Last week, as I wrote possibly my most populist article to date, I was forced (as no doubt many before me have been) to confront the somewhat disquieting ideology underlying the casual transformation of women into beasts so common in the story ballet. These narratives persist, as do the comparisons of pointe shoes to foot-binding and the apparent paradox of demanding that women embody weightless, insubstantial sylphs but also possess the strength and control to support themselves on the tips of their toes and launch themselves from the ground to hover (beautifully!) before descending. Two of the most frequently staged ballets, Swan Lake and Giselle, feature heroines who can do nothing for themselves, instead falling victim to the whims of a selfish hero (Count Albrecht, Prince Siegfried)—aristocrats who have nothing better to do than play pastoral—to slum it in the guise of a peasant, to hunt for sport in the middle of the night because attending balls held in one’s royal honor is such a drag.
When I saw the bill for San Francisco Ballet’s Program 3 (The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts, and Yuri Possokhov’s version of the Firebird), I assumed that the organizing principle was Ballets With Creatures in Them (hence the article above). However, as I watched the program, I realized the theme might also have been Ballets with Two Female Leads. Of course, everything being simplified in the classical world, said leads are the ingénue who will get the man and the dangerously independent woman who won’t, since that’s all that matters for happily ever after.
This was most clear in Possokhov’s Firebird. It must be stated outright that it is a peculiar ballet, deliberately campy in a way you wouldn’t expect of the SFB (and, indeed, the audience barely cracked a smile, despite the absurdity of the sorcerer Kaschei (Pascal Molat) wearing a skeleton suit under a shock of punk rock hair and waving around an egg as big as a moderately fed pig when the curtain rises (in brief, the egg is a Horcrux. Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for saving me the trouble of having to explain why Kaschei is a bad dude)). The titular character, danced on opening night by Sarah van Patten, is a mysterious character, adopting the woman-as-bird metaphor but presenting an alternate version of what this may mean, being not frail nor small nor particularly buoyant. Dressed superhero style in a streamlined red unitard that outlines every muscle and a flame-colored mane and tail that makes her look more like a comic book centaur than a bird, the Firebird is never a love interest for the Prince (Tiit Helimets) (lest you think I mention this as a perverse fetish, human-bird cross-breeding is practically normal in ballet—see Swan Lake and the Bluebird pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty), who grabs her crudely about the waist when she comes darting into his garden of golden apples. Neither motivated by desire nor domination, the duet is not really focused enough to give off an emotion.
Enter the Princess (Sasha de Sola) and her entourage. The princess doesn’t get a name because all that matters is that she is a princess, much like the Firebird is only a bird. Possokhov’s Princess is a full-on, sulky little brat, leading her passel of groupies in a synchronized stomp to shake down a hail of apples before tossing hers stage left after one disgruntled bite. What could be more endearing? So of course she and the Prince must dance. Their courtship is rudely interrupted by the return of Kaschei, beating his skeleton ribs and trapping the Prince in what appears to be an oversized whisk. In his moment of need, he suddenly remembers that other chick and summons the Firebird with a feather. She does fouettés, because they are the ballerina step of power (see: Black Swan coda, Don Quixote coda—ok, an alternate explanation is that it is the step that means this dance is ending now), and the monsters are vanquished! Then there is a duel between Firebird and Kaschei, which culminates in a most excellent slow motion chase in a corridor of strobing lights. They get the magic egg, and she lets the Prince crack it open so he doesn’t feel emasculated by her fouetté force. The Princess, unconscious throughout the action, revives in the Prince’s arms. An uncomfortable pas de trois follows, in which it appears that the Firebird is actually weeping sequins, but the Prince does not notice, because the dance for three will become a dance for two, and everyone knows that a Prince should slay demons and not allow a supernatural bird to do it for him and marry a Princess thereafter. The Firebird departs, and the humans dance a mazurka of joy, because all the bad magic things are gone and order has been restored.
The same dynamics are at play in La Bayadère, in which the good and basically docile Nikiya is rewarded with a grand pas de deux that takes the entire second act of the ballet AFTER HER DEATH, in the form of an opium dream by her erstwhile lover Solor, whereas the murderess Gamzatti shows up to her wedding to the same man dressed in scarlet in Act III and is most memorable for a gorgeously evil solo that makes the entire temple crumble with sanctimonious horror/the vengeance of the gods. In more abstract form, Ghosts features a meltingly romantic female lead (Maria Kochetkova) who exists to be supported in elaborate lifts in perpetual duets, while her counterpart is not the man who dances with her (Vitor Luiz) but the other woman (the heartstopping Sofiane Sylve) who is occasionally assisted by two men (Helimets and Shane Wuerthner) and more often slicing through the air in front of them with legs and lines that assert themselves like boldface type.
On opening night, the Kingdom of the Shades was danced with appalling carelessness. The scene relies on the precise geometry of line and the overall dreamlike silence of the movement—challenging but surely not beyond the abilities of a company of the caliber of San Francisco Ballet. Yet the dozens of arabesques by the shades corps did not even strive for uniformity, and the restlessness of shifting feet made the tableau laborious and dull. Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan acquitted themselves before their chaotic crew. Tan was an ice empress with endless extensions. Each of Karapetyan’s jumps is a thing of splendor, and he looks about as good as one can in a turban.
Ghosts is a better ballet for the company, danced like jellyfish in the shadow of a shipwreck.
San Francisco Ballet presents Program 3: Kingdom of the Shades, Ghosts, and Firebird Feb. 20-Mar. 2 at the War Memorial Opera House.