Raymonda is a glorious spectacle of a ballet, with virtuosic dancing that captures the exotic allure of Eastern Europe, choreographed to a ravishing score by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, his first ballet. Typical of its creator, Marius Petipa, the choreography is classically elegant, a mixture of formality and spirited folk dance. And in the interpretive hands of the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, who did his own adaptations of both the full-length and this one-act version, Raymonda gains yet another element—the earthy passion that made Nureyev unlike any dancer before him. As Grant Coyle, who staged Raymonda Act III for San Francisco Ballet, says, “Every solo shows his influence; he has put his stamp on it. There are some very Rudolf touches.”
Petipa choreographed the three-act Raymonda in 1898 for the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. But the story, set in medieval Hungary, was more hindrance than help in keeping audiences engaged. From that convoluted tale—of a love affair threatened by a Saracen chief, an attempted abduction, and a duel to the death—what has survived, for the most part, is the celebratory third act, which anticipates the nuptials of Raymonda and her love, Jean de Brienne.
Nureyev had danced in Raymonda in 1959, soon after he joined the Maryinsky Ballet (now the Kirov). After defecting to the West in 1961, he staged his version of the complete ballet on The Royal Ballet at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1964, dancing Jean himself with Doreen Wells as Raymonda. (Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev’s preferred partner since 1962, missed the premiere because her husband, Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias, had been critically injured.) Nureyev staged his full-length Raymonda around the world, at Australian Ballet in 1965, Zurich Ballet in 1972, American Ballet Theatre in 1975, and Paris Opera Ballet in 1983. The Royal Ballet premiered this one-act version at the Royal Opera House, London, in 1966.
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Nureyev’s Raymonda Act III (© Erik Tomasson)
Raymonda Act III first entered San Francisco Ballet’s repertory in 2000, extracted from Nureyev’s full-length ballet. This season’s production is the one-act version made for The Royal Ballet, which includes three solos pulled from other parts of the full-length ballet. Nureyev added the solos to provide “even more opportunities for the audience to see the strength and style of the female artists in a one-act ballet,” says Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director Bruce Sansom, a former Royal Ballet dancer. Also new to San Francisco audiences are designer Barry Kay’s sets and costumes, which Coyle calls “absolutely ravishing, so opulent and lush.” The white costumes, highlighted with gold and detailed with fur and feathers, pop against the deep, rich tones of the massive set.
Along with take-your-breath-away spectacle for audiences, Raymonda offers the dancers the chance to test their classical technique. And that’s one excellent reason why Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson likes to include this ballet in the Company’s repertory—maintaining a balance between the crystalline challenges of classical work and the freedom of contemporary ballets is vital. “It’s fun to experiment with new works,” Tomasson says, “but to keep that level of excellence in your technique, you need to dance the classical ballets.” Raymonda, he says, “fits into that idea of getting back to basics technically.”
Coyle agrees that Raymonda “is very exposed. It’s really about fundamental technique. Dancers today are not often required to do something as classically straightforward as a double pirouette with a correct finish,” he says. “This classical purity is very demanding and technically challenging. Dancers strive to achieve this every day in class. So to be actually doing it in performances is good.”
In this ballet, Coyle sees “a definite personal style” infused by Nureyev, especially for the men. “The choreography is quite heavy and challenging,” Coyle says. What he describes as “well-grounded, basic technique—very strong, and masculine” is common now. But, he adds, “when Nureyev did it, in the early ’60s, it was not so common for men to do this much in classical ballet. We owe this development to Nureyev.”
Raymonda is all about “style and finesse,” says Coyle, adding that “even when the corps de ballet are standing on the side they must maintain their involvement.” And for Coyle, Raymonda has “one of the most wonderful endings.” With the full cast doing a unison side-to-side step, “it’s so simple,” he says. “It’s exciting. It builds and builds—and suddenly it’s finished. That is what great classical dance is about.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In RAkU, Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov has created a story ballet that has more in common with traditional Japanese theater than with European-style storytelling. Basing his ballet on the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion in 1950 (but setting it in an earlier period), Possokhov adopted a style similar to Noh theater, which presents the essence of a story rather than a literal depiction. “It’s aesthetic lines,” the choreographer says, “but not story lines.” Created for the 2011 Repertory Season, RAkU is a story of love and separation, desire and jealousy, violence and grief, simply told to stunning effect.
