Dueling mixed bills delight

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 14, 2015
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Well, I'll be damned! It's impossible to prefer one over the other of San Francisco Ballet's mixed bills that opened last week at the Opera House. Both are extraordinary and diametrically opposed, tragic and comic, and alternate with each other through this Sunday. It's a stunt, almost as if Matthew McConaughey were playing a starving junkie one night and the priest of the male strip-joints matinee and evenings.

The big news is two-fold: they're showing Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovitch Trilogy, which is without a doubt the greatest new choreography in the classical idiom for at least a decade, dancing even better than they did when they gave the West Coast premiere here last year. And they've introduced a splashy, mind-blowing mixed-media spectacle, Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer, to show a Twitterist go on an acid trip in search of his soul, "till human voices wake us, and we drown."

I've rarely seen programs argue so strongly for the power of a non-verbal art to deal with a broad spectrum of human possibility. Ratmansky deals with politics, life, love, art; Possokhov with suburban alienation, the madness of the rat race, high fashion, advertising, consumer fetishism. There's a huge back-story to all this, which I do not have space to go into besides to say that both Ratmansky and Possokhov are Russian emigres with roots in Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet school in Moscow, and they grew up nursed on the heroic Bolshoi idiom, which the Soviet Union used both as an export and for propaganda. Both also grew up under the shadow of repression �" Soviet artists who made the commissars look good lived in luxury, with big apartments, fancy clothes, large cars. Those who did not lived in terror, or in the gulag, if they lived at all.

Shostakovitch the composer walked a tightrope, and Ratmansky's trilogy of ballets set to his 9th Symphony, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto # 1, respond in the largest possible way to the moods and thoughts encoded in the music �" which is not cryptic, but was evidently subtle enough to get past the censors. Davit Karapetyan repeated his stunning portrayal of Shostakovitch in the central ballet.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Possokhov's premiere goes in entirely the other direction. He's composed a bright satirical piece that opens in the style of a Broadway show. A movie is projected on a semi-transparent scrim, showing an Architectural Digest -worthy house with a snappy young professional jumping out of bed at stage left, shadowed behind the scrim by a dancer going through exactly the same moves. He does the shit-shave-shower routine in the next room over, shadowed by a naked dancer whom we see nearly all of (except the naughty bits), throws a sharkskin jacket on like Don Draper, rushes across to the kitchen, grabs a bite, and hits the road.

The Mad Men prologue is so dazzling you're stunned to see they're able to keep this up. The interplay of film designs (by Kate Duhamel), the brilliant skeletal set designs (Alexander V. Nichols, who catches the essence of mid-century modern with astonishing accuracy), costumes (Mark Zappone) and wizardly lighting (David Finn) makes visions happen in the most extraordinary ways over and over again. The mind races to guess how they did that even as one episode succeeds another like dreams, with scary discontinuities and also the recurring crazy motif of the anti-hero trying to swim his way home through his neighbors' swimming pools.

Possokhov did not live through the era of John Cheever and John Updike in this country. He's picked up on the drunken lostness of that generation through voracious reading and immersing himself in American culture long after the fact, starting somewhere in the 1990s and catching up. So his version of the 60s is not much like mine, which was filled with the blues, the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. It's a Russian looking at America �" and if he sees it in a fun-house mirror, well, he does stuff that was there. Each episode takes him deeper into American alienation: there's Lolita, there's the Catcher in the Rye, trying to save all those children from falling off the cliff and not be phony.

Possokhov has used many of the stars of the company in his vignettes. Perhaps it's no accident that most of them were trained in Communist countries: Cuba (Taras Dimitro, in the recurring role of the swimmer; Lorena Feijoo); Russia (Maria Kochetkova, Gennadi Nedvigin); Estonia (Tiit Helimets); China (Yuan Yuan Tan). Perhaps that is just an accident. Everyone deserves high praise.