Sunday, March 10, 2013

Rite of Sproing

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.


Henry Holland said...

Lisa, I feel your pain, as Bill Clinton would have said.

One of the clients I work with at my job is a former ballerina for the National Ballet of Canada. To say she's as fanatical about ballet as I am about the operas of Schreker and Birtwistle is an understatement. :-) Thanks to her, I've developed an appreciation of ballet, both the story ballets and more abstract pieces.

Yes, I too find it annoying to watch a corps de ballet be out of sync, but I've accepted that's part of the experience, like I've accepted that I'm not going to hear voices of the likes of Nilsson, Del Monaco or Corelli or Bjorling when I go to the opera.

What I do focus on is how the dancers can be so athletic and so sublime at the same time i.e. I don't know the terminology but how on earth can Nuryev do those fast spins in a circle around the whole stage AND still have perfect balance, his body always a straight line from top to bottom, arms and feet in perfect synchronicity, it blows me away; how the choreography can highlight emotions that even opera can't, all through movement; how during a pas des deux, the two dancers can melt in to one being and of course, some of the most glorious music ever written was written for ballet (see: the last 5 minutes of Swan Lake).

I was very fortunate last year to be able to go to the Mariinsky and Bolshoi performances of Swan Lake at the Dot and in OC within four months of each other. I thought the Kirov was a better danced performance, but as I learned from those performances, the story and choreography is not set in stone ur-text wise, like (to use one opera example) Parsifal is. There's at least half a dozen ways Swan Lake can end, and they (mostly) all considered valid. I've since had a great time at things like the National Ballet of Canada's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and especially the Hamburg Ballet doing John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. To say it's a thousand light years from animated Ariel and that damn talking crab is, again, an understatement.

I recently saw the Joffrey Ballet do their recreation of the original Rite of Spring production, Nijinsky choreography and all. I have to say.....it was kinda boring. I suspect part of it is the bulky costumes they wore, to move around in those must have been a trial, all that effort just to makes circles and then move.....to another circle. It was all so tame, really. And once again, I got really really really really really tired of people nattering on about how revolutionary Stravinsky's score was/is. Um, except for Lisa, of course! :-) Listen to this, especially from 1:01 to 1:40 (sounds start when you click the link):


It's all there, Stravinsky's "barbarism in music", four years before the dreary Russian wrote his piece. I can't find them online, but Schoenberg was quite scathing and blunt in some of his letters about how he thought Stravinsky stole ideas wholesale from him. As someone on another blog wrote: "Stravinsky had better publicists". :-)

They lived 15 minutes from each other on the Westside of Los Angeles after WWII and they never once met, I bet Schoenberg would have given him an earful if they had.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's a great and thoughtful comment, Henry. I should have been more clear: the out-of-synch dancers weren't in the corps. They were principal and solo dancers.

As for the Schoenberg, does Taruskin cover this? It'd be tough to prove that Stravinsky stole from Arnie, and to tell the truth, the Five Pieces don't sound much to me like the Stravinsky of the ballets. I mean, there's plenty of barbarism in Salome (1906) and Elektra (1910) too.

Anonymous said...

And how was the ballet orchestra? The last time I went to the SF Ballet, if I'd closed my eyes, I would have described a not particularly inspiring performance.

Combine that with the disconnect between the dancing and the music, and the way the ballet publicity buries the information about the music being performed, and it gives me the impression that, in the ballet, the music is tolerated but considered inconsequential to the artistic effect.

The other thing that buying a ticket to the SF Ballet does, as I discovered afterward, is generate unceasing phone calls asking for a subscription.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I thought I covered that in my last paragraph above, but spelling it out a bit more: The orchestra and conducting were decent but uninspired (a good word). Technically, as a group they're nowhere near the level of SFS. They just don't play together as much as SFS, and they don't have an MTT doing the orchestra building.