San Francisco Ballet's Program 6 – with Yuri Possokhov's 2011 "'RAkU" and the world premiere of Ashley Page's "Guide to Strange Places" – boasts high energy, drama, wide sweep and irresistible appeal.
As is typical these days, the dancing was superb on Friday's opening night at the War Memorial Opera House. But the works also soar on wings of intense contemporary music. The company's own Shinji Eshima (a bass player with the orchestra for more than three decades) wrote the score for "'RAkU"; John Adams' "Guide to Strange Places" accompanies Page's dance.
Among Yuan Yuan Tan's many triumphs, her Princess in "'RAkU," set in Japan's warrior past, is among her most memorable.
Tan and Damian Smith's Prince first appear in the stylized manner of Noh theater. Possokhov and designer Alexander V. Nichols provide a breathtaking moment: the Princess' large ceremonial kimono flies up in the air, revealing a small, simply dressed woman, defenseless without the splendor of the disappearing garb, predictive of the coming tragedy.
As the couple stands motionless, Tan uncannily displays strength, submission, love and fear – without moving a muscle.
When the Prince leaves for battle, the Princess is subdued by the crazed Black Monk (Pascal Molat in a scary, and great, performance). After a temple burns, the remains of the prince and his sword are returned; as she scatters his ashes around her, snow begins to fall, covering her prostrate body.
Eshima's music pulses with desire, passion, drama, and eventually, stark tragedy. Under Martin West's baton, the orchestra and soloists were glorious Friday.
Principal cellist Eric Sung soared in the climactic final scene, following solos by Kevin Rivard on French horn, Laura Griffiths on oboe and Rufus Olivier on bassoon. Also notable: Michael McGraw on piano, David Rosenthal on marimba, and Steve D'Amico on bass during the kimono lift.
Adams' darkly idiosyncratic, breakneck "Guide to Strange Places" goes well with a dance that Page - former dancer with the Royal Ballet, later director of the Scottish Ballet - has described as "savage and earthy."
On opening night, Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding, Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin, Frances Chung and Pascal Molat, Vanessa Zahorian and Jaime Garcia Castilla were the lead pairs in the piece, which, mixing ballet and contemporary styles, is similar to Program No. 5's "Glass Pieces" by Jerome Robbins.
Act 3 of Rudolf Nureyev's reworking of the Marius Petipa "Raymonda," set to Alexander Glazunov's pseudo-Hungarian music, featuring Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, opened the program.
San Francisco Ballet Program No. 6
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and April 3, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $20 to $285
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org