Now and Then


Yuri Possokhov, Swimmer, 2015. Performance view, April 10, 2015, San Francisco Ballet. Photo: Erik Tomasson.

“I’M AGAINST STYLE. I don’t know what it means, style. I’m trying to find the language of each ballet … It’s whatever came out of my soul.”

These are the sorts of statements one can somewhat get away with if possessed of a marvelously lugubrious, thick Russian accent. Such an accent has Yuri Possokhov, who I recently encountered during an audience fluffer for the premiere of his newest work, Swimmer, at San Francisco Ballet, where he is choreographer in residence.

Swimmer’s imagistic narrative takes its point of departure and its title from the 1964 John Cheever story; Possokhov, himself a child of the 1960s, was introduced to this cutting commentary on American culture while a young man in Russia. But there was no talk of the Cold War, nothing on whether ballet might have something to say about resurfacings of those tensions. Sentences like this were left to float unexamined: “I thought, all my life, even in the Soviet Union, the ’60s was the happiest time of the twentieth century. I think the whole world was flying.”

Ballet as closed loop. It’s so easy to feel that, especially compared to combustible eras and figures of yore (hello, nostalgia). Swimmer shared a bill at the War Memorial Opera House with George Balanchine’s 1946 leviathan The Four Temperaments, and a season with Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy, 2013, an homage to the embattled composer who has long been a source of inspiration for Ratmansky.

Ghosting my viewing of all of these made-by-Russian-American ballets was Leonid Yakobson, the Soviet-era contemporary of Shostakovich—both men died in 1975—and the ballet contemporary of Balanchine, who, like him, was born in January of 1904. Twenty years later the future founder of New York City Ballet defected from the Soviet Union, something Yakobson apparently never sought to do, despite being given repeated cause.

Yakobson is the subject of Janice Ross’s new book Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia (Yale University Press). Ross, a prominent dance history scholar, has just given a series of talks in San Francisco on Yakobson, including one at the ballet tracing connections between him and Ratmansky and another at the Contemporary Jewish Museum called “Disobedient Dances: A Jewish Choreographer in Soviet Russia” that featured live snippets of his work performed by two San Francisco Ballet students.

Severe, stylized, and danced barefoot, these briefest of moments from Rodin Sculptures, 1971, performed so carefully by these gleaming youngsters, were terrifically intriguing. Also tantalizing is Ross’s portrait, twenty-five-years-in-the-making, of Yakobson as a ceaseless experimenter who saw it as his life’s work to protect and encourage modernist impulses in ballet, despite facing systematic intimidation and erasure. “I believe he carried it to safety,” Ross said in closing her museum talk. “He was the through-line to innovation.”

I wonder what Yakobson would make of Swimmer, a multimedia-infused collage of decades-past Americana possessed of a surging, undulating physicality now prevalent in contemporary ballet. It’s a pretty concoction; does it have an ambition beyond pleasing the eye? Cheever, at one point dubbed the Chekhov of the Suburbs, offers a starkly empty portrait of the suburban American male, and beyond the ballet’s ridiculously nostalgia-drenched imagery (hello, Mad Men), Possokhov’s hero grows similarly lost and isolated. Is he so different from any storybook ballet prince, desperately seeking someone or thing?

I had this same question when revisiting Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy: Here the prince thrown hither and thither in an evil empire is the composer in Soviet times. And there is, for all the aesthetic differences to Possokhov, a similarly ambivalent message of pathos. Ross ended her talk on Yakobson and Ratmansky with a Putin quote: “ ‘Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain, but whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.’ ” She added: “[Ratmansky] I think has both a brain and a heart.”

One of the things that makes Ross’s portrayal of Yakobson so compelling is the larger connections she draws between ballet and political resistance, juxtaposing the overt against the coded. So we see present-day Ukrainian ballerinas performing the iconic dance of the cygnets in front of tanks in protest of the Russian invasion, as Ross reminds that Swan Lake—a ballet that is, above all, about freedom—has long been a tool for both dissidents and the state (which in times of unrest has broadcast loops of the ballet on television).

