Instant Expert: Sandpaper Ballet

Instant Expert: Sandpaper Ballet

Explore Sandpaper Ballet’s Iconic Grid

Mark Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet was part of SF Ballet’s 2021 Digital Season. It was performed as part of Program 02, streaming February 11–March 3.

Watch any ballet enough times and you’ll usually start to notice some kind of pattern. Maybe it’s a step that comes back over and over again. Or a gesture that repeats, building in importance each time. These patterns are often subtle—one truism often stated in choreography classes is that a gesture must be repeated three times before an audience member will even notice it—but appear upon repeat viewing, like foreshadowing in a novel, or a refrain in a song.

San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Other times, they aren’t subtle at all, like in Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet. With each new piece of music, the 25 dancers assemble themselves into a 5×5 grid. This repeated motif signals both a choreographic ending and a new beginning, kind of like shaking an Etch-a-Sketch in order to start a new design. But that doesn’t mean it’s the same every time. Each time the grid is formed, the dancers are in a different location (they even sometimes keep cheat sheets backstage to know where to go!).

These kinds of repeated ideas often suggest something important about the dance, and the grid is no different. As the dancers scramble and then unscramble themselves, they show how they’re part of a group, and yet still individuals. And they seem to suggest that, even as things may appear to stay the same, in fact, they are ever evolving and changing.

by Jennie Scholick, PhD

Header Image: San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet // © Erik Tomasson