Surrealist painter René Magritte developed an iconography of ordinary objects: anonymous men in bowler hats, apples hovering in the interval between the eye and its aim, pipes and pillars that smirk at bids to make them things or symbols. However, Magritte’s best trick is what he does with context, as with his flat bright skies of puffy clouds that lurk within or beyond us, or the flummoxing picture frames that act as windows to the world or frustrating, impenetrable walls. These ploys ask us to consider whether life is something we encounter or create.
When stripped of plot, ballet is an art that matches the sensibility of these paintings. It’s an art form that makes our known anatomy extraordinary through improbable acts against the laws of physics and a limited vocabulary of recurrent shapes. The meeting of movement and surrealist imagery drives Yuri Possokhov’s mesmerizing Magrittomania (2000), the central piece of San Francisco Ballet’s first program of the 2016 season. This work, plus two others — Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight and Pas/Parts by William Forsythe — are on view through Friday Feb. 5 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
The sound of rushing water opens Magrittomania. Then the curtain rises on a screen projected with an image of the cookie-cutter “raining” men from Magritte’s famous 1953 painting Golconda. The image draws a laugh from the audience, though the liquid hiss of the soundscape is a reminder of Magritte’s mother’s suicide by drowning. A man in a bowler hat (the reliably grave principal dancer Davit Karapetyan), at first silhouetted by the scrim, pulls open a panel to find a column of sky. Gargantuan green apples — another key piece of imagery from Magritte’s art work — suspend themselves in the air, obscuring the faces of a sudden assemblage of dancers. Joined on stage by an array of identically clad male dancers, Karapetyan confronts his doubles as they playfully shadow, launch, and catch him.
The images on stage inherently pose the same questions that Magritte coaxed out of canvas: is the real world within or beyond the space depicted? Is the body we view our own or another’s? May we move it? Does it breathe? And it’s not just the choreography that evokes the spirit of Magritte: Yuri Krasavin’s musical score quotes and perverts Beethoven with the same unsettling familiarity and deferral of meaning as the rest of the surreal project.
The mood darkens when the figure of principal ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan appears in red, her left arm wrapped behind her back like a broken wing as she inscribes the stage with long arcs to the limping strains of an abbreviated version of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Then a translucent veil is drawn over and tied about her head for a duet both tender and explicit inspired by Magritte’s paintings of shrouded lovers straining blindly towards one another. Just as Magritte’s iconic Treachery of Images obstinately declares a painted pipe is not a pipe (“ceci n’est pas une pipe”) the act on stage refers to and negates itself because ballet always does wear a veil, the way a lift is a substitute for carnal embrace and spiritual rapture.
In a final spectacle, Tan enters bearing a massive, menacing apple that weighs her down. The voluminous prop just as abruptly deflates, delivering all by giving us nothing—an eruption of vacancy to test the boundaries of presence.
San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1 is on view at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco through Friday, Feb. 5. Details here.