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Out of the Fog, 2-23: Art & Artifacts
New 'Firebird' Alights, Igniting New SFB Season

By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2007 Aimée Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- In "Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets," edited by Francis Mason, you can find this interesting tidbit opening the entry on Mr. B's own version of "Firebird": "The composer of 'Firebird,' Igor Stravinsky, once said that Russian legends have as their heroes men who are 'simple, naive, sometimes even stupid, devoid of all malice, and it is they who are always victorious over characters that are clever, artful, complex, cruel and powerful.'" Whether or not this is a view held solely by the Russian composer, or is a widely acknowledged idea, doesn't ultimately matter when considering Yuri Possokhov's recent creation to this seminal music. He has embraced it totally and the result is a ballet that is utterly accessible and thoroughly entertaining.

After creating a smaller scale version in 2004 on Oregon Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet choreographer in residence Possokhov added substantial parts for the corps de ballet and increased the difficulty of the choreography for the soloists for SFB, where this "Firebird" hatched February 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, on program 2 of the season.

"Firebird," which premiered in 1910, was Stravinsky's first ballet score, having been commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. Pavlova had been slated for the lead role but found the Stravinsky score incomprehensible and refused to dance it. She was replaced by Tamara Karsavina. Fortunately for me, this brilliant music has not had the same overwhelming attraction for choreographers that Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (1913) has had for almost a century, otherwise I would have a lot more versions to compare with Possokhov's latest rendition.

The three other productions of "Firebird" with which I am familiar are Fokine's, which was revived in 1954 by the Royal Ballet; John Taras's 1982 production for the Dance Theatre of Harlem; and Maurice Bejart's Mao-influenced politico-ideological contemporary work of 1970. The first two retain the classic fairy-tale ambience, where there is elusive mystery and dreamy magical illusion, but no real down-to-earth humanness.

Herein lies the strength of Possokhov's telling. All the human characters on stage read as real people. They are Russian peasants rooted in the soil. The Prince and Princess are flesh and blood, not the Romantic ideal of royal lovers from "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty." They are regular people like you and me. Even the steps they are given are based in folk dance, from the Prince's first encounter with the Princess to their wedding at the end. This choreography somehow seems like a blend of ethnic authenticity and silent movie slapstick, glued together with a bit of ballet. We are at once warmed by familiarity and amused by outlandishness.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Yuri Possokhov's "Firebird." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

On the other hand, both the Firebird and the evil sorcerer Kaschei are surreal and find their power in steps more aligned with classical ballet, a form very far removed from everyday life in appearance and feeling. Yuan Yuan Tan, as the mythical avian creature, is other-worldly in her lightness of jump and elastic line. While all the other costumes by Sandra Woodall are fine, the Firebird's attire, with flaming orange wig that's more like a punk "My Little Pony" toy and fabric tail that keeps getting entangled in her legs, detracts from her status as a supernatural being. These imperfections constantly broadcast that she isn't really so special. Perhaps this can be remedied in the future as the quality of Tan's dancing certainly confirms her as a very rare species.

As Kaschei, Pascal Molat has yet again delved into a role with all his amazing insight into character and the ability to translate that into a perfectly realized portrayal. In Fokine's ballet, the final scene, the marriage of the Prince and Princess is totally static, visually splendid, yet boring. Possokhov gives us a real peasant celebration with the entire cast dancing with joy, as befits such an occasion.

Yuri Zhukov's scenic designs contribute enormously to the success of this ballet. Without being in a strictly Art Nouveau or Art Deco vein, they nonetheless evoke the same kind of grace and imagination of those styles. From the intricate gates of Kaschei's garden to the tree bearing golden fruit to the onion spires of Old Russia, Zhukov provides the perfect framing for each scene, richly suggestive without being a realistic representation of locale.

I was a bit mystified that the following ran in the printed cast program:

"World Premiere (Fokine, chor.): June 25, 1910 - Diaghilev's Ballet Russe [sic], Theatre National de l'Opera de Paris; Paris, France.

"San Francisco Ballet Premiere (new production): February 1, 2007 - War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California."

This is a PREMIERE of Yuri Possokhov's "Firebird," not a new production of Fokine's version, as implied above. Never mentioned anywhere is that SFB danced Bejart's version back in the late 1970s. I saw it performed in Stern Grove, but had also seen Bejart's own Ballet du XXieme Siecle dance it in Brussels in 1970 shortly after the Paris premiere.

Tina LeBlanc and Pascal Molat in Helgi Tomasson's "Blue Rose." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

The rest of Program 2 consists of the opener "Blue Rose" (2006), by SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson and David Bintley's 1995 "The Dance House." The entire company is dancing at a very high level right now. In "Blue Rose," Tina LeBlanc and Molat are stunning in their solos and have a particularly magnetic rapport with each other, as do Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba in their pas de deux. All the dancers were buoyed tremendously by pianist Natal'ya Feygina's responsive playing of Elena Kats-Cherin's score. (Feygina, formerly a company pianist at the Kirov Ballet, used to play for the classes I took before she became an SFB company pianist and her exceptional understanding of exactly what dancers need musically is clearly evident in this performance.)

"The Dance House," which I missed when it premiered on SFB a dozen years ago, is problematic on several levels. On the most superficial plane, we have to contend with Robert Heindel's hideous costumes. The garb for the women in the first movement, Death's attire and the striped outfits for the soloists in the third movement make it almost impossible to watch the actual dancing or properly assess the merits of the choreography. Only after I got home and re-imagined the dancing in plain leotards and tights could I see that the dancers really put their hearts into their interpretations and that the choreographic structure and sequences of steps weren't so bad after all. But the ballet, ostensibly about the AIDS epidemic and its effect on the dance world, fails to communicate all the meanings and nuances that Bintley describes in the program book.

For Program 1, opening January 30, again the dancers are soaring -- a good thing, as it allows them to leap over the odd juxtaposition of a tutu ballet from Balanchine and a more modern William Forsythe 'Artifact.'

For Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15," conductor George Cleve, founder of the Midsummer Mozart Festival and Mozart interpreter extraordinaire, illuminates the score like I have never heard for a ballet performance. The entire cast is sure-footed and the ensemble work, be it the trio of men or the corps de ballet, is precise, not an easy feat considering the frequent awkwardness of the choreography. The best dancing comes from Kristin Long, who not only makes her variation and everything else look like effortless play, but succeeds in anchoring both the entire cast and the choreography into a single vision.

Jacques Garnier's "Aunis" (1979) to Maurice Pacher's folksy French accordion music seems dated to me, but is an excellent piece to show off the talent of Garrett Anderson, Rory Hohenstein and James Sofranko. All three are solid technicians who can also be emotionally expressive while working as a very tight ensemble.

The final piece of the evening, Forsythe's "Artifact Suite," is danced as powerfully as it was last season when it entered the repertoire. Muriel Maffre with Vilanoba still has the hyper-plasticity and searing focus that are her trademarks in modern works. It is hard to believe that she is in her final season with this company and I find myself savoring every split second. Feijoo and Molat have developed an intense connection in their partnering, moving from the same visceral center, that adds an extra dimension to their roles. As the Single Female Figure, Elana Altman is continually claiming her territory, literally and figuratively, and signaling the entire company to follow her example. It is fascinating to see the reverberation of Balanchine's choreography, so definitively drawn in "Divertimento No. 15," reflected in Forsythe's composition.


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