Composer: Ludwig Minkus
Orchestration: John Lanchbery
Production conceived and directed by: Natalia Makarova
Choreographer: Natalia Makarova after Marius Petipa
Assistant to Ms. Makarova: Susan Jones
World Premiere: (Petipa production) February 4, 1877—Maryinsky Theatre; St.
U.S. Premiere: (Makarova production) May 21, 1980—American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House; New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: March 9, 2000—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet rehearses La Bayadère—Act II (© Erik Tomasson)
High on a platform, a woman dressed in filmy white steps forward, one leg stretching behind her in an arabesque. Straightening, she arches, arms overhead, then repeats the steps while moving down two ramps to the stage. Another woman follows, doing the same steps, then another, until 24 seemingly identical dancers are onstage, moving and breathing as one. It’s arguably the single most breathtaking entrance in the classical ballet lexicon. That mesmerizing scene begins The Kingdom of the Shades, the often-excerpted second act of La Bayadère.
The full-length La Bayadère premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1877, choreographed by Marius Petipa, preceding his Swan Lake (also in 1877) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890). As is typical for Romantic ballets, La Bayadère has an exotic locale (India) and ethereal beings (Shades). The scene is the opium-induced hallucination of Solor, who grieves for his love, the murdered temple dancer (bayadère) Nikiya.
When Natalia Makarova staged La Bayadère for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 1980, it was the first time the full-length had been seen in the West. The excerpted Kingdom of the Shades, however, had been seen earlier: the Kirov toured it outside of Russia in 1961, Rudolf Nureyev staged his version for The Royal Ballet in 1963, and Makarova staged it at ABT in 1974. Makarova, a Kirov Ballet dancer who defected in 1970, had danced Bayadère in Russia. Re-creating it at ABT “was her linkage to the Kirov, what she was passing on to us,” says ABT Ballet Master Susan Jones, who set Makarova’s The Kingdom of the Shades on San Francisco Ballet.
La Bayadère—Act II first came to SF Ballet in 2000, when Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson invited Makarova to stage it. A ballet that takes unison dancing to the sublime, it sets the standard for the ballet blanc. The Shades “have to be, as a group, absolutely as one,” Tomasson says. This cohesive mind-set is needed for other “white scenes”—the Wilis in Giselle and Swans in Swan Lake, for example—but in Bayadère “it’s beyond that,” he says.
As the Shades enter, their steps show that they are “between reality and dream, a metaphysical kind of state”—exactly how Dante’s “Inferno” describes a Shade, says Jones, who has set Bayadère on five companies and been its custodian at ABT since the 1980s. “There’s something pulling them down the ramp, which is Solor, toward reality [seen in the arabesque], and something that pulls them back, toward where they’re coming from [the arched step back, arms high].”
That’s the abstract, the spirituality of Bayadère. The reality, though, is that “technically everything is revealed,” Jones says. In the role of Nikiya, “you’re very exposed in the variation [solo]. The standard is high because of how Natasha danced it. And she gets it out of people. She’s a terrific coach, but it’s not an easy process. She has a standard and she wants to get people there and surpass it, if possible.” Equally difficult is the third variation (danced by one of the three soloist Shades), which Jones calls “the ‘walking on eggshells’ variation. It takes a tremendous amount of control. It’s very slow, and such a strain on the left calf.” As for the Shades’ entrance, “you have to work them up to it,” Jones says. “In Natasha’s version they don’t change legs; they do all of the arabesques (38 for the first dancer onstage) on the same leg.”
The spiritual connection The Kingdom of the Shades is given tangible form in the pas de deux when Solor and Nikiya are linked by a scarf. It’s “a connection from this metaphysical or dream world to Solor’s reality,” Jones says. “It’s symbolic of their love.” The same kind of connection develops among the Shades. “Sharing that spirituality with 23 girls,” Jones says, “is an incredible force.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: C.F. Kip Winger
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer: Mark Zappone
Lighting Designer: Mary Louise Geiger
World Premiere: February 9, 2010—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Ghosts© (© Erik Tomasson)
Ghosts—a potent word, rich in imagery and connotations. As the title of Christopher Wheeldon’s sixth commission for San Francisco Ballet, set to C.F. Kip Winger’s score by the same name, the word evokes death, a lingering presence, even a wisp of memory. In Winger’s music, forceful, chilling interludes interrupt lovely, serene passages, as if something intangible refuses to be forgotten.
Winger, a bassist for Alice Cooper in the 1980s, met Wheeldon in 1997, when a friend took him to watch rehearsals at New York City Ballet. Ten years later, inspired after seeing three of Wheeldon’s ballets, Winger decided to write a piece for him. At the time, the composer 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,” he says. “The title Ghosts popped into my head when I was writing the cello solo in the first movement.”
Wheeldon describes the score as “kind of silvery, the way the piano creeps in and out.” Wondering if it might have a narrative, 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.” In his early explorations of theme, the choreographer turned to the poems of Edgar Allen Poe: “The City in the Sea,” “To One in Paradise,” “Lenore,” “The Valley of Unrest.” Laden with phrases like “death looks gigantically down” and “lilies . . . that weep above a nameless grave,” the poems influenced Wheeldon’s creative process without becoming literal onstage. He decided to create the atmosphere of a mass gathering of souls, such as might occur after a tragedy. “It’s more like perfume than a heavy sort of ghost story,” he says.
As is often the case with abstract ballets, Wheeldon didn’t discuss images of ghosts or death with the dancers while he was creating the ballet, which premiered in 2010. Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, who danced the pas de deux with fellow Principal Dancer Damian Smith in the premiere, approached her role as if “it’s a relationship, like husband and wife. That’s how it feels—like moments of tenderness,” she says. “It’s extremely difficult. We do a lot of intense movement, but it’s so beautiful.”
Smith describes the pas de deux as “an intertwined, off-balance partnership that never seems to unwind, a kind of thread that’s constantly knotted,” he says. Wheeldon wanted to emphasize the shifts in contrast, says Smith. “He wants a definite transition between those two qualities of movement—strong and sharp and direct, and then soft and seamless.” Though the music might be legato, the dancing should be “very sharp, direct, and precise, to go against the music,” he says. “And then we choose moments when we are more lyrical and soft with the arms.”
That kind of duality exists throughout Ghosts. “I love the freedom of not ever putting any restrictions on what I do in the studio,” says Wheeldon, who expands ballet’s vocabulary by contemporizing classical steps. In Ghosts, 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,” the choreographer says).
For Wheeldon, the rewards of his art have changed as he has matured as a choreographer. Although what goes before audiences is still very important to him, he thinks that earlier in his career 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— the first time you see the model, the first time you run the pas de deux, the first time you see the set onstage—those are all magical moments.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov
Scenic Designer: Yuri Zhukov
Costume Designer: Sandra Woodall
Lighting Designer: David Finn
World Premiere (Fokine, choreographer): June 25, 1910—Diaghilev’s Ballet
Russe, Théatre National de l’Opéra; Paris, France
San Francisco Ballet Premiere (new production): February 1, 2007—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s Firebird (© Erik Tomasson)
Firebird is two tales in one—of good triumphing over evil, and of unrequited love, a one-act gem based on Slavic folk stories. The original Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu) made its first appearance in 1910, choreographed by Michel Fokine for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and set to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Firebird came to San Francisco Ballet in 2007, brought to the stage by Yuri Possokhov, then newly appointed as the Company’s choreographer in residence, in a reimagining of the production he made for Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2004.
In Slavic folklore, a firebird is a glowing, mythical bird. Often the object of a quest, it can bring both good fortune and bad to those who capture it. The ballet world’s Firebird has a tender heart—she falls in love with the Prince who captures her; when he releases her, she says she will protect him if he is ever in danger. Danger comes soon enough, in the form of the evil Kaschei (a character borrowed from another folk story), and the Firebird comes to the Prince’s rescue, only to have her heart broken.
Since the first Firebird premiered in Paris (with Tamara Karsavina in the title role), many versions have been created, including those by Adolph Bolm (Ballet Theatre, 1945), George Balanchine (New York City Ballet, 1949), Serge Lifar (Paris Opéra Ballet, 1954), John Taras (Dance Theatre of Harlem, 1982), Alexei Ratmansky (American Ballet Theatre, 2012), and Liam Scarlett (Norwegian National Ballet, 2013).
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s Firebird (© Erik Tomasson)
In Possokhov’s version, Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, with her long limbs and delicate yet steely frame, seems made to dance the role of the Firebird. She says Possokhov emphasizes the Firebird’s strength. “You’re not lyrical like other kinds of birds. She’s very proud and very strong in her own world.” That strength is apparent in the choreography, and so are the Firebird’s emotions. In rehearsals Possokhov asks for bourrées (small steps on pointe, often in place) that are sometimes “tiny, tiny, like crying,” or, at other times, “trembling” or “like a lullaby.”
Possokhov is always specific about what he wants to see in his choreography, but Tan says he gave his Firebirds freedom to interpret the role as they wish. When taking on a role in a historic ballet, Tan likes to watch videos of older productions, but not until she has learned the role. “I like to come fresh to it, because I don’t want to be brainwashed before everything happens,” she says. “But it never hurts to see the other versions.” For her, the Firebird “has a soft side for the Prince; in a way, she’s pretty vulnerable,” she says. “But she does still have to be very strong for what she does and who she is.”
Firebird’s music (Stravinsky’s first ballet composition) is as notable as the ballet itself. Diaghilev’s third choice as composer for this piece, Stravinsky proved himself quickly. “Mark him well,” Diaghilev said about the composer during rehearsals. “He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” Indeed he was. The ballet’s success earned Stravinsky an international reputation and a string of Ballets Russes commissions, including Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring.
Martin West, SF Ballet’s music director and principal conductor, calls Firebird “an amazing piece.” Noting the influence of Stravinsky’s predecessors—“Rimsky- Korsakov, Glinka, and all the older Russians”—West points to one technique Stravinsky used in Firebird, which was to musically differentiate the human and non-human characters. “He used what we call a normal scale for the normal people, the C major scale. And then for the magical bits he used a different type of scale, an octatonic, so it has a different sound. Rimsky-Korsakov used to do that as well. But it’s all Stravinsky; it’s how he put it all together.”
In its 104-year history, Firebird has been given many varieties of plumage. With its ancient story, Stravinsky’s brilliant ballet debut, Possokhov’s choreographic vision, and the power and artistry of his Firebirds, the ballet’s magic is inescapable.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola