classical<br>Symphony.</i> Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's Classical
Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet's third and fourth programs opened last weekend at the Opera House with mixed bills that showed off the company roster to stunning effect. Right down to the dancers in the back row, the talent is simply phenomenal, and the ballets are well-chosen to let them shine. These performers have everything – technique, energy, personal beauty, musicality; every one of them a stage animal. They never shrink back, not even in the hardest steps. Au contraire, that's when they turn themselves loose. The opening numbers on both shows are maybe too exciting – each one is the most classical piece on the program, and each one kicks ass to the point where the best that follows, good as it is, is a little anti-climactic.

The all-Tchaikovsky Program 4 led off with Balanchine's Theme and Variations, made in 1947 to show off the fledgling Ballet Theater's classical chops and the brilliance of Alicia Alonso, their great allegro technician who later returned to her native Cuba to found the National Ballet. It was poignant to see one of her proteges, the brilliant Taras Domitro (who defected a few years back), handle the principal male role with magnificent Spanish glamour. It's a ballet where technique is just a prerequisite, and cool style is the point. "Taritas" takes the stage with a generosity to his partner and the corps de ballet that is enormously appealing, and he even lets you see the brilliant things the demi-soloists and the girls in the back line are doing while he's turning his gazillion pirouettes. Frances Chung, in Alonso's role, moved with an amazing lightness and alacrity when speed was called for, and brought a voluptuous quality to her few moments of true adagio; it was a dream to see her fold her knee and bring her foot back in from its maximum extension.

The ballet's made to the finale of Tchaikovsky's Orchestral Suite #3, every inch of which is danceable; each variation has a distinct character. Its finale is almost unbearably exciting, opening with trumpet fanfares, on each of which a new couple flies in, lands center-stage, springs onto poses like knives quivering in the ground, and you are stunned  by how beautiful each one of them is, what magnificent creatures; o brave new world that hath such people in it! It builds from there into a huge crowd of people jumping, kicking and turning, to Tchaikovsky's loudest music, going off like fireworks at Las Vegas. Unbelievably exciting.

Program 3 opens with Classical Symphony, by SFB resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov;   new last year, it is made up of the hardest steps in the classical book set to music and thrown off like they were nothing. Possokhov came up through Moscow's Bolshoi school and ballet, where he was a principal. He made this in homage to his teacher, the great Peter Pestov, and he's pulled from his deepest memories, transfigured the moves and made them come to life all over again. He's taken pirouettes sitting on the heels, which come from the men's folk-dance lexicon, and given them to the women, who do them with glee and wit.

He's also given the women some of the snaky-spined moves brought into the neo-classical mode by the inventor of hyperballet, William Forsythe, whose Artifact Suite makes a stunning conclusion to the same program. Forsythe, who grew up in the USA, has had his main career in Germany, where he developed a theatricality full of S/M tropes. In Artifact Suite, the corps dancers, lined up like soldiers around the perimeter, take their cues from a dominatrix standing center-stage with her back to us. They echo her semaphore-like arms, which change positions robot-like while two couples do hyperballet au milieu. If you've never seen Artifact Suite, you haven't lived.

Both programs had a one-act dramatic ballet as a centerpiece. Kenneth MacMillan's version of Chekhov's Three Sisters gave wonderful material for the ballerinas Sofiane Sylve, Maria Kochetkova, and Lorena Feijoo, all of whom were riveting. Sylve was sensational in a role that owed a lot to Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. The imagery, the subtle use of Russian folk-dance posture and phrasing created a warm melancholy feeling of a vivid creature being wasted, slowly, inexorably. The piece is over-long, but it's wonderful.

SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson had a piece on each program – one, a bluesy piece set to Kurt Weill's Berlin-cabaret music, about a young woman who arrives in town with high hopes and sees them crushed. Nanna's Lied was dull on Saturday night, but Garen Scribner in a very small role showed just how powerful the piece can be if a dancer takes the opportunities it offers. Yuan Yuan Tan has danced this role with greatness in the past, but not this time. Melody Moore sang   the Brecht/Weill songs ravishingly – her "Wo sind die Schneen vom vergangenen Jahr?" floated the most exquisite tone I've heard thus far all year.

Tomasson's Trio sets a Tchaikovsky score – the Souvenir de Florence – of which only the first movement is really suitable for dancing. Vanessa Zahorian danced gloriously. She can be constricted in the throat and collarbone, but in this piece her shoulders were voluptuous, and her every movement was generous, magnanimous, wonderfully phrased. Everyone danced their best, but the piece, though beautifully dressed and presented in front of a gorgeous gilded backdrop that suggested Cimabue, Gentile da Fabriano, and all the early Renaissance masters, slipped knotless through the mind.

Dancing vividly in most of the pieces: Sasha da Sola, Courtney Elizabeth, Clara Blanco; absolutely thrilling in Classical Symphony, Hansuke Yamamoto, Daniel Deivison, and Jaime Garcia Castillo, whose work is beyond praise. Matthew and Benjamin Stewart, the Gemini; and Maria Kochetkova throughout, who slices through the space like a hungry man going through a steak: the appetite is glorious, what a great spirit.

In other news, this weekend the great Merce Cunningham Dance Company on their farewell tour presents their final appearances in Berkeley, performing the fantastic Antic Meet tonight and tomorrow, and the great Roaratorio on Saturday. Reports from North Carolina say they have never danced better. Merce was like Gertrude Stein in many ways: not just one of us queers, his work, like hers, is at the heart of the American version of modernism: trying to see everything at once, Cubistically, with feeling but without sentimentality. There will probably be, on this occasion, some weeping in the house. We shall not look upon their like again.