World Premieres: Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion, Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Paul Taylor’s Changes
Pauli Magierek and the San Francisco Ballet ensemble in Paul Taylor’s Changes. Â© Erik Tomasson
Masterpieces are hard to come by these days in the dance world. It’s tempting to think that masterpieces are made almost accidentally, in the same way that George Balanchine tinkered with a beginner adult ballet class to create the landmark Serenade. I highly doubt that Balanchine knew that he was creating a great piece at that time; masterpieces are probably not made with the effort and pressure of author/composer/choreographer saying, “I’m going to create a masterpiece today”.
It’s hard not to hope for at least one great masterpiece in the ongoing San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival, in spite of the pressure to produce one from each choreographer. Overall, program A was a strong solid start for the festival, a diverse program of three pieces that were grouped well together. The best part? Each piece had a deeply personal touch to it, offering a glimpse into each choreographer’s heart.
The program opened with SF Ballet’s resident choreographer, Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion. The piece opened with four men in Middle Eastern nomad costumes, with skirts and hats, in grounded pulsating movements with the complicated music of Graham Fitkin and Rahul Dev Burman driving the onstage action. A second group of dancers in hypermodern sleek pants set up an opposing faction. Rather than an external struggle between the two costumed populations onstage, there is a sense of an individual internalized struggle, expressed in a rushing cascade of movements continuously doubling over itself. The action is lightning fast, mostly in swirling circular movements of legs whipping around and couples turning over each other. The colors of the choreography change as quickly as the movements, from the strident and biting (emphasized by an extremely difficult saxophone parts played staccato in the high registers by Dale Wolford and Jim Dukey), to the bittersweet and sad, to the stretching and protective, to the swingy and jazzy. Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan shared an introspective duet, implicitly trusting even in its awkward moments. Possohkov is delightfully cerebral and logical, with an exciting driving impetus that propelled the dancing into innovative directions. Certain moments however, the movements are so complexly layered that it strays into the area of esoteric denseness. I loved Possohkov’s Sagalobeli that he created for the State Ballet of Georgia – it felt like he really dug in, let loose, dropped all self consciousness, and had fun creating Sagalobeli more than this piece, which felt a little overworked in moments with so much thought and detail, from the cascading movements to the slightly superfluous projected video of the swirling nomad skirts onto the backdrop of hanging screens. This piece however still showcases Possohkov’s inventive and powerful momentum in the logic of his choreography, and in my mind, cements his place as a consistently strong choreographer.
Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan in Yuri Possohkov’s Fusion. Â© Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Benjamin Stewart in Possokhov’s Fusion. Â© Erik Tomasson
Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour was next. Swathed in luscious earthy jewel tones, Wheeldon’s musicality shimmered, reflecting the music by Ezio Bosso which was lighter in a more neoclassical style, simple and steady with emotions more limited to introspective pressing swells yet still richly layered. Starting in a steady walking pace like the second hand on a clock, the ensemble work surged to celebratory and communal, with open and expansive arms and an occasional tinge of sadness. Katita Waldo and Damian Smith performed a witty and lilting waltz in the background of whimsical string pizzicato overlaid with a soaring melody. The pas de deux was filled with quirky non sequitur flexed feet and a gentle sense of humor. In a thrillingly musical duet, Jaime Garcia Castilla and Rory Hohenstein played off each other’s differences in styles by echoing each other’s movements in a fluid camaderie with a slight competitive edge that gave it enough tension to make it fun to watch. In the background of Celtic-sounding droning fifths, Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-FranÃ§ois Vilanoba’s intimate pas de deux leaned into each other belying an internal strength. Joan Boada and Maria Kochetkova’s pas de deux was a perfect melding of classical with modern ballet, with asymmetrical leans and slow lovely promenading turns. In spite of her strongly classical technique and usual sublime control, Maria Kochetkova comfortably wore modern ballet technique with a light easiness, as if trying it on for size. Wheeldon’s charming musicality and comfortable effortlessness made Within the Golden Hour an audience delight.
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. Â© Erik Tomasson
Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-FranÃ§ois Vilanoba in Wheeldon’s Within The Golden Hour. Â© Erik Tomasson
The program ended with a refreshing change of pace, Paul Taylor’s Changes. Set in the 60′s with flat shoes and period street costumes, the piece opened with a group of dancers playfully rocking out to infectiously recognizable songs, with music by John Phillips, John Lennon/Paul McCartney, and John Hartford. Paul Taylor is a master of using every day movements in creative ways to communicate his intentions clearly to the audience, whether it be an emotion, feeling, thought, or message. Another aspect to Paul Taylor is that no matter how joyful a piece is, he adds a sudden contrast of sadness, with a celebratory song ending with a solitary girl staggering desperately off stage. Courteney Elizabeth danced with an easy groundedness in “California Earthquake”. In “I Call Your Name”, Pauli Magierek danced spiritedly as the sassy sexpot to the rapt audience of men as the literally unreachable girl, standing high on the shoulders of the men and falling and going up again in waves. In the tenderly touching “Dancing Bear”, Benjamin Stewart in a onesie wakes up from sleep and dances with Aaron Orza as the dancing bear, as the bear shows and teaches him to dance, which Stewart sweetly follows, with sweeping, yearning movements. In “California Dreaming”, the final rousing song with full ensemble, Anthony Spaulding stood out with explosive dynamism. The curtain falls in the midst of the entire cast dancing as if it’s their last dance. When Paul Taylor took his bow at the end of the piece, it struck me that it is amazing to see such vibrant choreography pour out of the heart of a man of his age.
Courtney Elizabeth in Taylor’s Changes. Â© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Taylor’s Changes. Â© Erik Tomasson
Apart from the choreography, the San Francisco Ballet dancers danced their hearts out, jumping right into the difficult and very different choreography with arms wide open. There was a palpable excitement in the air, with a riskiness and precariousness balanced with confidence that resulted in an exciting fresh performance.
In all, this program gives me great hope for the future of ballet with its modern innovation and risk. It’s inevitable that the festival creates the pressure of creating that one work represents the best of each choreographer, in addition to the pressure of having your piece compared in succession to other world famous choreographers. It’s a tough problem that comes with being labeled as one of the best in the world; some will fall under the pressure by overthinking the details, while others will rise from the ashes in spite of it by still taking risks and staying true to their voice. Despite imperfections, each work was uniqely fascinating with deeply personal flourishes. I do hope that a few of these pieces get permanently incorporated into SF Ballet’s permanent repertoire; word on the street is that Taylor is taking Changes and staging it on his company in a month or so.
The New Works has begun with a solid start! And hooray for non-rehearsal photos -
The New Works Festival