writers on dancing


Possokhov's New "Reflections"

"Square Dance," "Grosse Fugue" and "Reflections"
Program 4
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
March 12, 2005

by Ann Murphy
copyright ©2005 by Ann Murphy

Like a writer who has published plenty of short stories then packs one of them with enough material for a novel, Yuri Possokhov has seemingly stuffed everything he knows into his fifth and latest ballet "Reflections". Imagine "Swan Lake" fragments put through the blender with "Paquita," "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude," "Agon" "La Bayadere," and a bit of Julia Adam's work, among others, pressed relentlessly into falling domino pattern, canon form, counterpoint and high speed inversions, then decked out in blood red and snow white tutus adorned with skirts starched at nearly a 90 degree angle for the women, and black retro swimsuit-style leos for the men. Set it to the heroics of Mendelsson's Symphony No. 1 in C minor, and you have some idea of Possokhov's ambition.

This is the SFB principal's first foray into large-cast abstract ballet, and clearly, he's afraid of nothing. When you find out that the four movement work was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's anguished study of three sisters, "Cries and Whispers," you know everything but the kitchen sink goes into this young choreographer's pot. The well-crafted mixed bill opens with a sparklingly performed "Square Dance," Balanchine's elegant classical/folk hybrid, and is bound in the middle by van Manen's beautifully rendered "Grosse Fugue," a rigorously spare Graham-inflected study of the sexes.

Possokhov's 34-dancer ballet almost has to be a program closer. Not only does it reflect shards of the just-danced "Grosse Fugue" when the men repeat van Manen's fierce-fisted lunges into deep plié and torqued, angular arm movements and reflects the dancers and Opera House back at us from four narrow mirrors. But it really belongs at the end because "Reflections" comes at us with such deconstructionist fury that it might have immolated the audience had it appeared earlier in the afternoon.

The ballet opens with a militaristic battalion of dancers in white strapless tutus (designed by Sandra Woodall) tearing out into formation and then whipping around like ferocious wraiths. Kristin Long enters piqué-ing on her front foot and pulling in her back leg toward fifth, and hiking up her rear and pushing out her ribs like a slightly punctilious yet naughty White Queen. She is soon joined from the back of the stage by her red counterpart, danced with prickly intensity by Lorena Fejoo. Fejoo has her own army of red ballerinas, and pretty soon the troops of snow and blood are mixing it up.

Possokhov ably moves large blocks of dancers around the stage while at one point, in front of them, the red and white queens quixotically slide across the floor like kids on ice. But an air of frenzy ensues and the ballet becomes exhausting to watch. Ultimately it leads the viewer to yearn not so much for fewer dancers or less ambition, but for quieter, surer ground beneath Possokhov's feet. This is what Balanchine and van Manen have, using demanding music for their own ends rather than being driven by it, and clearly taming and channeling their ideas. We can apprehend their conceptions of spatial volume, drama and musicality with certain ease, while Possokov is still at the mercy of his ideas, like a young bronco rider who can stay on the animal but is still being ridden by the horse.

In his quieter moments, the young Ukrainian seems less overwhelmed by his material. The Second Movement is a somewhat forlorn study of the iconic feminine. Damian Smith rotates and circles around an aloof Waldo, never really reaching her but clinging to her all the same, and the mirrored action adds a certain element of poignance to the duet. In the Third Movement, an increasingly buff looking Nicolas Blanc rips across the stage in a beautiful array of leaps and batterie that seem happily free from strife, although how he fits into the overall scheme, or what the four demi-soloists and eight other men are doing together is unclear. The same is true of Pascal Molat, in the Fourth Movement, who rises up from a mass of bodies on the floor to eat up space with boyish insouciance (although he needs to do something about his tight shoulders, which seem to increasingly sap energy from the center of his body and give him an air of muscling through his allegro work).

Possokhov seems to share far closer aesthetic relation to van Manen, who draws from expressionist-inflected modern dance for his study of the sexes, than to Balanchine. "Grosse Fuge" is a masterfully crafted dance from 1971, set to Beethoven's Op. 133 and the Cavatina from the String Quartet No. 13. It begins with the dazed cache of four women huddled upstage right in old-fashioned white leotards, resembling nothing so much as a nest of vulnerable goslings as the men in their black warrior skirts and bare chests devour the space before them with ritualized aggression. Van Manen initially divides the stage and the world into the tremulous female and the belligerent male then allows us to see the utterly uncliched dynamic that evolves when the sexes meet. In a disturbing gesture the men strip to shorts and throw their skirts against the backdrop, then the women pursue them with atavistic curiosity and hunger. They ultimately hold on-literally, to an evocative loop at the men's waist, and even when they are swept about on their bottoms by their partners, they never drop their hold or are allowed to let go.

The quietly feminine Dalene Bramer, with one of the most beautiful pair of feet in the company, stood in for Fejoo Sunday, and she gave her subdued lead role, paired with Martin, a shadowy pathos that deepened the overall mood of the dance. Although off center at first, Moises Martin of all the men looks most at home in the Limon-style battement and diabolical Graham falls, although his companions, Pablo Piantino in particular, brought a kind of bottled emotionality to the movement. Rachel Viselli's delicate style, reminiscent of Julie Diana, underscored the vulnerability of the women, but together with the lovely Pauli Magierek and the no-nonsense Erin McNulty, the women accumulated an air of persistence that met Pascal Molat, Peter Brandenhoff, Piantino and Martins move for move.

"Square Dance" opened the program to music by Vivaldi and Corelli, and it is as divine and shimmering a ballet as they come. It synthesizes perfectly perfumed classicism with the homely idioms of American square dance and takes the eight positions of the body in the "square" that every dancer uses as his geometric base in ballet and combines it with the complementary circling, fanning and line changing of barn dancing. The outcome is exquisite, as though Faberge were told to make a kaleidoscope and maintain the Russian elegance in the patterns while making them recognizably American. Who better to dance it than the current couple extraordinaire, Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia? LeBlanc made fast work of Balanchine's diabolically exacting footwork-those rapid retire, echappe, entrechat, coupe combos, for one—her very small feet as sparkling and unruffled as her smile. Garcia was considerably more gallant than a farmer at a hoedown, but less ostentatious than a prince as he bowed to LeBlanc from across the stage, or performed a beautiful gloss on ballet's reverence, or executed a melancholy leap into first arabesque from which he dropped like his anguished Albrecht. My dream? To see "Square Dance" performed as it's currently performed by the company, and immediately after to watch it again with the original calls by a professional hoe-down caller reinstalled. Then, to close, and to reflect on Balanchine's modern counterpart, I'd like to see the company perform Merce Cunningham's "Grange Eve."

Volume 3, No. 11
March 14, 2005

copyright ©2005 Ann Murphy


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