Imagine a white void, floating and futuristic, framed by a massive portal that offers both containment and access for ten dancers. In that whiteness, the only sources of visual respite are the skin tones of the dancers and the subtle hues of their costumes. That is the concept behind choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. The ballet explores one of the definitions of the word “chroma”: freedom from white. In this serene-seeming, private world, the dancers move in ways that are searching, desperate, raw, sexual, violent. The effect is to glorify the body, showing us its extremes and a beauty that’s almost beyond anything human.
Created in 2006 for The Royal Ballet, Chroma made its Company premiere at San Francisco Ballet during the 2011 Repertory Season. It won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best dance production and a 2007 Critics Circle Award. And it landed McGregor, founder and artistic director of Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, a position as resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet. Though McGregor was not trained in classical ballet, Chroma has a classical kind of purity, visible in what might be the choreographer’s most extensive use of the ballet lexicon to date. He stretches familiar steps to their extremes, using the dancers’ artistry and technique to their fullest and in unexpectedly beautiful ways.
With Chroma, McGregor stepped away from his usual creative process of working with only the bodies in front of him before deciding on music, designers, or a visual concept. He knew he wanted to work with architect John Pawson, whose designs he describes as “reductive and minimal. His buildings are incredibly serene. He builds these amazing plain canvases in which anything can happen.”
Frances Chung and Pascal Molat in McGregor's Chroma (© Erik Tomasson)
Pawson, a British architect whose projects range from a London cake store to a Czech Republic monastery to a Madrid hotel, had never designed for the stage. But his minimalist approach proved an excellent match for McGregor’s aesthetic. The two chose to create detail and texture through color—a color that might be freedom from white, but it’s not far off. The only color is in the lighting, and even that is “all versions of white,” says McGregor. “Your eye is tricked into thinking there’s much more color than there actually is.”
Rather than coloring the environment, the lighting shapes it, says McGregor. “[Chroma] is pretty much just black and white, from the point of view of light. But sometimes it shimmers; sometimes the bodies really pop out of that space; sometimes they are subsumed in the space. Sometimes they’ve got kind of a cool, steely white; other times they’ve got a warmer white. So we played with all of these tricks of perception.”
In this ballet, McGregor views his dancers as architectural elements, the visible punctuation in Pawson’s landscape. They stand out as “kind of aggressive architectures, not the body at all, but something else,” says McGregor. “You see the flesh move, you see the torsions in the bones. There’s nothing obscuring them. They are bodies pushed to the extreme in many ways, but also you get the more delicate intricacies. They’re so exposed; they’re very vulnerable in that environment.”
The set’s large scale and monochromatic concept convey a sense of timelessness and make the dancers appear smaller and, according to McGregor, more vulnerable. Even though at times the dancers seem isolated in the void, McGregor manages to imbue the space with a feeling of what he calls humanity. The result is a strong emotional arc that soars along with British composer Joby Talbot’s cinematic-sounding score. McGregor describes the music as both “violent and very, very percussive” (Talbot’s orchestrations of three White Stripes songs) and “lyrical, beautiful, sensitive” (four of the composer’s own pieces).
For a choreographer whose works are so cerebral, McGregor has a gift for delivering emotional power. Perhaps it’s because he has taken to heart something modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham once said about unlearning what we know in order to make new discoveries. That defines how McGregor approaches new work. “Every process, I think, ‘What am I going to try to unlearn now?’ ”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
If you’ve never heard of a revival harpsichord, choreographer Mark Morris is about to change that. It’s “big, clunky, wonderful, and underappreciated,” he says. And as the predominant instrument in Bohuslav Martinů’s 1935 Concerto for Harpsichord and Small Orchestra, the music for Morris’ latest ballet, 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.”
The artistic director of Mark Morris Dance Group since 1980, Morris is known for his passion for music. Among his many career honors, in 2010 he received the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society from the Longy School of Music (now part of Bard College) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has created more than 150 dances in his 30 years as a choreographer, nine of which (including this brand-new work, Beaux) are in San Francisco Ballet’s repertory. And 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. I think it’s gorgeous and much more interesting than a lot of what happened later. The 20th century and the 18th century are my specialty centuries, as far as music and aesthetics go.” For his newest ballet, in choosing to work with Martinů’s modernist score for harpsichord, Morris manages to encompass both.
Much of the credit for the revival of the harpsichord goes to Polish musician Wanda Landowska, the first harpsichordist to record Bach’s Goldberg Variations on that instrument. “She wanted harpsichords that you could hear in a large hall, ”says Morris. “When she was at her peak, primarily on the piano and there was nosuch thing as the early music movement, so no one had built new harpsichords in the style of Renaissance and Baroque instruments. 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. It’s a big monster of an instrument. 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.”
San Francisco Ballet in Morriss' Beaux (© Erik Tomasson)
The Martinů concerto is one of a handful of 20th-century compositions that brought the harpsichord back in a new way, including Francis Poulenc’s Concert champêtre, a concerto by Manuel de Falla, and Frank Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante. Morris settled on Martinů, a composer whose work he’d never used before and who paired the harpsichord with piano in this concerto. “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.” The three-movement concerto, written at the request of French harpsichordist Marcelle de Lacour, premiered in Paris in January 1936. Because the harpsichord was not popular at the time, Martinů’s choice to feature the instrument marked a definite step for him toward neoclassicism, which developed in the first half of the 20th century. (For Beaux, not yet finished at press time, Morris will include one of Martinů’s Two Pieces for Harpsichord, also written in 1935, along with the concerto.)
This new dance for San Francisco Ballet, for nine men, is Morris’ eighth commissioned work for the Company. (Of the nine ballets by Morris in the repertory, only Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, offered in 1996 and 2008, wasn’t created for SF Ballet.) Judging by his playful demeanor in the studio as well as the buoyant tone of Beaux, Morris is having a great time being, as he calls it, a “mid-career artist.” In rehearsals last fall, he set the dancers in motion with the command, “Easily and musically—go.” Standing withthe music score in front of him, he watched the men move through the piece, giving notes to his assistant, Megan Williams. Later he finessed the timing, told a dancer to soften an arm, another to look at his partner. Over and over again, he takes the ballet vocabulary and reshapes it to his purposes.
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.” With ballet dancers, sometimes he has to work to undo the familiar—for example, “this kind of a gladiator handhold for partnering. They’re used to doing it for the very off-balance stuff, where it’s partnering that’s sort of aggressive, a little bit combative,” he says. “That’s not what I want in this piece. What I want to see is something they don’t do every day. Stylistically I want a particular thing that is unusual in their repertory.”
For this new ballet, says Morris, “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. 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.”
Morris’ 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.” With his own company he has the luxury of a schedule that, though packed with rehearsals, commissions, and touring, is flexible enough to allow him to experiment and work on new ideas. So the rehearsal time at SF Ballet “is a short period for me,” he says. “I spend the first two or three days just finding out what would be an interesting language to use, and who goes with whom, and what kind of approach to take.” He goes into the studio without a product in mind, he says, and he likes it that way. “I don’t know what this dance is going to end up like, which is wonderful.”
Like a chef in his kitchen, Morris experiments, mixing his ingredients—music, dancers, and his imagination—in a way that yields something fresh. In the case of the SF Ballet men, he says, “they’re wonderful and energetic and surprising, and I like to make that part of the dance.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
From its first V-shaped montage to its high-note finish, Number Nine, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s seventh work for San Francisco Ballet, takes audiences on a hang-onto-your-seat ride. Created for the 2011 Repertory Season, with 24 dancers and Wheeldon’s detail-rich choreography, the ballet feels so expansive that you’ll have to check your watch for proof that it’s really only 16 minutes long. Wheeldon doesn’t waste a second of this short but lush score by Michael Torke, drawing audiences into an electrifying dance experience.
For Number Nine, Wheeldon chose Torke’s pell-mell Ash, a score the choreographer had known long before he danced to it in Peter Martins’ 1991 ballet (also called Ash) at New York City Ballet. “[The music] has a great energy to it, and a great drive, and it makes you think of waves of movement moving across the stage,” Wheeldon said during rehearsals last year. “It’s uplifting; it has a charge to it that I think is quite appealing. Choreographically, I’m looking to find a similar sort of movement dynamic that reflects that onstage.”
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Number Nine© (© Erik Tomasson)
Torke’s Ash premiered in February 1989, commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conducted by John Adams. SF Ballet audiences might remember hearing the music in James Kudelka’s Terra Firma, set on the Company in 1995. Though lushly orchestrated, Ash uses repetitive, insistent themes that evoke comparisons to minimalism. Wheeldon describes the music (defined as postminimalist on Torke’s website) as “an attack on the senses, in a way. It sets off at full throttle and does not let up. There are moments when it starts to drift away, almost like you’re hearing it in the distance, and then it comes charging back in again.” Along with variations in themes and “melodies that pop up,” he notes the “interesting little phrases that seem almost Mozartian in their delicacy.” Like thoughts, he says, they weave into the rhythm and allow for changes in dynamic.
For Wheeldon, who typically builds a ballet by adding layers of detail, texture, and complexity, the music’s repetitiveness provided a base for variations. He says a piece with this kind of repetitive framework “allows you to go with it, play with it, go against it. It makes the options quite limitless as to how you deal with it rhythmically, whether you cut against [the rhythm] or find syncopations.”
In characteristic fashion, Wheeldon packs so much nuance and texture into Number Nine that watching it is an all-encompassing endeavor, as emotionally engaging as it is visually thrilling. Whether it’s a roll-over-the-shoulders lift or a tiny shift in direction done with breath and suspension, the classically based movement engenders a sense of momentum. Using four principal couples and eight corps couples, Wheeldon explores and redefines movement motifs and musical themes. “[Revisiting motifs is] how I build any ballet,” he says. “With this ballet there are motifs that keep popping up in a simple, graphic way with the corps, and then in a more developed way in the duets.” Conversely, movements that begin with the principal couples are picked up later by the corps.
After a decade as a choreographer, Wheeldon has developed what some critics and ballet fans consider an identifiable style. He’s at the point where he can borrow ideas from himself, revisiting a movement that didn’t quite work the first time he used it or taking something intact from a ballet that won’t continue to be danced. “You don’t want to dip your hand in the cookie jar too many times because then people will go, ‘Oh, we’ve seen that,’ ” Wheeldon says. “But I think part of what makes a choreographer have a style is that interchangeability.” He pauses and grins. “A little bit.”
Unlike Ghosts, which premiered in 2010, Number Nine is “just a dance,” Wheeldon says. “There’s no deep psychological meaning. It’s just getting a sense of the kind of dynamic that the music has, and then turning that into a dance. This is a full-throttle dance with some pretty full-throttle music.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola