Something So Wrong Turns Out So Rite
When Vaclav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring had its world premiere at the Champs Elysées Theater one hundred years ago, the audience famously began rioting midway through the performance, throwing both punches and bottles, clubbing one another, the less agro of them having pulled their hats down over their eyes to shield them from salacious choreography. With new versions hatching like chicks in spring, this time it may be the clubbier critics who will riot, taking their press room brawls to the mat long after the curtains ring down on the centenary abon-danza.
San Francisco Ballet’s contribution to the 100th year oeuvre comes from its resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, working in collaboration with set and costume designer Benjamin Pierce.
The set was a mound-like clearing in the woods demarcated by a semicircle of spikey birches. In indigenous cultures, the mound is the reliquary of past lives and treasured artifacts. On the War Memorial Opera House stage, its surface was sandpaper grey. At the first sensual strains of a bassoon made to sound like an archaic oboe in the Igor Stravinsky Sacre de printemps score, dancers begin to differentiate themselves from the mound they appeared to be half buried by. Heads, eyes, then bodies become perceptible as lighting by Sandra Woodall extrudes more humanoid clues, and the deepening tones of the woodwinds transport us to an earlier time in a sylvan setting.
Contending voices emerge from the vibrato. This composer’s keys lock in the quiet and open up a portal to the senses.
The sloping mound is the equivalent of a raked stage. American theaters don’t have raked stages, and U.S. dancers tend to confront them with a mixture of trepidation and the anticipation of a challenge. Jennifer Stahl, wisely chosen to head the cast in the role of what is traditionally called The Chosen One, gives an outstanding performance as the sacrificial girl, capped by a post-show promotion to the rank of soloist.
Members of the supporting cast of women are sexy beasts in a Ghostbusters-cum-Vernal Equinox kind of way. Though all wear white filmy baby doll-length dresses embossed with gold and green leaf designs, each of the women presents a distinctive character whose individual fortunes we follow. These are half-rooted, half-lost boys and girls flung from the mound by the certitude of ignorance into a yearly rite, an adventure that may have been the earliest iteration of the game now known as musical chairs. As one girl will die, until her very last moment the task before her is to affirm life in a way that leaves an impression on this mound that contrasts with the stillness of her impending death. To her character’s last breath, Jennifer Stahl will be the animus of sexual libido; Clara Blanco is the intent adventurer, her lemur-like eyes fixing the ever-changing coordinates of the steps; Dana Genshaft knowingly charts a languorous path of backward glances, so that we may follow the trail to its fiery conclusion.
An anachronistic but effective step has the women lifting their dresses over their heads, revealing ash-colored camisole leotards. They hold the dresses aloft, as if the coverings are obstructions that they’ve decided to pragmatically repurpose as sails, with their grey bodies as the vessels to carry energy that bursts through winter into fertile spring. Though the lifted dress provokes some cognitive dissonance because we know that women didn’t wear baby dolls in primitive society, the rebellion against the fabric, and fashioning of it as a power tool, makes for a little intrigue of its own.
The men advance down the sandy rake and break into waistline rotations. They wear green tights, with filigree cuff-like design embossed on the ankles. Their raw thrusting contrasts sharply with the more investigative sensibility of the piece Beaux that preceded this one.
Yet the men also do some investigating of their own, exploring under the raised dresses of the women who strike accommodating poses. The men are sniffing them, peeling them away from their cluster one by one, lowering them to the ground, and making a meal of them with their eyes.
Garen Scribner and James Sofranko dance the two elders presented as one. They share an elastic skirt wrap. On the word of the elders, the women lose their dresses. The men dump them onto the floor and then toss them into the air, as if shaking the grit out of carpets. The men are triumphal in the pack sort of way that has never been among their virtues as a sex. Scribner and Sofranko deliver fully in order to incur the requisite terror.
They push the women down the mound toward the stage’s edge. Then they launch the attack. Turf is staked out. It is clear that in the perception of the men, turf, women, and property claims, share equal value as the common denominator of conquest. The women fight the logical consequences with preemptive raised arms.
The cast divides itself into quarters, each quarter regrouping as a cannon that crisscrosses on diagonals. It is the final orderly undertaking before anarchy upends the culture of the mound, and when the music slides into the discomfort zone it invites the dancers to rise and assume shapes that push against what the music seems to be messaging.
