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Yuri Possokhov, Principal Dancer, San Francisco Ballet and Choreographer

by Mary Ellen Hunt

June 2006 -- San Francisco and New York

In these days of tricks and glitz, there are precious few men who fit the mold of the old fashioned danseur noble, but of this generation, one of the most inspiring is surely San Francisco Ballet’s Yuri Possokhov. As a performer, the Bolshoi-trained star melds the modernity of contemporary dance and the elegance of classical roles with deceptive ease. As a creator of dances, he is generous and curiously unpretentious, even as he embraces visions of vast enterprise.

His body of work thus far – which includes ballets made for San Francisco Ballet such as “Magrittomania,” “Damned,” “Study in Motion,” and “Reflections,” as well as commissions for other companies like Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Firebird” and the Bolshoi’s new production of “Cinderella”– has a wide-ranging variety, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made by different choreographers. But viewed carefully, you discover the similarities among them that are also hallmarks of his own dancing: careful attention to details, sensitivity to emotional nuance and a refreshing grasp of classicism.

I spoke with Possokhov between his international jaunts, and on the eve of his final performances with the San Francisco Ballet in New York before retiring from the stage. A conversation as he walked along the beach by the ocean watching a San Francisco sunset found him in a reflective mood.

I asked him, as a Bolshoi veteran, what he thought of the “new” company, a venerable institution that has been developing a fresh face since Alexei Ratmansky’s assumption of the directorship.

“What I like actually is that he is supporting so much the younger generation,” he says frankly, “This is a generation that looks a little bit differently the ballet – they are a little bit more open to accepting everything. They’re talented and they’re looking forward, they’re very enthusiastic about new ballets, and I like it.”

Possokhov notes that for decades the Bolshoi Theater was caught in a loop of sedate traditionalism that became less and less interesting with each passing year.

“It’s a lot of change now,” he says, “First of all, there are a lot of new premieres every year. Before it was like one premiere every five years. Now it’s every year – three, four new ballets coming. And what I like also, is young people, young audience came to the theater. It used to be more older people coming to watch ballets, but now it’s a lot of young people interested in the ballet.”

Possokhov notes that when Ratmansky offered him the task of creating a new “Cinderella,” he was a little nervous. After all, Prokofiev created this ballet for the Bolshoi company and it had its premiere on Nov 21, 1945 at their theater starring the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. (Possokhov’s version premiered in February, 2006 with the Bolshoi stars Svetlana Zakharova and Sergei Filin.)

“I like ‘Cinderella’ because it’s something that I didn’t even expect from me to do,” Possokhov says. “The people around me are such talented people – designer, costume designer, lighting designer and also the drama director. I had only two or three months to create ballet so I invited a drama director (Yuri Borisov) because I think it’s very important to combine ballet vision and drama vision together.”

In Possokhov’s “Cinderella,” the setting looks otherworldly, literally another planet, and his fairy Godmother becomes the composer Prokofiev himself. It’s a twist on the story that Possokhov says grew out of reading the composer’s own diaries, which chronicle the years from 1907 to 1933, as Stalin rose to power and the composer continued to tour in the west.

Shortly thereafter, in 1936, Prokofiev’s Spanish-born wife Lina and their two young children moved to Moscow. It was to be the start of a fateful decade for the composer, who came under increasing scrutiny and pressure from the Soviet regime.  In the years that ensued – with his family held hostage whenever he journeyed abroad – Prokofiev’s normally sanguine personality turned to one of grim insecurity. In 1948, he was forced to annul his marriage to Lina on the grounds that she was a foreign national. She was then arrested and vanished into the coal mines of the Arctic gulag Vorkuta, never to be seen by Prokofiev again.

Possokhov sets his ballet inside the composer’s imagination, and though there are no overt political themes, the sad overtones of a man buffeted by political exigencies beyond his comprehension pervade the story.

“If you read about Prokofiev, his diaries, you understand that it’s strange because he loves her so much,” Possokhov explains. “He decides that he will write music for country. But ‘Cinderella,” he called his ‘small bird.’ That is what he called his wife, ‘small bird’ – so it’s about her.  It was the biggest tragedy in his life, and the music is so sad – it’s more philosophy music, not ballet music, so we decided to try a little bit different way thinking about this ballet.”

 “It’s hard music to choreograph,” Possokov continues. “When Ratmansky asked me to do it, I was kind of scared, because I didn’t feel the music. But then when I found out the reason that Prokofiev wrote music – well, after for me, it was easier to do it. Now, it’s part of my life – I think it’s the best ballet music ever written. That’s my feelings – sorry for Tchaikovsky and Minkus and everyone, but I think it’s one of the best ballet music in the world.  It goes beyond the borders, beyond life.”

Yet, Possokhov confides that of the many productions he’s seen of the ballet, none have really captivated him.

“I am bad man, actually,” he laughs, “but to me the music never matched to the ideas. We are trying to put everything beyond literal things. It’s very interesting, because Prokofiev put three adagios at the end at the end of the ballet, and all choreographers kind of struggle with it. It’s hard to keep the audience’s attention in the ballet.  But he did it on purpose, and I think the last adagio is the most gorgeous music. It’s beyond everything – you are going to the stars.”

Beyond the stars is the image that inspired Hans Dieter Schaal’s design for the ballet – which is meant to look, Possokhov says, not dissimilar from the planet of “The Little Prince.” The child’s fairy-tale paradoxically transforms into a world seen with a mature perception, and yet still child-like eyes. It’s an adventure into a metaphorical and an emotional arena that drew mixed reviews, and with typical introspection, Possokhov is still pondering the matter at a number of levels.

“I understand people saying this is disaster or something – I am fine with this.  But I think that the goal for artists should be to be childish for your whole life. Young people understand, I know this definitely,” he pauses, “But the older generation didn’t get it. It’s strange, I’m sitting here and thinking, should I work for people to understand, or I just have to express myself?”

“Art should be beyond life,” he says suddenly, “Life is beautiful, but we could make life little bit more.  Life is spontaneous, life is unpredictable, life is more colorful, more everything, much more. But we make our life more afraid. And I think art should be trying to show people how life can be more beautiful, how lucky it is actually. It is much more beautiful without borders, without frontiers, anything. It should soar. It’s something that we can share our feelings. Maybe sometimes in the life we can’t show these things, but we shouldn’t be ashamed to feel. They are real, and thank God we have them.”

Possokhov’s tone shifts to one of wistfulness as he talks about his upcoming projects.  Next season there is the staging of his “Firebird” for San Francisco Ballet – where he has also been named Choreographer-in-Residence – and a new work for the ballet company in Tbilisi, in the republic of Georgia, where George Balanchine was born.  Thus, with all the choreographic opportunities that await him, it’s a little surprising to hear hints of self-doubt as he speaks warmly of dancing his last performances in the New York State Theater, the theater of Balanchine.

“I am in big situation – I am finished to dance, but I don’t know how to continue my life after. I feel of myself as dancer,” he says quietly, “You call me in the same time I’m thinking what should I do?"

Do?  He pauses and his interviewer is at a loss. It seems he is already doing it all and most of us can’t wait to see what’s next.

Yuri Possokhov makes his final stage appearances when the San Francisco Ballet performs “7 for Eight” and “Quaternary” at the Lincoln Center Festival on July 29 and 30, 2006. The Bolshoi Ballet performs Possokhov’s “Cinderella” at the Royal Opera House from August 7-9, 2006.  The Bolshoi also plans to bring the production when it tours to Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, February 20-25, 2007.

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