Queen bees & stylized mating rituals

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 27, 2012
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Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Rudolf Nureyev's <i>Raymonda<br>Act III.</i> (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Rudolf Nureyev's Raymonda
Act III.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet is back in the Opera House with two mixed bills, alternating through this weekend. Program 6 opened on a gay NiteOut last Friday night, and tout le monde was there, including critics from New York and Washington, D.C. It was a spectacular evening.

The show had something for everyone: the three ballets each roused different parts of the audience. I could feel the excitement mounting around me during Yuri Possokhov's Japanese soap opera RAkU, and was not surprised to see the entire floor of the orchestra �" which must be 900 people �" spring to their feet in applause at the first curtain call when the ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan stepped forward, still drenched in the ashes of her samurai lord, to take her bow �" but I did not feel moved by it at all myself.

There were two "pure dance" ballets surrounding RAkU: the wedding divertissement from Marius Petipa's classic Raymonda (1898), and a world premiere, Guide to Strange Places, a high-energy, fleet sensation of a ballet set to music by John Adams, choreographed by the rising star Ashley Page of the Scottish Ballet.

Interesting programming. RAkU and Raymonda are contrasting "Orientalist" ballets that use the technique to enlarge the scale of the body to depict stylized mating rituals. Raymonda is classical, cool and very sexy in its way �" the Queen bee gets all the sex. RAkU is post-Soviet dramballet, in which the men get to be sexy (and the shoulders! the thighs! the glutes on those guys, costumed like gladiators). Meanwhile the only woman onstage spreads her legs to 180 degrees and is manipulated, pulled in all directions, displayed from every angle as the victim of man's inhumanity to man. The formula comes from Spartacus .

It's a matter of taste. I'm impressed by RAkU in many ways. Shinji Eshima's score is beautiful, the SFB orchestra plays it wonderfully. All the performers are committed; Possokhov's choreography is inventive, Alexander V. Nichols' sets and projections are very effective. If you like to see your queens on top and in charge, go for Raymonda; if you like to see the tragedy of it all, go for RAkU.

Me, I'd rather see Sofiane Sylve as sovereign than Tan as the melodramatic victim any day �" even in Rudolph Nureyev's over-embroidered distortion of the Petipa classic, wherein Raymonda herself is camped up into a Gloria Swanson, Theda Bara-esque poisonous cobra of a queen. She dramatizes every little shift of weight as a caprice; the feet are like talons, the arms are like snakes, the neck offered as if to bite �" all with impeccable technique and aplomb and stunningly glamorous posturing. You really have to see this to believe it.

When Nureyev defected at the height of the Cold War, the headlines were colossal, since the heroic Soviet male dancers were instruments in the propaganda war of cultures, and his "leap to freedom" was a coup for NATO as well as for the dance world. Insiders knew he was gay, the world saw that he was raw sex. He instantly revived all the Ballets Russes hype about exotic poshlust Russians. Meanwhile, he took his passion for classicism and knowledge of the classic Russian ballets to the bank, staging one after another of the Petipa masterpieces, for which he got royalties for the rest of his life.

SFB has staged Nureyev's Raymonda twice in the last dozen years. This version is preferable, coming as it does from Nureyev's English period, just after his defection in 1966, and has fewer of the gaudy extra steps he crammed into the edition that he staged for the Paris Opera Ballet's version (which SFB staged in 2000). It's great to see the dances so cleaned up, with their natural rhythms restored. And it has exquisite British stagecraft in its designs by Barry Kay, which set the dances in a ballroom that echoes the architecture of our opera house uncannily. The stage seems almost to be a section of the building one had not visited before, so nicely does the arched colonnade echo the War Memorial's proscenium. And the proportions of these arches echo those of the human body, so that formal dancing seems to belong there.

SFB cast the opening night very high indeed, with three ballerinas (Sarah Van Patten, Frances Chung, and Vanessa Zahorian) dancing the soloist roles, which are fiercely exposed and very difficult. They danced accurately and graciously, but without totally concealing the effort required.

Raymonda is a medieval Eastern European extravaganza involving Saracens and Christians, and the classical way of telling you which side is winning is to present squads of performers doing national dances �" in Act III, it's victorious Hungarians, doing the czardas in many ways, both in heeled boots and on pointe. The great Russian companies each have a whole department devoted to maintaining these stylized dances. The hardest thing for American dancers to do is these booted dances, which have finesse and flair of their own. It's hard not to overdo the Hungarian cortege, and Friday night, only Elana Altman (as the principal lady), Dustin Spero, Ben and Matthew Stewart in the corps seemed to have found the right amount of contrapposto for the style.

Since Act III is a victory celebration, it's a dance of joy: four guys do their bravest tricks in the canon (wonderful all, they were Hansuke Yamamoto, Daniel Deivison, Isaac Hernandez, and Stephen Morse), the Prince does double cabrioles, and the Princess has a fantastic variation with Hungarian plastique to a sensuous, intoxicating piano melody that Danilova called "Arab song." It is a sensational solo, and in it Sofiane Sylve brought down the house.

Frances Chung and Pascal Molat in Ashley Page's Guide to Strange Places. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

The story for me Friday night was the power of British stagecraft: Ashley Page's premiere was beautifully lit and staged with an extraordinarily beautiful setting. Page has created a futuristic Utopia in a dark but not unhappy realm where creatures with beautiful bare legs dart about, flashing their legs like neon tetras in front of a fascinatingly deep backdrop. Designer Jon Morrell has up-ended colossal discs in the far distance �" they resemble spider webs or phonograph records spinning, or the inside of a watch, which David Finn has lit to make the space seem glamorous, deep, and expensive. The sense is there's all the room you could want, and the 18 dancers charge through it with funky grace �" they hit their marks hard, then melt like Salvador Dali clocks. I can't tell you why, but it was hella fun for a long time. Jaime Garcia Castillo was brilliant beyond anything.

John Adams' score seemed unusually raucous in its blattier sections, and I found it thrilling. The whole thing appealed to me and to a small section of the audience, who stood and cheered almost in defiance of those who had gone so crazy over RAkU.

I don't know that there's much more to Page's choreography than a brilliant mode of attack, where the moves initiate with a powerful onslaught that slams into position like a hip-hop dancer �" sforzando �" then melts into a haunting diminuendo, sustained through a long follow-through that often lasts for several counts. It will be interesting to see what can be made in this mode, and if it retains its novelty long.

Program 5 I have not yet seen, but my spies tell me it's very fine indeed. It includes the much-anticipated Symphonic Dances by Edwaard Liang to Rachmaninov's great music (a world premiere), Helgi Tomasson's gorgeous The Fifth Season, and Glass Pieces by Jerome Robbins. Both shows continue through Tues., April 3.