It’s a dance of who rises and who falls, with the men at the top of a mound that is now more of a heap. After the crescendo, arm movements continue as palpable as the steps that initiated them, creating a visual overtone, its traction more lasting than the tone itself, much as the Thermidor can hang around long after the revolution that incurred it.
The members of the remaining couple tumble over one another, their heads thrown back in ecstasy. Luke Ingham carries Jennifer Stahl over his shoulder. She drapes around him boa-like, but in a lush, loose-limbed and sensual manner. There’s a beat change. There is always a destination. Hers is foreordained.
The couples that spirit the last of the rite are Clara Blanco and Myles Thatcher, Sasha DeSola and Shane Wuerthner, and Dana Genshaft and Hansuke Yamamoto. During his conversation with Benjamin Pierce at a presentation this past winter at the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design, Possokhov expressed his excitement at the prospect of working with the soloist layer of the company in setting The Rite of Spring, because in them he finds a level of gratitude, the absence of a sense of absolute entitlement, and an unflagging interest and involvement that stirs his creativity. Now we see what he saw, not only in these three couples but also in others such as Kimberly Braylock and Shannon Rugani. They push to limn their characters, and this is not easy in a primitive mob scene circumscribed by a narrow swath of stage, but they do a grand job of it.
Scribner and Sofranko dance an aboriginal duet that sets the rest of the dancers to cowering. When Stahl runs and leaps into Ingham’s arms, it is as if she has been shot from a sling—she nearly knocks him down. The cluster re-forms about her as a barrier, at the same time conceding the hopelessness of their enterprise: She limps away, as do her protectors, hunkered over her in defeat after having fought the good fight, and they dance little triplets in a circle to celebrate their quotient of best practices.
The ballet orchestra conducted by Martin West is at its best, seeming to enjoy the Stravinsky score that sought to meet the challenge of reproducing sounds that would have come from more primitively honed instruments. This reviewer shared the popular misconception that the opening notes are from an oboe, but it turns out that they actually come from a bassoon playing in the oboe range to capture and convey the still-crude instruments, musical and otherwise, of a hunter and gatherer society brandishing digging sticks. It is that pre-historical moment when women lose their hegemony to property-enchanted men, mad to count what they own because their realm has a new coin and it is barter. The familus, Robert Briffault’s The Mothers tells us, is the total number of slaves owned by one man. That one man can now exchange seed for animals, and animals for slaves, and since they now know how it is that women produce infants who can be bartered as slaves, the value of women can be reduced arithmetically and socially to their reproductive function, and as such, is fetishized in religious sacrifice, kind of like the thing you love most that you give up for Lent.
Possokhov brings to the stage an historical understanding that goes missing in others among his generation of choreographers. Some believe that in this piece he is wringing his hands over the violence of a savage practice; but isn’t he instead showing exactly how the violent acts of today roll out from earlier forms of social misanthropy that were cloaked in the devotional? Primitive society sacrificed one woman each spring using stakes; civilized society sacrifices them daily using drones. A woman’s worth is still measured by her gift for reproducing heirs. The uncivil rich who rule civilized society need heirs more than ever now that there is more than enough wealth to go around, and the need to redistribute it equably has never been more urgent.
Once Stahl loses her dress, the tethered Scribner and Sofranko admire their handiwork. She marches around en pointe in an exaggerated runway walk, and is then caught between rhomboid stakes, spun, left on the floor in a seated fourth position, and within seconds, captured, and entrapped in the web of tethered men. The orchestra rasps, the others lean in, the birches snap in the blink of an eye, and she is no more.
Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places to music by John Adams, offers a showcase for the splendid partnering upon which San Francisco Ballet has built its reputation.
With golden aspect, Frances Chung and Pascal Molat appear against a balustrade backdrop. They hit the ground running, with him tilt-a-whirling her upside down. Vanessa Zahorian and Jaime Garcia Castilla are the couple in green, and the red couple is Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin.
Kochetkova does leg crosses and then Nedvigin lifts her, and carries her in a circle in the air. From there, it is in and out, up and down, moving into a fish dive that brings her to the floor. All levels are present and iconic, dispatched expertly by both partners. The music goes Gershwin-like with the sounds of urban traffic accompanying the dancers’ urbane dispatch.
