“RAkU” Shines in San Francisco Ballet Repertory Program

San Francisco Ballet concluded its repertory program on Wednesday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts with a program of works by San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, current company resident choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, and George Balanchine. In the end it was RAkU(2011) with its soaring designs, psychologically weighted movement and brooding orchestral score by Shinji Eshima which made the most lasting impression. Also credit Yuan Yuan Tan for her haunting and deeply persuasive performance as a royal courtesan who spirals relentlessly toward her death in the course of the thirty five minute ballet. Centering their story on the burning of Kyoto’s Kinkakugi Temple ( The Golden Pavilion) in 1950 and a triangle of obsession, Possokhov and Eshima have relocated the action in time to the Tokugawa Era which broadens the ballet’s visual appeal and connects the action with familiar markers of classical Japanese theater and style. The short story used for the libretto is by Gary Wang. Eshima’s score for strings, winds, marimbas, percussion, piano and harp clearly references Japanese music and instruments (especially in the altered techniques for flute and harp) but uses largely standard orchestral forces with the exception of a chorus of chanted prayers invoking suffering and wellbeing. They were performed live by members of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. With its episodic arrangement in ten scenes, it was the only music on the program specifically designed for dance. But one also had the sense that it could stand on its own as a concert work.

RAkU has a small cast of seven. Four Samurai were powerfully danced by Jeremy Rucker, Myles Thatcher, Quinn Wharton and Luke Willis. They move mostly as a phalanx with poses and attitude drawn from martial arts. The nobleman is played with both passion and icy distance by Damian Smith.  The deranged monk, whose obsession is revealed from the outset with a repeating gesture has he clasps his head and swings his elbows together, is played with menacing intent by Vitor Luiz. There is no sense that we are looking at a full-fledged story. The action follows the interior world of the wife as she self-destructs from grief at the news of the death of her husband and ongoing harassment at hands of the monk. In this sense, the story borrows from the method of Noh drama, focusing on the interior psychology of a single character.

// At the center of the dancing is a forceful pas de deux with Tan and Smith. At the conclusion she is hoisted and pinned against the wall in a gesture that speaks both of passion and violence. Also extraordinary is a scene in which the four samurai toss, drag and partner Tan keeping her airborne much of the time. Tan’s dancing fractures as the ballet progresses, finally devolving from ballet to the broken gestures of Butoh and pure theater as hair flails and she pours the ashes of her dead husband over her head. You could believe in everything she did.

The set and design for RAkU by Alexander V. Nichols is a spectacular arrangement of towering, moveable forms which double as back drops and monumental doors; in the course of the action, they are covered with projections of the temple itself, architectural detail and landscape. In the end, the burning of the temple becomes its own kind of fractured choreography, layered onto the set’s surfaces. The pure visual appeal is astonishing. The atmospheric lighting by Christopher Dennis and rich, traditionally styled costuming by Mark Zappone support  RAkU as a piece of total theater where all the production elements work in resonant partnership. This is not dancing dressed with a little music and theater but an ocean going experience where high concept delivers on its promises. As part of his score, Eshima briefly quotes from music commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Here it plays a particularly moving role. Looking at the projections of the burned frame of the temple one is reminded, in the closing moments, of the skeletal remains of the dome at Hiroshima, in a sense, the personal anguish and disaster of RAkU’s players writ large. 

Opening the evening was Tomasson’s new ballet Trio, which uses an orchestral adaptation of Tchaikovski’s sextet Souvenir de Florence as its score. This music has been little used for dance but the program notes in mentioning other adaptations fails to credit another excellent version choreographed by John Malashock for his contemporary chamber company, Malashock Dance. Trio, essentially an updated romantic diversion with a relaxed classical style at its heart, is a lush drawing room drama with a slow second movement for two men and a woman as its center piece. The lightly told story acknowledges the central character’s need to embrace new love. The ambiguity of her affections lingers through the close of the movement as she and her new lover walk backward off stage, her new lover’s hands wrapped closely across her eyes. 

All the movements feature soloists, lots of breezy coming and going, and a corps de ballet handsomely costumed by Mark Zappone using dark, muted colors and ever changing styles. An oversized gold leafed screen evoking Florentine architectural history is the ballet’s backdrop and single set piece. Particularly stylish were the velvet salon jackets for the men in the first movement which recalled the era of gentlemen and the grand tour. Tchaikovsky himself was a frequent visitor to Florence. The music was written largely in Russia, some of it being composed well before his first trip to the city. The ballet’s design and costumes aptly recreate 19th century salon life with its ambience of darkened rooms and mannered movement.

What is easy to like about Tomasson’s choreography is its musicality. When soloists Vanessa Zahorian and Jamie Garcia Castilla enter for their opening pas de deux in the first movement their connection to smaller scale of the movement’s second and lighter theme makes you believe in the choreographer’s attention to the music. Taras Domitro was also excellent, bringing elevation and expressive lightness to his role as soloist in the third movement. At other times the movement tends to become overloaded with steps, especially turns, which become an end in themselves. The ballet also features stylish, elegant partnering and swooning lifts that convey a surfeit of easy romantic appeal. What I missed in the music was the edginess that comes across in the version for sextet and other details like the wildly accelerating tempos of the fourth movement finale which here went missing. It felt as if some of the musical impulses had been edited for dance. 

Closing the program was Balanchine’s delightfully complex Symphony in C (Bizet). It is a symphony on tempo overdrive but the dancing, in spite of its glittering classicism and thronging numbers, seemed on a slow burn Wednesday evening. The third movement Allegro Vivace finally ignited with soloists Courtney Elizabeth and Gennadi Nedvigin doing what is required for this ballet: taking the complexity and making it look not only effortless but perfect. They were both exceptional. Also looking swell were the six women who supply the moving backdrop to the second movement Andante/Adagio. Their unity of style was terrific to watch. They were: Kimberly Braylock, Madison Keesler, Patricia Keleher, Kristina Lind, Shannon Robert and Danielle Santos. 

The orchestra included members of The Pacific Symphony under the direction of San Francisco Ballet Music Director, Martin West.  The San Francisco Ballet continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts this weekend with its production of Romeo and Juliet (1994) choreographed by Helgi Tomasson with music by Prokofiev. I will be reviewing the opening night performance, September 30th, for DanceChannelTV. Stay tuned.

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