Are there remnants of this resistance in the work of Ratmansky or Possokhov? One could argue yes—the former takes aim at a repressive regime, the latter a permissive narcissism. Are these critiques, or merely depictions? It’s striking to consider these men next to Balanchine, whose strongest works are inarguably of their time. Balanchine spoke ardently against plot, against politics—and yet in a ballet like The Four Temperaments, can one not see laid out all the peril and promise of a century predicated on an idea of progress? Yakobson, too, drew from the world around him, only at great risk, embedding within his ballets forbidden material, such as Jewish cultural motifs, and insisting on the portrayal of men who did not fit the approved Soviet mold.

These portrayals ripple through the solo Vestris, a work whose broad theatricality housed layered critiques of ballet history, official Soviet values, and the toll of forever policing one’s behavior. Here we have the anguished male protagonist as both historical figure and allegory. In her lectures, Ross also included grainy black-and-white footage from 1969 of Yakobson coaching a young Mikhail Baryshnikov in Vestris. The emphasis, Ross argues, is entirely in the putting on of the mask—something these two artists would have understood all too well.

Leonid Yakobson coaching Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1969 for Vestris.

Watching this, I was reminded of something Ratmansky said to me in an interview about Baryshnikov in 2009. Ratmansky came up in the Bolshoi; after Baryshnikov’s defection in 1974, his name was verboten in school. Ratmansky and his peers settled for bootleg tapes of the great dancer: “That was quite a shock to see the level of dancing and the artistry, and of course he became the idol of not only me but many around.”

Ratmansky’s ballets are full of bravura men; their tricks are showstoppers that somehow don’t stop the show, but feel necessary to it. Another form of code? The prince as Soviet gymnast, with no way to fly except on stage.

At a recent panel at Danspace Project (full disclosure, it came at the end of the Platform I had curated), David Hallberg spoke eloquently about certain deficiencies he sees in the ballet world. An American Ballet Theatre star and the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, Hallberg, like the restrictive circle of storybook heroes he cycles through on stage, is a restless and buoyant force. The task Hallberg faces is much trickier—what slumbers isn’t the princess, but the populace, and happily so.

“How much am I a creator as the prince in Swan Lake?” he said, lamenting that dancers aren’t asked to develop their voices. “It’s almost like we stay in high school. I would like to say, boldly, that’s not our fault—it’s what we’re given. The responsibility is to question it, and we don’t do that enough.”

He ended by asking, “What is this moment? What is now?” Good words to keep in mind as ballet choreographers, even the more progressive ones like Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (currently wowing the crowds with An American in Paris—talk about nostalgia), look endlessly to the past.

Claudia La Rocco

Yve Laris Cohen, Fine, 2015. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, May 15, 2015. Thomas von Foerster and Yve Laris Cohen. Photo: Paula Court.

I’VE SEEN (or rather, tried to see) performances by Yve Laris Cohen at The Kitchen three times now. The first time, I didn’t see anything at all. Unaware that viewers of Seth, 2013, had already been chosen, I was turned away at the door. For Thomas, 2013, four of us restlessly shifted on the floor of a disheveled third-story administrative office. In the dark, we listened to the even tick of a metronome and the rain hitting something metallic on the roof, illuminated only by an orange bulb flickering in the artist’s lap. That time, the audience was self-selected; volunteering meant missing all the other pieces billed in the evening’s “Dance and Process” program.

It would be wrong to call the third time a charm—Laris Cohen’s work is compelling, frustrating, urgent, yes, but hardly charming. To watch Fine, the audience shuffled into a compressed sliver of the black-box theater space, darkened and demarcated by a lowered curtain. The artist soon appeared in a stagehand’s pragmatic uniform: black jeans and T-shirt, mic pack in pocket, headset in ear, clipboard in hand. He shut the door behind us, ready to work.

He began to speak, his cues becoming instructions, such as “state your name and profession.” Voices answered Laris Cohen from over the loudspeakers, emanating from bodies obscured from view. The first respondent was Ed, an engineer. Laris Cohen implored: “Describe, in as much detail as you can, the original piece.”

