Ballet doesn't get more dramatic and memorable as the sight of Yuan Yuan Tan at the end of “RAkU,” collapsing as she scatters her husband's ashes over her head, as snow covers her prostrate body. Then comes that rare moment of silence in the theater when the curtain descends, before the first burst of applause.
Yuri Possokhov's 2011 “RAkU” is bracketed by George Balanchine's 1935 “Serenade” and Val Caniparoli's 1995 “Lambarena” in San Francisco Ballet's 2015 season-opening Program 1 in the War Memorial Opera House this week.
Balanchine's early neoclassic gem and Caniparoli's pioneering combination of African tribal music and Bach are both great attractions, but “RAkU” (named for the hand-shaped bowl with deliberate imperfections) is stunning.
In the story from Japan's warrior past, Tan's Princess and Carlos Quenedit's Prince first appear in the stylized manner of Noh theater. Possokhov and designer Alexander V. Nichols provide a breathtaking moment: the Princess' large ceremonial kimono flies up in the air, revealing a small woman, dressed in white, utterly defenseless without the splendor of the disappearing garb, and so predicting the coming tragedy.
As the couple stands motionless, Tan uncannily displays strength, submission, love and fear – without moving a muscle.
When the Prince leaves for battle, the Princess is first assaulted by the crazed Black Monk (Pascal Molat in a scary-great performance) and then by four guards returning the Prince's ashes from battle. The guards – Gaetano Amico, Steven Morse, Sean Orza and Myles Thatcher – dance what could be a work by itself.
Directed by Charles Barker, the orchestra performed well. Suprisingly, the composer of “RAkU’s” magnificent score, Shinji Eshima (also playing double-bass), was not asked to take a bow.
It's seem improbable that “Serenade” is 80. The gorgeous pioneering work of neoclassicism – which gives Tchaikovsky's music a visual manifestation from which it can never be separated – remains fresh today. And its opening, featuring 17 women in Karinska's diaphanous pale blue costumes, with outstretched arms shading their eyes from the light, is unforgettable.
Five principals and four soloists made Elyse Borne, who staged “Serenade,” proud, with Koto Ishihara bringing a special quality of joy to her dancing. Still, the work is really a showcase for the corps de ballet. For two-thirds of the piece, the San Francisco corps made Balanchine's difficult configurations look effortless, in a peformance that rivaled New York City Ballet (although precision subsided somewhat toward the end).
Set to a unique score that integrates Bach and traditional African music, “Lambarena” – with leading roles danced by Dores André and Grace Shibley and Frances Chung – combines classical ballet and tribal dance, requiring wild hip movements and unusual steps on pointe.
Notably channeling role-creating performances by Evelyn Cisneros and Joanna Berman, Chung made seemingly light work of a tough challenge, especially in the last movement's solo.
San Francisco Ballet Program 1
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 30, Feb. 5, 2 p.m. Feb. 1, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 7
Tickets: $22 to $332; standing room tickets $15-$20
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org