In 2005, when Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson was planning a new ballet, he discovered a composer whose music he’d never heard before—Karl Jenkins. After stumbling on Jenkins’ Palladio, Tomasson immediately wanted more. And when Jenkins’ publishing house sent him the String Quartet No. 2, he knew he had found the ballet score for The Fifth Season, which premiered during the 2006 Repertory Season and was last performed on the Company’s 75th Anniversary Tour in 2008. “I felt it was contemporary to today, and it’s romantic,” says Tomasson. “Even though it’s in the minimalist genre, there’s a swell of melodic feeling underneath.”
Welsh composer Karl Jenkins entered the professional music scene as a jazz musician, but since then his career has defied categorization. He has created works for the advertising industry, The Royal Ballet, the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, the Oxford Festival, and a feature film. His best-known work, Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary (1994) has bridged the worlds of pop and classical music and topped music charts worldwide. In 2005 Queen Elizabeth II awarded him an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to British music. His music isn’t often used for ballet scores, which was another reason it appealed to Tomasson.
The Fifth Season takes its title from the first movement of Jenkins’ five-part String Quartet. The phrase, which seems to suggest something that’s beyond the ordinary, intrigued Tomasson. “It’s not the fifth season as in the four seasons. It said something else to me, opened up other ideas,” he says. He wanted the ballet to have six movements, so for the adagio pas de deux Tomasson added the largo from Palladio, part of the music that had initially grabbed his attention.
Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season (© Erik Tomasson)
The pas de deux “has lovely, soft, lyrical qualities,” said Ashley Wheater (formerly Tomasson’s assistant and a Company ballet master, and now artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet), during the creation of the ballet. “Each section is very different, and at first I thought they were really extreme in their ideas. But you can really see how they link together.”
Although Jenkins is often classified as a minimalist, the music for The Fifth Season has “a lot of soul,” said Wheater.“ And Helgi picked up on that.” That soul emerges through the music’s wide range in terms of dynamic and feeling. And Tomasson makes the most of those varied tones in his choreography. The pulse of violins lightens the strong movements of the corps de ballet; a waltz is angular, then undulating, then suspended; the dancers alternately attack and melt into a tango’s sharp rhythms.
Minimalist or not, the music is powerful. Principal Dancer Damian Smith, describing the adagio pas de deux he has danced with Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, says the music draws them in, allowing them to dance as if they were one. “We’re so drawn to each other, in sync, almost overwhelmed by the music. I’m not just lifting her and turning her—I feel as though I’m the one dancing. I’m doing the same steps; I’m just doing them in my hands,” he says. “I can feel what it’s like for her to be lifted; I can feel the momentum of a turn slowing down. I have to know when to push, when to release, or when to help a little more.”
Throughout the ballet, Tomasson’s choreography maintains a coolness and sophistication that doesn’t obscure its inherent drama. As Smith explains, “We’re not trying to compete with the music, but allowing it to be what it is. We’re flowing with it instead of being aggressive and matching it. There’s a similar thread in most of Helgi’s pieces in that you’re challenging yourself against the music, allowing it to draw you through the piece rather than trying to push yourself through the music. His steps are not always the obvious. There’s a subtlety to his choreography that makes it original.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In his first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Choreographer Edwaard Liang chose to create a “spiritual, abstract world,” he says, “what you would call the in-between, where it’s neither this world nor the next world.” His concept is a perfect match for his choice of music, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. “It’s very spiritually based,” Liang says of the score. “Some people would call it dark, but I consider it intensely spiritual. As a choreographer I don’t want to limit audiences in what they see. This is an abstract ballet, so I really want them to find themselves through it.”
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Liang grew up in the Bay Area, training at Marin Ballet and later at the School of American Ballet in New York. He discovered his choreographic chops while dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater, a company he calls “hyper-creative. They saw that I had a lot of ideas, so they tried to foster that in me,” he says. “And I really thank them for opening me up that way.” He claims that he had such tunnel vision about his dancing that he wouldn’t have even thought about trying his hand at choreographing without that encouragement.
Liang was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2006, and he received a Choo-San Goh award for choreographic potential for his work with The Washington Ballet. Now he creates ballets for companies worldwide, including Shanghai Ballet, Hubbard Street 2, Kirov Ballet, Singapore Dance Theatre, and Joffrey Ballet. His new Romeo and Juliet for Tulsa Ballet opened on February 10, 2012, to standing ovations. SF Ballet audiences have seen two of his works, Distant Cries and Somewhere in Time, in the 2008 and 2011 Opening Night Galas, respectively.
Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets rehearsing Liang’s World Premiere (© Erik Tomasson)
But before he became a choreographer, Liang was a dancer who was eager to taste “every bit I could possibly do.” So in 2001 he left his job as a soloist with New York City Ballet, where he’d danced since 1993, to do what few ballet dancers do: perform on Broadway. Jumping into the cast of Fosse on the invitation of the show’s co-director and co-choreographer, Ann Reinking, he had only five days to learn the role—and give himself a crash course in jazz dance. When Fosse closed, Liang headed to The Netherlands, then returned to New York City Ballet from 2004 to 2007. After guesting for a few years with such companies as Norwegian National Ballet and Morphoses, Liang retired from dancing to choreograph full-time.
The way Liang sees it, his commission for San Francisco isn’t just a new ballet; it’s a creation made specifically for the Company. And so his choice of music was critical. “I wanted to make sure it worked not only for [Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s] dancers, but also for his program for this year,” Liang says. “I’ve been a huge fan of this music for years and years.” He decided it was perfect for SF Ballet, “even though it’s quite intimidating to do such a massive piece. It’s a huge orchestration and it’s really just big, bold music. And that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to it.”
Rachmaninov, born in Semyonovo, Russia, in 1873, made his name not only as a composer in the Romantic tradition, but also as a brilliant pianist. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and counted Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov as major influences. Although he left Russia during the Revolution, eventually settling in the U.S., he once said that he could never separate his Russianness from his music. Symphonic Dances was his last composition. He wrote it in 1940, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Rachmaninov had close ties to conductor Eugene Ormandy) premiered the piece in January of the following year. Calling it Fantastic Dances at first, Rachmaninov hoped to interest Michel Fokine (then working with the fledgling Ballet Theatre, later American Ballet Theatre) in choreographing to it. He had collaborated with Fokine on one ballet, Paganini, in 1939, and had hoped to do another. But Fokine died in 1942, and Symphonic Dances didn’t become a ballet until 1994, when NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins used the score for his ballet of the same name.
It’s likely that Rachmaninov was aware that Symphonic Dances would be his last composition. He included the Gregorian chant “Dies irae,” part of a requiem mass, in the third movement of this late-in-life work; in the first, he quoted himself, revisiting a melody from his poorly received Symphony No. 1. And near the end of the score, he penciled in the word “Alliluya.” Images of death, a resurrected melody, and an exclamation of joy—all fitting content for a final masterpiece.
Once Liang had chosen his music, he asked a friend who teaches composition at Juilliard to work on the score with him. “Even though Rachmaninov is really beautiful to listen to, it’s quite complex in structure,” Liang says. “I come from the house of [George] Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins, and music comes first. It’s really important to me. I broke it down, and to tell you the truth, this piece of music really does the work for me.” In studying it, he knew immediately where the pas de deux (there are three) would fall, when the ensemble of 18 dancers would be onstage. “It’s very, very structured—in my mind,” says Liang. “Yet at the same time it’s so lush, so flowing.”
Unlike some choreographers who sketch out steps and then layer in complexity and nuance, Liang jam-packs his ballets at first and then simplifies the movement. “It’s easier for me to cut and make it more organic and flowing versus trying to reinsert steps; that never works for me,” he says. “It doesn’t feel quite as organic. I really like it when one thing leads to another.” He looks for ways to finesse the steps to make them comfortable for the dancers and also unpredictable for audiences. Working with Principal Dancers Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz on the third-movement pas de deux, he tells them, “It’s lush, a lot of steps, but what’s going to create this is your connection together. Find that.” The movement is ethereal, flowing, gestural. The dancers breathe, nudge, unfold, wrap. “Find where you need to push, where you need to let go,” he tells them.
