San Francisco Ballet Presents Gut-Wrenching Beauty: RAkU, Yuri Possokhov’s Gift to Yuan Yuan Tan


 ‘Odette’s Observations’-RAkU

Rarely am I, who am admittedly emotional and prone to ‘purple prose’, at a loss for words. I have thrice approached my pc today, with only the best of intentions to my readers…and found myself trying to marshall up the right words to describe Yuri Posskhov’s new masterpiece RAkU, his 12th work for San Francisco Ballet, which made its World Premiere last night. Inevitably, I must make an attempt, though I promise you that after all the reviews come in, I will be saying “yeah…what they said.”

For any still in doubt of SFB Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan’s capabilities as a dramatic ballerina/actress (those of you who were maybe kidnapped and held captive every time she has stepped on stage in the past 5 years-not just during her portrayal of The Little Mermaid…), last night’s performance indicates a fully mature Ballerina (with a capital ‘B’) at the very pinnacle of her artistry.

Sometimes I see a program ‘cold’-meaning without reading SFB’s Program Notes in advance. In this case, I wish I’d read them first-but if you choose to see it ‘cold’ as well, make sure you do read them after the performance. The myriads of layers that were utilized to create this ballet are astonishing in themselves. (I’ve provided the link at the bottom of this post.)

In short, the libretto is an homage to the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion in 1950, a true story which has inspired Japanese storytellers to relate different interpretations of ‘why’ it happened.  With a new ‘legend’ provided by a friend of Yuan Yuan Tan’s, Gary Wang who lives in Shanghai, Yuri Posskhov commissioned his first ballet score for his new butoh-inspired ballet for 2 lovers, a monk, and 4 warriors.

The music itself, composed by SF Ballet and Opera Orchestra’s own double-bassist Shinji Eshima (who has roughly 30 years tenure in each), is haunting and powerful, featuring the members of the San Francisco Zen Center who provide a rhythmic Buddhist chant in one part of the score. It is amazing to read in SFB’s program notes, that the score’s meter incorporates a modified  ‘Haiku’ rhythm, as well.

Cultural significance and collaborative effforts aside, this writer’s own sensibilities have defined this Ballet (yes, capital ‘B’) as a monumental gift to Yuan Yuan Tan. As composer Eshima tells us that his central theme is burning-“…the burning of desire, of passion, of loyalty; the burning of suffering, of jealousy; finally the burning in death…”, we witness all of these emotions embodied in ‘YY’s’ gut-wrenching portrayal. Her performance is staggering, the violation of herself searing, her final moments in the Ballet rendering us awash in grief and sorrow.

Yuan Yuan Tan and SF Ballet in Possokhov’s ‘RAkU’; © Erik Tomasson

 And yet RAkU also clearly suggests the Buddhist cycle of life, from ashes to renewal. I’m not saying that that is the choreographers intention, but it’s what called to me. With repeated viewings of RAkU, I hope to discover the ‘morse code’ (“I love her”) imbedded in the score and that is described in the Program Notes. 

As centrally riveting as ‘YY’s’ role was, Yuri Possokhov also gave us other reasons to recommend this Ballet; he cast Principal Dancers Damian Smith (frequent partner of YY’s in contemporary Ballets) as the male lover and Pascal Molat as the monk, respectively. Both Dancers portrayed their roles with human credibility, power, and grace. Damian’s entire presence was prophetic, his ardor palpably consistent with the times, while Pascal, in a skull cap, embodied a fervor of heat that rivaled the flames of the digital projections.   

 Yes, this is a ‘multi-media’ piece incorporating theatrical projections into the ballet, but unlike any other I’ve seen-spectacular not in its flash, but in its significance to the story, as well as the movement. 

The strong male ‘tall-boy’ Corps of warriors was convincing in character and as important to the rhythm of the piece as any other contribution. I was delighted to see Gaetano Amico, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, and Quinn Wharton more than hold their own in the choreographed bit with the swords that was breathtaking in scope.

Integral to Yuri Possokhov’s vision for RAkU, is his collaboration with Scenic and Projection Designer Alexander V. Nichols, Costume Designer Mark Zaponne, and Lighting Designer Christopher Dennis, as well as the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra ‘under the baton’ of Martin West.

 But in the end, it all came down to one of SFB’s most beloved Ballerinas and her haunting dramatization that left at least half the audience in tears, inciting the entire house to leap to its feet when the curtain fell, in appreciation of this beautifully realized Ballet-the unparalleled Yuan Yuan Tan.  


Damian Smith & Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s ‘RAkU’; © Erik Tomasson

  I haven’t seen all of Ballet’s finest performances, but I have seen my share. So it is not lightly, nor with carelessness, that I share this next statement:


This might possibly be the finest performance I have ever witnessed.


It certainly ranks up there with the best. 

  And so it is, dear readers, that ‘Odette’ awards her very first ‘White Feather Award’ of the season …  

For Outstanding Dramatic Performance: Yuan Yuan Tan

(for more information about this award, see ‘about’ here )  

That said, I recommend that you beg, borrow, or steal your mother’s vintage Mint condition Barbie to see this ballet. Though I’ll willingly stake my life on predicting it will be back in next season’s programming, why tempt fate? If the world ends after this run, memory of ‘YY’s’ performance will let you die happier for having seen it.

 My apologies to all the wonderful casts of Giselle, Symphonic Variations, and  Symphony in C-I haven’t abandoned you. ‘Odette’ is merely behind, still trying to launch the rest of this web site, and will be back shortly with more ‘Observations’.  YY’s performance was such an amazing one that Odette felt a certain responsibility to her readers to shout about it. She still has 3 more casts of Giselle to go…

First RAkU review in from Janos Gereben for The Examiner: 

Allan Ulrich for the San Francisco Chronicle:

A terrific read about RAkU composer Shinji Eshima, by Tamara Straus for the San Francisco Chronicle:

RAkU Program Notes from SF Ballet’s site:   



About Odette's Ordeal

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10 Responses to San Francisco Ballet Presents Gut-Wrenching Beauty: RAkU, Yuri Possokhov’s Gift to Yuan Yuan Tan

  1. Shinji Eshima says:

    Thank you for this!! I’ll treasure it.

    Shinji Eshima

  2. Eric weir says:

    I was also there for that performance. I sobbed through most of it and was almost hyperventilating! I agree with every word you said. I have seen hundreds of performances in my life but none quite like this! It was truly magical and rare!

  3. Roger Green says:

    After all this time, I’m still remembering RAkU. As fabulous as the first cast was, I hope Odette will forgive me if I say that I preferred the Feijoo/ Luiz/ Deivison cast. I think these passionate Latin Americans captured the erotic heart of the ballet more directly.

    • Hi Roger-
      Did I have the pleasure of meeting you last week-end at the Tiit Helimets and Co. rehearsal? I always enjoy talking about SFB with such dedicated fans.
      Though I usually see 3-6 performances of each of SFB’s programs (to cover all casts), sadly I missed Lorena, Vitor, and Daniel’s RAkU cast last season. I enjoyed the Yuan Yuan/Damian/Pascal cast several times and certainly meant to see the other cast, but sometimes it just works out that way. I can say that you aren’t alone in your opinion and I will make a special effort to see the other cast in 2012. From most reports, Lorena was absolutely remarkable. In all honesty I can also report that the magic of Opening Night’s performance was not quite the same in the other performances I saw. Yuan Yuan Tan’s spectacular ‘ashes’ scene on Opening Night was extreme in the grand ‘Kabuki’ style and though she still moved me in subsequent performances, that scene was never portrayed quite as powerfully for me. What she did on Opening Night was tilt her head completely back and rain the ashes down over her whole upturned face…to the point that the ‘ashes’ were actually coating her entire visage. I actually worried for her eyes, as her eyelashes were so thoroughly coated as to appear hazardous. I suspect this is why she only poured them over the top of her forehead and hair in later performances. I also would have chosen to protect my eyes, were I in her place, but the power of that first performance was slightly diminished thereafter. That first night’s image haunts me still. I always welcome others’ opinions, as long as they are kind to our dancers. Everyone is entitled to their favorites and the Dancers accept this as part of the ‘Biz’. I find my own preferences for particular dancers in particular roles to be ever-changing. It’s one of the things I love most about Ballet; no performance is ever the same, even with the same cast. Dance must be one of the most mercurial art forms in existence. I am eagerly looking forward to Lorena Feijoo’s interpretation of RAkU next season, as well as Vitor Luiz’ and Daniel Deivson-Oliveira’s roles. In a year when Lucia Lacarra was expected to be SFB’s reigning ‘Giselle’, Lorena stole my heart. I love Lucia’s artistry, but that year belonged to Lorena in my mind. I love being surprised that way.

      • Roger Green says:

        Hi Odette,

        Yes, the rehearsal for Tiit’s tour was also my “Opening Night” for Odette’s Ordeal. I’m sure I will be attending many performances in the future!

  4. Susan Rust says:

    I thoroughly agree with the review and subsequent comments about “Raku.” I was moved to tears. I tried to secure a copy of the score (written or recorded). Please let it be known widely, if it ever becomes available. I am thrilled it is to be performed again this season and wish I could go to every performance. I have never experienced anything like it and remember it today, a year later, as though it were yesterday. What a triumph! What a gift!

    • Susan-
      Great news: I understand that Shinji Eshima, the composer, is going to (or already has) recorded it. I will contact him and see when we can expect its release date. You aren’t alone in wanting this recording!
      Also, with Lorena Feijoo out this season, due to her happy pregnancy, there may be a surprising dancer possibly stepping into Lorena’s role. Of course the incomparable Yuan Yuan Tan will be reprising it (barring any illness/injury), but I’m excited to see what SFB has in store for that 2nd cast.

      • Melanie says:

        Hi Odette,

        I just saw RAkU today; another unforgettable experience with SFB. This one is added to my favorites. I was disappointed when I didn’t see Yuan Yuan or Lorena in this matinee cast. I saw Koto Ishihara / Daniel/ Vitor. I was skeptical but kept an open mind to give Koto a chance. Koto is one of the corps de ballet and I think she has lots of potential in acting & dancing; she did surprise me. I am hopeful that RAkU will come back next season & I’ll try to see YY. I love her.

      • Melanie-
        Consider yourself lucky…I was there specifically to see Koto, am in the middle of a post about my experience, and can safely say that you just saw one of the most transcendent performances in SFB history. Yuan Yuan Tan IS amazing and it was made on her, with Lorena Feijoo as a spectacular 2nd cast, but…
        Koto Ishihara was a revelation today and has only been in the Corps de Ballet 2 years. SAVE that cast sheet-you will thank me years from now. 🙂

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