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Flash Review 2, 4-26: "Damned"
New Blessings from Possokhov

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- When the curtain rose Tuesday at the War Memorial Opera House for Yuri Possokhov's newest ballet, "Damned," it wasn't the first time the Medea legend had made its appearance on that stage. Just nine days after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere of Michael Smuin's "Medea," Possokhov's interpretation of the same story, on San Francisco Ballet, left me deeply impressed. I mention this not because I want to compare (I never saw the Smuin piece), but because the story remains compelling after many centuries and continues to inspire artists (not only choreographers) to try their hands at creating new versions. (A search on the Web found close to a dozen operas from the Renaissance through today called "Medea" as well as an entire book chronicling Medea's history in the arts from 1500 to 2000.)

That said, let's move on to the particulars of this metamorphosis. Possokhov has chosen Maurice Ravel's "Pavane pour une Infante defunte" to open and close the ballet, with his Piano Concerto in D Major for the left hand for the main body of the work. Beginning with a pas de deux to the dreamy "Pavane" for Jason (Roman Rykine) and the Princess (Yuan Yuan Tan) for whom he has abandoned Medea, Possokhov creates a lyrical and passionate atmosphere of love that will soon be violently and methodically destroyed.

He uses a real Greek chorus of dancers costumed in floor-length white skirts for both men and women, wigs that recall ancient statues, and half masks. Not only do they echo the steps of the principal characters, but they provide a background that makes the story universal instead of only about specific people. At one point all the women form a block behind Medea (Joanna Berman) and all the men are behind Jason, once more emphasizing that each is both an individual and also just a woman or a man living within a certain culture or society. Possokhov tells the story, not in a linear fashion, like a narrative, but by suggesting emotions and motivation through the shape and power of the steps themselves. It runs far deeper than mime -- the movements themselves act directly on the non-intellectual part of your brain and you respond by having the feelings communicated directly to your heart. Medea shows from the first that she loves her children, who in turn show their love for both their parents. But she uses them to deliver the poisoned dress, in the form of a length of red silk, to her rival the Princess because they are innocent and would not be suspected of evil. She tries to put them to sleep, but they aren't ready yet and they call her back. She agonizes about what she is about to do and dons an immense dark cloak. She takes the children under it protectively, then stabs them. Keeping the actual killing hidden allows us to think about the reasons behind it and not merely the horror of the act itself. Even Jason mourns his children without seeing them; they are bodies under the cloak. We do not need to see them to know and feel the tragedy.

In the end, the amazing symbiotic relationship between the choreographer and the dancers also deserves credit for the success of "Damned." Berman, Tan and Rykine are all wonderful dancers, but the gestalt created working with Possokhov takes them all to a new level, an effect I have previously noticed and noted in reviews with his other works. It is truly a mysterious talent to be able to bring out the best in dancers and show facets of them that have not been even hinted at before.

The set by Thyra Hartshorn, who also designed the costumes, is simpleand dramatic. A large gnarled tree trunk, not standing vertically but leaning on a diagonal as if blown by the wind for many years, and rows of dried grass, parched nearly white by the harsh sun evoke the starkness and brutality of the story, and yet they are also quite beautiful. The lighting by Kevin Connaughton also appropriately supports the entire range of moods throughout, and includes a very striking projection of Medea's shadow as the Princess dies through her machinations. Both these artists also collaborated with Possokhov on his "Magrittomania" which premiered two years ago(I loved it!) and it is no mean feat to follow him into such different territory with equal success. The irreplaceable Roy Bogason was the piano soloist.

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