Liang infuses his rehearsals with what seems to be a perpetual air of serenity and calm. Those hours in the studio, “getting to create and seeing where and how this ballet unfolds,” are the most rewarding part of choreographing, he says. But the process is still a mystery. “People ask me how I choreograph, and I really have no clue,” Liang says. “For me there is no recipe. I’m just lucky that I get to do what I do.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Glass Pieces, choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1983 for New York City Ballet and first performed by San Francisco Ballet in 1998, fills the stage, the mind, and the eye. Like the energetic pulse of a big city—a metaphor frequently ascribed to this work—it sets hearts racing and blood surging. Set to a circuitous, throbbing score by Philip Glass, whose work is often described as minimalist, the ballet is anything but minimal.
Glass Pieces might not exist were it not for a failed plan for Robbins to direct Glass’ opera Akhnaten. In Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, Deborah Jowitt wrote that Robbins, preparing for the opera, asked Glass for some music for a ballet, “ ‘to get my feet wet,’ in terms of dealing with Glass’ style and musical structure.” The composer complied, and Glass Pieces, sparked by Robbins’ interest in postmodern dance, was born.
Attempts to categorize this ballet fail miserably. “It changes,” says Jean-Pierre Frohlich, a member of the advisory committee for the Robbins Rights Trust who has staged the work for San Francisco Ballet several times, including in 2006, the last time the Company performed it. “It’s like three different pieces—I think the second one [a pas de deux backed by a never-ending assembly line of women] is timeless.” A mix of ballet, modern, and jazz dance, the ballet mesmerizes with its frenetic ensemble work, contagious exuberance, folk dance influences, and a heck of a lot of really fast walking.
San Francisco Ballet in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces (© Erik Tomasson)
The theme of urban urgency and isolation, reinforced by the grid-patterned backdrop that brings to mind city blocks, is most obvious in the ballet’s first movement, but it dominates most people’s perception of the work. “There’s a lot said about [the urban theme], but I think it’s valid,” Frohlich says. “The New York Times ran a picture of Grand Central Station at the holidays, and at the bottom it mentioned Glass Pieces. And if you go to Grand Central Station at rush hour and you look, they’re all walking like that, zigzagging to different areas.” The ballet’s pedestrians, hell-bent on their destinations, don’t see three couples that land in their midst to dance. “They don’t even know they’re there. Jerry used to call them aliens or space Martians,” says Frohlich.
That sense of otherworldliness continues in the second movement pas de deux. The line of women chugging behind the couple, Ballet Master Betsy Erickson says, “is like life going by while this couple is having this beautiful, breath-filled moment. It’s abstract, more than human, a super-beautiful human quality. It’s like a machine contrasting with the superhuman.”
In the third movement, folk motifs dominate in a mind-bogglingly complex rush of bodies on and off the stage. “It goes totally to the folk celebration, the harvest,” says Erickson. In rehearsal, she calls out the names of various sections: Apples and Oranges, Coming Forward, Ins and Outs. “They’re from Robbins,” Erickson explains. “He would say things like, ‘Gather the apples and oranges.’ The women should look like they’re gathering and harvesting.” The complex rhythms defy counting. “They’re doing their movement in a six and the men do theirs in an eight,” says Erickson. “That’s what gets tough in the last section—the overlay of rhythms, of choreography in different sequences. It keeps gathering momentum. The dancers love it—they catch on the momentum, like horses chomping at the bit.
“This ballet has so many levels,” continues Erickson. “Every time I come back to it I find something new, things that I didn’t realize were going on simultaneously or that connect with something else.” A perennial audience pleaser, the ballet’s nonstop barrage of repetitive yet ever-changing images offers something for everyone. As Erickson says, “It’s the constant discovery of it.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola