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2, 4-26: "Damned"
New Blessings from Possokhov
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Tsao
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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