Composer: Steve Reich
Choreographer: Val Caniparoli
Scenic and Costume Designer: Sandra Woodall
Lighting & Scenic Projection: Clifton Taylor
Music: Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards
World Premiere: February 18, 2014—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Ballets have stories, we often say, even when they aren’t true narratives. But Val Caniparoli’s new work for San Francisco Ballet, Tears, is best described as poetry. In making this abstract ballet, the choreographer fueled his creative process with the concept of water as a metaphor for the connections between everything, and everyone, in the world. Amplifying that idea, Caniparoli threads a quartet of men into Tears; the men form a visual through-line that links and counterpoints the choreography for three couples.
Caniparoli’s concept of water has a twofold source. One is his choice of music, Steve Reich’s minimalist composition Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards, which “made me think of waves, water,” the choreographer says. The other is a quote by California naturalist and conservationist John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Caniparoli interprets that to mean that individual actions have consequences throughout the world. And what ties the natural world and its inhabitants together more than water, the source of life?
Caniparoli already had Reich’s Variations and the image of water in mind when he stumbled on the Muir quote in a documentary called Connected: An Autobiography About Love, Death & Technology. The film explores how people are connected in this technological world; Muir, however, was talking about the natural world, and his sentiment fit perfectly with Caniparoli’s idea of water as a metaphor for the interrelatedness of all things. From there, in brainstorming with Sandra Woodall, the scenic and costume designer who has collaborated with him on most of his ballets, Caniparoli began to look at images from around the world: flood and drought (the flip sides of water), and the damage being done to the oceans by fracking. The images were raw material to spur his imagination, Caniparoli says—droughts, floods, and oil suggest different kinds of movement to him—not to be used in a literal or visual way.
With a Bay Area–based choreographer, inspiration from Muir, and music that was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Tears has a California pedigree of sorts. Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards (1979) was New York City–born Steve Reich’s his first commission (and his first orchestral work); previously he wrote only for his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, founded in 1966. Caniparoli is perhaps the latest choreographer to be inspired by Reich’s minimalist music; others who have used his music include Wayne McGregor, Alvin Ailey, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Lar Lubovitch, and Jerome Robbins.
If Caniparoli’s ballet is poetry, so too is Reich’s music. Variations is like a free-form poem whose subtle structure rides beneath the surface; unless you’re listening for the three musical movements, they can easily go unnoticed. For a choreographer, says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, the music provides “essentially a blank canvas. It’s not a piece to dance to; it’s a piece to dance on top of.”
The flow of the music, with its whispered embellishments, provides an auditory background on which Caniparoli was free to paint his dance in any way he chose. Because of that, he worked in a way he hadn’t before, in developing both structure and movement. He began his rehearsal process by working with Principal Dancers Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, exploring ideas for movement that would become the basis for the three couples. “I learned a lot about how he likes the movement to be done from within,” Luiz says. “He would play and say, ‘Move your liver, use your liver’—joking, of course.”
Next came a period of structured improvisation with the four men who link the three principal couples together. Caniparoli knew he wanted to use a series of gestures that would serve as a choreographic through-line, adopted by all the dancers. He demonstrated what he had in mind to the four men and “let them play with it,” he says. “I said, ‘Now take whatever you want from [these movements] and do a series of them quickly.’ I didn’t know if the guys would go for that, but they did. We developed that movement together and had a blast.” For example, at one point in the ballet, the men move downstage (toward the audience) in a horizontal line, each doing an individualized sequence of the movement. What had begun as structured improvisation—a process of allowing the dancers to sequence and interpret a designated vocabulary in their own way—became, through continual refinement, set and nuanced choreography.
In rehearsals, rather than working with the music as he typically does, Caniparoli set segments of choreography in silence, then fitted them to the score. The reason for doing this, he says, is that minimalist music has few “landmarks”—easily distinguished counts or instrumental voices that help the dancers know where they are musically while they’re still learning the choreography. “There are landmarks,” Caniparoli says, but “sometimes there are long periods where, even though the music is changing underneath, you can’t quite hear it.” With few noticeable landmarks, finding a particular moment is difficult “and you waste time,” he says. “We’d never finish the ballet if I had to do that.”
Because the music’s meter never changes, Caniparoli could place each segment of the choreography anywhere in the score. He found a starting point “and then built around that,” he says. “The process was not easy, but it was fun.” He created movement he describes as compact, then placed it musically and “made it breathe, or not breathe, and textured it” to fit the accents in that part of the score. He worked by placing key portions of choreography, then “building the bridges in between,” making sure to look at the work’s overall arc and not merely the smaller arcs in each section of choreography. The ballet “is not a series of arcs, because the music isn’t like that,” Caniparoli says. “It’s rolling, which I love.” Toward the end, the music builds subtly, but he chose not to amplify that build choreographically, opting for a quieter end tone instead.
