San Francisco Ballet's World Premieres on Death Have Uneven Success


One is Destined for Immortality, the Other—Not so much

March 29 Die Toteninsel a world premiere by Liam Scarlett in Program 6: Space Between

Liam Scarlett's ballet Die Toteninsel (Island of the Dead) was inspired by Sergei Rachmaninoff's symphony The Isle of the Dead, which was itself inspired by Arnold Böcklin's 1880 painting of the same name. The grim painting depicts a boat ferrying a deceased soul to its final destination-an island of the afterlife.

The Program Notes describe the music's 5/8 time signature as creating "an uneven tempo that contributes to a feeling of restlessness and foreboding," which certainly fits the mood of the painting. The minimalist lighting, designed by David Finn, created a somber mood with deep shadows upstage. The sparse setting includes a single large, lighted grid suspended above at stage right.

Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh in Scarlett's Die Toteninsel. (© Erik Tomasson)
Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh in Scarlett's Die Toteninsel. (© Erik Tomasson)

Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh were the central couple, often joined by other dancers in pas de deux of multiple lifts. Slowly out of the shadows dancers step forth and join in pas de deux and pas de trois. Other dancers emerge from the shadows, two couples dance a pas de quatre, or two pas de deux in synch. Dancers continue to slowly emerge from and retreat into the shadows.

Eventually the central male leads his partner toward the light; she is reluctant to follow. As the disk becomes brighter, the dancers file slowly toward it and under it. Lastly, the lead woman follows them, and the disk swings down slowly, revealing it as a gate closing behind the souls who have departed this life. The male lead remains onstage alone, lying prone, looking sorrowful. The affect on the audience was perceptibly powerful.

Costumes, by Sandra Woodall, were tights of brown/beige patterns. I thought the colors too warm for the mood, that it might have been more suitable to use a cold blue/grey pattern or a white costume reminiscent of a funeral shroud.

The Program Notes describe this ballet as more of "a short story-in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations." One point I found difficult to interpret, when the main couple temporarily stop their pas de deux by the wings at house left and stand facing each other for several seconds, as though waiting or communicating. It's puzzling why.

Overall this is a well-conceived and polished work, especially for an opening night premiere, that is likely to be popular with audiencs and have a long afterlife of its own in the Company's repertory.

March 27 ". . . two united in a single soul . . ." a world premiere by Yuri Possokhov in Program 5: Lyric Voices

Yuri Possokhov's anticipated "... two united in a single soul ..." featured Joseph Walsh as Narcissus, with Yuan Yuan Tan partnered with Aaron Robison and Sofiane Sylve with Luke Ingham. The title comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphosis.

Immediately as the curtain rises the attention is drawn house right to a suspended big, reflective silver, inflated teardrop that presumably represents the mirrorred pond of the Narcissus story. Despite its eye-drawing presence, Narcissus interacts with it very little. His reflection appears distant in it, and he faces and embraces it only a couple of times. As the story nears its climax, a clever trick of Jim French's lighting skill turns the mirror into a large death's head, symbolizing Narcissus' fatal self-attraction.

Joseph Walsh in Possokhov's ". . . two united in a single soul . . ." (© Erik Tomasson)
Joseph Walsh in Possokhov's ". . . two united in a single soul . . ." (© Erik Tomasson)

The entire cast was up to the Company's consistent outstanding dancing, with Walsh and Tan especially amazing in their pas de deux. Walsh performed a miror-like pas de deux with Aaron Robinson, but too briefly to look convincingly like Narcissus was dancing with himself. The eight additional soloists did not seem to lend anything to the story, but they were a pleasure to watch, especially their flowing port de bras. The dancers' blue, purple, and white diamond patterned leotards, designed by Christopher Read, did not seem to have any particular significance in the story.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was dressed in a sort of gothic black outfit wearing a black half-mask. Sometimes he sings as he strolls about the stage among the dancers, other times he sings while sitting on the steps upstage. About halfway in the performance he tears off the mask and throws into the wings in a gesture that must have some significance, but I don't know what it is. Handel's Italian lyrics were no doubt appreciated by fans of opera, but probably inaccessible to many in the audience, leaving me to wonder why the singer was so gloomy. Daria Novo's electronic embellishments to Handel's score might have been creative, but some people might have found it out of place or even annoying.

All in all, this was not a successful work of choreography and stage craft. In all fairness, it seems Possokhov may have been trying to do too much in a half hour performance. Too many unusual, creative elements do not come together successfully. The mirrored balloon, the integration of live opera, the electronic music, the irrelevant costumes, and the abstract portrayal of Narcissus falling in love with himself, all add up to a performance that is at times hard to follow and leaving the audience feeling disconnected.

In a way, it seems Possokhov is trying to be literal in adhering to the Greek myth, yet abstract in its presentation. In the Program Notes he is quoted as saying, "all men have a side of Narcissus. Actually, I think everyone has some of this—especially ballet dancers." This ballet might work more effectively by presenting Narcissus as a dancer smitten with his reflection in a studio mirror as his classmates dance by him. Or maybe the ballet could stick closer to the original Greek myth. After all, the Greek story has held up for over two millennia; it can hold up for a ballet.