Possokhov had long wanted to make a Japan-themed ballet. (He’s visited the country more than 10 times.) With only an image of the ending in mind, he told Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan about his idea. A few days later he received a libretto based on the burning of the Golden Pavilion from Tan’s friend Gary Wang, who lives in Shanghai. Soon RAkU, Possokhov’s 13th ballet for the Company, was off and running with the libretto, a commissioned score, and a dramatic, projection-based production design.
The choreographer pairs inventive, classically based movement with character (folk-based) steps and even some butoh (a post–World War II Japanese dance form utilizing extremely slow movements). But there’s no traditional Japanese dance. Possokhov is more interested in tone, aesthetics, and visual inventiveness than in reenacting history.
Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s RAkU (© Erik Tomasson)
RAkU’s commissioned score is a first for Possokhov. He wanted a symphonic score, not traditional Japanese music, and a friend recommended composer Shinji Eshima, a longtime double bassist in the SF Ballet and Opera orchestras. A Juilliard graduate, Eshima has composed for chamber orchestras and opera and teaches at San Francisco State University and SF Conservatory of Music. A fact too intriguing not to mention is that his instrument, made by Charles Plumerel in 1843 and known as “the Plumerel bass,” is depicted in Edgar Degas’ painting The Orchestra of the Opera.
Possokhov says he knew instinctively that he would hire Eshima even before he heard his music. He loved a piece Eshima had written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, so the composer borrowed from it, creating a love theme that is heard three times: in the prelude, the main pas de deux, and at the end of the ballet. Eshima describes the theme as “very, very simple. It alternates a 3/5/3 meter, which I meant to imply a haiku 5/7/5 rhythm.” (Haiku poems have five words in the first and third lines and seven words in the second.) “So it’s based on something very simple,” he says, “but I hoped it would express the emotions of an unspeakable pain.”
The score for full orchestra uses no traditional Japanese instruments yet conveys a Japanese feeling. One part incorporates the rhythms of a Buddhist chant. “It’s like the vibration of the earth, literally like a mantra,” says Eshima. For the chant section, monks from the San Francisco Zen Center join the musicians in the pit, adding the resonance and emotional power of the human voice to the instrumentation.
According to Eshima, one version of the Golden Pavilion story says that the monk who burned the temple stuttered. In RAkU, the Black Monk suffers unrequited love for the Princess. “So I used this stuttering feature orchestrally, in the marimba, to underlie his main scene,” Eshima says. Taking the effect a step further, he added a Morse code rhythm to the music that taps out the words “I love her.”
The theme of his score, says Eshima, is “burning. The burning of desire, of passion, of loyalty; the burn of suffering, of jealousy; finally the burning in death—emotions that are so strong that they overcome the discipline of a Zen monk and the loyalties of samurai. That burn throughout one’s life is what I think is the greatest thing about being human, the beauty of it all. The grief isn’t beautiful, in and of itself, and the loss isn’t. But the empathy for it is, and that’s what I was trying to convey.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Scottish Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Page has a quiet energy about him, like a fountain that’s overflowing. Talk to him and you’ll find him bubbling with ideas and observations. Watch him in the studio and you’ll see him pour textures and tones into the movement he’s matching to the dancers’ personalities and physiques. For his first work for San Francisco Ballet, he has created a physical and movement world for 18 dancers in which his ballet roots, modern-dance influences, and love of the visual arts are in full view.
Music is “my biggest passion,” says Page. “Although I love all the art forms—literature, film, visual arts—music’s the thing that’s been with me the longest, that I can remember the furthest back and has always been an inspiration.” For the SF Ballet commission he chose Guide to Strange Places by Bay Area composer John Adams. “It’s one of those pieces that when you first hear it you think, ‘I know what I would do with that,’ ” says Page. He has set previous works to Adams, including Fearful Symmetries, which won the 1995 Olivier Award for best dance production, to Adams’ score of the same name; and Nightswimming into Day, set to Shaker Loops and other music. And though Page had heard Guide to Strange Places when it premiered in 2001, he “hadn’t got to it yet.” But with the SF Ballet commission in hand, he says, “it was one of the first things to pop into my head. I felt it was the right piece for this company, certainly for my first time working with them. I felt confident that I could do something with it with them.”
