San Francisco Ballet Program 2
Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet Program 2

Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
San Francisco War Memorial Auditorium Opera House
Jan. 26-Feb. 2017
Reviewed Feb. 5, 2017

At intermission after Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” I overheard a sleekly coiffed and outfitted Gen-Xer turn to her companion and say, “That reminded me of when I was a little girl and had a jewelry box with a ballerina on top.” I wondered what memories the next piece, Yuri Possokhov’s world premiere “Optimistic Tragedy,” inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece film, “The Battleship Potemkin,” might bring up? How many in the audience had seen the film, or were familiar with the dramatic events of the 1905 Russian Revolution it captured?

In earlier works, Possokhov has shaped musings about passing fancies—swimming, an artist’s work, flowers recalled from his Russian childhood –into dense treatments supported by electrifying design elements. Here he chooses a weighty subject, a battleship mutiny, plated once more onto a cleverly turned-out set. This time, he asks the audience to suspend belief in what it knows of the heroic story, leaving us in a warp of cognitive dissonance by the time the dancers fall flat onto the deck of a ship over troubled waters. His choice of a subject is risky, and he deserves credit for “going there.” After all, U.S. audiences paying top dollar for orchestra seats, with endowments issuing from similarly deep pockets, rarely get to see “Spartacus,” about a slave rebellion. Rebellions by wage workers or a battleship’s crew—could prove to be a bridge too far!

The curtain opens on a spare yet evocative nautical set in indigo and navy, by Alexander V. Nichols. A quotient of cast members stands at attention on a metal frame suggestive of a ship’s bridge. Behind them, a tribute rolls down screened panels: “Dedicated to those who sacrificed their lives for future generations.” These are the brave sailors, among them revolutionaries, who in 1905, mutinied in a protest that began against maggot-infested meat that their captain forced them to accept, and after a mutineer was shot, sailed to the Odessa, seeking a safe haven for his body, and when rejected, continued on from port to port looking for refuge,

Possokhov’s libretto is different. It opens with a spit-polish sailor duet by danced by Angelo Greco and James Sofranko. They sweep in and swab the stage with steps low to the floor. Once all hands are on deck, inexplicably, Yuan Yuan Tan arrives as Commissary, a (female!) commissioned officer just short a stripe of Commissar, a rank associated with the yet-to-take-power Soviet regime. In 1905, and for some years thereafter, it was considered bad luck to allow a woman on board a ship. So what is this woman doing on a battleship in the year 1905, outranking the men, when a working woman’s place was as a poor peasant on a feudal estate or an itinerant worker laboring in cottage industry? Tan’s character is sexualized as a dominatrix. She is swaddled in black and wears a stern expression that never cracks, except when she breaks her iron discipline to offer a momentary entreaty. She effects a liaison with The Captain, danced with due diligence by principal dancer Aaron Robison in his company debut. Their pairing has no backstory basis in either the true story or this one, except that as officers, and the crew’s natural enemy, they might join forces in a strategic alliance. Jaime Garcia Castilla, billed as “Anarchist,” is here not the victim of the officer cabal, as was the sailor Martshenko in the actual Potemkin events, but the evil-doer, when he rapes the Commissary, who instantly shoots him at point blank range.

A steely soul, Tan acquits herself perfectly, each step machined and dispatched with military precision. Robison makes an impressively dashing entrance in his captain’s hat and navy blue officer’s jacket (Mark Zappone’s design), but the loathsomely bulked-up jacket, for Robison, proves a far greater enemy than the crew, when he applies himself to tackling overbuilt, upside down, inside out lifts. These call for what Lenin might have described as “miracles of heroism,” as Robison fights the jacket in order to hoist Tan over and around his shoulders, or to grip her with enough traction to raise her into the air “I would have flung that jacket into the wings,” my evening’s companion remarked as we make our way to the car, “and why was the flag she waved blue or gray instead of red for the Russian Revolution or Black for the anarchistic Narodniks and Social Revolutionaries? Was it because it fit with the color scheme, even if it clashed with the historical record, or what the traffic would bear ideologically?”

Possokhov has a wide-ranging choreographic vocabulary to put at the service of his imagination, but in the short time allotted to Optimistic Tragedy, he pours all of it into a cabbage borscht of Russian character steps, modern dance contractions overlaid on jazz tropes, blended with contemporary combinations, all pressure-cooked to keep pace with Ilya Demutsky’s overwrought score. Visually compelling, the flush choreography could have read more convincingly if Possokhov had tied it to the bones of the real story, and served up a simple red beet borscht instead. In the simple words of another revolutionary, Fidel Castro, a Cuban, loved or hated, again according to the tier in which one is sitting, “It is not enough for the truth to be the truth. It must be told.”

The Ratmansky piece, back for a second season, was yes, a box of treasures, in its way. It brought together three couples in light but deft pas de deux, wry adagio showing gentle but novel port de bras, taken in concert with long, open lunges, and classical steps in series. Alone on the stage, Lorena Feijóo goes open and generous, Dores André surprises with a demure and retiring persona, and Vanessa Zahorian is the spiffy girl-next-door. Francisco Mungamba offers a specificity in tricked out brisés that draw the eye, as he pushes away imaginary walls on either side of him. As Tiit Helimets partners Feijóo, who along with Zahorian, is retiring at the end of the current season, there is the imputed sense that Feijóo is luxuriating in selecting these steps from a trove of memories.

William Forsythe’s “Pas Parts” showcases the talent that has been simmering in the corps de ballet and soloist stratum for a decade, and now struts its stuff in roles held previously by those who have retired and left them as bequests to Jennifer Stahl, Sasha De Sola, Isabella De Vivo, Diego Cruz, Max Cauthorn, and Benjamin Freemantle. Youthful spines give the steps a differential quality as bridges to opposites. A score by Thom Williams t fits the mood as if steps and music were honed on the same lathe. Forsythe holds all the cards to understanding how to bring out the best in a company bristling with talent.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.