Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky's “Le Sacre du printemps,” the grotesque and powerful Serge Diaghilev Ballet Russes dance set to Igor Stravinsky's savage score, was famous for causing a riot in Paris at its premiere on May 29, 1913.
In the next century followed a dozen variations on "The Rite of Spring" by other various choreographers; few are better than Yuri Possokhov’s new one created for San Francisco Ballet, which premiered Tuesday in the War Memorial Opera House.
An instant classic, it is both true to the essence of the music (played spectacularly by the ballet orchestra under Martin West’s baton) as well as fresh, imaginative and engrossing.
Opening night, Jennifer Stahl brilliantly danced the difficult lead role, a young woman chosen to be sacrificed according to the pagan rite ot the title. (Immediately after the performance, she was promoted from the corps to soloist.)
Among Possokhov’s most impressive inventions is his portrayal of the Elders, danced by Garen Scribner and James Sofranko, who were bound together. Wild and spasmodic, they took over the stage, becoming a two-headed beast with four arms and four legs. Even during the bacchanalia of "The Adoration of the Earth," it was impossible to ignore the malevolent, overpowering pair.
Throughout the piece, 24 dancers amazingly formed what seemed to be a living organism, which spread out and cohered, turned celebratory, fearful, joyous, threatening and erotic – but not salacious – all in quick succession.
Benjamin Pierce's strange and effective tilted set, with its row of spear-like poles, and Sandra Woodall's simple and imaginative costumes complemented the work.
Simple devices, such as the women pulling diaphanous gowns over their heads, and later over the men’s heads, and unusual moves and gestures – limping, crouching, Nijinsky-like twisted feet and distorted limbs – were organic and natural.
In the magnificent ensemble work, Luke Ingham (as the Chosen One's defender), Clara Blanco, Sasha De Sola, Dana Genshaft and Hansuke Yamamoto stood out.
West’s orchestra had one of its finest evenings in memory.
After excellent performances of John Adams' "Guide to Strange Places" for the eponymous work by Ashley Page, and Martinu's Concerto for Harpsichord (Bradley Moore, soloist) for Mark Morris' "Beaux," the band went to town with the Stravinsky.
After Rufus Olivier opened with a bassoon solo, brass, timpani, strings and woodwinds had the time of their lives, as West brought out the work's still-surprising experiments in tonality, rhythm and dissonance.
Page's and Morris' dances, both revivals from last year's San Francisco Ballet world premieres, were overshadowed by "The Rite of Spring," especially "Guide to Strange Places." The choreography, even danced by a spectacular cast, countermanded, rather than enhanced, the music.
“Beaux” fared better. Nine men excelled in athletic gyrations; Vito Mazzeo stood out, both for his height (he must be 6 feet, 3 inches tall) and fluent, lyrical moves.
San Francisco Ballet Program 3
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27; 8 p.m. Feb. 28, March 2 and 8; 2 p.m. March 2 and 10
Tickets: $20 to $310
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org