When Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created Le Carnaval des Animaux for San Francisco Ballet, he must have smiled his way through it. What else can you do while telling the lumbering Elephant to mime swinging her trunk or envisioning a tragicomic death for the fragile Swan? Yes, Carnaval is, as might be expected, clever, funny, and imaginative. But the ballet delivers poignancy as well. Its mammals, birds, sea creatures, and reptiles may sport fur, feathers, tentacles, and shells, but in their hearts they’re human. With that, and Ratmansky’s loving touch, the ballet goes beyond mere laughs.
But laughs are what composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) had in mind when he wrote Le Carnaval des Animaux in 1886. He composed the suite as a joke, and because he feared it would damage his reputation as a serious composer, during his lifetime he allowed only the Swan section to be performed publicly. No doubt he’d have been shocked to discover how popular the piece became— and how what he must have considered a bit of frivolity would take physical form on the ballet stage.
Divided into 14 movements, the score pokes loving fun at the animal kingdom. A pecking theme accompanies the Hens; fast runs up and down a keyboard convey the speed and grace of the Horses. (In a clever blend of costuming and movement, horse and jockey are one.) And apparently Saint-Saëns couldn’t resist a few musical jokes. In one, he turned a typically brisk galop (from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld) into a laughably slow theme for the Tortoises. In another, the Elephant plods along to the heavy tones of piano and double bass in two borrowed themes (from Mendelssohn and Berlioz) that should be light and lively and played by flutes and violins.
San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Le Carnaval des Animaux (© Erik Tommason)
Rehearsals for this season’s revival of Carnaval—the Company’s first performances of this ballet since the 2004 London tour—were put in the expert hands of Ballet Master Betsy Erickson, who worked with Ratmansky when he created the ballet. “It’s really fun to come back to,” Erickson says, “because you rediscover all of the clever, funny, and wonderful little quirky things Alexei did.”
As if to illustrate the animals’ connection to the earth, Ratmansky often takes his dancers to the floor or emphasizes the downbeat. The latter is an aspect of the choreography that Erickson only fully realized during rehearsals last summer. Ratmansky “almost always puts the beat down, which makes it a bit heavier,” she says. “The Elephant is almost all down—meaning the accent, the downbeat of the music, is to the plié or to the floor; the same with the Lion. They almost always go down before they go up, so that there’s an equal value to both.” She compares that movement quality to Balanchine’s ballets, in which the musical accent is on the dancer’s upward motion. “You always see the lightness,” she says. “In this you feel the weight of it. It gives the body more actual volume and makes it more grounded.”
Ratmansky’s menagerie lives in a world that hints at both the manmade and the natural—a low, curved wall suggests a circus ring and shares the stage with earth, air, and sea. Whimsical costumes, some quite abstract, evoke the animal identities. The Lion has a mane (of a fashion), the Kangaroos have tails, and the Elephant—well, she wears a tutu. Erickson can take at least partial credit for that. Searching for her daughter’s ballet shoe in the SF Ballet School’s lost-and-found, she saw “a little kid’s pink tutu,” she says. “I brought it to the studio and Alexei said, ‘It’s perfect.’ [Principal Dancer] Lorena [Feijoo, who created the role of the Elephant] wore it in rehearsal to see how it would look.”
In rehearsals last summer, the dancers looked suitably distraught as the Swan collapsed at the end of her solo. Patting her pointe shoe sadly or sobbing on each other’s shoulders, they broke into smiles when the music stopped. And how could they not? Ratmansky “approaches everything in a childlike way, discovering things, which is really fun,” says Erickson. “He was tremendously playful with it.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
The story of Francesca da Rimini, immortalized in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, has a long and varied pedigree in the art world. The snippet of history has made its way from literature to opera to symphonic fantasia to ballet—and now to San Francisco Ballet, in the creative hands of Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. For someone like Possokhov, with a tendency to lean toward the dramatic, who better than Dante for the story, or Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the composer of so many beloved ballets, for the music? Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, a 25-minute symphonic poem, attracted Possokhov years ago. He describes it as the most romantic music in history, with an ending “like an apocalypse.”
In other words, the music, based on the tale of Francesca and Paolo, adulterous lovers destined to spend eternity in Hell, is choreographically intimidating. Possokhov waited to use it for so long, he says, because he felt that he needed to be ready as a choreographer. “I was holding [on to the idea], to be more mature,” he says. “I didn’t know how to approach it stylistically.” Also, he didn’t want a stripped-down presentation; he wanted a full set, sometimes a financial obstacle. And he finally got the go-ahead. In Possokhov’s Francesca da Rimini, with Renaissance-influenced costumes by Sandra Woodall, the dramatic story plays out on a set dominated by the gates of Hell.
Although the tale of Francesca and Paolo was part of the music’s appeal for Possokhov—he likes to make story ballets—the score itself was the primary draw. “You can’t escape from this music,” the choreographer says. Once he’d made his choice, he was panicking, he says, “because it’s such strong music and I thought I couldn’t find any steps for it.” But it took only three rehearsals before he began to relax. “I found some language that matches,” he says.
Tchaikovsky wrote Francesca da Rimini in October and November of 1876, and the piece premiered in 1877. The composer had considered approaching the story in opera form, using a libretto by music critic Konstantin Zvantsev, but he scrapped the idea when Zvantsev wanted a Wagnerian approach, an aesthetic that Tchaikovsky didn’t share. But he didn’t let the idea go, finally using it as the basis for a symphonic fantasy. To tell this story, Tchaikovsky brewed a wild, whirling storm of a score, revealing what some music historians say is the influence of Franz Liszt (the “father” of the symphonic poem, a form based on a literary, pictorial, or other non-musical source) in his use of story and chromaticism (an expansion of the 8-tone scale to 12. Tchaikovsky’s emotional connection to the story is obvious in the music, particularly in the plaintive clarinet solo that introduces the adagio. It speaks for Francesca, who in Dante’s poem says, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery.”
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Possokhov’s Francesca da Rimini (© Erik Tomasson)
Though it spans only a few dozen lines in the fifth canto of “The Inferno,” Francesca’s story is a potent one. Married to Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini (who, according to historical accounts, was quite ugly, and a cripple or hunchback), Francesca falls in love with his younger brother, the handsome Paolo. While reading the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere together, Francesca and Paolo give in to their passion and are discovered by her husband. He murders both of them, and they spend eternity whirling through the Second Circle of Hell (reserved for those who sin through sensual pleasure), near enough to touch but never together.
Possokhov isn’t the first choreographer to find Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem irresistible. Francesca da Rimini first appeared in ballet form in 1915, choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Maryinsky. Then, in 1937, David Lichine choreographed a version for Col. De Basil’s Ballet Russe, presented in London and, later that year, in New York. The same story was told through different music when Nicolai Kholfin choreographedhis ballet to a score by Boris Asafiev in 1947, for Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. Another production, by William Dollar, premiered at Le Théâtre d’ Art du Ballet in Paris in 1961.
As a student in Moscow, Possokhov had heard of a Stanislavsky Ballet production set to the Tchaikovsky score, but he never saw it. And now he is glad that he came to the score fresh, unencumbered by others’ interpretations. In his conceptual process he often looks to the fine and literary arts for inspiration—cases in point are his painting-inspired Magrittomania and literature-based Damned, a retelling of the Greek tragedy Medea. So it’s not surprising that for a ballet based on Dante, Possokhov references Rodin’s famous sculpture The Gates of Hell. He brings to life the three Shades that top the doors, quoting their instantly recognizable pose: three male figures tucked into a tight circle, their fists leading the viewer’s eye to the famous quote from “The Inferno”: “Abandon every hope, who enter here.” (The gates also depict Francesca and Paolo, later the unnamed subjects of Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss.)
Possokhov’s three Shades, in his ballet, do in fact seem like gatekeepers of Hell. In addition to the Shades, illuminating and commenting on the action, are five women whom the choreographer describes as court people and beyond. “They have a lot of roles,” he says. Like an ensemble mirror for Francesca, they echo “her feelings, her emotions, maybe her senses,” says Possokhov. But at the heart of the ballet are the two lovers, Francesca and Paolo. For Possokhov, the marriage, betrayal, and murders are merely the setting, the circumstances in which Francesca and Paolo find their great love. And that’s only fitting since nearly half the ballet consists of their pas de deux, a 10-minute adagio of breathtaking beauty.
In rehearsals for the adagio, Possokhov emphasizes simplicity, and the tiniest changes provoke huge smiles from him. “I love this,” he says, watching the results after he changes a step from second position (legs wide apart in the same plane) to fifth (tight together, one foot in front of the other). When Principal Dancer Joan Boada pulls Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova from the floor to his shoulder, tucking her head next to his, Possokhov calls out, “Release muscles. No muscles!” Her body immediately softens, and Possokhov beams.
In creating movement, Possokhov starts with an ideal—what he sees in his own body—and then fits that ideal to the dancers. “I adjust to my aesthetic and my musicality,” he says. “All choreographers create on their body. I have to find another way for [the dancers], with my aesthetic but different execution.” In this ballet Possokhov uses the floor extensively, as if subliminally referencing Hell. And he pushes for musicality, asking for more sweep, more suspension, more resistance. “Don’t be dancerly,” he says during a run-through, and the dancers comply. Yet the result, in both line and musicality, is pure.
His Francesca da Rimini, Possokhov says, is “about the adagio. Everything is preparing for it.” Everything else—the marriage, betrayal, murders, condemnation— is, to the choreographer, the “frame of the painting.” And the painting itself? It’s the pas de deux, that glorious, passionate whirlwind of love.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In Trio, San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson captures the energy, momentum, and varied emotional tones of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Created for the 2011 Repertory Season, Trio offers an aesthetic and emotional experience that’s as deserving of remembrance as any souvenir. It’s a visually rich triptych of a ballet, with sets and costumes as lush as the choreography.
Vanessa Zahorian and Vitor Luiz in Tomasson’s Trio (© Erik Tomasson)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) wrote only five chamber compositions, and his sublimely danceable Souvenir de Florence was his first attempt at a string sextet. He wrote it in 1890, describing the process in a letter to his brother as “unimaginably difficult.” He revised it in 1892 and it premiered late that year. He titled the piece for its point of origin, Florence, where he wrote the first two movements. But he finished it in Russia, a change of location that’s audible in the Slavic undertones of the last two movements. They “have a different flavor” than the first two, says Tomasson, adding that Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West told him they should be played as one. So a quartet of musical movements became, instead, a trio.
Souvenir de Florence is inarguably glorious. Tomasson first heard the piece 30 years ago at New York City Ballet, and as a choreographer, he responded to the score’s drama and richness. Because he hadn’t heard the music in many years, he remembered it as “one thing from beginning to end. And of course I discovered almost immediately that it wasn’t.” The three-part structure posed an immediate question: should he connect the movements? The more he thought about that idea, he says, the less he liked it. “I kept coming back to the title, Souvenir.” The word connotes “images or remembrances,” he says, of three discrete occasions.
The next question was how to interpret each of those musical “occasions.” For the first, an allegro (fast and spirited), Tomasson sends a principal couple and five corps couples soaring through choreography that’s dynamic, elegant, and playful. Soloist Courtney Elizabeth, who dances the movement’s principal female role, says the music reminds her of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, “with the soaring strings. There’s lots of motion in it, and I think it comes from the music a little bit.” But she also credits the choreography. “The music is very dramatic and I think Helgi uses that well,” she says. “In my first entrance, I’m up in the air coming through a sea of corps [dancers]. That kind of drama is fun to dance.”
The second movement, the adagio, is ballet’s traditional home for the slow, romantic pas de deux. But the length (more than nine minutes) and depth of this adagio made Tomasson think beyond the traditional love duet. “It has a certain sadness about it, a feeling of inevitability,” he says. “The first part is very longing and revealing, and it gets interrupted with those staccato violins, almost ghostlike. There’s some eeriness going on.” When the melody repeats, he says: “it’s deeper, sadder. Something has happened.”
So after beginning the adagio with a pas de deux, Tomasson segues into a dance for three. A solo man, a figure of death, lets an embracing couple dance their declaration of love, then wages gentle battle for possession of the woman. Tomasson says he doesn’t see her fighting death. “She accepts it,” he says. “It’s like death is stronger than love.”
The music for the third dance movement is “very Russian sounding, but not overpowering,” says Tomasson. So he took a subtle approach, working in what he describes as “Russian motif steps” that draw on character dance. Near the end the music builds again. “It gets very joyous, fast, and exciting,” he says.
The word “souvenir” might suggest something with little more meaning than a postcard. But Tomasson works with the weightier concept of remembrance, investing Trio with the resonance of his childhood impressions of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music. The result is a ballet that matches the score in explosiveness, drama, and emotional intensity.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola