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‘Firebird’ flies high, mighty, charming

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Since he arrived from the Bolshoi, via the Royal Danish Ballet, in 1994, Yuri Possokhov has delivered on every promise, first as a striking but unostentatious danseur noble, lately as a wonderful choreographer. In both capacities, his work has been characterized by innate musicality, superior intelligence and a rare ability to amuse and move at the same time. His 2000 “Magrittomania” is remembered fondly for its cheerful recreation of the Belgian artist’s surrealism, over Yuri Krasavin’s hilarious use and abuse of Beethoven.

And now, having been named San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer in residence, Possokhov is presenting a sensational new “Firebird” in the second program of the new season. It is a robust, imaginative, vastly entertaining reworking of the 1910 Michael Fokine classic, with an impact that had the usually staid and well-behaved Saturday matinee audience cheering raucously in the aisles. Under Martin West’s baton, the Ballet Orchestra played the great Stravinsky score marvelously.

Yuri Zhukov’s sparseand yet haunting sets, Sandra Woodall’s rich costumes provided the setting for Possokhov’s straightforward and compelling storytelling. The Prince (Moises Martin) captures — and releases — the Firebird (Elana Altman), and falls in love with the Princess (Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun), who is under the spell of the sorcerer Kaschei (James Sofranko). Don’t take this as a spoiler: with the aid of the Firebird, evil is defeated, love prevails.

Against a large and superb corps de ballet, the soloists provided ideal performances: Altman was a lean, athletic Firebird, with an eminently believable magic presence. Martin’s strong yet gentle Prince was a delight, well representing good against Sofranko’s melodramatic evil. A high-wattage smile enhanced Pipit-Suksun’s captivating performance, the Thai dancer charming the Prince and the audience with genuine warmth seldom experienced in the War Memorial since the days of Evelyn Cisneros and Joanna Berman. (How unreasonable is it to demand utmost physical exertion combined with elegance and a believable expression of enjoyment of it all — and yet, that’s what we want and, occasionally, get at the ballet.)

West, the orchestra, and soloist Michael McGraw played the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 to a fare-thee-well for David Bintley’s “The Dance House,” the 1995 work danced well in this revival. Katita Waldo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba were outstanding in the fine cast performing this moving Dance of Death, in memory of AIDS victims.

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Pianist Natal’ya Feygina and concertmaster Roy Malan were onstage to play short, rather bland pieces by Elena Kats-Cherin for Helgi Tomasson’s “Blue Rose.” The strength in Sarah Van Patten’s dancing, and the abandoned bravura in Kristin Long’s were the most memorable in this series of solos and pas de deux.

San Francisco Ballet program two

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $10 to $205

Contact: (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org

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