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.
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:
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: