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Program 6 — San Francisco Ballet Performance — Review

Program 6

San Francisco Ballet Performance

April 15, 2014



Program 6 is three distinct ballets:  Maelstrom, Caprice, and The Rite of SpringMaelstrom was conceived and choreographed by Mark Morris, a sometime collaborator with the San Francisco Ballet, to Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio, Op. 70, No. 1.  I don’t know why they called this “Maelstrom.”  There is nothing of a maelstrom in it.  It is a rather tame ballet.  The most interesting movement was the second, to the “Ghost” movement of the Beethoven Trio.  The name “Ghost” doesn’t apply very well to this music either.  The music is somber, even melancholy, but I don’t know what that has to do with a ghost.  My experience with ghosts is limited, but encountering a ghost is almost always a disturbing experience, or at best, enigmatic.  A ghost is usually sinister, foreboding, even malevolent.  But the music in Beethoven’s trio does not feel that way, nor does Morris’s dance.  I got the feeling that this Beethoven Trio does not lend itself well to dance, and maybe that is why this ballet never got off the ground.  The third movement is energetic and relatively light hearted.  The dance throughout this movement consisted of brief segments of dancers in twos and threes.  They would make a very brief appearance on stage, dance a brief vignette, and then exit to be replaced by another small group for another very short interlude, then exiting similarly, and so forth, through the entire movement.  This structure of brief episodes strung together gave the movement a very choppy feel.  It must have been intended for people with short attention spans.  The dance was furthermore not very interesting.  It had a sameness to it that became monotonous after a while.  The dancers did the best they could with it, but I didn’t think it was a very good concept.

Caprice is a world premier by San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson, set to music by Camille Saint-Seans.  This ballet was very well conceived, beautifully executed, imaginatively staged, and very interesting to watch.  I had the feeling that I was watching a master craftsman showing us what he’s got.  The movements were strong and decisive showing a lot of variety and imagination.  The highlight was the second of two adagio movements with two long male-female duets followed by the two couples sharing the stage.  The music was adagio, that is, a rather slow tempo, but it was not sad, somber, melancholy, or nostalgic.  It had a rather positive spirit, and underlying sense of well being and optimism.  The dance reflected that, which I was very pleased to see.  It was a male-female duet that was close, if not intimate, but at the same time, not overly emotional.  It was not restrained either; it was stalwart and sedate.  Tomasson hit it just right.  He had superb dancers to work with.  Luke Ingham is a magnificent specimen of masculine humanity who performed several impressive solos as well as the duets.  Caprice is an excellent ballet, and a pleasure to watch.

The Rite of Spring, set to music by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, was the dramatic climax to the evening.  This ballet is visually captivating against a rich and varied musical score.  The dance perfectly mirrored the mood and temper of the music.  When a dance performance does this, it intensifies the emotional impact on the viewer.  The dancing underlines the emotional tone set by the music and realizes the musical mood in a visual experience.  But the dance also interprets the music and imparts a sense and a meaning to it that it might not have simply as a listening experience.  This ballet makes that point to the hilt.

There is a strong erotic feeling throughout the ballet that at times becomes downright lewd.  Movements are bold and forceful.  There is strong connection between the sexes.  Males and females strongly interact with one another with clear erotic intent.  But what happens?  The strong eroticism is decisively repudiated, in a similar vein to Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser.  In Tannhäuser, after a brazenly erotic opening where Venus is unabashedly worshipped, Tannhäuser decides to forsake her for Mary, the mother of God.  The rest of the opera is the unfolding of this conflict in Tannhäuser, and in the end Venus and erotic love is spurned.  In this ballet one of the girls in the group of dancers is singled out and ritualistically killed as a sacrifice.  And that is how the ballet ends, with a girl being executed for reasons we are not given.  It is bleak and rather abrupt and comes across as a negative judgment on the manifested eroticism of the girls throughout the ballet.

What is the nature of this sacrifice and why was it done?  In the program we are told that the ballet reflects a practice of “primitive” people.  “Primitive” people kill one of their daughters as a ritual sacrifice.  Oh, really?  It’s too bad the primitive people are not here to mock and deride this ridiculous depiction of themselves.  Possokhov says that he believes it is abnormal people among the primitives who decide who should be killed.  That is why we have the two males with their bodies painted to represent a sort of shaman, who dance in a shared skirt throughout the ballet.  I guess that passes for abnormality.  But in a primitive tribe leaders are chosen by consensus.  One becomes a leader naturally by strength of personality and by displaying leadership skills that are crucial to survival of the entire group.  A leader cannot effect anything without the backing of many if not most of the group.  So an action of this magnitude that would deeply affect the entire group must be the responsibility of the entire group and not just a few aberrant leaders.  In other words, Possokhov’s conception of this ballet is based on nonsense.

The oldest man-made figures are nude females.  They go back some 25-30,000 years.  Primitive people worshipped females.  They exalted female sexuality.  In the Old Testament one of the greatest disgraces for a woman was to be barren.  Women were brought up to have sex and to have babies.  It was necessary.  It was vital to the survival of the tribe.  Fertility of the flocks, the game animals, and especially fertility of the young girls, were the highest values in primitive societies.

As Robert Graves observed in his study of Greek mythology,1

The whole of neolithic Europe, to judge from surviving artifacts and myths, had a remarkably homogenous system of religious ideas, based on the worship of the many-titled Mother-goddess . . . Ancient Europe had no gods.  The Great Goddess was regarded as immortal, changeless, and omnipotent; and the concept of fatherhood had not been introduced into religious thought.  She took lovers, but for pleasure, not to provide her children with a father.  (p. 13)

It is civilization that seeks to kill the sexuality of women.  Once it began to matter who the father of a child was, then necessarily female sexual behavior had to be curtailed.  This began with the development of private property and inheritance.  Once there was an estate to divide up after a man died, it became imperative to know which kids belonged to which man.  In a society that lived off the land by hunting and gathering this was not necessary.   The invention of private property and the acquisition of durable wealth meant that females had to become monogamous — which they had never been prior.

So this ritual sacrifice that we see in The Rite of Spring is a sacrifice demanded of young women by civilization, not by so-called “primitive” people.  There is a lie being told here, an arrogant misconception, that we, the civilized ones, are superior to the “primitive” people of long ago who supposedly sacrificed their young women — for what?  It doesn’t make any sense.  It is we who sacrifice young women; it is we who crucify them; we destroy them in order to maintain a society based on wealth, inequality, and inheritance.  That is why their natural eroticism has to be stifled.  We modern people are the abnormal ones, not the primitive tribes who are no longer here to answer for themselves.

The Rite of Spring is a bold, imaginative ballet with a confused, distorted message, but it is nevertheless a mesmerizing spectacle.  I would say it is one of the best ballets I have seen, really a masterpiece.  Unfortunately, it displaces the carnage that we wreak upon the psyches of women, and blames it on a false conception of the long lost past, when the real villains are here and now.





1.  Robert Graves (1955 [1992]) The Greek Myths: Complete Edition.  London:  Penguin Books.

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