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Review & Interview, 2-27: Winging it
Possokhov Takes the Coast
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
Photo Copyright Andy Batt
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SAN FRANCISCO -- When
Yuri Possokhov, principal dancer and choreographer, walks into the
room at the San Francisco Ballet for our interview, he does a double
take, having expected some unknown journalist, and says, "Oh, it's
you." Possokhov and I frequently took classes together from the
late Svetlana Afanasieva a number of years ago, when SFB
dancers were still allowed to take outside classes. We settle in
to talk about his latest creation for the company, "Study in Motion,"
which had premiered two weeks before, February 5, at the War Memorial
Opera House, and his "Firebird," which premieres tomorrow in Portland
on Oregon Ballet Theatre.
What most of us in the
dance world already know, but what the general audience usually
has no clue about, is how a ballet goes from being an idea in the
choreographer's mind to a performance on stage. The path can be
straightforward or convoluted, relatively smooth or fraught with
difficulties, and the final work may not even be close to the original
vision. I ask Possokhov if he intended "Study in Motion" to be an
exploration in a more formal, abstract style than his other large-scale
ballets for SFB, "Magrittomania" (an homage to the Belgian painter Rene
Magritte) and "Damned" (an interpretation of the Medea story). He
says not really, the form was dictated by the fact that there wasn't
a lot of time in the hectic rehearsal schedule so he had use of
only eight dancers and had to make a chamber ballet, a far more
intimate work than previously planned. It was an idea he thought
about a while ago but hadn't expected to work on at the moment.
Possokhov used Alexander
Scriabin's solo piano music, opening with Sonata No.5, Op.53 followed
by four preludes and an impromptu and closing with the last movement
of Sonata No.2, Op. 19. The qualities, ranging from Chopinesque
lyricism to far more modern driving rhythms and dissonance, were
matched both by the choreography and the dancers' nuanced performances.
I found both the set
and costumes stunningly beautiful in their simplicity. The stage
is enclosed on four sides and on top by white sheer panels that
wafted gently in the drafts created by the rising curtain. A man
stands alone in the dim light shining from the back. The front panels
disappear skyward and more dancers run in through the panels, which
billow slightly. The illusion is both of being contained and yet
having access to a dark infinity beyond. The women are dressed in
white see-through dresses with solid white briefs and bandeau tops
underneath, while the men wear dark plum unitards.
"Did you work closely
with Benjamin Pierce on the set design?" I ask him. "Not really,"
he replies. "I said that I wanted a box. The first design he did
was absolutely beautiful, but because of technical problems we couldn't
do it. I was very disappointed. When he did this one, I was worried
that the fabric of the panels wouldn't move enough and wouldn't
work with the movements of the dancers. But it was perfect. That
is the mystery of artistic creation. Sometimes the sets and costumes
can be gorgeous by themselves, but don't work with the choreography.
Or they can work perfectly. The women's costumes we changed two
days before the premiere because the original ones weren't right
for the piece."
I mention that I saw
the piece twice, with different casts. He says that the second cast
didn't get much rehearsal time, but that he was pleased with how
professionally they worked and did a good job. I concur, but add
that the first cast was able to give the piece more depth and contrast,
and that even though the second cast didn't have that same strength
of interpretation, the choreography still shone on its own.
"Now let's talk about
your work in Portland for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Were you commissioned
to do a ballet of your own choosing, or was it specifically for
Stravinsky's 'Firebird'?" I ask. Possokhov replies that originally
he could have done what he wanted, but because of scheduling conflicts
he had to postpone and the time when he was available coincided
with OBT's "White Nights" program, and that meant artistic director
(and former SFB colleague) Christopher Stowell wanted "Firebird."
Ballet Theatre's Yuka Iino in Yuri Zhukov's costume for "The
Firebird." Andy Batt photo copyright Andy Batt, courtesy Oregon
Because he is still
actively dancing with SFB, I want to know when he set the choreography.
"In December I went there for three weeks. We worked for one week
every day, then we were off for a week while they did "Nutcracker"
and then we did another week. In ten days I finished. I enjoyed
working with the dancers there so much. They really listen and work
very hard. " But as he will be performing here during the week before
the premiere on February 28 in Portland, he won't be able to be
add any last minute touches or make corrections, and will only arrive
the day of the opening. This is a big problem when he has to divide
his time between two muses. He considers asking Helgi Tomasson,
SFB's artistic director, if it's possible to have one day off so
he can at least see the dress rehearsal. I am always amazed that
Possokhov manages to produce such good choreography given the time
and energy restraints imposed by his performing schedule. Then again,
some people are just so very talented they can pull it off.
When I ask him if being
Russian made it easier to choreograph this fairy tale from his native
country, he says yes, but that he has found his own way among the
various versions of the story, and has changed it to include a love
triangle. "The Firebird is half woman and falls in love with the
Prince. There is drama with tears, but she's a smart girl and realizes
that she should leave the Prince alone with the Princess he loves."
Instead of the entire score as Igor Stravinsky wrote it, he is using
the shorter suite of music from the ballet. It is more condensed,
and since OBT is a small company of only 20 dancers, this is crucial
to maintaining the momentum of the story. Possokhov has also eliminated
the usually static wedding scene at the end for the same reason.
Despite the difficulties
of this long distance arts relationship, he says that it has been
a good experience and it will be important in determining whether
he will want to work in this manner again, or if he will stick to
situations where he can constantly nurse things along. In closing
I ask him if there is anything he would like to add. "Yes: I want
to say I never liked the music before. Now I love it. When you listen
to music and say immediately you don't like it, it doesn't mean
anything. When you know it well, you have the right to say you love
it or hate it."
Possokhov's friend and
scenic and costume designer for "Firebird," Yuri Zhukov and I speak
a few days later. Zhukov is from St. Petersburg, where he studied
at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, then danced at the Kirov for seven
years before emigrating to the United States. He danced with San
Francisco Ballet from 1989 till 1995 and met Possokhov in 1994 when
the former Bolshoi dancer joined the company. Zhukov left to dance
with the Birmingham Royal Ballet from 1995 to 1999. He began designing
costumes in 1993 for his own choreography, but "Firebird" marks
the first time he has worked on a big production. I express curiosity
about his designs for OBT and he says that they are inspired by
traditional Russian lacquer boxes, which usually feature pastel
colors on a black background. He hopes he has been able to support
Possokhov's vision and create the right atmosphere for the choreography.
But the distance hasn't made it easy to supervise the realization
of the backdrops and costumes. What the designer sketched may be
far from the actual results. Fortunately, he will spend a whole
week before the premiere in Portland making sure that those elements
of the production are correct. Let's hope the Firebird remembered
to give him one of her feathers so that he can overcome any problems
he may encounter and that the ballet will be a grand success.
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