Primal vision

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 5, 2013
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San Francisco Ballet's third and fourth programs opened last week with triple bills that run through this weekend. Both shows feature choreographers who were formed at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. On the first show, Yuri Possokhov (who became one of the last stars to rise at the Bolshoi during the Soviet era, and has made his home here since the 1990s) has made a new version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, with mixed success. Program 4, which I have not seen yet, features From Foreign Lands, a divertissement by Alexei Ratmansky (formerly director the Bolshoi, now artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theater), which seems guaranteed to charm.

The first bill shows the dancers' mastery of tone. Guide to Strange Places is a slamming dystopia, almost like hip-hop in its attack, and the dancers killed it. Mark Morris' pastorale Beaux is like Eakins' swimming hole: it shows a variety of guys, some hunky, some epicene, and the contrast can be breathtaking. The movement is often sculptural, like lines of figures on a Grecian urn. Lonnie Weeks was out of this world, spinning at high speeds like Mercury.

Possokhov was hitting his stride in Moscow when he first saw the reconstruction of Nijinsky's Rite of Spring, danced by the Paris Opera Ballet; the Soviets had despised modernism, especially Stravinsky. What would it be like to see The Rite of Spring for the first time? Stravinsky's terrifying music, which exploded like the first bombs of World War I a hundred years ago in Paris, has over the last century become immensely popular as pure music. Our SFB orchestra plays it extremely well; you could close your eyes and be satisfied. The score is a challenge to the interpretive powers of conductors and orchestras (and certainly of bassoon players, who must negotiate its high sad opening melody at the very top of their ranges), who when it was new nearly revolted. Liner notes to the millions of recordings that have been sold always state that it was a ballet, that on opening night the audience rioted continuously throughout the performance, pelted the musicians with everything they could throw at them, and made so much noise that the dancers could not hear the music and had to be conducted from the wings by the choreographer (Vaslav Nijinsky), who stood on a chair and shouted out the counts so they would not get lost.

But still, millions have heard it, few have seen it. After 1913, the ballet immediately disappeared, thrown out in a sexual uproar between the impresario Serge de Diaghilev and his lover/dancer Nijinsky. When Nijinsky rejected him and married a chorus girl, Diaghilev fired him, dropped the ballet for good, and became "guilty" of bringing on the madness which destroyed Nijinsky's career (this was alluded to throughout SFB's preceding program, the Nijinsky of John Neumeier.) The Rite has been controversial ever since, even musically: its first conductor, Pierre Monteux (who later came to SF and conducted our symphony from 1936-52), said 50 years later that he detested the music.

Many choreographers have taken it on (especially the modern dancers Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, and Pina Bausch). Balanchine refused to, and said the best version was Bejart's �" a provocative remark, since most Balanchineans despised Bejart. For decades, the best-known choreography to the music was the scene in Disney's Fantasia in which dinosaurs battle in the La Brea tar pits, an episode Stravinsky later claimed to despise, but which Hindemith said Igor seemed to love.

Stravinsky's idea came to him as images of ancient Russia, in which priests sacrifice a virgin sacrifice to the sun, to ensure the return of warmth to the frozen land. The subtext has often been assumed to be the onset of estrus, of the sex drive itself. The violent outbursts in the music certainly evoke orgasmic convulsions, but also the colossal fracture of ice when it breaks on frozen lakes �" and also of homosexual tensions in alpha males, such as we see in S/M scenes of dominance. The challenge to a choreographer is not just to create imagery on a heroic scale that doesn't pale compared to what movie-makers can do with special effects; it's also to get new juice out of a fruit as much squeezed as the sexual drive. And to do it without descending into bathos.

Possokhov does not have a hundred years of D.H. Lawrence and the school of love child and loam (and the occasional satires of it, like Cold Comfort Farm) to warn him of the pitfalls where American audiences will suddenly start to giggle. I lost it within five minutes, when the sleeping girls on the bare hillside started to writhe and grind their hips, and the Chosen Maiden started humping the stage like Channing Tatum did on top of Jamie Foxx's piano on the Jimmy Kimmel Show .

But then the dancers got it back: they move with conviction, and the rhythmic complexity of their peg-legged gaits, their sudden twists and turns became fascinating. When the warriors came bare-chested over the horizon, they looked sexy as hell, and their prowlings intrigued me �" though it did keep reminding me of a panty-raid, especially when the girls raised their skirts over their heads.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Jennifer Stahl, Garen Scribner and James Sofranko in Yuri Possokhov's The Rite of Spring.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

The tone did not break until the beast-with-two-backs entered (Garen Scribner and James Sofranko, in a costume that skirted them both) and began inciting the tribe to kill; suddenly, the imagery was inadequate to the task, though once again, the ballet managed to regain my attention and respect. The Chosen Maiden, Jennifer Stahl, got deep into her role and commanded sympathy; in the end, the catastrophe was tremendous. The one place where Stravinsky's music falls flat, the final chord, was redeemed by Possokhov's catapult, and actually astonished me.

Program 4 includes a revival of Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour, which he created on this company for SFB's New Works festival a few years back. They now own it, and dance it flawlessly. Everyone in it looks glorious; the gorgeous contrapposti open, twist, stretch, reverse in miraculous harmonies of proportion. The music is trance-inducing �" harmonically banal but rhythmically intoxicating. The entire audience gets a contact high from the ballet.

In it, Sarah Van Patten has become the most interesting dancer in the company �" she's a person on stage, and in the midst of her most difficult assignments she makes you feel some human emotion, something intimate and unnamable but that you're very familiar with from your life right now. Last go-round we watched her in this ballet as if our lives depended on it. She actually drew spontaneous applause in the middle of the adagio, having slumped into a heap on the floor. I do not know of another artist who can communicate so directly and so honestly with the audience in any medium right now. It's as if she's speaking for us all.

There's also the new Ratmansky, and Balanchine's wonderful Scotch Symphony. Go.