Combining tradition, innovation for Joffrey

September 18, 2011
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith

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Yuri Possokhov's name reveals his homeland and a lot — but by no means all — about his choreographic aesthetics.

Yes, he's Russian, and he trained at the Moscow Ballet School before dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet for 10 years. As a youngster first drawn to folk dance before winding up in ballet, he counts a fiery ethnic soul and classical discipline among his formative influences.

But, in 1992, he joined the Royal Danish Ballet and, two years later, moved even farther west to dance with the San Francisco Ballet, where he's now resident choreographer. He is something of a provocative mix of Russian purity, Danish color and American pluck.

"I love it when young people devour what they're doing," he said, for instance, when at work on last season's "Bells," a one-act piece he created for the Joffrey Ballet. "They're thirsty, they're hungry and they want to do as much as possible."

"Bells" embraced the varieties in his background, combining a score by Rachmaninov, sharp classical imagery and punky, contemporary Americana — a ballerina's leg briefly caught in a spasm, for instance. In October, he'll unveil a new version of "Don Quixote," the Joffrey's first full-length commission by a choreographer outside the troupe in 60 years and, like Possokhov, a blend of tradition and innovation.

"It's a way for a dancer to show off your ability, your technique, your training," he said of the classic. "I've danced it in Moscow, the only place in the world that's kept it consistently in the repertory all these years. No one dances it better.

"But it's also hard to really determine what the word 'traditional' means when you're talking about 'Don Quixote.' Even the Bolshoi has used composers other than Ludwig Minkus in some productions. Marius Petipa, who created this ballet, lived in St. Petersburg, and when he first saw the Moscow production by Alexander Gorsky, he hated it; he said he didn't recognize a single step."

Possokhov's version puts more emphasis on the novel's main characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, than the traditional ballet. "Don Quixote does a lot more dancing," Possokhov promises. He's condensing the work to two acts and refashioning it to fit the more modest-size Joffrey.

"We don't have 150 dancers like the Bolshoi," he said. "So what was conceived for 24 couples will now be danced by 12. I've eliminated some sections, such as the gypsy scene. Some like the idea, some don't. You can't please everyone."

Some aspects are full-throttle contemporary. Wendall K. Harrington, who provided the atmospheric animated projections for the troupe's "Othello," is doing the same for "Don Quixote."

"I love to work with projections," Possokhov said. "It gives you a lot more room to originate and interpret."

Still, maybe the biggest challenge is an old one: "Don Quixote" is one of the most soaring, acrobatically dazzling of all the classics. Will this one serve up the thrills?

Possokhov, the passionate Russian with broad globe-trotting experience, answered diplomatically, "I hope."