Your Ultimate Guide to DISTINCTLY SF BALLET

What is it? A chance to see San Francisco’s maker culture at work. San Francisco Ballet has a long tradition of fostering choreographers and this program showcases work by three who have spent the majority of their careers inside the SF Ballet building: Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, Principal Character Dancer Val Caniparoli, and Corps de Ballet dancer Myles Thatcher.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves ​Rachmaninov, is a feminist, or is curious about how ballets engage with politics.


Maria Kochetkova in Tomasson's On a Theme of Paganini // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini is a great example of neoclassicism in ballet: spare costumes, symphonic music, and beautifully classical dancing. But this ballet is also terribly romantic, with dancing bodies following the lush rise and fall of Sergei Rachmaninov’s score. Tomasson has been making ballets since his time as a principal dancer at New York City Ballet in the 1980s, under the tutelage of none other than George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, two of the most famous choreographers of the twentieth century.

What am I hearing? Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. One of Rachmaninov’s later works, the 18th variation—used in this ballet for the pas de deux—is one of his best-known works and you’ll likely recognize it, even if you aren’t a big classical music fan.

What should I look for? The way that Tomasson contrasts sharp, staccato movements with fluid arm gestures, in particular in the flexed hand motif that appears throughout the ballet. And for the intimacy of the pas de deux, when the formality of classical ballet seems to give way to a movement of romanticism and love.


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

What am I seeing? A new take on five Henrik Ibsen plays—A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, and Hedda Gabler—from choreographer and former SF Ballet Principal Dancer Val Caniparoli. Don’t worry, this isn’t the Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House you remember from freshman year of college, but rather an atmospheric take on the central conflicts of these plays, with a focus on the main female characters and the reverberating impacts of their decisions. (Though, sidebar: have you read any Ibsen lately? It might be worth digging those plays out of storage and taking a second look. They still really resonate today, especially in the wake of the 2016 election and the #MeToo campaign. Things may have changed a lot for women since the 1890s, but a lot of things have also stayed the same. Ibsen was definitely ahead of his time.)

What am I hearing? Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2. Written for piano, 2 violins, viola, and cello, this piece blends structures taken from Czech folk music with symphonic Romanticism. You may know Dvořák for his New World Symphony, which is one of the most popular symphonies of all time, blending Native American and African American musical themes with European compositional traditions.

What should I look for? Look for how Caniparoli gives each woman a gesture—smoothing her dress, touching her hair, an elbow extended sideways—and expands it into movement. These motifs repeat throughout the ballet and give insight into each woman’s character.


Carlo Di Lanno and Dores André in Thatcher's Ghost In The Machine // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Creativity and innovation are the names of the game in San Francisco these days. Enter Myles Thatcher, SF Ballet’s very own answer to the young innovators flooding the city. Instead of building apps, he’s building dances that update ballet conventions for a new generation. In this work, choreographed just after the 2016 presidential election, Thatcher was interested in exploring what happens to communities when combativeness and aggression rule the day. How do you do that in dance? You’ll have to come check it out.

What am I hearing? A selection of pieces from composer Michael Nyman’s film scores. Nyman’s minimalist music is a favorite among contemporary choreographers and will be returning to the Opera House stage for Unbound: A Festival of New Works.

What should I look for? The moment when two characters sit on the edge of the stage. The miniaturized stories that appear and disappear among the moving groups. And the way Thatcher creates moments of connection in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety.

Listen to the Distinctly SF Ballet Spotify Playlist

From romanticism to modernism, Distinctly SF Ballet has it all–plus a dash of SF-bred maker culture. See three choreographers associated with SF Ballet explore their takes on ballet and listen to the music of Rachmaninoff, Dvorak, and Michael Nyman.