Bright Fast Cool Blue Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

SF Ballet in Balanchine's Serenade // Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust

Serenade

Of all George Balanchine’s works, Serenade provides as close to a spiritual experience as can be found in ballet. Created on students at the School of American Ballet during a class on stage technique, it is one of the most beloved works by this choreographic master. From the moment the curtain rises-on an iconic image of 17 women standing still and serene-to the last glimpse of their pointe shoes as the curtain falls, Serenade takes gentle hold of our emotions.

Balanchine, the co-founder and artistic director of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, was one of the most prolific choreographers in dance history. He created more than 200 ballets, but perhaps more notable are the astounding stylistic range and enduring nature of his works. Serenade, set to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, was the first ballet that Balanchine created in the United States, and 84 years later it still has unwavering power. As San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson puts it, this ballet is “timeless, so exquisite.”

Serenade premiered in White Plains, New York, in 1934, danced by students; its professional premiere came the following year, danced by the American Ballet (a predecessor to New York City Ballet). Serenade entered SF Ballet’s repertory in 1952 and has reappeared throughout the Company’s history, most recently in 2015.

As Balanchine relates in his book Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, he created Serenade to demonstrate to his students that performing is far more complex than taking class. The day he began, there were 17 students; the next day, nine; the third six. In each class he worked with whoever was there, adding men when a few showed up to class, and including mishaps, like a late entrance and a fall. Serenade is a prime example of Balanchine’s often quoted philosophy (embraced by Tomasson): “Use what you’ve got.” He always did, in ways that display his tremendous creative depth.

Along with its steps, movement quality, and emotional expressiveness, Serenade shows off Balanchine’s ability to elevate to an art the simple act of creating patterns; in fact, the beauty of its formations makes it fun to watch from above. “It’s like an ebb and flow; there’s confusion and then instantly there’s order,” says stager Elyse Borne. Making those patterns work seamlessly requires a heightened sense of bonding, especially among the corps women.

Despite being created on students, Serenade is far from easy to dance. “It’s allowed to be done by schools because he made it for the [School of American Ballet],” says Borne. “And yet the dancing is so hard. I think it was a lot for him to demand from students—it’s not only hard technically but artistically. Although there’s no story, there’s a lot of romance, a lot of drama and passion. If the dancers just do the steps, it doesn’t look like Serenade.” Over time, Balanchine continued to develop the ballet, eventually using Tchaikovsky’s full score and fitting it to the skills of the professionals who danced it.

One of the ballet’s most touching moments occurs when the 17 women, standing with feet together in parallel (sixth position), open them to a wide V: first position. This simple movement, so elemental, reflects Serenade’s origins as a piece for students. And, in part, those quiet, understated moments of beauty make Serenade timeless. “No one ever gets tired of it-not dancing it, not seeing it, not staging it,” says Borne. “The curtain goes up and you hear that beautiful music and see the light, and it’s transcendent.”

The Chairman Dances—Quartet For Two

San Francisco Ballet in Millepied's The Chairman Dances—Quartet For Two // © Erik Tomasson

 

Benjamin Millepied’s The Chairman Dances—Quartet For Two breezes by, spinning through an astonishing number of moods. A choreographic response to The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra by San Francisco–based composer John Adams, this playful ballet was originally created for the 2017 Opening Night Gala. Millepied expanded it for the 2018 Repertory Season, adding a section for two couples, set to Adams’ Christian Zeal and Activity.

In this ballet of mercurial moods, understated, jazzy syncopations and minimalist sequences share the stage with big, brash, Broadway-esque passages, so image-laden that when one woman perches on a man’s shoulder, revolving with arms stretched high amid a swirl of dancers below, you think of Esther Williams and the big movie musicals of the 1940s. When the mood darkens, ghostly shadows cast on the backdrop mimic the ensemble’s movement; in bright moments, the dancers spring into action as if there were no such thing as gravity to defy. Ensemble segments flank each occurrence of an ongoing duet for the principal couple, which builds on itself each time the dancers return to the spotlight. Illustrating the music’s syncopations, Millepied offers quick changes of direction and couples swapping places, hints of social dance and the flirtation that implies— because, after all, Adams’ The Chairman Dances is a foxtrot.

"Foxtrot” is a key word here, because the early-20th-century dance’s rhythms and personality color the ballet’s choreography and provide an undertone of story. In fact, the music does have a story, and that’s why, when the footlights come up and the principal couple dances in the tight embrace of a follow-spot, it’s easy to picture Chairman Mao fox-trotting the night away with his mistress. Adams wrote The Chairman Dances when he began writing his 1987 opera Nixon in China, and though the piece isn’t part of the opera, it was what Adams calls a warm-up for it. He had agreed to write a piece for the Milwaukee Symphony in 1985, and all he could think about was the scenario for Act 3 of Nixon in China. The Chairman Dances, Adams says, is a musical response to the “irresistible image of a youthful Mao Tse-Tung dancing the foxtrot with his mistress Chiang Ch’ing, former B-movie queen and the future Madame Mao, the mind and spirit behind the Cultural Revolution and the strident, unrehabilitated member of the Gang of Four.”

The music, so changeable and inflected, captivated Millepied, says Tina LeBlanc, a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer, now SF Ballet School faculty, who served as ballet master for The Chairman Dances—Quartet For Two. “He was so fascinated by the rhythms, the changes of mood.” In the studio, he would play the music and improvise, she says, “and the music would be what carried him—just letting it take him away.” The speed and lightness of the movement combine into something that’s “very casual,” LeBlanc says. “Very little of it is punched, and that’s the way he moves. At least for this piece, it seems quite soft and casual, even the fast stuff.” Watching him in the studio, and watching The Chairman Dances—Quartet For Two, she says, is like “being blown by the wind.”

Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes

San Francisco Ballet in Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes // © Erik Tomasson

 

Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, named for the suite by Aaron Copland, is a bounding, whooping balletic interlude of male bonding, and then some. Like many of Peck’s ballets, it celebrates community—but delivers it in the form of a rambunctious cohort of 15 men, with one strong female sidekick. In its ratio of men to women, its lone female’s take-charge attitude (think frontier woman), and its sunset-over-the-plains color scheme, Rodeo evokes the West without displaying a single cliché step or costume. The West is the backdrop in this sleek, modern ballet; musicality and male camaraderie are the stars.

Copland’s score premiered in 1942 as the music for Agnes de Mille’s ballet Rodeo, made for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Three years later, Copland adapted the music, omitting one movement and the transitional interludes, to make a suite form. Frequent fare in concert halls, the suite is iconic now. Listening to it, you can’t help but think of the West, of cowboys and ranchers, men determined to tame a wild landscape. In creating this ballet, Peck, resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, was undaunted by the music’s popularity and ballet history. “I thought perhaps there could be two completely different interpretations of the same music, side by side,” he says in a New York City Ballet video. “I wanted to strip away all of the narrative and scenic elements of the original piece and do an interpretation that focused on the relation between the movement and the music.” His interpretation explores all the brashness and subtleties of Copland’s irresistibly toe-tapping score. And, in the words of Craig Hall, a ballet master at New York City Ballet who staged the work for SF Ballet, it has heart.

Peck’s Rodeo premiered at New York City Ballet in 2015, and when San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson saw it, he loved it. “The music is so familiar, but he’s completely rethinking it,” he says. “And it is so valid, what he has done.” Another enticement: its nearly all-male cast. “I have terrific men here,” Tomasson says. Rodeo lets them loose in individualized glory and dynamic ensemble movements.

For Peck, working with so many men “was a big challenge,” says Hall. “It was his first [ballet] with so many men of the company, and the energy, the testosterone—he had to wrangle all the wild bulls in order to get some structure. But when it happened, it turned into this amazing form of energy that was synchronized into something quite beautiful.”

The ballet begins with the men sprinting in canon to the exhilarating opening phrases of “Buckaroo Holiday,” and it ends on an exuberant high note with “Hoedown.” In between are a quintet, to the adagio “Corral Nocturne,” and a mostly lighthearted pas de deux, danced to “Saturday Night Waltz.” Peck says the second movement is the heart and soul of the ballet. The five men move through this lyrical section with a sense of unity.  Each time one man moves away, the others bring him back, supporting and lifting him with touching warmth. “Justin likes to say that the five men are tumbleweeds and they’re constantly rotating and re-forming and trying to figure out where their standings are,” Hall says. “But they can’t act alone; they need the support of the other men.” There’s no romance in it, he says; the idea is “to show another side, some vulnerability, in five guys, which is maybe not seen enough—it’s very striking.”

The second movement is difficult to learn, Hall says, “because most guys want to be in control. We don’t know what it’s like to be partnered.” Contemporary ballets often do pair men, but usually not in such a gentle, caring way. It was an emotional experience for Hall, a member of the original cast. When he performed it for the last time before he retired, “we all broke down in tears,” he says, “because it was such an intimate [experience], like five longtime friends that were saying goodbye.”

Because the quintet is the heart of Rodeo, you might think there’s no need for a pas de deux, the traditional centerpiece in a ballet. Peck would disagree. Though his ballets offer innovative movement and ideas, they are deeply based in classical dance. “He admires that world so much, and he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Hall. “He just wants to take what he’s learned and tell his vivid story. He loves the structure of classical dance. This is a ballet; you have to have a pas de deux.” As always in Peck’s work, this wrangling between man and woman is multilayered. When the duet begins, the mood is flirtatious, playful—and confident, because the couple seems very much at ease. Suddenly the dynamic shifts: after a tender embrace, the woman steps away and the man brings her up short, their hands clasped between them. Now their relationship is more uncertain, delving into unexpected terrain. “There’s a balance of ‘If I take that step, will he take that step?’ or ‘If she steps away from me, should I let her go?’” says Hall. “Something’s at stake then; it’s like a chess match. And finally, when you break that tension, you go into a moment of almost total bliss.”

Peck has said that he’s always trying to find a balance between artistry and athleticism, and he thinks Rodeo is the closest he’s come. You can see the parallels to team sports in the ballet’s playfulness and camaraderie, the grace and machismo. The costumes extend the metaphor, particularly the shorts and wide striped shirts for the quintet, which bring to mind rugby players on a cold day. (They’re wearing leg warmers.) The other men’s costumes, in the rusty browns of a Western sunset, have the same wide stripe across the chest.

Peck’s choreography is big and athletic much of the time, and in Rodeo the dancers zip across the stage with the speed of wild horses. But Peck also knows how to entrap audiences with subtlety and poignancy. And always, his movement seems to well up from within, “like you are pouring your heart out,” says Hall. The depth and texture of Peck’s movement come from his fastidious attention to the music. His phrasing is specific, following the rules of his own musicality, which makes counting essential until the movement is ingrained in the body; in Rodeo, syncopation and moments of stillness make finding the right musicality difficult. A musical phrase has a structure— 8 counts, for example, or 17, or 32—and within that, the dancers might interpret the movement’s timing in various ways. But in Peck’s choreography, “within that structure, there’s an added structure that he wants to show everyone, like under a microscope,” Hall says. “You can’t have vague movement because that’s not Justin Peck.”

Rodeo is the third Peck ballet in the Company’s repertory and the first one that was made elsewhere. Hall is happy to see “such a big, robust ballet” come to San Francisco. “The West Coast needs to see this,” he says. “Justin is excited that it’s coming here. He loves this company—he loves the ballet dancers, he loves the size, he loves the power.”