In exploring the concept of connectedness, Caniparoli couldn’t have found a more apt metaphor than water. Water connects the earth’s continents, permeates the cells and tissues of the body, serves as a unifying source of life. And in troubled times, water flows in the form of tears. With that idea in mind, Caniparoli created a ballet in which movements are sampled and shared. What one has, everyone has; that’s clear in the gestures, many of which make gentle reference to nature. We see hands cupped as if catching rainwater. We see arms moving thickly, as if undersea. We see hands fly to the throat—a gasp—and to the head—a thought. There’s urgency, a sense of need, of something broken. Most of all, we see a ballet that flows through its musical riverbed, carrying us to a point of realization. What that point is—beyond that we are individuals, and connected—the choreographer doesn’t intend to say.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Moritz Moszkowski
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood
Lighting Designer: Mark Stanley
Music: Suite for Orchestra “From Foreign Lands” Op.23
World Premiere: March 1, 2013—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Pascal Molat in Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands (© Erik Tomasson)
Alexei Ratmansky exudes an air of gentleness and generosity, and both are as visible in his choreography as in his bearing. 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.”
In 2013, Ratmansky brought his gifts to From Foreign Lands, 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, a former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, is now artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, where his Shostakovich Trilogy (seen this season on Program 5) premiered in 2013. For From Foreign Lands, Ratmansky chose German composer Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Orchestra, “From Foreign Lands,” for what he calls its “body movement.” With such music, 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. Hinting at such national dances as the tarantella, fandango, and czardas, the music wraps traditions from Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Hungary into a charming package.
“From Foreign Lands” is one of only a few Moszkowski works that have survived; it’s his piano pieces—Etudes, Etincelles, and Spanish Dances—that are most known today. Ratmansky chose “From Foreign Lands” because he liked the orchestration—“It’s delicate, but also it has the character [aspect],” he says—and structure. Its six well-defined movements have distinct personalities, a format that “gives you certain pluses,” Ratmansky says. “It’s not one mood throughout. It’s a divertissement—a very old structure that still works.”
The ballet begins in silence, with 12 dancers engaging in what seems like an invitation to the dance. Ratmansky’s purpose for opening the ballet this 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. As the ballet unfurls, those fours and eights shift and flow, with solos, trios, and sextets flashing to the surface before disappearing back into the quartet baseline.
Ratmansky’s Russian training and Western influences are both in evidence in From Foreign Lands. Transitions 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 épaulement (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. “I’m staying within the academic vocabulary, I think, because that’s what I know, and also what I want to see,” he says. “Can it still be alive and fresh? Can it look interesting?”
High-energy and playful, From Foreign Lands gently pokes fun at tradition. There are character dances heightened to the point of self-awareness, over-the-top romanticism, a touch of vaudeville, flirtations, rejections, capitulations, and successes. 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.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composers: Joel Cadbury and Paul Stoney
Choreographer: Wayne McGregor
Scenic Designer: Wayne McGregor and Lucy Carter
Costume Designer: Wayne McGregor
Lighting Designer: Lucy Carter
Borderlands was made in collaboration with Nicholas Fox Weber and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.
World Premiere: January 29, 2013—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet in McGregor's Borderlands (© Erik Tomasson)
Imagine a ballet based on the concept of dancers embodying paintings. Now imagine it happening in a non-literal way. That’s Borderlands, Wayne McGregor’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, which premiered in 2013. The British choreographer’s cerebral form of artistic vision yields technology-integrated dances that explore the human mind as equally as they do the body. In Borderlands’ case, there’s an abstract yet deep connection to the work of German-American artist Josef Albers.
McGregor’s contemporary dance company, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, has been offering viewers new ways of thinking about dance since 1992. For his first commission for SF Ballet, McGregor wanted to create a dance that would “fit the context of the work here,” he says. He considered those works of his already in the Company’s repertory (Eden/Eden and Chroma), he says, and “how I might be able to challenge myself on the dancers in a different way.”
For Borderlands, McGregor wanted original 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 British composer Joel Cadbury and his collaborator Paul Stoney, whose music McGregor describes as “sonic architecture.”
“ ‘Sonic architecture’ is a very good way of describing the score,” says Cadbury. McGregor’s experimentation is a process Cadbury is used to, he says; he sees value in everything that’s created, even if ultimately it’s not used. “It’s only when Wayne begins to make his choreography that we learn if what we are making fits,” Cadbury says. “And it is only when we start putting everything together in context with the arc of the piece that these discoveries can be made.” The goal is to “challenge preconceptions.”
Like 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 [using LED lights], with a blank canvas in terms of the architecture,” McGregor says. “Why? Because the 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.” 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), which influenced dance-notation pioneer Rudolf Laban and later, says McGregor, choreographers such as William Forsythe.
If McGregor’s new piece has an organizing principle, it’s in Albers’ Homage to the Square. Both music and dancing were created in four-minute segments, all in response to the Albers work—initially far more material than would be needed. Then McGregor refined and restructured the ballet.
When choreographing, McGregor goes into the studio with a well-defined concept but an open mind about its evolution. As he demonstrates the steps, he accompanies them with scat singing, an effective method of conveying movement quality and intent. Much of the music he worked with for Borderlands has minimal rhythmic drive—it’s like a tapestry of sustained sound onto which he layers his movement. The result is a fluid pairing of music and movement to which he adds counts 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 think about things in a different way.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola