To learn more about the works being performed by SF Ballet in New York City, view the program notes below.
The heart of the old, the spirit of the new. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, a co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, with a design team culled from Broadway and beyond, boasts innovation and modern twists. But the story is the same uplifting one told in various ways through the centuries. Set to the nuanced score by Sergei Prokofiev, Wheeldon’s Cinderella premiered in Amsterdam on December 13, 2012, and will race across the Atlantic to San Francisco like a char-girl dashing from a ballroom to make its U.S. premiere in May.
Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)
Wheeldon, formerly a resident choreographer of New York City Ballet and founder/ artistic director of his own company, is now an artistic associate at The Royal Ballet—and one of the most in-demand dancemakers working today. Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last October as a Foreign Honorary Member, the prolific choreographer has become a frequent presence at SF Ballet over the last decade. Cinderella, his eighth commission and first full-length work for the Company (a total of 12 of his ballets are in the repertory), follows the success of his 2011 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for The Royal Ballet.
For Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, part of Wheeldon’s strength as a dancemaker is that each of his works seems to have something unique. That goes for his approach to a well-known classic too. “I see Christopher approaching Cinderella in a different way,” Tomasson says, referring to both visuals and storytelling.
And different it is. In Wheeldon’s Cinderella, there’s no fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, or clock striking midnight. But you won’t miss them a bit when there’s a tree onstage that lives and “dances,” taking animation to a grand scale. You won’t miss them when stunning visuals create a world you wish you could enter, or when Cinderella shows backbone and her Prince’s charm runs deep. And you won’t miss them when the dancing and the storytelling come from Wheeldon.
In terms of story, Wheeldon’s offers more substance than the fairy tale it’s based on. “What I wanted to do,” says the choreographer, “was echo some of the darkness in the music by taking some of the themes from the Brothers Grimm version rather than the [Charles] Perrault version,” with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach. “The Grimm version is more serious and a bit darker, centered around nature and the spirit of mother.” From it Wheeldon borrowed the idea of a tree that grows from the grave of Cinderella’s mother, “the deliverer of all things magic, which I think is more poetic [than a fairy godmother] and quite beautiful. There are comic moments because there’s comedy written into the music, but it’s a more serious Cinderella in a way.”
Prokofiev (1891–1953) began writing the music for Cinderella for the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky) in 1940, immediately after the Russian premiere, at the Kirov, of his full-blooded Romeo and Juliet. But World War II intervened and he shelved the project for two years. When he finally completed Cinderella, it was given its first performance at the Bolshoi Ballet, not the Kirov, in November 1945.
“I love it,” says Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West about the score. “It’s immediately striking, and also astonishingly clever,” when you take a closer look, for example, at “the way the themes come around, the way he could create an atmosphere out of something very simple.” Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, West says, “came from the heart, but Cinderella is more cerebral. It takes longer to get into, but once you’ve lived with it, it starts to eat at you. Some of it is so beautiful.”
Beautiful enough, in fact, that the music is the main reason Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova yearned to dance Cinderella when, as a student at the Bolshoi, she watched a video of the ballet with Raisa Struchkova in the title role. “It was my dream to perform it,” Kochetkova says, and “not because of the pas de deux or unusual costumes or story that I wanted to act. It was because of the music.” Her favorite part of the score varies with her mood, she says. “Sometimes it’s the waltz; sometimes I really like the first-act music.”Even though the story is a fairy tale, “the score makes it so much more realistic and dramatic,” she says. “It takes it to a whole different level.”
Cinderella has a lengthy pedigree, but until Sir Frederick Ashton made his production for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1948, the full-length had been done only in Russia. The first production, choreographed by Marius Petipa with Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1893. Based on Perrault’s 1697 telling of the ancient fairy tale, it had music by Baron B. Fitinghof-Schell and Pierina Legnani (the first ballerina to do 32 consecutive fouettes) and Paul Gerdt in the leads.
The next version seen in Russia was Rostislav Zakharov’s (the version Kochetkova saw), choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1945 and for which the Prokofiev score was written. A year later, Konstantin Sergeyev made a Cinderella, also using the Prokofiev score, for the Kirov State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in St. Petersburg, featuring Natalia Dudinskaya. In the West, a one-act version by Michel Fokine with music by Frederic d’Erlanger preceded Zahkarov’s full-length, premiering at London’s Royal Opera House in 1938.
Ashton, whose Cinderella carries the distinction of being the first English full-length ballet in the tradition of the 19th-century classics, also based his ballet on the Perrault fairy tale and used the Prokofiev score. And he revived an old tradition by casting men in female roles—Robert Helpmann and himself as the Ugly Sisters. Margot Fonteyn, Ashton’s choice for Cinderella, was injured in early rehearsals, and so it was Moira Shearer (of The Red Shoes fame) who created the role.
Ashton’s Cinderella was followed by numerous productions, including interpretations by Vaslav Orlikovsky (International Dance Festival, Paris, 1963); Ben Stevenson (National Ballet, Washington, D.C., 1970), Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos (American Ballet Theatre,1984), Rudolf Nureyev (Paris Opera Ballet, 1986), Alexei Ratmansky (Mariinsky Ballet, 2002), James Kudelka (National Ballet of Canada, 2004), Ashley Page (Scottish Ballet, 2005), SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov (Bolshoi Ballet, 2006), and David Bintley (Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2010), to name a few.
Cinderella first graced the stage at San Francisco Ballet in a 1973 production by Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin, then co-artistic directors. Wheeldon’s new version, with all the technological advantages of the 21st century, began percolating when he and Tomasson were discussing a new full-length ballet for the Company. Because Dutch National Ballet also wanted a full-length from Wheeldon, a co-production made sense.
Creating a production on two continents simultaneously isn’t easy, however. “It was my crazy idea,” says Wheeldon, laughing.“All of the dancers love to have something created on them, so I said, ‘I’ll do some of it here and some of it there, and we’ll make it work.’ ” Several Dutch National principal dancers rehearsed in San Francisco for a few weeks last summer, then some SF Ballet dancers went to Amsterdam in November to rehearse, so that choreography could be created on both companies at once. “It promotes a nice cultural exchange,” says Wheeldon.
In creating a world for his characters to inhabit, Wheeldon assembled an artistic team with imaginations as big as his own. The first step was brainstorming with playwright and librettist Craig Lucas, whose writing credits include the stage and film versions of Prelude to a Kiss and the librettos for the opera Orpheus in Love and the musicals Marry Me a Little, Songs by Stephen Sondheim, and The Light in the Piazza. Lucas describes the early stages of Cinderella as “a constant back and forth, teasing out what was exciting and a shared understanding of the story.” He and Wheeldon wanted “to burrow into possibilities we had never seen explored.”
Those possibilities included a substitute for the fairy godmother—an essential element, according to Wheeldon. “We all toy with the idea that loved ones are always watching over us in some way,” he says. He and Lucas settled on the tree that grows when Cinderella cries over her mother’s grave (in effect, a character, “a living thing that could embrace the action,” says Lucas) and four Fates who offer guidance and protection.
Wheeldon also knew he wanted his Cinderella to be more in charge of her destiny than she is depicted traditionally. Yes, she’s still a servant in her own home, but “she knows she doesn’t have to be there forever,” the choreographer says. “It is good versus evil; it is that if you’re a good person things can come out right. But it’s not saying if you’re meek or subservient you’ll be rewarded.”
Wheeldon’s concept of an empowered Cinderella suits Kochetkova, “because I feel like you do have to fight for things in life, but by being a good person, not by pushing others out of the way. I feel like she’s a really strong character.” Cinderella gains some of her strength from four spirits (seasonal fairies in Prokofiev’s score), who, while teaching her to dance, imbue her with such gifts as elegance and lightness of being. The steps they teach her form the basis of her solo at the Prince’s ball.
Cinderella’s Prince, too, is deeper than in traditional versions; Wheeldon wanted him to be more than “just a handsome mug.” So he and Lucas gave him a childhood and a best friend who offers a bit of classic fun with mistaken identity. When Cinderella meets the Prince, he’s masquerading as his own servant, so “the Prince sees who Cinderella really is,” says Lucas. “She isn’t reacting to someone’s status; she is treating him [respectfully] as she would the lowliest person, something he isn’t used to experiencing. He has no idea that Cinderella is also hiding her own identity.”
But what’s a story without a setting? Wheeldon chose Julian Crouch to create the sets and costumes because of his “very fantastical approach to design. He always seems to embrace the darker side of fairy tales,” he says. Crouch has designed for theater, opera (Doctor Atomic, The Magic Flute, and The Enchanted Island), and musicals (The Addams Family and the upcoming Big Fish). But ballet is an entirely new world for him, and he’s discovered that “it needs to be fluid. And I think this version of Cinderella is more fluid than the traditional,” Crouch says. “It moves scene to scene more rapidly; it has more locations. So for me it’s been an exercise in suggestion, really—I’ve had to suggest a location and support the atmosphere and then move fluidly to the next one.” As for the costumes, he says there’s “a looseness about them. Fairy tales are ‘once upon a time,’ not ‘once upon 1870.’ [The period is] generally 1800s, but spread over the century. Each character is allowed to drift a bit in time. I’d say it’s timeless; in that sense it has a fluidity as well.”
Crouch describes his method as “like a purifying process.” Sets come before the costumes, and he starts by collecting images that stimulate his imagination. Then he distills them down to the essence of what he’s looking for. “You collect these things and they become the beginning of a conversation, with yourself, but also with the people you’re collaborating with.”
One of his collaborators is award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, who trained at Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France. His primary job on Cinderella was to make the tree be more than mere scenery—a character that would, in effect, dance. The mechanics aren’t that difficult, he says; it’s just like moving any piece of scenery. But then “you get to the moment when you’re choreographing for the tree, to the music, and you’re saying, ‘Now it makes this shape; now it’s that shape. You feel the tree as you would a dancer. That’s when it comes alive.”
Twist has done many productions involving dance and music (including the Obie Award–winning Symphonie Fantastique, which caught Wheeldon’s eye), and, with Crouch, The Addams Family. His work spans continents, and he consulted on the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But with all those credentials, what holds particular meaning for him is the tree he’s bringing to life for Cinderella. “This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he says. “And the tree growing onstage…it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” So he’s thrilled, he says, to be “doing my own tree on the same stage.”
To enhance the tree in Cinderella, the design plan calls for projections—not in a major way, Crouch says, but to “support the atmosphere, like the lighting does.” And lighting is where Natasha Katz comes in. Like Twist, she met Crouch while working on The Addams Family, and she connected with Wheeldon when both did Sweet Smell of Success—The Musical. She has designed 38 plays and musicals on Broadway, including The Little Mermaid and Seussical: The Musical, and has won several Tony Awards. No stranger to ballet, she has designed several of Wheeldon’s works (including Continuum, created for SF Ballet). To her, Cinderella is “a piece about transitions. Cinderella has moments of revelation and transition, and they’re all tapered to a place of joy.” What that means in terms of lighting, she says, is that “you can’t have light without darkness. The lighting really is the chiaroscuro of emotion. We’re going to have darkness when it’s emotionally dark, and we’re going to have joy when we’re supposed to have joy, and that is light and fluffy and beautiful and fun.”
Lighting is a form of storytelling, and Katz works to keep her design cohesive “so that it arcs with the story. I know that sounds overly intellectualized, but it really is, for me, the truth as a lighting designer. Just like a character, the lighting has to take an arc.”
What’s most exciting about this Cinderella, says Katz, “is that it’s completely new, that we all started from the same beginning place together.” She wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed of being Cinderella—but if she had been, she says, “this is the Cinderella I would have dreamed about.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In Trio, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson captures the energy, momentum, and varied emotional tones of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Created for the 2011 Repertory Season, Trio offers an aesthetic and emotional experience that’s as deserving of remembrance as any souvenir. It’s a visually rich triptych of a ballet, with sets and costumes as lush as the choreography.
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Trio (© Erik Tomasson)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) wrote only five chamber compositions, and his sublimely danceable Souvenir de Florence was his first attempt at a string sextet. He wrote it in 1890, describing the process in a letter to his brother as “unimaginably difficult.” He revised it in 1892 and it premiered late that year. He titled the piece for its point of origin, Florence, where he wrote the first two movements. But he finished it in Russia, a change of location that’s audible in the Slavic undertones of the last two movements. They “have a different flavor” than the first two, says Tomasson, adding that Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West told him they should be played as one. So a quartet of musical movements became, instead, a trio.
Souvenir de Florence is inarguably glorious. Tomasson first heard the piece 30 years ago at New York City Ballet, and as a choreographer, he responded to the score’s drama and richness. Because he hadn’t heard the music in many years, he remembered it as “one thing from beginning to end. And of course I discovered almost immediately that it wasn’t.” The three-part structure posed an immediate question: should he connect the movements? The more he thought about that idea, he says, the less he liked it. “I kept coming back to the title, Souvenir.” The word connotes “images or remembrances,” he says, of three discrete occasions.
The next question was how to interpret each of those musical “occasions.” For the first, an allegro (fast and spirited), Tomasson sends a principal couple and five corps couples soaring through choreography that’s dynamic, elegant, and playful. Soloist Courtney Elizabeth, who dances the movement’s principal female role, says the music reminds her of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, “with the soaring strings. There’s lots of motion in it, and I think it comes from the music a little bit.” But she also credits the choreography. “The music is very dramatic and I think Helgi uses that well,” she says. “In my first entrance, I’m up in the air coming through a sea of corps [dancers]. That kind of drama is fun to dance.”
The second movement, the adagio, is ballet’s traditional home for the slow, romantic pas de deux. But the length (more than nine minutes) and depth of this adagio made Tomasson think beyond the traditional love duet. “It has a certain sadness about it, a feeling of inevitability,” he says. “The first part is very longing and revealing, and it gets interrupted with those staccato violins, almost ghostlike. There’s some eeriness going on.” When the melody repeats, he says: “it’s deeper, sadder. Something has happened.”
So after beginning the adagio with a pas de deux, Tomasson segues into a dance for three. A solo man, a figure of death, lets an embracing couple dance their declaration of love, then wages gentle battle for possession of the woman. Tomasson says he doesn’t see her fighting death. “She accepts it,” he says. “It’s like death is stronger than love.”
The music for the third dance movement is “very Russian sounding, but not overpowering,” says Tomasson. So he took a subtle approach, working in what he describes as “Russian motif steps” that draw on character dance. Near the end the music builds again. “It gets very joyous, fast, and exciting,” he says.
The word “souvenir” might suggest something with little more meaning than a postcard. But Tomasson works with the weightier concept of remembrance, investing Trio with the resonance of his childhood impressions of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music. The result is a ballet that matches the score in explosiveness, drama, and emotional intensity.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In Christopher Wheeldon’s Ghosts, the title—that single, potent word—engenders lingering images in the mind. The name comes from the score, composed by C. F. Kip Winger. And though the music has its eerie moments—“it’s kind of silvery, the way the piano creeps in and out,” says Wheeldon—without that title it could have been interpreted in many ways. But once you hear the word “ghosts,” there’s no turning back. Lovely, serene passages face repeated attacks by forceful, chilling interludes, as if something out there doesn’t want to be forgotten.
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Ghosts © (© Erik Tomasson)
Composer C.F. Kip Winger, who became interested in classical music composition as a young dance student, met Wheeldon in 1997, when a friend took him to watch rehearsals at New York City Ballet. Ten years later, after seeing Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, perform three of the choreographer’s ballets, Winger says he was “extremely inspired” and sat down to write a piece for him. At the time, Winger was working in a recording studio that had been a hospital in the early 1900s, and he “could sense a mystical presence in the atmosphere; several different characters were emerging in the text of the music,” he says. “The title Ghosts popped into my head when I was writing the cello solo in the first movement.”
Winger began his music career at a young age, performing professionally at age eight with his two older brothers. As a teenager he studied classical guitar and composition with Sam Guarnaccia at the University of Denver and continued his training at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, the University of New Mexico, and Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A bassist with Alice Cooper’s band in the 1980s, Winger formed his own eponymous band in the ’90s, releasing two platinum albums, Winger and In the Heart of the Young.
What Winger gave Wheeldon was only one movement, and though the choreographer liked it, the six-minute piece was too short for a ballet. So he asked Winger if he would extend it. “About six to eight months later I got a box in my office, and it was a fully orchestrated, fully recorded and scored piece of music with a note saying, ‘Dear Chris, hope you like it,’ ” Wheeldon says. He decided to use the score for his fifth commission for San Francisco Ballet; Ghosts brings the tally of his ballets in the Company’s repertory to nine.
The score’s title got Wheeldon thinking. He wondered if there might be a narrative in it, so he read Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts “in case [the play and the music] happened to align, and of course they don’t,” he says. “And then I thought maybe it’s just the atmosphere of ghosts. Maybe [the dancers] are ghosts but they’re not telling a specific story—they’re just sort of there, sort of left.” Drawing further on literature in his early explorations of theme, Wheeldon turned to the poems of Edgar Allen Poe: “The City in the Sea,” “To One in Paradise,” “Lenore,” “The Valley of Unrest.” With evocative phrases like “death looks gigantically down,” “melancholy waters” and “lilies . . . that weep above a nameless grave,” the poems influenced Wheeldon’s creative process without becoming literal onstage.
Wheeldon ended up with the idea of a mass gathering of souls, as there might be after a tragedy, but with the intention of creating only atmosphere, not story. “You’re not quite sure where you are or whether these people are real—are they characters or are they not? So it’s more like perfume than a heavy sort of ghost story,” he says. A forbidding stage environment and shreds of realism in the costumes combine with the choreography, music, and mood to create images of a community struggling to define itself, its people united by their search for understanding in a world unknown to them.
With four musical movements, the ballet is “big and complex,” Wheeldon says, “[with] a lot of steps, a lot of quite complicated corps de ballet work.” He worked especially fast on this ballet, creating classicism-entrenched contemporary movement, tossed with jazz and modern dance influences.
“The pas de deux is extremely difficult,” say SF Ballet Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan. “It’s not very long, but it feels long because there are a lot of lifts, and [Principal Dancer Damian Smith] never puts me down. We do a lot of intense movement, but it’s so beautiful.” She says Wheeldon didn’t suggest images of ghosts and death to her, and she approaches the role as if “it’s a relationship, like husband and wife. That’s how it feels—just like moments of tenderness, and the movement, and the vision we’re making.” Sometimes, she says, dancers don’t need much to work with: “Keep it simple and let the steps help you.”
According to Smith, all of the ballet’s partnering is extremely difficult. “Every moment there is an intertwined, off-balance, tangled partnership that never seems to unwind, a kind of thread that’s constantly knotted.” His arm curving through the air as illustration, he explains that “if your arm is wrapped around her neck, you have to keep it there and lift her—no changing grips.” Adding to the challenge, he says, is the layered movement quality. Though the music might be legato, “[Wheeldon] wants us to dance it very sharp, direct, and precise, to kind of go against the music, and then choose moments when we are more lyrical and soft with the arms.” Although in previous ballets Wheeldon has matched movement to music in less symmetrical ways than is typical of classical ballet (perhaps most noticeably in his trio of ballets set to the music of György Ligeti), in Ghosts he emphasizes the shifts in contrast. “He wants a definite transition between those two qualities of movement,” says Smith, “so strong and sharp and direct, and then soft and seamless.”
In rehearsals Wheeldon often asked the dancers to shift their center of gravity off their supporting leg, at times yielding their weight to the floor, at others conveying a floating feeling. Twists on classical steps expand the vocabulary: Chaînés (two-footed turns) speed up into spins; slow, leaden walks push across the floor; women on pointe drag one leg behind them (“an homage to Michael Jackson,” Wheeldon says). “I love the freedom of not ever putting any restrictions on what I do in the studio. It’s a wonderful feeling to go in there and think, ‘I can do anything—let’s see where we go with this.’ ”
As Wheeldon has matured as a choreographer, he has found that the rewards of his art have changed. Earlier in his career he was too fixated on the final product to appreciate his time in the studio. Now, although he concedes that what goes before audiences is still very important to him, he can see that he “wasn’t fully absorbing the riches of the process itself. And now that’s my favorite thing. Now it’s about all the discovery with the dancers, with the designers—the first time you see the model, the first time you run the pas de deux, the first time you see the set onstage, the first time you hear the orchestra—those are all really magical moments.”
Program notes by Cheryl Ossola
Imagine a ballet based on the concept of dancers embodying paintings. Now imagine it happening in anything but a literal way. That’s the way British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s mind works. His cerebral form of artistic vision yields technology-integrated dances that explore the human mind as equally as they do the body. So it’s unlikely that viewers who see McGregor’s new work for San Francisco Ballet—his first commission—without having read about it first will make the connection to the work of German-American artist Josef Albers. But in an abstract way, in McGregor’s own particular aesthetic sense, that connection between dance and fine art is there.
San Francisco Ballet in McGregor’s Borderlands (© Erik Tomasson)
McGregor began his dance career in the modern-dance world; his company, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, resident company of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, has been offering viewers new ways of thinking about dance since 1992. These days, while his company tours the world, McGregor is likely to be found at London’s Royal Opera House, where he has created 11 works since 2004. The resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet for five years, he recently signed on to continue in that role through 2017. In addition, he serves as artistic associate along with fellow choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
McGregor’s choreographic career spans more than 30 works for Random and for companies such as the Netherlands Dance Theatre, Rambert Dance, and the Paris Opera, Bolshoi, Stuttgart, New York City, English National, and Australian Ballets. Among his dozens of site-specific pieces was a dance for the 2012 Olympic Games, performed at Trafalgar Square. He has worked in opera, theater, television and film (including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); developed Creative Learning programs for children; and operates a creative think tank in Kenya, at which the Sundance Institute resides periodically. His lengthy list of honors includes Critics Circle and Laurence Olivier Awards, and in 2011 he was awarded a CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
McGregor’s history with SF Ballet goes back to 2007, when the Company performed his Eden/Eden; Chroma was a hit with SF Ballet audiences in 2011 and 2012. Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson had been talking to McGregor about a commission for years; “it was just finding the right time and the right idea,” McGregor says. “For me the idea has to fit the purpose, and this one had to fit the context of the work here. And so I thought about what pieces of mine you had here and how I might be able to challenge myself on the dancers in a different way.”
For this new work, McGregor wanted music that would emerge through a prolonged “conversation” between dance and music—an electronic score, he decided, which, without the additional process of orchestrating, would permit quick exchanges. And so he turned to Joel Cadbury, “a brilliant young British composer who writes for the band Unkle,” and Cadbury’s collaborator Paul Stoney. McGregor describes their music as “sonic architecture,” which appealed to him because it was “very analogous to the conceptual idea I had.”
“Sonic architecture is a very good way of describing the score,” says Cadbury. Along with songwriting, he has written for film, television, and advertising, including (with Stoney) such clients as Bentley, Ford, and PlayStation. McGregor’s experimental method of fitting and refitting is a process Cadbury is used to, he says; he sees value in everything that’s created, even if ultimately it’s not used. “Even our very early outlines, sketches of the sonic architecture, were used by Wayne to begin his journey into the movement,” he says. “It’s only when he begins to make his choreography that we learn if what we are making fits. And it is only when we start putting everything together in context with the arc of the piece that these discoveries can be made.” McGregor gives them the freedom to explore, Cadbury says, and the goal is to “challenge preconceptions.”
As he has for 20 years, McGregor enlisted lighting designer Lucy Carter to help him create his visual world. “We wanted to do something very simple, a kind of light-installation piece, with a blank canvas in terms of the architecture,” McGregor says. “Why? Because the central point of departure for all of this is the work of Josef Albers, a Bauhaus-influenced artist who worked with rigorous shape and color to do amazing optical things. I thought that was a really interesting way to start.” The Bauhaus movement has a place in the lineage of dance, starting with designer/choreographer Oskar Schlemmer’s translation of architectural principles onto the body (notably in his Triadic Ballet, using geometric and mechanical forms), which in turn influenced dance-notation pioneer Rudolf Laban and later, says McGregor, choreographers such as William Forsythe.
So McGregor and his team went to Connecticut and immersed themselves (under the inspirational tutelage of the Albers Foundation Director and author Nicholas Fox Weber) in the Josef Albers Foundation archives. One resource, Albers’ book Interaction of Color, is about how “colors work together in simple ways to deceive the eye,” says McGregor. “And I love this idea. I thought that might be an interesting way to work physically. How could we deceive the eye as to how many bodies or how many limbs are there [onstage]?”
If McGregor’s new piece has an organizing principle, it’s in Albers’ Homage to the Square. He’s aiming for a pixilation effect with the lighting, which will use a new system of LED lights to paint the human form in a granular way. Both music and dancing are being created in four-minute segments. As of October 2012, McGregor had already choreographed 16 four-minute dance segments all directly in response to the Albers work—more than he will use—with no decisions yet about which of the 40 mini-pieces of music made so far will accompany them.
But that was all part of the plan. For McGregor, the two-and-a-half month interval between the fall and January rehearsals is a gift of time that enriches the creative process, allowing him to make choreography and have a composer respond to it. The interval, built into SF Ballet’s schedule because of Nutcracker, also allows the dancers to absorb and interpret what they’ve been given. “I’ve been saying to the dancers, ‘It’s one thing to learn choreography, but then what?’ It’s the surface, not the piece,” says McGregor. “The only way it can be something is if they embody it and live with it longer.”
For McGregor, creating a new dance is always about teaching himself something new. He goes into the studio with a well-planned concept but an open mind about its evolution. As he demonstrates the steps, he accompanies them with scat singing, a tremendously effective method of conveying movement quality and intent. Much of the music he’s working with has minimal rhythmic drive—it’s like a tapestry of sustained sound onto which he layers his movement without counts. The pairing of music and movement is fluid for now; the counts come later, if needed.
To get the most out of McGregor’s dances, it’s best to arrive at the theater as he does at the studio: ready to discover the infinite potential of dance, the body, and the human mind. “Albers gets me on a visceral level,” says McGregor. “This is rich information that no one will see in the dance, but it will be there. It makes you have to think about things in a different way.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Alexei Ratmansky exudes an air of gentleness, an implied generosity, and both are as visible in his choreography as in his bearing. Quick to smile, he slips humor into his ballet; tuned in to his dancers, he matches steps to their personal dynamics. His work seems fresh and young-spirited, yet always there’s a sense of honoring the past—the traditions, culture, and community of ballet. “I love his sense of humor, understatement sometimes—just pure joy,” says Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer. “I watch his ballets and I see a master at work.”
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands (© Erik Tomasson)
For the 2013 Repertory Season, Ratmansky brings all those gifts to a new ballet, his second commission for SF Ballet. His first was Le Carnaval des Animaux (Carnival of the Animals), in 2003; the Company has also performed his Russian Seasons, which premiered at New York City Ballet in 2006.
Ratmansky, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, trained at the Bolshoi Academy and danced with the Ukrainian National, Royal Winnipeg, and Royal Danish Ballets. After a five-year tenure as artistic director of Bolshoi Ballet (2004–2009),he was appointed artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, a position that, fortunately for the ballet world, allows him to choreograph elsewhere. Along with the Bolshoi and ABT, he has created works for the Dutch National, Kirov, New York City, Royal Danish, and Royal Swedish Ballets, and dances for Metropolitan Opera’s Aida; his new, full-length Cinderella will premiere at Australian Ballet in September 2013. Widely recognized as a fast-rising, gifted choreographer, he received a 2006 National Dance Awards Critics’ Circle prize for his Bolshoi production of The Bright Stream; Golden Mask National Theatre prizes for the Dreams of Japan (created in 1998), and The Bright Stream (2003), and Jeu des Cartes (2007); and a 2005 Prix Benois de la Dance for his full-length Anna Karenina for Royal Danish Ballet. He was named a Knight of Dannebrog for his contribution to the Danish arts.
For his new work, Ratmansky chose German composer Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Orchestra, “From Foreign Lands,” for what he calls its “body movement.” With music like this, he says, it’s like “you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do [the choreographing], because it’s so dansent.”Danceable it is, with influences from Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Hungary. Published in 1884 and originally written for two pianos, “From Foreign Lands” wraps traditional tarantella, fandango, and czardas music into a charming package of uplifting, toe-tapping fun.
Moszkowski, born in Breslau, Germany, in 1854, of Polish descent, studied music in Dresden and Berlin. He debuted as a pianist in Berlin at age 19 and toured extensively before giving up performing for conducting. He taught in Berlin and Paris; among his students was the celebrated Polish-American pianist Josef Hofmann. His music was once quite popular, but Moszkowski lost the copyrights to his works during the war years and died in near poverty in 1925.
Although he composed operas, ballets, songs, concertos, and chamber music, little remains of his work. It’s his piano pieces—Etudes, Etincelles, and Spanish Dances—that are most remembered today. “He’s like many composers whose fame has dwindled,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “He had a few big hits. His Spanish Dances was very famous; it’s still played in a lot of places.”
“With music like this, he says, it’s like “you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do [the choreographing]...”Alexei Ratmansky, choreographer.
Even though “From Foreign Lands” is a dance suite, it appears that no choreographers before Ratmansky snapped it up for their work. Searching for alternate music when he decided against using a work by Paul Hindemith, Ratmansky found the Moszkowski piece in his personal music library. “I bought it because I knew him; in Russia we did Moszkowski Waltz, a concert piece [by Asaf Messerer] choreographed in the 1930s, I think,” he says. “And it’s good music; I always liked it. I like the orchestration. It’s delicate but also it has the character [aspect].” With six well-defined movements of varied personalities, its structure “gives you certain pluses,” he says. “You can color them slightly different, and it’s not one mood throughout. And all the dancers can have their little moments to concentrate. It’s a divertissement—a very old structure that stills works.”
Ratmansky’s ballet begins in silence, with the full ensemble of 12 dancers engaging in what seems like an invitation to the dance. His purpose for opening the ballet that way was more practical than interpretive, however. He had chosen to shape the ballet as a series of quartets (doubled, in the Polish dance, to an octet) with a full-ensemble finale, which meant that “structurally, it needed something,” he says. A ballet made of a series of small groups “needs to start with the whole group and finish with the whole group,” he explains—thus the silent ensemble opening. But those fours and eights are by no means rigid or static. They shift and flow, with solos, trios, and sextets flashing to the surface before disappearing back into the quartet baseline.
High-energy and playful, this ballet is showy and presentational—Ratmansky’s way of gently poking fun at tradition. There are character dances heightened to the point of being self-aware; over-the-top romanticism in the German section; a touch of vaudeville in the Italian; flirtations, rejections, capitulations, and successes throughout. A whisper of sadness emerges in the Polish section, an intentional contrast to the rest of the ballet. “It’s like how in Corot paintings there is always a red spot,” Ratmansky says. “I think it’s important structurally, which also might lead to certain themes. This is something that I don’t analyze; I take it where it evolves.”
Ratmansky’s Russian training and Western influences are both evident in this ballet. Transitions, lightning quick, are critical to him, as is line. “Precision is very important. It’s why I like [Rudolf] Nureyev’s choreography so much—because it’s full of energy and all things Russian, French, Danish, English,” he says. “Of course, it’s his very personal style, but you can read all these great influences in it.”Ratmansky’s use of epaulement (angles of the head and upper body) reveals his absorption of Bournonville style during his years at Royal Danish Ballet; the slower, more fluid form of the upper body often rides above the fast footwork, and vice versa, “to find different rhythms for different parts of the body,” he says. “But I’m staying within the academic vocabulary, I think, because that’s what I know, and also what I want to see. Can it still be alive and fresh? Can it look interesting?”
Ratmansky once said he “liked making the dancers live inside the music.” That was in “Dance With Me,” a 2011 article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, and he was referring to Russian Seasons. But when asked if that might be said about all of his work, he says, “I think it’s the only way to make it alive. Sometimes the choreography can speak for itself—like the structure is so incredibly strong that you just need to do the steps to the music. But it’s rarely the case. If we want the audience to be connected to the dancers, the dancers need to lose themselves in the action and look spontaneous and alive.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
If you’ve never heard of a revival harpsichord, choreographer Mark Morris’ Beaux will change that. It’s “big, clunky, wonderful, and underappreciated,” he says. And as the predominant instrument in two harpsichord compositions by Bohuslav Martinů, the music for Beaux, it will make you think twice about what harpsichord music can be. The instrument’s sound, says the choreographer, is louder and more aggressive than a traditional harpsichord’s. “It’s an unusual instrument and not very popular right now,” he says. “I think it’s fabulous.”
San Francisco Ballet in Morris' Beaux (© Erik Tomasson)
Much of the credit for the revival of the harpsichord goes to Polish musician Wanda Landowska. “When she was at her peak, in the ’30s, baroque music was played primarily on the piano and there was no such thing as the early music movement, so no one had built new harpsichords in the style of Renaissance and baroque instruments,” says Morris.“She wanted new music to play that people could hear in a modern concert hall, and so this sort of hybrid instrument came up that now people scorn because it lacks subtlety. You wouldn’t play baroque music on that. It’s not a baroque instrument playing modern music; it’s a modern instrument playing modernist music."
The artistic director of Mark Morris Dance Group since 1980, Morris is known for his passion for music. Lately, he says, “I’ve done a lot of scores from the early 20th century, from the teens, ’20s, and ’30s, because I like that point of view of early modernism. The 20th century and the 18th century are my specialty centuries, as far as music and aesthetics go.” In choosing to work with Martinů’s modernist music for harpsichord, Morris manages to encompass both. One of the pieces he chose, a concerto, is one of a handful of 20th-century compositions that brought the harpsichord back in a new way; in it, the harpsichord is paired with piano. “I love the sound of those two together,” Morris says. “A harpsichord’s phrasing is always through rubato and timing and you can’t do much with touch, which is why there’s also a piano.”
Morris has created more than 150 dances in his 31 years as a choreographer, nine of which are in San Francisco Ballet’s repertory. (Of those nine, only Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes wasn’t created for SF Ballet.) His process for creating a dance hasn’t changed over the years, he says. “I study the score as I always do, and then I just make up a dance on the spot with the people who are in it. I plan, but I don’t know what the moves are going to be.”Working with a ballet company is always a different experience from creating on his own dancers, who “can unfortunately read my mind. For good or ill, they know what’s coming,” Morris says. “I’m interested in making up dances that are softer and more intimate and gentler, more tender, in execution—not so positional and not so flashy.”
Beaux, which made its world premiere during the 2012 Repertory Season, features striking costumes and a large scale backdrop by iconic fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. The presentation is a perfect match for Morris’ intent. “I wanted to make up a dance with all the gentlemen that is not just about what men are compelled to do in the ballet industry,” he says. “I’m not that interested in the big, hard steps. My work is difficult and virtuosic in a way that isn’t exploding in midair; that’s something I’m not wild about seeing. I want a wider range of dancing than I often see in the ballet language. And [the men] aren’t used to partnering each other, so that makes them crazy, and it’s beautiful.”
The SF Ballet men, Morris says, are “wonderful and energetic and surprising, and I like to make that part of the dance.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
For Classical Symphony, SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov tapped into his reservoirs of emotion and memories of his boyhood in Moscow. Though he described it as “just dance” during rehearsals, this ballet bears a dedication to Peter Pestov, the most beloved and respected of Possokhov’s ballet teachers. Classical Symphony, the choreographer says, is a “dedication to my school, to my teacher, my background.” The strong emotions driving its creation in the studio have translated into what looks like joy on the stage.
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony (© Erik Tomasson)
The school was the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, where for the last three years of his training Possokhov worked with Pestov. A teacher at Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko School since 1996, Pestov has trained dozens of notable ballet dancers, including Alexei Ratmansky (former Bolshoi artistic director and current resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre), Vladimir Malakhov (artistic director of Berlin State Opera Ballet and principal dancer at ABT), and Nikolais Tsiskaridze (principal dancer at the Bolshoi). Possokhov isn’t alone in holding his teacher in such high esteem: Many of Pestov’s former students gathered in New York City in April 2009 to honor him (and celebrate his 80th birthday) with a gala called “Peter the Great: A Tribute to a Legendary Ballet Teacher.” Possokhov says, “Our teacher is not just a coach in the studio. For us, he is like father. He always fed us if we had nothing to eat; he always educated us; he brought us to museums. That’s why we love him—because it was a special time for us.”
Possokhov links Classical Symphony, his ninth piece for San Francisco Ballet, to his school years and to Pestov in small, personal ways. He first heard the music, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Classical Symphony,” when Pestov gave it to him. Years later, after he began choreographing, Possokhov thought he would create a ballet to this music “someday, somehow. It was on the shelf.” Then, five or six years ago, the idea took root. “It’s like I had to do this ballet to this music and dedicate it to my teacher,” the choreographer says. The time seemed right when Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, after seeing Possokhov’s Raymonda Pas de Deux at last season’s Gala, suggested that his next ballet be classical. “That’s kind of rare now on the contemporary stage,” Possokhov says, “so I liked the idea.” Immediately, he thought of Prokofiev’s first symphony.
Prokofiev, born in Russia in 1891 and considered one of the major composers of the 20th century, studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Bored by his training and critical of current practices, he began experimenting with dissonance and unusual time signatures, quickly earning a reputation as the music world’s enfant terrible. He modeled his “Classical Symphony” on the style of Franz Joseph Haydn (called “the father of the symphony” in the classical period of music), but with the idea to write it as Haydn might have, had he lived into the 20th century. (He died in 1809.) Writing for a classical orchestra (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, plus tympani and strings), Prokofiev paid homage to the classical form but added new ideas, making his symphony neoclassical in style. He began it in 1916, completed it the following year, during the Russian Revolution, and conducted its premiere in 1918 in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called under the Bolsheviks’ regime). He was 26 at the time and would go on to compose hundreds of works, including operas, ballets, piano compositions, and chamber works. Among his best-known ballets are Prodigal Son, choreographed by George Balanchine for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the full-length Romeo and Juliet.
Just as Prokofiev pushed the classical form in new directions, Possokhov edges into neoclassicism with Classical Symphony, particularly in the second musical movement. Traditional ballet steps don’t include torso undulations and floor work, but in Possokhov’s hands they seem as natural and organic as if a 19th-century choreographer had thought of them. And shades of the neoclassical influences of George Balanchine can be seen in Possokhov’s changeable patterns, flow of dancers on and off the stage, and use of space.
In his treatment of the third movement, a gavotte that Prokofiev used later in his Romeo and Juliet, Possokhov again moves in an unexpected direction. It’s precisely because of the gavotte’s familiarity to listeners that he chose to approach it in a way that might surprise. Planning it for the men only, he first thought of “a kind of medieval dance, like a sarabande—or because it’s a gavotte, maybe a kind of court dance.” Then, once again, memories of his childhood fueled his imagination. “I always liked to watch birds, swallows, I think,” the choreographer says. “Sometimes they are together, changing directions, plunging.” Drawing on the flight patterns of the swallows, he sends the men leaping and banking in distinctly birdlike fashion.
Pestov, Prokofiev’s music, the swallows—for Possokhov, all of these memories come into play in Classical Symphony. And there’s yet another connection to his boyhood. Near the end of his training, he and his classmates danced Leonid Lavrovsky’s ballet of the same name, also to this score. Drawing on that distant memory, he has incorporated the only three steps he remembers from it. “I didn’t put exactly the steps in my ballet, but if people know the old ballet, they will see that they came from Lavrovsky,” Possokhov says. And his black-and-mustard color scheme, too, is a nod to that long-ago school production.
All of these tributes boil down to one feeling: respect, not only for Pestov but also for classical ballet training. Possokhov wanted to give Classical Symphony a feeling of nobility, he says, because to him, those who are trained in classical ballet are “rare dancers. It’s like opera—many people sing, but opera singing is unique.” He laments the lack of “ballets that show the beauty of classical dancers,” saying that today’s choreographers don’t often use the extent of the dancers’ ability. Too often, he says, “you have to wait for a full-length ballet to see if [someone is a] good classical dancer. I love contemporary dancers, but dancing classical ballet is the hardest thing. It’s not just movement,” he adds, pointing out that to attain the proper shapes and line, dancers must hone their bodies over many years. “So this ballet is also a dedication to artists who should be seen in what they learned for many, many years.”
Along with its surprises for the audience, Classical Symphony held one for its creator. Whereas in the past Possokhov had often struggled to make an idea work even when it seemed destined not to, he found creative choices in Prokofiev’s music. “Sometimes I came to the studio with one idea and it was easy for me to change to another. It happened a lot; I was surprised,” he says. “After making this ballet, I thought that it won’t be my last ballet with a classical vision.”
Program notes by Cheryl Ossola
In Symphonic Dances, his first work for San Francisco Ballet, choreographer Edwaard Liang chose to create a “spiritual, abstract world,” he says, “what you would call the in-between, where it’s neither this world nor the next world.” His concept is a perfect match for his choice of music, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. “It’s very spiritually based,” Liang says of the score. “Some people would call it dark, but I consider it intensely spiritual.”
San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s Symphonic Dances (© Erik Tomasson)
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Liang grew up in the Bay Area, training at Marin Ballet and later at the School of American Ballet in New York. A former soloist with New York City Ballet, he performed on Broadway in Fosse and then joined Nederlands Dans Theater. Named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2006, Liang received a Choo-San Goh award for choreographic potential for his work with The Washington Ballet. After guesting for a few years with such companies as Norwegian National Ballet and Morphoses, Liang retired from dancing to choreograph full-time. Now he creates ballets for companies worldwide, including Singapore Dance Theatre and the Joffrey, Houston, Tulsa, Shanghai, and Kirov Ballets. Besides Symphonic Dances, two other Liang works, Distant Cries and Somewhere in Time, are in SF Ballet’s repertory.
The way Liang sees it, his 2012 commission for San Francisco wasn’t just a new ballet; it was a creation tailored to the Company. And so his choice of music was critical. He’d been “a huge fan of [Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances] for years,” and decided that, though intimidating, it was perfect for SF Ballet. “It’s a huge orchestration, really just big, bold music,” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to it.”
Rachmaninov made his name not only as a composer in the Romantic tradition, but also as a brilliant pianist. Although he left Russia during the Revolution, eventually settling in the U.S., he once said that he could never separate his Russianness from his music. Symphonic Dances, written in 1940, was his last composition. Calling it Fantastic Dances at first, Rachmaninov hoped Michel Fokine would choreograph to it. But Fokine died in 1942, and Symphonic Dances didn’t become a ballet until 1994, when NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins used the score for his ballet of the same name.
It’s likely that Rachmaninov was aware that Symphonic Dances would be his last composition. He included the Gregorian chant “Dies irae,” part of a requiem mass, in the third movement of this late-in-life work; in the first, he quoted himself, revisiting a melody from his poorly received Symphony No. 1. And near the end of the score, he penciled in the word“ Alliluya.” Images of death, a resurrected melody, and an exclamation of joy—all fitting content for a final masterpiece
Once Liang had chosen his music, he asked a friend who teaches composition at Juilliard to work on the score with him.“Even though Rachmaninov is really beautiful to listen to, it’s quite complex in structure,” Liang says. “I come from the house of [George] Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins, and music comes first.”In studying the score, he knew immediately where the three pas de deux would fall, and when the ensemble of 18 dancers would be onstage.“It’s very, very structured— in my mind,” says Liang. “Yet at the same time it’s so lush, so flowing.”Working on the third-movement pas de deux in early rehearsals, he told the dancers, “It’s lush, but what’s going to create this is your connection together. Find that.”
Liang infuses his rehearsals with what seems to be a perpetual air of serenity and calm. Those hours in the studio are the most rewarding part of choreographing, he says. But the process is still a mystery. “For me there is no recipe,” Liang says. “I’m just lucky that I get to do what I do.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Suite en Blanc may take you by surprise. Rarely seen in the United States, it’s the kind of show-offy neoclassical vehicle that allows a company to flaunt its dancerly riches. But it’s also a stylized piece that refuses to take itself too seriously. Bits of whimsy and humor, sometimes quite tongue-in-cheek, along with a “ta-da!” presentation and vignettes of stunning beauty, make Suite en Blanc unusual, surprising, and endlessly delightful. This is a ballet that loves to have fun.
San Francisco Ballet in Lifar’s Suite en Blanc (© Erik Tomasson)
Part of Suite en Blanc’s freshness lies in the fact that it was choreographed by Serge Lifar, a dancer who’s indelibly linked with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and whose work isn’t often seen in this country. Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1905, he made his way to Paris in 1923, invited by Bronislava Nijinska (sister of the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky) to join Diaghilev’s troupe, which had been making waves since its debut in 1909. Two years later, in 1925, he became a premier danseur (known, however, more for his sex appeal than for his dancing). He created the title roles in George Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète in 1928 (called Apollo since the 1940s) and The Prodigal Son in 1929, the year Diaghilev died.
Lifar began choreographing at the Ballets Russes, debuting with Le Renard in 1929. But it was during his 14 years with Paris Opera Ballet (1930–1944) that his choreographic career took off. During that time he made Suite en Blanc (1943) and one of his best-known works, Icare (1935), along with many others. After two years as founder and artistic director of Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, he returned to the Paris Opera as director, choreographer, and dancer. During the remainder of his tenure there, until 1958, he created more than 20 ballets, the last of which was his Daphnis et Chloë. Thereafter he created works for various companies and, before his death in 1986, wrote more than 25 books.
Suite en Blanc, set to music excerpted from the 1882 ballet Namouna by Èdouard Lalo, is a series of divertissements, separate but linked dances that are diverse in tone—floaty to flirty to majestic to spunky—yet still share Lifar’s signature style. The names of the dances (for example, Sieste, Serenade, Cigarette.) come from the full Namouna score and were keyed to a story; in Suite en Blanc they carry no meaning. (Still, Lifar did enjoy playing on the names at times—watch closely and you’ll see images of wafting smoke in Cigarette). His favorite movement motif—a flattened profile with shoulders turned 90 degrees to the hips, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art and clearly rooted in Art Deco style—appears often, particularly in elegant struts on and off the stage.
Paris Opera Ballet premiered Suite en Blanc in Zurich, Switzerland, with Lifar in a lead role (the mazurka, says Maina Gielgud, who staged the work for San Francisco Ballet) along with Yvette Chauviré, Solange Schwarz, and Lycette Darsonval. Gielgud has also staged it for the English National, Royal Danish, Australian, Hong Kong, and Houston Ballets. The ballet also been performed by Grand Ballet Classique de France (with Gielgud dancing), Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Tulsa Ballet.
SF Ballet is only the third U.S. company to include Suite en Blanc in its repertory. When Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson saw it years ago in Paris, he put it on his mental back burner. He decided to add it to the Company’s repertory when he noted the enthusiasm surrounding English National Ballet’s recent production. “This is a historic ballet,” Tomasson says, “and sometimes it’s not bad to take a look back. I’m always looking for something classical.”
For a while Suite en Blanc took on a different name—Noir et Blanc, with black introduced into the previously all-white costume color scheme. Paris Opera Ballet performed it under that name, but drama erupted in 1958 when the Marquis de Cuevas staged it for his Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo without Lifar’s permission. A heated argument between de Cuevas and Lifar segued into a most theatrical duel (and a very smart publicity stunt). Armed with sharp-tipped épées, the marquis, 73, and Lifar, 54, waged elegant battle until Lifar received a nick on the arm and the two men reconciled in tears.
Suite en Blanc resumed its original name and primarily white costumes in 1981, when Lifar revived it at Australian Ballet. More than ever, Gielgud says, “wherever I stage it everyone seems to love it. The dancers gulp it up, the audiences, the critics. It’s like, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for!’ ” She attributes that interest at least partially to the Lifar style, “which is very special to him, and nowadays pretty unique, coming through that whole stable that started with the Ballets Russes and [Léonide] Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. And at the beginning you can almost see some bits of Balanchine in there.”
And Gielgud should know. Suite en Blanc, in which she danced several roles, was with her “for the better part of my career,” she says. That career included dancing with de Cuevas’ company, Maurice Béjart’s 20th Century Ballet, Berlin Opera Ballet, and London Festival (now English National) Ballet, and guesting internationally, including as Rudolf Nureyev’s partner. Later she directed Australian Ballet for 14 years and Royal Danish Ballet for two.
But before all that, when she was a 15-year-old student in Paris, she danced the Cigarette variation from Suite en Blanc for a gala, and her coach was Lifar himself. “He was larger than life,” says Gielgud. “I remember his voice. He was full of stories about the Diaghilev time, full of stories about him in the Diaghilev time. I remember his very large emphasis on style and shapes and forms more than anything else, and I can visualize him showing those shapes.”
And so, in setting Suite en Blanc, an emphasis on shapes is paramount. In rehearsals Gielgud flits from dancer to dancer, adjusting an arm here, a chin or a hand there. A half an inch makes a difference, as does the direction of the gaze. “The whole place belongs to you,” she tells one of the principal dancers in the pas de trois. “Proclaim everything you’re doing.” To another, finessing the arms-held-wide ending of a pirouette sequence: “Give them the whole world.”
That sense of generosity is essential in doing Suite en Blanc well—and it’s what Gielgud calls the “bee in my bonnet. I think with classical ballet, to make it relevant, dancers need to be generous with their movement—to share their love of dancing, make the audience want to move as they’re watching.” To the dancers Gielgud says, “The fun is to indulge in the style, flirt with it, sell it. Treat it like a contemporary ballet.” Later, away from the studio, she laughs and says that to give this ballet its due, the dancers “need to have arrogant chic.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
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The following funds of the San Francisco Ballet Endowment Foundation provide permanent support for touring by San Francisco Ballet: Lead Underwriters Osher Touring Fund, G. William Jewell Touring Fund, The Hellman Family Touring Fund; Major Underwriters Frannie and Mort Fleishhacker Touring Fund, Stephen and Margaret Gill Family Foundation Touring Fund, Teri and Andy Goodman Touring Fund, Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Touring Fund, Bob Ross Foundation Touring Fund, Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Touring Fund; Underwriters Davidson Bidwell-Waite and Edwin A. Waite Fund, Glenn McCoy Touring Fund, and Anne and Michelle Shonk Touring Fund.