In some ways Fine is composed through its failures. The first is that of the unrealized project. Slowly rising, the first curtain reveals only another exactly like it. Ed tells us the plans for a massive, movable wall, unsuccessful for all the usual, boring reasons that dictate most of our personal abandonments (not practical, not enough time, not enough money). Of course, the wall was also to be distinctly unordinary: to be built like a dancer’s sprung floor, to be raked at the incline of a ballet stage, to be floated on casters. The idea was to slowly push the leaning surface toward the audience, herding them out of the theater.

Fine also intervenes in debates about performance’s most oft-beaten horse, its refusal to adhere neatly to the archive. Contra the staying power of documentation, Laris Cohen presents oral histories, with their glitches of memory and the incommensurability of each account. We listen closely for error: Was the wall supposed to be twenty by forty feet? Sixteen by forty-four? Why, exactly, didn’t it work out?

It’s a type of repetition compulsion, that rehashing in the subjunctive tense, the endless recycling of what could have been. The second curtain is raised to reveal another like the first. In Fine, the same series of questions are asked to a production manager, an architect, another engineer. At an estimated twelve thousand pounds, the project was also, unsurprisingly, deemed unsafe, though by who and at what point in its evolution remains an ongoing point of contention. How to ballast, to keep the whole thing from tipping over? How to keep it from crashing through The Kitchen’s acoustically isolated—and therefore structurally precarious—floor?

Each dialogue is punctuated only by production cues and the names of all involved: Tom, Ed, Brittany, Jeremy, Naomi, Karen, Zach. Some of these names remain unseen and unheard by the audience, ghosts in the theater’s machine. The familiarity of first-name basis is belied by one of Laris Cohen’s other questions: “Describe the nature of our relationship.” (Zach answers most succinctly: “professional.”)

Laris Cohen also asks, “What was the title of the original piece?” Most don’t remember, until someone does. It was to be called Al Fine, a term borrowed from directions that, in sheet music, indicate performers are to repeat a section of the composition until its end (marked fine). Thus the title describes the performance’s operations, as well as connects it to other of the artist’s works, such as Coda, 2012, at the Sculpture Center and D.S. (an abbreviation of dal segno), his contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

In Fine’s most theatrical reveal, the third and final curtain, far upstage, is raised swiftly to rest just above a seated man in shorts, cane in hand, perceptible by spotlight. To Scott, a retired aerospace engineer, Laris Cohen addresses some additional directives, such as, “talk about the postcards you sent me when I was in college.” The nature of this relationship is by turns tender and strained. Scott’s daughter was friends with the artist when they were kids, when Laris Cohen was an aspiring ballerina in San Diego; there is a collective wince as he stumbles over the correct pronouns.

In the stage left wings, had there been any, is Tom, a performer in other of Laris Cohen’s pieces, including D.S. and Patron, 2015, at Danspace Project, for which he read a staggeringly long list of all the New York City Ballet performances he attended since the mid-1980s (and the location of dinner afterward). The metronome-like click of a slowly turned winch—which has accompanied most of the performance—has actually been Tom all along, incrementally raising that frontmost curtain. Laris Cohen approaches Tom for a final pas de deux. Tom hoists Laris Cohen up, the artist’s body crumpling over his shoulder: first the left side, then the right, then the left, and so on.

Sprung floors are designed to absorb shock. They are literally easier on your body, especially on bodies condemned or enjoined to repeat certain actions. Imagine all your weight landing on a single supporting leg, on the fragile joints of your knee and ankle. Now imagine a floor that acquiesces, that physically gives to accommodate your every move.

As the front curtain makes its way back down at an excruciatingly crawling pace, I think of Andrea Fraser (“We carry, each of us, our institutions inside ourselves… I can rip at the walls of my institutional body. But…”), and then of the work’s title, which has mutated from the intellectual glamour of European pronunciation to our favorite American shorthand for both gritted resignation and the daily evasion of not telling someone how you’re really doing.

I used to be a dancer (knees still shot from time on a distinctly unsprung floor). Like the artist, the nature of this relationship has changed. In his work I am always reminded of my own now critical distance toward the discipline, but also its residual spell. It didn’t work out. It’s fine. I’m fine.

Catherine Damman

Fine ran May 14–16 at The Kitchen in New York.