Suite en Blanc
Suite en Blanc may take you by surprise. Rarely seen in the United States, it’s the kind of show-offy neoclassical vehicle that allows a company to flaunt its dancerly riches. But it’s also a stylized piece that refuses to take itself too seriously. Bits of whimsy and humor, sometimes quite tongue-in-cheek, along with a “ta-da!” presentation and vignettes of stunning beauty, make Suite en Blanc unusual, surprising, and endlessly delightful. This is a ballet that loves to have fun.
Part of Suite en Blanc’s freshness lies in the fact that it was choreographed by Serge Lifar, a dancer who’s indelibly linked with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and whose work isn’t often seen in this country. Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1905, he made his way to Paris in 1923, invited by Bronislava Nijinska (sister of the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky) to join Diaghilev’s troupe, which had been making waves since its debut in 1909. Two years later, in 1925, he became a premier danseur (known, however, more for his sex appeal than for his dancing). He created the title roles in George Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète in 1928 (called Apollo since the 1940s) and The Prodigal Son in 1929, the year Diaghilev died.
Lifar began choreographing at the Ballets Russes, debuting with Le Renard in 1929. But it was during his 14 years with Paris Opera Ballet (1930–1944) that his choreographic career took off. During that time he made Suite en Blanc (1943) and one of his best-known works, Icare (1935), along with many others. After two years as founder and artistic director of Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, he returned to the Paris Opera as director, choreographer, and dancer. During the remainder of his tenure there, until 1958, he created more than 20 ballets, the last of which was his Daphnis et Chloë. Thereafter he created works for various companies and, before his death in 1986, wrote more than 25 books.
Suite en Blanc, set to music excerpted from the 1882 ballet Namouna by Èdouard Lalo, is a series of divertissements, separate but linked dances that are diverse in tone—floaty to flirty to majestic to spunky—yet still share Lifar’s signature style. The names of the dances (for example, Sieste, Serenade, Cigarette.) come from the full Namouna score and were keyed to a story; in Suite en Blanc they carry no meaning. (Still, Lifar did enjoy playing on the names at times—watch closely and you’ll see images of wafting smoke in Cigarette). His favorite movement motif—a flattened profile with shoulders turned 90 degrees to the hips, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art and clearly rooted in Art Deco style—appears often, particularly in elegant struts on and off the stage.
Paris Opera Ballet premiered Suite en Blanc in Zurich, Switzerland, with Lifar in a lead role (the mazurka, says Maina Gielgud, who staged the work for San Francisco Ballet) along with Yvette Chauviré, Solange Schwarz, and Lycette Darsonval. Gielgud has also staged it for the English National, Royal Danish, Australian, Hong Kong, and Houston Ballets. The ballet also been performed by Grand Ballet Classique de France (with Gielgud dancing), Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Tulsa Ballet.
SF Ballet is only the third U.S. company to include Suite en Blanc in its repertory. When Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson saw it years ago in Paris, he put it on his mental back burner. He decided to add it to the Company’s repertory when he noted the enthusiasm surrounding English National Ballet’s recent production. “This is a historic ballet,” Tomasson says, “and sometimes it’s not bad to take a look back. I’m always looking for something classical.”
For a while Suite en Blanc took on a different name—Noir et Blanc, with black introduced into the previously all-white costume color scheme. Paris Opera Ballet performed it under that name, but drama erupted in 1958 when the Marquis de Cuevas staged it for his Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo without Lifar’s permission. A heated argument between de Cuevas and Lifar segued into a most theatrical duel (and a very smart publicity stunt). Armed with sharp-tipped épées, the marquis, 73, and Lifar, 54, waged elegant battle until Lifar received a nick on the arm and the two men reconciled in tears.
Suite en Blanc resumed its original name and primarily white costumes in 1981, when Lifar revived it at Australian Ballet. More than ever, Gielgud says, “wherever I stage it everyone seems to love it. The dancers gulp it up, the audiences, the critics. It’s like, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for!’ ” She attributes that interest at least partially to the Lifar style, “which is very special to him, and nowadays pretty unique, coming through that whole stable that started with the Ballets Russes and [Léonide] Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. And at the beginning you can almost see some bits of Balanchine in there.”
And Gielgud should know. Suite en Blanc, in which she danced several roles, was with her “for the better part of my career,” she says. That career included dancing with de Cuevas’ company, Maurice Béjart’s 20th Century Ballet, Berlin Opera Ballet, and London Festival (now English National) Ballet, and guesting internationally, including as Rudolf Nureyev’s partner. Later she directed Australian Ballet for 14 years and Royal Danish Ballet for two.
But before all that, when she was a 15-year-old student in Paris, she danced the Cigarette variation from Suite en Blanc for a gala, and her coach was Lifar himself. “He was larger than life,” says Gielgud. “I remember his voice. He was full of stories about the Diaghilev time, full of stories about him in the Diaghilev time. I remember his very large emphasis on style and shapes and forms more than anything else, and I can visualize him showing those shapes.”