Guide to Strange Places premiered on October 6, 2001, with Adams himself conducting the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. The piece was inspired by a book he came across in a Provence farmhouse, called Guide noir de la Provence mystérieuse (A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence). As quoted in the CD liner notes for a St. Louis Symphony recording of the music (Nonesuch), Adams said, “A chapter was dedicated to paysages insolites—or ‘strange places.’... It set my imagination off.... In a sense, all of my pieces are travel pieces, often through paysages insolites—it’s the way I experience musical form.” In Guide to Strange Places, that form is driving and explosive, the kind of music that makes your nerves tingle and your heart jackhammer. The ending, says Page, is “incredible, so powerful, like a beast rolling over and dying or the earth splitting. It gets so savage and earthy and organic.”
The reason Page hadn’t gotten to this score yet was because he was busy reshaping the company at Scottish Ballet, where he became director in 2002. To take on that role he left The Royal Ballet, where he’d been dancing since 1976, in ballets by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Glen Tetley, Richard Alston, and Sir Frederick Ashton, among others. And he’d been dabbling in choreography, at first within the Royal Ballet choreographic workshops from 1981, and then increasingly more seriously for the company. His first professional work for the company was in 1984, the same year he was promoted to principal dancer. “There was quite a thriving choreographic workshop, and I was in a lot of my colleagues’ work initially,” Page says. Most of the choreographers he worked with in the workshop and the company “were the kind who ask you to contribute. So I ended up generating quite a lot of movement material,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to have a go at this.’ ”
Vanessa Zahorian rehearsing Page’s World Premiere,
Guide to Strange Places (© Erik Tomasson)
The emerging choreographer experienced an epiphany when he saw Alston on The South Bank Show, an arts TV program. “They had various examples of his work and Richard’s voice-over describing them,” Page says. “He’s fantastic at verbalizing how he does what he does.” What Page discovered was how interested he was in “how pieces are built, structure, form. And that’s like music, and paintings, and literature, and film.” His love for fine art grew from his student days, when he babysat for an art book publisher. “The front room was like a library full of art books. I became interested in the visual arts because of that.” Suddenly he understood that dance isn’t just about making steps. “It’s about shape and saying something with it, even in not necessarily a narrative way. My work changed completely after that. And I started to see a lot of modern dance, which was thriving in London at that time—it was like having the light switched on.”
As a choreographer, Page cites multiple influences, such as Alston, whom he calls a mentor and great friend; Ashton, “with works like Scènes de ballet, Cinderella, and Symphonic Variations—that clutch of works in the late ’40s particularly”; and George Balanchine, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham. But it was stepping outside the confines of The Royal Ballet, Page says, that changed the way he perceived dance and what he wanted to do with it. “I’d been enjoying dancing in all those great works in our repertoire, but without having any real perspective. What I discovered outside the company was dancing and choreography that seemed to be commenting on the nature of classicism in a very enlightening way, yet it was completely contemporary. This made me look again at the experiences of my formative years and my training and reevaluate everything I’d learned.” Later, he learned about narrative power in choreographing four full-length ballets for Scottish Ballet—dark, revisionist approaches to Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Alice. “I would have been a much less fulfilled artist if I hadn’t discovered the joys of telling a story,” he says.
For his new ballet, Page has devised a series of duets within what he describes as an ensemble work. Each duet has a flavor and texture that come partially from the music and partially from the dancers; part of his choreographic process is “responding to those people and choosing the right piece of music to go with what I want to get out of them.” The duet for Principal Dancer Sarah Van Patten and Soloist Anthony Spaulding, says Page, “is quite predatory and savage. She’s calling the shots and he’s dealing with her.” Principal Dancers Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin dance a duet that Page describes as “faster and lighter. It’s got a delicacy about it. It’s almost like a romantic duet, but it isn’t.” For Principal Dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Jaime Garcia Castilla, Page set a duet that he calls “very sensual,” danced to music that is “quite searing”—but less so than in the duet for Van Patten and Spaulding, which has “great big thumping drum beats and that growling brass. [Zahorian and Garcia Castilla’s is] lighter, so it’s a bit more romantic and sensual, less earthy and gritty and dark.” Much more fun, Page says, is “the mercurial couple,” Principal Dancers Frances Chung and Pascal Molat. “They don’t have such a long, single duet; they have lots of shorter ones,” he says. “So they are kind of the link between things.”
Working with designer Jon Morrell, Page has incorporated satellite images of a decidedly strange place (which he wants to leave unnamed) into the world he has envisioned for his dancers. This visual context, drawn from a place that’s partly manmade and partly organic, is the perfect tie-in to Adams’ score—and thus for the choreography as well. After all, as Page puts it, the ballet exists “as a complete response to the music.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola