'Damned' If He Does

"I never like obvious things," Yuri Possokhov proclaims in his endearing Russian accent, between rehearsals at San Francisco Ballet's bustling Civic Center headquarters. The city's lovingly restored Opera House stands just across the street, though you'd never know it inside this borrowed windowless office, and the Ukraine-born dancer's larger-than-life physicality seems to strain against the close confines of the room. The troupe he belongs to, America's oldest professional ballet company, opens at City Center October 8, bringing one of his first choreographies.

"If a story says, 'I love you, you love me,' it should involve reality. It's not 'Mmmmaa!' " he says, bringing his hands to his lips and throwing a giant kiss. "It should be movement to show that it's love. If it's concretely 'mm! mm! mm!' "—he smooches the air frantically—"I hate it, it makes entire art go down."

That natural high drama has made the stylistically versatile alum of the Bolshoi and Royal Danish ballets one of SFB's best-loved danseurs. He would seem, at first glance, a curious candidate for collaboration with Icelander Helgi Tomasson, the soft-spoken artistic director. Yet here's Possokhov on an unusually hot San Francisco summer day, demonstrating the time-honored steps of Don Quixote with effortless romantic flair as Tomasson sits quietly in a corner, head tilted. "Doesn't exist, what my idea," he says with a shrug of his fluttery poet's shirt, while trying to rearrange the corps.

Possokhov, crouching, with Ikola Griffin
photo: Marty Sohl
Possokhov, crouching, with Ikola Griffin

Tomasson pads across the floor, intervening with the near-whisper of a lawyer consulting his client. "Don't make this feeling," Possokhov then instructs principal dancer Lorena Feijoo, striking a gorgeously expansive attitude and letting his arm trail languorously above. "Make this feeling—picture position." He snaps into attitude again, arm crisply framing his face; Feijoo follows suit and nails the difference. Almost inaudibly, Tomasson says, "I like it." But the former New York City Ballet star's approval of Possokhov's work is much more emphatic than his voice lets on, so much so that he's asked the 38-year-old principal to help choreograph SFB's first-ever Don Q—the centerpiece of its upcoming 70th anniversary season—even though Possokhov has only two prior ballets, both short, to his credit. Already the choreographic newcomer has been placed among illustrious company during a whirlwind of international touring that has boosted the profile of this formerly "regional" troupe. SFB's three City Center programs—the company's first New York performances in four years—are packed full of new or recent works by Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, and William Forsythe. They'll bring Balanchine's Rubies and Tomasson's Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers and Chi-Lin. Julia Adam is an emerging talent, and her Night is a New York premiere; American Ballet Theater II recently performed her Shroud.

Virtually unknown, and slotted on the engagement's opening program, is Possokhov's Damned. Inspired by Euripides' Medea and the films of Danish director Lars von Trier, Damned, Possokhov's second choreographic at-bat, was the resounding hit of SFB's 2002 home season. His earlier attempt, the zany Magrittomania, set off a flurry of publicity and excited murmurs when it premiered during SFB's 2000 "Discovery Program."

"I like taking chances," Tomasson says of his decision to include the fledgling dance maker on the "Discovery" slate. "He'll definitely be given opportunities here." Offers are already flooding in from elsewhere—Florida's Maximum Dance, Utah's Ballet West, several Russian troupes—but Possokhov's first priority is the company he believes can best nurture his talent. "Here I can work with Christopher Wheeldon and Stanton Welch, Mark Morris and James Kudelka, William Forsythe," he says. "No one company in America have this." These days Possokhov is not only an instrument for these choreographers, but also their hopeful peer. He is in transition—dancing less frequently, finding himself on the command side of the rehearsal more often. He even looks more mature, a gentle gray beginning to streak the soft waves framing his well-angled cheekbones and piercingly glassy eyes. The transition will be gradual, and not punctuated by egotistical pronouncements: Possokhov is a chronic and sincere self-flagellator. "It's because I'm Russian, I'm skeptic, not confident of myself," he says. "It's the opposite of American—when they begin they already feel it's going to be good. I'm also trying to be the best but I'm skeptical, and I think I have good reason. Because how many things are great, even good? It never happen. I prefer don't tell anything. Just see how it goes."

 
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