Beaux arts

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday February 21, 2012
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San Francisco Ballet charged into its spring season with two triple bills which play through this weekend at the Opera House. Both are full of variety, superlatively well-danced, well worth seeing, and contrast chiefly in that Program 2 is "Modern and Challenging" and Program 3 is "Romantic and Melodramatic." Each has a premiere, Mark Morris' Beaux (#2) and Yuri Possokhov's Francesca da Rimini (#3), and that's the major story.

Actually, Program 2 is an all-gay evening, with an all-male centerpiece by Morris, who is now I'd say the greatest choreographer alive. Beaux is a pastorale for nine adorable men camouflaged as gay boys (pink-camo unitards by Isaac Mizrahi). Last Friday night, the gay presence in the house was almost overwhelming. Donna Sachet, with a fabulous red shawl and a very short, very tight red cocktail dress, was only the most spectacular of the many B.A.R. folk on hand; and the lobby was full of darling young people who looked liked they'd styled their hair with cum.

Beaux does not yield all its secrets on first sight. I desperately want to see it again. If it's about sex �" maybe �" it's also about affection and community, about longing for an ideal peer group, friends you can play with. It thoroughly dismayed all my straight friends, who wanted passion, excitement, big technique, and what it gave us was fugitive images. The one that comes back to me most, that I woke up thinking about, was of a guy sliding his hand from behind you across your chest and leaving it there a moment; it didn't turn into anything, it's all touch and go, like Whitman's Calamus poems and the Song of the Open Road �" tantalizing, leaving you touched but wanting more. There are many emotions in there, but they are not about mating for life, uniting fates, or creating households.

For my gay friends it was very moving. The dance is intimately connected to Bohuslav Martinu's music (Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra), but it's not like a marriage, more like a walk with your dog.

It was Vito Mazzeo, the new Italian principal dancer whom so far we've mostly seen as a strong, generous partner for the ballerina Sofiane Sylve, who bore the banner of making sense of Morris' ballet. It's a whole new side of Mazzeo �" poetic fancy, delicacy, affection, sovereign lightness, a power to soar and float and leave his arms in the air as his body floats down, the power to charm others so that a boy (Ruben Martin Cintas) begins to smile and suddenly rushes forward to dance with him, whereupon their phrases played out to heavenly length, with a melodic freshness and delicacy that put me in mind of Franz Schubert.

Martinu's neoclassical concerto has three movements; repeated viewings might disclose how Morris has divined Martinu's structure and set his groupings and solos to enhance it. On first viewing it was spankingly new and so fascinating in tone and detail, I've just got the beginnings of an understanding of how it works. But I'd bet it's built to last. The groups keep dividing into trios �" which are kinetically easy to grasp but emotionally very unsatisfying ("Who's going to be the odd one out?" is always the question in my lonely mind). The finale, a jig, Morris takes as a chance to present his dancers in little dance cameos, exquisite little solos that show more than one has ever seen before of who (say) Jeremy Rucker is as a person.

The most remarkable passages, though, came earlier, sudden Arcadian poses for the SFB apprentice (!) Sean Bennett, who tosses himself onto the balls of his feet and holds a goat-legged shape like a statue of a faun; his stillness is remarkable, the perfection of the shape is like a statue by Donatello. I need to go back and see why that's there. I don't know. With a new piece by Morris, it takes a long time for the mind to wrap itself around it.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Taras Domitro in Wayne MacGregor's Chroma.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

Beaux has that old-fashioned homoeroticism that belongs to the Rhodes Scholarships, to Houseman's poems, to the Unknown Soldier, to Paul Taylor's Sunset and Company B, to Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, which I haven't seen Morris explore since Robe of White decades ago. I do not know how valuable this is to dance history. I only know that as I write this, it is my 65th birthday, and this is something I've always longed to know more about, and I still need to dare to explore, to live out the rest of my life.

The rest of the program was Wayne MacGregor's iconoclastic Chroma, in which Taras Dimitro, Dana Genshaft, Garen Scribner, and Yuan Yuan Tan danced with astonishing precision and power; and Christopher Wheeldon's perpetual-motion ballet Number 9, a brilliant, thrilling ballet that drives the dancers and the audience to a pitch of exhaustion I'd just as soon not visit again.

Passion play

Take everything I've said about Morris' ballet, reverse it, and you'd have Possokhov's dramballet Francesca da Rimini, the centerpiece of Program 3. It's set in Hell (fantastically realized by scenic designer Alexander V. Nichols, who's recreated the monumentality of WWII-era stage-designs, nay, even the grandeur of Rodin's Inferno ), where Dante's Paolo and Francesca re-live in longing the passion that got them assassinated by his brother, her husband, the prince.

Possokhov is a major, major talent �" he's gone way overboard this time, but who cares? He has an unmatched power to create long movement phrases, roller-coaster rides for the soul, where she's thrown onto the shoulders, over the back, between the legs, onto the waist, back over the back, onto the floor, and up into pointe in arabesque, and then they hug and she throws her knees around his waist �" a gift that's unmatched anywhere in the world right now. The movement goes on and on, and the cumulative effect is absolutely staggering.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's Trio.

(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

So this is what he wanted to do, and this is what we've got, and it's a hysterical mess with brilliant moments and one totally committed ghoulish star-turn �" a weird mixture of Martha Graham and the Soviet school of heroic dramballet from which Possokhov comes, via the Bolshoi, where he was one of the last Soviet star men. All this is set to Tchaikovsky's tone-poem. Mind you, there's a gay subtext to this ballet, too, since the impossible love Tchaikovsky immortalized in his impassioned music mirrors the unrealizability of his own homosexual longings.

Joan Boada and Maria Kochetkova devoted their colossal talents to realizing Possokhov's overwrought pas de deux. Tchaikovsky did not plan for this to be choreographed, and there's way too much music; Possokhov has plenty of ideas, but not enough for all this. The astonishing triumph belongs to Taras Dimitro, as their antagonist, her creepy husband. Domitro managed to channel the great British dancer Robert Helpmann, distorting the classical outlines of his heroic dancing with huge, spinning, twisting leaps that alight in horrible distortions that dramatize the cruelty and hellish passions of his monstrous heart.

This program is rounded out with Helgi Tomasson's Trio, which was beautifully danced by Sarah Van Patten, Tiit Helimets, Vito Mazzeo, Courtney Elizabeth, Vitor Luiz, Vanessa Zahorian, and Isaac Hernandez; and Alexei Ratmansky's preposterous Carnival des Animaux, in which only Elizabeth Miner and Courtney Elizabeth matched the levels of ridiculousness that the choreography called for.