And so, in setting Suite en Blanc, an emphasis on shapes is paramount. In rehearsals Gielgud flits from dancer to dancer, adjusting an arm here, a chin or a hand there. A half an inch makes a difference, as does the direction of the gaze. “The whole place belongs to you,” she tells one of the principal dancers in the pas de trois. “Proclaim everything you’re doing.” To another, finessing the arms-held-wide ending of a pirouette sequence: “Give them the whole world.”
That sense of generosity is essential in doing Suite en Blanc well—and it’s what Gielgud calls the “bee in my bonnet. I think with classical ballet, to make it relevant, dancers need to be generous with their movement—to share their love of dancing, make the audience want to move as they’re watching.” To the dancers Gielgud says, “The fun is to indulge in the style, flirt with it, sell it. Treat it like a contemporary ballet.” Later, away from the studio, she laughs and says that to give this ballet its due, the dancers “need to have arrogant chic.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
In the Night
In 1970, only a year after choreographing his masterful Dances at a Gathering for New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins made In the Night, once again using the music of Frédéric Chopin. Small and intimate, the ballet has the same kind of deep emotional core as Dances at a Gathering, so it’s hard not to see the similarities. But a sense of camaraderie permeates Dances at a Gathering, while the characters of In the Night can think of nothing but their lovers. A longtime favorite of many ballet goers, In the Night was last performed by San Francisco Ballet in 2008.
As is often the case in Robbins’ work, the characters in In the Night are sharply drawn. The three couples offer a peek into their lives; at the intimacy, the constraints, the longing. The mood is set for romance as the curtain rises in silence, revealing a starlit sky. A couple dressed in eveningwear appears and then the music—a Chopin nocturne—begins. In this youthful encounter, the lovers dance with a sense of joyful discovery, the man draping the woman over his arms, sometimes melting with her to the floor, sometimes swinging her into the air. They play out their unabashed exclamations of love and then exit in a rush, their exuberance matched by her swirling skirt.
Another couple enters and we see at once, by their reserve and dress, that they are in a more mature phase of love. Elegant and smooth as they move side by side in folk-dance motifs, at times they shed their restraint as if driven by memories of their courtship and a need to express their deep connection. The third couple, in contrast, enters with tempers flaring, and there’s no mistaking the subtext in their relationship. Physical desire and emotional friction seem equally matched as they dance out their tempestuous struggle.
It’s hard to imagine better music for such passionate interludes than Chopin’s dreamy piano nocturnes. He wrote 20 of them; the four Robbins chose for In the Night were written between 1830 and 1843. It’s possible that Chopin’s work reminded the choreographer—who struggled throughout his life with identity issues about his Russian Jewish heritage—of his family’s roots in Eastern Europe. In any case, Robbins turned to the Polish composer’s music repeatedly, for The Concert and Other Dances as well as for Dances at a Gathering and In the Night.
Born in 1810, Chopin studied at the conservatory in Warsaw, where he favored the piano. Infatuated with a fellow student who was a singer, he often attended her performances. His exposure to bel canto opera, in which long, sustained passages alternate with vocally virtuosic ones, influenced his composing style, particularly his nocturnes. With its increasingly intricate melody, Op. 9, No. 2, the final piece of In the Night, is one of the best examples of that artistic crossover. Other influences include the works of Bach and Mozart, whom Chopin revered, and traditional Polish folk dances. Chopin spent the second half of his short life in Paris, where he met his longtime lover, the novelist Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dudevant (aka George Sand). The composer died far too young, of tuberculosis, in 1849.
The word “nocturne” refers to evening or night, a plausible source of Robbins’ name for his new ballet. And nighttime “breeds a certain elegance and strangeness” that shaped the ballet, writes Deborah Jowitt in Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. She suggests that the “shifts and disruptions” of Chopin’s nocturnes influenced the choreographic phrasing of In the Night. She writes: “By sometimes traveling hand in hand with the music, sometimes jostling subtly against it, his choreography reflects the changeability of relationships.” That’s an aptly poetic description of a ballet that explores three faces of love.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Imagine a ballet based on the concept of dancers embodying paintings. Now imagine it happening in anything but a literal way. That’s the way British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s mind works. His cerebral form of artistic vision yields technology-integrated dances that explore the human mind as equally as they do the body. So it’s unlikely that viewers who see McGregor’s new work for San Francisco Ballet—his first commission—without having read about it first will make the connection to the work of German-American artist Josef Albers. But in an abstract way, in McGregor’s own particular aesthetic sense, that connection between dance and fine art is there.
McGregor began his dance career in the modern-dance world; his company, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, resident company of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, has been offering viewers new ways of thinking about dance since 1992. These days, while his company tours the world, McGregor is likely to be found at London’s Royal Opera House, where he has created 11 works since 2004. The resident choreographer for The Royal Ballet for five years, he recently signed on to continue in that role through 2017. In addition, he serves as artistic associate along with fellow choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
McGregor’s choreographic career spans more than 30 works for Random and for companies such as the Netherlands Dance Theatre, Rambert Dance, and the Paris Opera, Bolshoi, Stuttgart, New York City, English National, and Australian Ballets. Among his dozens of site-specific pieces was a dance for the 2012 Olympic Games, performed at Trafalgar Square. He has worked in opera, theater, television and film (including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); developed Creative Learning programs for children; and operates a creative think tank in Kenya, at which the Sundance Institute resides periodically. His lengthy list of honors includes Critics Circle and Laurence Olivier Awards, and in 2011 he was awarded a CBE, Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
McGregor’s history with SF Ballet goes back to 2007, when the Company performed his Eden/Eden; Chroma was a hit with SF Ballet audiences in 2011 and 2012. Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson had been talking to McGregor about a commission for years; “it was just finding the right time and the right idea,” McGregor says. “For me the idea has to fit the purpose, and this one had to fit the context of the work here. And so I thought about what pieces of mine you had here and how I might be able to challenge myself on the dancers in a different way.”
For this new work, McGregor wanted music that would emerge through a prolonged “conversation” between dance and music—an electronic score, he decided, which, without the additional process of orchestrating, would permit quick exchanges. And so he turned to Joel Cadbury, “a brilliant young British composer who writes for the band Unkle,” and Cadbury’s collaborator Paul Stoney. McGregor describes their music as “sonic architecture,” which appealed to him because it was “very analogous to the conceptual idea I had.”
“Sonic architecture is a very good way of describing the score,” says
Cadbury. Along with songwriting, he has written for film, television, and advertising,
including (with Stoney) such clients as Bentley, Ford, and PlayStation. McGregor’s
experimental method of fitting and refitting is a process Cadbury is used to, he says;
he sees value in everything that’s created, even if ultimately it’s not
used. “Even our very early outlines, sketches of the sonic architecture, were
used by Wayne to begin his journey into the movement,” he says. “It’s
only when he begins to make his choreography that we learn if what we are making fits.
And it is only when we start putting everything together in context with the arc of
the piece that these discoveries can be made.” McGregor gives them the freedom
to explore, Cadbury says, and the goal is to “challenge preconceptions.”
As he has for 20 years, McGregor enlisted lighting designer Lucy Carter to help him create his visual world. “We wanted to do something very simple, a kind of light-installation piece, with a blank canvas in terms of the architecture,” McGregor says. “Why? Because the central point of departure for all of this is the work of Josef Albers, a Bauhaus-influenced artist who worked with rigorous shape and color to do amazing optical things. I thought that was a really interesting way to start.” The Bauhaus movement has a place in the lineage of dance, starting with designer/choreographer Oskar Schlemmer’s translation of architectural principles onto the body (notably in his Triadic Ballet, using geometric and mechanical forms), which in turn influenced dance-notation pioneer Rudolf Laban and later, says McGregor, choreographers such as William Forsythe.
So McGregor and his team went to Connecticut and immersed themselves (under the inspirational tutelage of the Albers Foundation Director and author Nicholas Fox Weber) in the Josef Albers Foundation archives. One resource, Albers’ book Interaction of Color, is about how “colors work together in simple ways to deceive the eye,” says McGregor. “And I love this idea. I thought that might be an interesting way to work physically. How could we deceive the eye as to how many bodies or how many limbs are there [onstage]?”
If McGregor’s new piece has an organizing principle, it’s in Albers’ Homage to the Square. He’s aiming for a pixilation effect with the lighting, which will use a new system of LED lights to paint the human form in a granular way. Both music and dancing are being created in four-minute segments. As of October 2012, McGregor had already choreographed 16 four-minute dance segments all directly in response to the Albers work—more than he will use—with no decisions yet about which of the 40 mini-pieces of music made so far will accompany them.
But that was all part of the plan. For McGregor, the two-and-a-half month interval between the fall and January rehearsals is a gift of time that enriches the creative process, allowing him to make choreography and have a composer respond to it. The interval, built into SF Ballet’s schedule because of Nutcracker, also allows the dancers to absorb and interpret what they’ve been given. “I’ve been saying to the dancers, ‘It’s one thing to learn choreography, but then what?’ It’s the surface, not the piece,” says McGregor. “The only way it can be something is if they embody it and live with it longer.”
For McGregor, creating a new dance is always about teaching himself something new. He goes into the studio with a well-planned concept but an open mind about its evolution. As he demonstrates the steps, he accompanies them with scat singing, a tremendously effective method of conveying movement quality and intent. Much of the music he’s working with has minimal rhythmic drive—it’s like a tapestry of sustained sound onto which he layers his movement without counts. The pairing of music and movement is fluid for now; the counts come later, if needed.
To get the most out of McGregor’s dances, it’s best to arrive at the theater as he does at the studio: ready to discover the infinite potential of dance, the body, and the human mind. “Albers gets me on a visceral level,” says McGregor. “This is rich information that no one will see in the dance, but it will be there. It makes you have to think about things in a different way.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola