Anthony Spaulding and Yuan Yuan Tan in Possohkov’s Diving Into the Lilacs.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
What’s in a name? Usually in a title for a ballet, the best I can hope for is that it be innocuous, enough to allow the choreography to speak for itself. Balanchine took the safe route by naming many of his ballets after the music, which also reflect his musical choreographic style – Serenade, Concerto Barocco, La Valse. The most creative title that comes to mind is Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet, where Morris took all of Leroy Anderson’s pieces and named the ballet after the one piece of music that was omitted from the ballet. Don’t even get me started about the bad titles – Jorma Elo’s Double EvilÂ still baffles me. The title of San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer Yuri Possohkov’s world premiere tonight, Diving Into the Lilacs immediately conjured up a flowery, sugary confection that begs to be taken literally. Thankfully, the piece veered away from the implications of its enthusiastic title and turned out to be a lovely piece of work.
In a few of Â Possohkov’s abstract ballets, I found his strengths to be in engaging the audience’s emotions, rather than our logic. In his previousÂ Fusion and in this piece, the meanings and my comprehension remain murky (although Fusion improved upon second viewing). But it is without a doubt that his strengths include capturing evocative moods through movement, and his choreography seems to come alive. There is a constant shifting, changing directions, turning, and the choreography breathes organically.
In Diving Into the Lilacs, Possohkov describes moods that roughly correlate to the seasons of the lilac, a flower scent strongly associated with his childhood. The piece opens in silence and darkness, as the muted colors onstage and the diaphanous dresses make the stage look almost watery, with the background of lilacs looking almost aquarium-like. The scene slowly comes to life. There are several motifs throughout, including one where the men reach out with one hand up high, and then cross their arm close to their heart like a pledge. It gives it an intensely personal almost reverential feel, as if memories are being held close to the heart. Images shift as fast as his configurations, vaguely alluding to a plot but never specifying – a group of men look forlornly to the back as if looking into the past, while a group of women face forward and reach to the sky. The men rush to support the women as they gently bend backwards in surrender.
The pictures the choreography paints on the stage flow effortlessly, yet he uses such dramatically evocative gestures it’s hard to watch without wondering what these gestures mean. Maria Kochetkova and Pascal Molat skip and run in a youthful dance, Molat with exuberance and Kochetkova with a quick, light-as-air touch. Yuan Yuan Tan and Anthony Spaulding follow in a dramatic pas de deux, darker in mood yet more passionate.Â She reaches back in his grasp that almost loses her, and she falls to the floor where she reaches desperately at his leg. Spaulding is a substantial figure to Tan’s slim one in a balanced partnership that was made stronger with their sizzling chemistry. It was a marvel to watch them at work, with Tan and Spaulding whirling as one in breathtaking shapes and drama. Joan Boada and Lorena Feijoo changed the mood with an upbeat folksy dance, filled with hip juts, flexed foot kicks, and do-si-do’s. Thrilling pirouettes with a flexed foot flew by in a joyful celebration.
There’s something riveting about the speed of Possohkov’s choreography and the thrill of visibly difficult catches and what look like near-misses. The shifting configurations pull the eye, and the moods evoked are personal and poignant. It’s difficult however, to pinpoint what exactly ties everything together, as the movements seem to be completely different sets of dances altogether and transitions are abrupt. I wonder if this would improve on a second viewing, like it did for me with Possohkov’s Fusion. The seasons of the lilac mirror the human experience in a warm glow of nostalgia not without its pain yet ultimately hopeful, with the carefree days of childhood, the darker days of searching and growth, and the celebratory end.
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’sÂ Diving Into The Lilacs.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
On the flip side, artistic director Helgi Tomasson shows us that he’s a better artistic director than a choreographer, with his piece titled Prism. Prism showcases his star dancers in the best way possible – Sofiane Sylve sparkled with full, alluring lines, looking very much like a spotlight was following her as she glowed. It was difficult to tear your eyes away from her when she was onstage. Kristin Long was attentively partnered by Ruben Martin and Hansuke Yamamoto although in an almost too precious way, with the two men carrying her and presenting her gently whenever possible. And Taras Domitro made the solo look like it was made for him; his numerous turns and now signature split jump brought out the loudest audience response (although he had more difficulty with a commanding stage presence when simply standing front and center, looking out into the audience). Tomasson experimented with different stage configurations of groups of dancers, all set to the music of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was interesting for a short while, but not enough, as it seemed to drag on in places as the piece seemed too long for what it was trying to say.
Taras Domitro in Tomasson’s Prism.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
Ivan Popov and Sofiane Sylve in Tomasson’s Prism.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
The evening ended with a reprise of The Four Temperaments, seen a few months ago on tour. The stark cold simplicity provides a definite contrast from the previous two neoclassical ballets which were beautifully expressive. Despite its simplicity, it still packs a punch. With the music by Paul Hindemith and choreography based loosely based on the four humors of the body – black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile (although as a medical student, I’m not clear what a “humor”, a temperament, or yellow bile is). With jabbing pointed feet, legs suddenly splaying into the forward splits, arms pushed outwards, the choreography has a relentlessness about it that alludes to the human body in that whatever happens, the heart keeps pumping and the blood keeps flowing. The two male soloists (Pascal Molat and Davis Karapetyan) both had a softness to their dancing (both in choreography as well as in individual style) that contrasted with the sharpness in the women in an intriguing display of gender role reversal and opposites. Sarah Van Patten and Ruben Martin danced the second Sanguinic variation, where Van Patten shot steely penetrating looks that could stop anyone in their tracks. I’ve never seen her kick with more power or dance with more vehemence in a role that the NY Times called one of the best of 2008. Sofiane Sylve brought the piece to a close with a strong, pointed Choleric variation.
Ruben Martin and Sarah Van Patten in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
Davit Karapetyan and San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’sÂ The Four Temperaments.Â Â© Erik Tomasson
Overall, it was a diverse mix of modern ballets with a local emphasis and as always, with the caliber of dancing to the umpteenth degree. Program 1 is off to a strong start.
What’s the most inventive or frustrating title of a ballet that you’ve seen? On a side note, ballet superstar Diana Vishneva was spotted in the house, sitting a row in front of me, watching the Possohkov piece intently.
Click here for more information on Program 1, which continues until February 7. Program 2 starts on January 29.