Like stars on a summer evening

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 4, 2014
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All three ballets on San Francisco Ballet's third program were thrilling, each in its way, and in such different ways they make the case for the triple bill. It's box-office wisdom now that "full-evening" story ballets are what the public wants, but I seriously doubt that as many balletomanes will go back for third and fourth visits to the forthcoming Cinderella (smash hit though it was last year) as returned to see La Bayadere, Ghosts and Firebird last week. Each ballet was enthralling in its way and repaid all the attention you could give it. Each deserves more discussion than space allows.

Bayaderka (as it's known in Russia) premiered in St. Petersburg 150 years ago; created by Marius Petipa to rival Aida, it is a ballet on the grandest scale, doom-laden and exotic, luxuriating in triumphal marches, rajahs, tropical beasts, palm fans, palaces and temples that collapse �" and rival ballerinas: the temple dancer Nikiya and her arch-enemy, the rajah's daughter, who has her murdered, by snake-bite. We saw one scene from it, the third-act "ballet blanc" which constitutes a ballet within the ballet �" our grieving hero's opium dream in which he sees a vision of his dead beloved (Maria Kochetkova) mirrored in countless ghostly echoes of herself (27 soloists and dancers from the corps de ballet). The scene was staged by Natalia Makarova, herself once a great Nikiya.

The entrance of the shades is perhaps the most mesmerizing display of the power of classical ballet ever. The dancers come out like stars on a summer evening �" first one, who immediately expands her image by several orders of magnitude by raising her back leg. From finger to toe she's doubled in length, and takes the light in such a way as to brighten the whole stage. She then steps forward, the place behind her is taken by another, and these two repeat the same fascinating modular phrase. And so on: dancers enter, proceeding down a ramp, then crisscrossing the stage, one after another, slowly filling the stage with 24 dancers (in 1871, there were 64 dancers on their colossal stage). The effect is hypnotic. When the ballet was first seen in New York in the middle of the last century, minimalists like Carl Andre went crazy over it, since the dancers seemed to prophesy the aesthetic of his installations. The exactness of the dancers' positions, the austerity, geometry, and the intensity of the negative space certainly echo the Minimalists' aesthetic, and they also evoke the uncanny world of loss.

Petipa develops this mood with sparkling variations for three soloists, the first a trail of stardust for a soloist running effortlessly on her pointes (the adorable Mathilde Froustey), the third a stunning series of springs to a dead stop (Frances Chung), also with grand entrances for the hero, danced with wild abandon by the Russian guest artist Denis Matvienko, and a grand duet where he is reunited with Nikiya.

The drama on opening night was complicated by Matvienko's disregard for his ballerina's needs. He presented himself with a wildness that won the audience but made me worry he'd overshoot himself. Perhaps he was ill. Kochetkova pulled more and more into herself as Matvienko left her unsupported, and proved that she is such a powerful dancer she could do this dance by herself if she had to. The public did notice that Nikiya was not giving her grieving lover a warm welcome; dancers in the audience could tell she was nailing her phrases to the beat �" her wrist would put the finial on the pose as if she were striking a chime. It works as an interpretation, though it is more minimalist than romantic. Applause was thunderous for the corps; Elizabeth Powell led the Shades onto the stage.


San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Ghosts.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

Drowning world

Christopher Wheeldon's Ghosts (2010) is liquid where Bayadere is crystalline, but the dancers melted and poured through it with such grace and awareness of all its nuances that this ballet seemed to continue the atmosphere of the uncanny that had been established by the shades. The piece is even more abstract than Bayadere. We do not know what Elysium these dancers inhabit, though the scenery suggests a wreck at sea, as if debris were slowly descending from on high, as if a whole world were drowning. The serenity of the community here is suggested by the way the dancers move, which infuses ballet with modern release-technique in a fruitful way, to import sensuality, softness, floating, the pouring of weight from one limb into another, thus to create a new world of grace. These dancers fully own and command this idiom and now dance this ballet with such commitment, it's almost a revelation. At the end, when Gaetano Amico and Ruben Mart'n Cintas bear Lorena Feijoo across the stage, the image echoes Eliot's mermaid "riding seaward on the waves/combing the white hair of the waves blown back/when the wind blows the water white and black." There was a huge emotion in the audience at this finale, we all felt it. All the dancers deserve praise; special notice to Lee Alexandra Meyer-Lorey, Miles Thatcher, Maria Kochetkova, and Vitor Luiz.


San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's Firebird.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

'Firebird' delight

Finales need to send the audience out singing the tunes, waving their arms in the air, stamping the floor, deliriously happy with the whole evening, and Yuri Posskohov's delightful folk-dance recreation of the Diaghilev-era Firebird made all that happen. His production is lighter in tone than the original, with airy suggestions of the folk-tale forest setting designed by Yuri Zhukov, and a finale that creates a utopian community that reminds me of Jerome Robbins' "place for us." The bridegrooms bring out their liveliest footwork to offer themselves to their girls, the princesses twirl their wrists like the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the whole thing has been universalized and made into a gift to San Francisco from an emigre choreographer who grew up in Moscow, came to love folk dance there as a child, came up through the Bolshoi school and the heroic Soviet ballets of the Cold War era, and now lives here, knows us and loves his new city.

The dancers completely own his idiom �" the Firebird (Yuan Yuan Tan) has pointe steps of considerable delicacy and a plastique that makes her wonderfully remote and powerful in her magic. The Princess (Sasha de Sola) is like the most popular girl in high school, a bit of a bitch but nobody cares, everybody loves her and she is hilarious. When she wants a golden apple, she goes up to the tree and stamps her foot, and Lo! Apples all come tumbling down. Best of all were Pascal Molat as an outrageously evil but not really frightening monster-wizard who tries to imprison the goofy young man, wonderfully epitomized by Tiit Helimets, who's hunky and knows it, like Curley in Oklahoma! Of course he gets the girl, and everybody gets what they want, and we all get to go home, happily dazzled after a fabulous evening at the ballet.