First the good news. On Tuesday night at the opening of San Francisco Ballet's season Program 3, corps dancer Jennifer Stahl killed it in her first starring role, while Mark Morris' cheeky, all-guy "Beaux" was smarter and more beautiful than last year, or so it seemed. On Friday at the Program 4 opening in War Memorial Opera House, there were additional causes for celebration, when "Within the Golden Hour" by Christopher Wheeldon unfurled like an ingenious organism and the late George Balanchine's faintly plot-based but enigmatic"Scotch Symphony" tested the mettle of the dancers, and the dancers quite nearly triumphed.
Now for the bad news. Program 3 was virtually killed off by the same "Rite of Spring" that got Stahl promoted. This is the centenary year of the now iconic score by Igor Stravinsky and the dance of the same name by Vaslav Nijinsky, which together helped usher in the modern era in 1913 with a chair-throwing, bottle-hurtling riot at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris by some outraged and some other deliriously excited patrons.
S.F. Ballet choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov reconceived "Rite" as so many choreographers are doing this year. But rather than an incantatory ritual at the onset of spring, signaled by the hypnotic tones of an oboe, Possokhov settled for a predatory dance of lascivious ladies and fox-hunting hunks in a grim environment -- a desertlike zone designed by Benjamin Pierce, bordered by giant and
Possokhov's "Rite" began with promise. The women slid down the ramped platform like cats in heat, until they pulled their pastel-splashed shifts over their heads and vibrated like butterflies. But the trite and the bizarre weren't far behind. Soon, the men got busy hauling the women in spread-eagle position like split sides of beef or losing themselves in the women's captive crotches with pointless repetition.
The appearance of a weird, hotheaded creature -- a twinned, centaurlike being (wonderfully embodied by Garen Scribner and James Sofranko) —— would have been comical if its purpose weren't so dark: to push the bacchanal toward sacrifice. It was a sacrifice that had none of the inevitability of ritual and all of the gratuitousness of a random act of violence.
This was no study of an ancient fertility rite where pounding the frozen earth through dance was designed to waken the juices of the soil, as the people of long-ago Russia were believed to do, with sacrifice of a virgin girl part of the tribal imperative. This was a post-feminist celebration of the martyring of the most vibrant female in a group, and made feminism seem more desperately necessary than ever in this era of One Billion Rising. Not only did no one riot in San Francisco Opera House on Tuesday, the audience response was almost catatonic.
Mark Morris' tender homage to men generally, and choreographers Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham in particular, offered a stunning antidote to the brutish depiction of desire Possokhov staged. Morris' title "Beaux" means beautiful in French, is adopted as a word for boyfriends in English and reads like "boyz" for the phonetically inclined. Morris is after all of it and sets the work to the harpsichord music of Bohuslav Martinu.
An all-male cast dressed in Isaac Mizrahi's sassy pastel camouflage unitards against the same patterned backdrop evoked in this and a dozen other ways not only a long military history of male-male love, but Taylor's homage to soldiers and closeted love in "Sunset" and Cunningham's 1958 "Summerspace," with its beautifully controlled bodies in spotted unitards against a speckled backdrop that artist Robert Rauschenberg famously designed.
Morris not only quotes both masters, from the men seated on the ground watching one another as they do in "Sunset" to the controlled body positions from "Summerspace," he also captures the tender tone of both, bringing to same-sex partnering an unapologetic depth of love and companionship all his own and rarely, if ever, seen on the opera house stage. Dancer Vito Mazzeo's impeccable line evoked both the elegance of Cunningham and the hunkiness Taylor still goes after. And the boyish yet manly movement of faunlike Jaime Garcia Castilla and others conjured up the delights of a boy at play.
In Program 4, Wheeldon did something similar for heterosexual pairings in "Within the Golden Hour," a period of time in photography that refers to the hour at the beginning and end of the day. The entire cast, but especially leads Sarah van Patten, Luke Ingham, Maria Kochetkova, Joan Boada, Vanessa Zahorian and Damian Smith made human pairing symbolic of the complex, often beautiful mysteries buried in those transitional hours.
Ashley Page's "Guide to Strange Places" in Program 3, by contrast, had nothing inexplicable about it. Rather it rehashed a style of romantic pairing that uses the woman as a paint brush. Not much materializes on such a canvas.
san francisco Ballet
Presents Programs 3 and 4, including the premiere of Yuri Possokhov's "Rite of Spring"
When: March 2, 8 and 10 for Program 3; March 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 for Program 4
Where: 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $35-$325, 415-861-5600, www.sfballet.org