The green couple is tasked with a slower more studied adagio that includes the oxymoron of little bursts of stillness. One partner pulls the other overhead, and then subsets of partners in black translucent tops continue to thread themselves into the picture. A quick men’s side-to-sidebar precedes a change in the backdrop. It is now a captain’s wheel with spokes. This is a curious choice, but oddly fitting, because sometimes the piece shows bells and whistles without the benefit of an anchor.
Nedvigin and Kochetkova return in shadowy costumes finished with a red caste. She lifts a leg—simple enough—but at the end of the leg is an extraordinary foot whose elaborate musculature can be seen from Orchestra Row P.
Sarah Van Patten and Carlos Quenedit face each other. Drum bursts announce her star-bound extensions. Her line corresponds to the seductive indigo mood. He needs to give her a wide berth when she is like this.
Wan Ting Zhao dances a solo as fleet as a glittering firefly. Music accelerates, motors wind, and an all-women quartet dances downstage to up. Damian Smith leads a trio of himself, Quenedit and Nedvidgin. They are the pistons of the winding motor. Up and down they go, and then they set themselves spinning. It’s looking like a 1930s ballet heralding (or decrying) the latter-day mechanization borne of the industrial revolution, with the dancers as interchangeable parts, all of them honed to a brilliantine finish. Zahorian and Kochetkova dance with their backs toward Van Patten who confronts the audience.
The tempos never seem to change. It’s spring-loaded from start to finish, the dancers bouncing from one segment to the next like artful Gerald McBoing Boings, until they change their arms and turn their backs. Might as well plunge a delicacy that’s sizzling into an ice water bath and then back onto the flame.
Mark Morris’s Beaux returns to us with its pink and beige camouflage panel at center stage. The humor sweeps in with the opened curtain, but unlike Jerome Robbins’s The Concert, in which laughter comes unbidden no matter how many times you’ve seen it, Beaux makes one wonder whether the tongue that is the shank of this piece will tend to slip from its cheek as new audiences arrive that are more and more inclined to embrace the notion of male bonding.
Men form a chain across the front of the stage. Their initial steps are industrious intention-filled ones, hands covering brows to block out the bright light, as they peer along the trajectory of their own line. The harpsichord score is a gentle slap that awakens us to the contrast between it and the (ubiquitous) Mizrahi costumes that match the set.
Two men bring in a third (we’ve been guests at this party before). Soon there are what the French call grupuscules of men doing slight movements. “Sell it guys” one mimes to Pascal Molat and his partner. They salute him, and return to their Google-ish circles.
The dancers’ hands are on the others’ shoulders in camaraderie. They mime pulling a bow back as if to shoot an arrow. The sun goes down on the sherbet-colored camouflaged boy play. The line of arms forms a triangle, an airplane with wings, those unconsciously phallic boy movements that arrive generation after generation no matter how many binders of women any candidate can claim to own.
Pascal Molat is their leader, their elder statesman. He and Jeremy Rucker wind and unwind. Vito Mazzeo is left onstage, joined then by Ruben Martín, who explores Mazzeo’s long chest with his hand, and grabs him around the waist. Mazzeo is not that interested, even with the enticements of lute music. Molat returns, then Martín, then Nedvigin. They move downstage, arms extended and the other men return, lifting each other, a riposte to the song in their heads, which might be, “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.” Regardless of the subtext, Martín and Mazzeo succeed in establishing a vibrant yet hushed intimacy.
The camouflage panel is now lit in purple and yellow and the choreography changes to disjointed movements, though Morris uses a light-handed vocabulary, as if within the simplicity we should be able to imagine great moments, epiphanies. We imagine that sometimes they occur and sometimes they don’t. I am imagining Nedvigin thinking, “Did I really leave Mother Russia in order to dance something so culturally ephemeral?” Full disclosure: I am not quoting him. Instead, I will quote the subscriber two seats away, who could be heard saying, “I don’t care if I never see this piece again.” Many colors blend; many opinions contend.
The onstage sun rises brightly. There’s more allegro now. The choreography is that thing that’s also in Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet, where all do one combination brilliantly except for one dancer, who does something really off and different, where Morris’s joke on the dancers is, “I’ll set this really light, and then make the music go off in a completely serious direction.”
The score can go a little tedious, and so it is heartening to see that Molat can make it interesting with his brush steps and off-balance tropes. Cruz is ever the spark plug we’ve come to appreciate.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.