There are two ballets to talk about here, Artifact Suite, by William Forsythe (seen on Program 1), and Yuri Possokhov’s new Firebird (Program 2). Both were splendid. The other four ballets on the first two programs of the season may have been less noteworthy, but that is not to call them weak. They just didn’t create the same excitement.
The company is remarkable, so far this year, because of the corps. They may be young, but they’re uniformly looking strong, confident and hungry. Helgi Tomasson has assembled a little United Nations of ballet in San Francisco and within this multi-patriotic group is a band of artists who look simultaneously with and against each other, fighting for the future. With a couple of retirements looming and lots of solo opportunities this season, there is no slacking. Every moment, every step, counts. Careers are being made.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the last movement of the aforementioned Artifact Suite (part of a longer work Forsythe choreographed in 1984) when the corps is unleashed and there is youth energy all over the place. Seen as a response to Balanchine, Forsythe created fierce movement here, and the San Francisco dancers performed as if their lives depended on it. Artifact Suite is over-the-top conceptually, spatially and kinesthetically. When a fire curtain keeps falling, shutting down the scene, it becomes an opportunity to take a deep breath, listen to the music, and brace yourself for the next attack on the senses.
Forsythe juxtaposes the banal, a line of two-dozen dancers making arm gestures (very Pina Bausch), with extreme choreography for two couples. The dueling pas de deux are mainly opportunities for the two ballerinas, the leggy Muriel Maffre and spit-fire Lorena Feijoo on opening night, to richochet around the stage with the help of their partners, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba and Pascal Molat, respectively.
The music, a recorded Bach Partita (No. 2) followed by a live version of eight Eva Crossman-Hecht pieces (my favorite was called Dance of the Thousand Piques) performed on piano by Margot Kazimirska, was no Cunningham-style coincidence. The opposite was true—it was clearly the scratched-out melodies and frenzied pace that inspired the choreographer. As a viewer, it was deeply satisfying to be simultaneously unnerved and moved by this combination of wild theatrics and down-right brilliant choreography and dancing.
Firebird, a new version of an old warhorse, created by Yuri Possokhov, newly appointed choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet, is a home run. The narrative thrust of the ballet has been re-focused without being rejected. This is not Swan Lake on roller skates or some such “modern” revision, it is a simpler thing, a fresh take by a man with good instincts. The Russian choreographer plays off the advantages of his Bolshoi upbringing, especially the theatricality—he knows the value of a good villain, works well with masses of dancers, and he’s not afraid to tell a story. That being said, it is more likely the Americanization of Possokhov that creates the most effective aspects of the new ballet. His new American choreographic career (he retired as a dancer last season) feeds off a theatrical sensibility that is as much movie-based as anything. Imagery shares the stage with interesting movement in every Possokhov dance. Ballet has got to have some “new classics” and Possokhov may, over the next ten years at the San Francisco Ballet, (if he stays that long) just do it.
Firebird featured a skinny/elegant Yuan Yuan Tan sporting a long, straight, neon-red wig, and a dress with a tail, looking like “My Little Pony”, but it also offered a love triangle between the bird, the handsome white guy in tights, and the princess he accidentally frees from a transfigured imprisonment (along with her retinue). There is a simple and touching moment, near the end, when the choreographer asks his trio to simply circle each other. It’s an emotionally genuine “ronde” that sets up the ending. Shortly afterwards the sky turns blue, the villagers are preparing for a big wedding, and Stravinsky’s final chords have never looked so human. To life!
I won’t waste much space talking about Blue Rose a bland work by Tommason that looks designed to be danced on a much smaller stage in a smaller city, by less interesting dancers. And the big Balanchine piece on Program 1, Divertimento No. 15, called a “spiritual experience” for the dancers in the program notes, was, unfortunately a bit of a chore, what with Mozart in a mellow key, a dance full of softness and puzzle-part pattern-making, and soloists who looked a bit subdued. Next to Artifact Suite, the 1956 Divertimento definitely placed Mr. B in the last century.
The Dance House, a lovely and interesting work by David Bintley (seen on Program 2, but first created on the company in 1994) was also infuriating in hindsight. Described by the choreographer as a response to AIDS, the fact that there is no same-sex casting here, that the death figure is alone, and that all the other partnering is strictly of the traditional sort, negates every attempt, in my humble opinion, to make some kind of thematic link with a horrible epidemic that cleared out the ranks of gay male ballet dancers in the 80’s and 90’s. Even in San Francisco, ballet people still prefer their make-believe world, even in a so-called, AIDS ballet. That’s not only politically incorrect, it’s an insult and a shame.