Distinctly SF Ballet Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

SF Ballet in Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini // © Erik Tomasson

On a Theme of Paganini, created by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2008, sets neoclassicism head to head with romanticism, and the latter prevails. Many of Tomasson’s ballets reveal his romantic streak; with this one—and with his choice of music, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—he leaves viewers with zero doubt about what lies at his choreographic heart.

There’s stylistic diversity in this ballet, both structurally and in the movement itself. In the first and third movements, the formality of neoclassicism—which modernizes classical ballet steps but retains the essence of classical form and line—creates a lovely contrast with the languid romanticism of the second movement. Tomasson sets up the contrast in the ballet’s first moments: with a full ensemble behind them, two principal women begin, moving their arms in a classically shaped, staccato port de bras that quickly extends to the legs. The women’s movements freeze momentarily, punching into the accented music. Then classical shapes morph into more angular lines, but even those convey softness. For example, in a flexed-hand motif, Tomasson starts with roundness in the arm, then flips the wrist to “break up that structure,” he says. Tomasson’s choreography is layered, in volume, space, and texture.

At times, in true classical form, he frames and supports the principals with the demi-soloists and corps de ballet; elsewhere he launches waves of men or women in dynamic contrast to smaller groupings. Neoclassicism bookends the ballet’s softer middle, an interlude of quiet intimacy that is probably the most romantic pas de deux Tomasson has choreographed. With the soaring melody of the 18th variation propelling them, the dancers move through rich and potent sequences, with flying lifts that drop into whirling embraces and powerful moments that come from gestures: an embrace or a kiss.

Rachmaninov was one of the last of the line of Romantic pianist/composers that began with Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt in the mid-1800s. He wrote Rhapsody at a time when people thought his creative days were largely over; ironically, this piece is now considered to be his finest large-scale composition. In 24 variations, the composer gives Paganini’s theme a piano interpretation of great intricacy, backed by a full orchestra. The ballet’s central pas de deux is set to what is perhaps the ultimate variation on a theme—an inversion of every chord in Paganini’s melody. (In an inversion, the lowest note moves up an octave.) According to Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, the work is a masterpiece, brilliant in how Rachmaninov fits the variations together. “It’s not just a set of variations; it’s a symphony,” says West. “Or it’s a concerto which happens to have the same theme running all the way through. Every aspect of it is perfect.”

For Tomasson, working with this flowing, emotional music was one of the pleasures of creating On a Theme of Paganini; another was using a large ensemble, which at the time he had not done since 2000, when he made Prism. Using a corps de ballet presents choreographic challenges that don’t exist in smaller works, such as how and when to use groups, what size to make them, whether or not to pair the dancers, and whether their movement should complement or counterpoint what the principals do. “I had to make that happen,” Tomasson says. “It was fun to work on.”

Ibsen’s House

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Caniparoli's Ibsen's House // © Erik Tomasson

Ibsen’s House, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, is a ballet tour de force for five women, based on characters from five plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. If you don’t know Ibsen’s work, don’t worry—the ballet, created for the San Francisco Ballet New Works Festival in 2008, stands on its own; Caniparoli used the plays as a point of departure. “Ibsen's radical ideas about marriage, gender roles, and family relations shocked and outraged many of his contemporaries, and still hold resonance today,” says Caniparoli. What he wanted to do was capture the essence of these women, their fraught relationships, their predicaments.

Watching Ibsen’s House does give you a sense of the playwright’s work, however, because it puts his themes front and center. Called the “Father of Modern Drama,” Ibsen challenged Victorian societal conventions in his plays of the late 1800s; in that sense he was an early feminist. Caniparoli chose five dominant women characters, one each from A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890). “They were being challenged about what was the norm, what you could or couldn’t talk about,” he says. “Ibsen was a rebel in that way.”

Caniparoli, a principal character dancer who has created 18 ballets for the Company, choreographs widely. Often he blends dance with literary art forms, such as in his work with Carey Perloff at American Conservatory Theater, which includes A Christmas Carol, A Doll’s House, Tosca Café, and A Little Night Music. And he has done his fair share of story ballets: three versions of The Nutcracker, Lady of the Camelias, and A Cinderella Story. “What makes Ibsen’s House different,” Caniparoli says, “is that I’m not telling one story.”

For the score, Caniparoli chose Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2, minus the third movement. Although at first he didn’t notice the parallel structures—the music is a quintet, and the ballet dramatizes five women’s stories—the fit was perfect. The music was written in 1887, around the same time Ibsen’s plays were. And Dvořák’s score has layers of feeling that mirror the passions buried within Ibsen’s characters—emotions, once freed, that compel them to defy traditional mores.

Ensuring that the dancers understood their characters was a crucial part of developing the movement, so Caniparoli had them read the plays, or watch film versions, and he brought Perloff into a rehearsal to describe key motivations and responses for each character. Disregarding the dancers’ ages, he freed himself to create movement based purely on the characters’ feelings. In the ballet’s first two movements, Caniparoli presents the women first alone and then in duets with their male counterparts. Small, simple gestures reveal character—the smoothing of a dress; a hand brought to the mouth, then snatched away; a fist thudding against a chest. Caniparoli revels in letting emotion drive the choreography.

For the third movement, Caniparoli goes beyond the confines of the plays, exploring the consequences of the characters’ shattered lives. “It’s like the aftermath,” he says, “how the men are feeling, which you might not see in the play.” But still the women predominate, threading their way through the men’s psyches like reminders of what has been—or what might have been.

Ghost in the Machine

Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno in Thatcher’s Ghost in the Machine // © Erik Tomasson

For Ghost in the Machine, Myles Thatcher’s third work for SF Ballet (his fourth will premiere in Unbound: A Festival of New Works), Thatcher was thinking about the power of community. “It’s easy to get stuck in our own personal agendas, baggage, and dramas,” he says. “To get out of that, we need each other—to relate to each other and be there as a community.”

Thatcher wanted music that had “some darkness and pain, but also lightness and joy,” he says. He found it in works by Michael Nyman. “There’s such emotion in the subtext,” Thatcher says, “but it doesn’t dictate. It gives me the freedom to play.” And play he does, finding both the positive and negative aspects of being in a community. “I’ve been exploring how we interact with society and how society can interact with us,” he says. “We can be in a room full of people and still feel absolutely alone.” Structurally, the dancers group and regroup in shifting numbers. At times a single dancer comes into focus, but it’s not long before he or she is reabsorbed into the group.

The ballet begins with a confrontation, a duet that “should feel like a face-off at an abandoned warehouse,” Thatcher says. “It’s like when you have chemistry with someone who isn’t really good for you; there’s toxicity there, but there’s pleasure in that.” Next, the piece moves through expressions of sadness and rejection to its turning point, a duet created on Principal Dancers Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno. They have chemistry, Thatcher says, “but they can’t realize it in the context of the group. Maybe they aren’t supposed to be together. Maybe there’s something preventing them from being together.” Their struggle to accept love opens the door to a happier state within this small community, at which point Thatcher asks his dancers to be “simple and human.” Conflict and isolation give way to empathetic hugs, a moment of serenity and togetherness inspired by a Rolodex (of all things), some comic relief, and a pervasive feeling of acceptance.

The movement both emphasizes and tests the community theme. We see fluidity and continuity, weighted movements, supported falls, gentle repositionings, flocking passages of unison steps, and times when members of the group who seem to need an emotional boost are given a physical one. Thatcher wants heart in his movement, and softness; he wants the torso to flex and extend as much as an arm or leg. “I’m fascinated by dynamics in movement that my generation has developed, or the one before us, like with hip-hop and a way of moving that articulates the four points of the shoulders and the hips,” he says. “It’s expressive. Even just softening here”—he collapses his chest—“means so much.”

Threaded throughout are movement motifs that reinforce the theme. An arm snakes, the hand flipping 180 degrees; both hands slide across the torso on diagonals, one up to the heart, one down to the hip. There’s rocking, reaching, and, most important, embracing. In developing motifs, Thatcher says he sees “theme sensations—I try to find steps that have the same sensations for the dancers.” Thatcher is willing to experiment, and he’s open to the dancers’ ideas. “They shape what [the ballet] is going to be,” he says. “It’s really humbling.”