So Jerome Robbins?s ?Dybbuk??not seen in its original form since 1975 and revived by the San Francisco Ballet Tuesday night?is not quite a rediscovered masterpiece. But given the backstory of the ballet, no one was expecting perfection unearthed. Robbins wrestled with “Dybbuk’s” conception for decades and was never happy with the results. In a perverse repudiation of his natural theatrical flair, Robbins took S. Ansky?s touchstone Yiddish play and tried to diffuse from it a mystical moodiness. It is, as one critic pronounced at its 1974 opening, ?a dramatic ballet without drama.? What was surprising was how much there is to like.
Here?s the story, which you must know before you enter the theater: Channon and Leah are lovers, betrothed at birth. Leah?s father breaks the betrothal to match her daughter with a wealthier suitor. Channon delves into the Kabbalah hoping to find dark powers to win her back. He dies in mystical ecstasy and becomes a dybbuk, taking possession of her body. He is exorcised by the community. Leah dies to join him in the beyond.
Don?t expect to see much of this on the War Memorial Opera House stage: the cryptic rejection of a white veil is the only sign to tell us Leah has rejected her father?s wealthier suitor. We never see who these lovers are as individuals, as characters. We never feel their anguish.
And yet: the male solos are fabulously inventive. The sets?with Kabbalah symbols across the backdrop?are striking. Patricia Zippordt?s costumes?wispy dresses, white bodysuits for the angels and townsmen, sometimes covered by sheer black tunics?are gorgeous. And the central male role, which revealed Helgi Tomasson?s dramatic powers when he was dancing with New York City Ballet, is still capable of revealing new depths in its interpreter: Gonzalo Garcia was chilling on opening night, eyes ringed with black, hands tight with tension. Yuan Yuan Tan was sweet but less compelling: I would like to see another female dancer in the lead before the run is out.
My reactions pretty much echo those of Allan Ulrich, though I?m less inclined to assume there was some core of the work that the reconstructors, Elyse Borne and Jean-Pierre Frohlich, missed. I could not agree more about the second-rate Leonard Bernstein score:
?Elements of 12-tone writing and hints of Near Eastern modes in the wind writing (amid the dissonance) are suitably evocative, but the music misses the both the consistent pulse and reiterated motivic structure necessary for dance narrative. Somehow, the score manages to be both wispy and overbearing at the same time.?
So perhaps Robbins was not just being defensive in blaming the music. But I couldn?t help thinking, when ?Dybbuk? was over: For years after its debut, he tried to pare it back and make it even more abstract. What might have happened if he had let his insecurities go and pushed it more in the narrative direction? What if he?d drawn upon his natural talents for characterization and drama in his revisions? Should it be counted a shame that he didn?t?
Frederick Ashton?s ?Symphonic Variations,? incidentally, was fabulously danced by Vanessa Zahorian, Kristin Long, Tina LeBlanc, Damian Smith, Jaime Garcia Castilla, and Nicolas Blanc. The company is doing right by this delicately etched masterwork.
Val Caniparoli?s ?Lambarena,? an established crowd-pleaser, looked just a bit overlong this go ?round, though you could imagine Kristin Long?s duet with Chidozie Nezrem scintillatingly excerpted for some future gala. Lorena Feijoo was joyous and stunningly sculpted in the lead, and Sarah Van Patten?s mesmerizing torso control and queenly presence could not be kept in the shadows.
UPDATE: Reviews from Janice Berman, Stephanie von Buchau, and Anita Amirrezvani.