I hardly ever go to classical ballet performances. This week, though, I did, because San Francisco Ballet has staged The Rite of Spring, with choreography by Yuri Possokhov.
How the evening worked out reminded me of something John Marcher wrote on his blog last year:
There is a sizable contingent of Soviet émigrés where I work. For the most part they keep to themselves, but over they years I've infiltrated their group a bit, mostly because I frequently see them at concerts or the opera house. On the whole, it is safe to say they are much more knowledgeable about the arts, especially Classical music and ballet, than their American contemporaries.
When I see them at the opera house, it is always for opera, and never for the ballet. Repeatedly and consistently, they have told me they can't watch American ballet companies, even one as good as ours, having been raised on the Bolshoi and Kirov. They're adamant about it to an amusing extent. Want to get a rise out of a Russian? Start talking to them about ballet and tell them how much you like San Francisco's company.
All of this was in the forefront of my mind as I stood in the lobby of Zellerbach Hall last Thursday night, watching the audience filter in to see the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Ballet and Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The émigrés, unsurprisingly, were out in force and I saw a few familiar faces. It was my first time seeing a Russian ballet company, and I was curious to see if they were really as superior as their former countrymen claim.
They are.I'm not going to compare the S.F. Ballet to any other ballet company, because I can't: I last saw another company back in the 1970s, I think. I have no way of knowing whether what I saw the other day is normal for all companies or normal for this company or would be considered substandard by, well, ballet standards.
I find that I am driven mad by the dancers' rhythmic disconnection from the music and each other. Two dancers, same movements, and if they are 1/16 of a beat off from each other, I notice. It is incredibly distracting from the absorbing experience I'd like to be having. Instrumentalists - see the San Francisco Symphony, for instance - can play the most complicated and difficult music together, but evidently dancers have limitations on how well they stay together, presumably because of their different bodies, time in motion, and so on.
I know that dance companies are INCREDIBLY PICKY about the bodies of their dancers, but do they ever test for musicality? When the dancers are supposed stomp the floor at one point in Rite, and they are not stomping together, it is pretty damn noticeable. This seems like something they ought to be able to do.
The three dances on the program were "Guide to Strange Places," music by John Adams; "Beaux," choreography by Mark Morris, music by Martinu; and Rite, with choreography by Yuri Possokhov.
I'm sorry to say that I got bored 2/3 of the way through both the first two pieces; the music was excellent and well-performed but the dances wore out their welcome. Too much repetition in the choreography, too much visible imprecision. I would have said "underrehearsed" for similar performances by an orchestra or chorus.
As for Rite, it is one of the greatest musical scores ever written, flattening all before it, and needs, deserves, great choreography to go with it. I have liked Possakhov in the past, but this was a big disappointment. The women looked and moved like teeny-boppers in short nighties, completely inappropriate and emotionally lightweight for the savage beauty of the score. The last 30 seconds were incoherent and anticlimactic, to the point that despite the mighty noise and closure in the orchestra, the audience was not sure it was over!!
I have to also note that while the orchestra is good, it's not SFS, which is stupendous in Rite, and Martin West, who conducted, is not MTT. As well, the orchestra is smaller and in a pit and so you do not get SMACKED DOWN by the orchestra.
All in all, not the experience I was hoping for.