Program Notes

Program 3 Notes

Guide to Strange Places

Choreographer Ashley Page has a quiet energy about him, like a fountain that’s overflowing. Talk to him and you’ll find him bubbling with ideas and observations. Watch him in the studio and you’ll see him pour textures and tones into the movement he’s matching to the dancers ’ personalities and physiques. For his first work for San Francisco Ballet, the former Scottish Ballet artistic director created a physical and movement world for 18 dancers in which his ballet roots, modern dance influences, and love of the visual arts are in full view.

Music is “my biggest passion,” says Page.“Although I love all the art forms—literature, film, visual arts—music’s the thing that’s been with me the longest and has always been an inspiration.” Bay Area composer John Adams’ Guide to Strange Places “was one of the first things to pop into my head,” he says about his choice of music for this ballet. “I felt it was the right piece for this company, certainly for my first time working with them. I felt confident that I could do something with it with them.

Adams’ Guide to Strange Places was inspired by a book he found in a Provence farmhouse, called Guide noir de la Provence mystérieuse (A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence). As quoted in the CD liner notes for a St. Louis Symphony recording of the music (Nonesuch), Adams said, “A chapter was dedicated to paysages insolites—or ‘strange places.’ . .. It set my imagination off. . . . In a sense, all of my pieces are travel pieces, often through paysages insolites—it’s the way I experience musical form.” In Guide to Strange Places, that form is driving and explosive, music that makes your heart jackhammer. The ending, says Page, is “incredible, so powerful, like a beast rolling over and dying or the earth splitting. It gets so savage and earthy and organic.”Page, who danced with The Royal Ballet, began dabbling in choreography in 1981; his first professional work for that company was in 1984, the same year he was promoted to principal dancer. He cites multiple choreographic influences, such as Richard Alston, whom he calls a mentor and great friend; Frederick Ashton, “with works like Scènes de ballet, Cinderella, and Symphonic Variations— that clutch of works in the late ’40s particularly”; and George Balanchine, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham.

But it was stepping outside the confines of The Royal Ballet, Page says, that changed the way he perceived dance and what he wanted to do with it. “What I discovered outside the company was dancing and choreography that seemed to be commenting on the nature of classicism in a very enlightening way, yet it was completely contemporary.” Later, he learned about narrative power in choreographing four full-length ballets for Scottish Ballet—dark, revisionist approaches to Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Alice.

For Guide to Strange Places, Page devised a series of duets within an ensemble work. Each duet has a flavor and texture that come partially from the music and partially from the dancers; part of his choreographic process is “responding to those people and choosing the right piece of music to go with what I want to get out of them.” One “is quite predatory and savage. She’s calling the shots and he’s dealing with her,” he says. Another is “faster and lighter. It’s got a delicacy about it. It’s almost like a romantic duet, but it isn’t.” A third is “very sensual,” danced to music that is “quite searing.”Much more fun, Page says, is a “mercurial couple” who dance multiple short duets.“ So they are kind of the link between things.”

Working with designer Jon Morrell, Page has incorporated satellite images of a decidedly strange place into the world he has envisioned for his dancers. This visual context, drawn from a place that’s partly manmade and partly organic, is the perfect tie-in to Adams’ score—and thus to the choreography, which Page calls “a complete response to the music.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola



If you’ve never heard of a revival harpsichord, choreographer Mark Morris’ Beaux will change that. It’s “big, clunky, wonderful, and underappreciated,” he says. And as the predominant instrument in two harpsichord compositions by Bohuslav Martinů, the music for Beaux, it will make you think twice about what harpsichord music can be. The instrument’s sound, says the choreographer, is louder and more aggressive than a traditional harpsichord’s. “It’s an unusual instrument and not very popular right now,” he says. “I think it’s fabulous.”

Much of the credit for the revival of the harpsichord goes to Polish musician Wanda Landowska. “When she was at her peak, in the ’30s, baroque music was played primarily on the piano and there was no such thing as the early music movement, so no one had built new harpsichords in the style of Renaissance and baroque instruments,” says Morris.“She wanted new music to play that people could hear in a modern concert hall, and so this sort of hybrid instrument came up that now people scorn because it lacks subtlety. You wouldn’t play baroque music on that. It’s not a baroque instrument playing modern music; it’s a modern instrument playing modernist music."

The artistic director of Mark Morris Dance Group since 1980, Morris is known for his passion for music. Lately, he says, “I’ve done a lot of scores from the early 20th century, from the teens, ’20s, and ’30s, because I like that point of view of early modernism. The 20th century and the 18th century are my specialty centuries, as far as music and aesthetics go.” In choosing to work with Martinů’s modernist music for harpsichord, Morris manages to encompass both. One of the pieces he chose, a concerto, is one of a handful of 20th-century compositions that brought the harpsichord back in a new way; in it, the harpsichord is paired with piano. “I love the sound of those two together,” Morris says. “A harpsichord’s phrasing is always through rubato and timing and you can’t do much with touch, which is why there’s also a piano.”
Morris has created more than 150 dances in his 31 years as a choreographer, nine of which are in San Francisco Ballet’s repertory. (Of those nine, only Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes wasn’t created for SF Ballet.) His process for creating a dance hasn’t changed over the years, he says. “I study the score as I always do, and then I just make up a dance on the spot with the people who are in it. I plan, but I don’t know what the moves are going to be.”Working with a ballet company is always a different experience from creating on his own dancers, who “can unfortunately read my mind. For good or ill, they know what’s coming,” Morris says. “I’m interested in making up dances that are softer and more intimate and gentler, more tender, in execution—not so positional and not so flashy.”

Beaux, which made its world premiere during the 2012 Repertory Season, features striking costumes and a large scale backdrop by iconic fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. The presentation is a perfect match for Morris’ intent. “I wanted to make up a dance with all the gentlemen that is not just about what men are compelled to do in the ballet industry,” he says. “I’m not that interested in the big, hard steps. My work is difficult and virtuosic in a way that isn’t exploding in midair; that’s something I’m not wild about seeing. I want a wider range of dancing than I often see in the ballet language. And [the men] aren’t used to partnering each other, so that makes them crazy, and it’s beautiful.”

The SF Ballet men, Morris says, are “wonderful and energetic and surprising, and I like to make that part of the dance.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Possokhov's The Rite of Spring

One hundred years ago, on May 29,1913, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, cultural history took a major step forward.  Vaslav Nijinsky’s new ballet for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), set to Igor Stravinsky’s now-iconic score, shook the foundations and preconceptions of the ballet world so hard that it literally caused a riot. Still today, the shockwaves continue to reverberate. Versions of this ballet, which disappeared from the Ballets Russes repertory quickly after a dozen or so performances, are now performed by ballet and modern-dance companies worldwide. And now, in The Rite of Spring’s centenary year, it’s San Francisco Ballet’s turn. In adding it to the Company’s repertory, Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi  Tomasson turned to Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov.

Possokhov was skeptical at first. Compared to making his Firebird (also to a Stravinsky score), he says The Rite of Spring is much more challenging. “It takes time to digest music and idea, because it’s not just a fairy tale. It means much more than fairy tales,” he says. “And especially after one hundred years of performances of this music, you understand how it’s so contemporary.” It reflects “what’s happening in the world, some dark sides of our society,” he says. “For me, this music is so matched to political and social life of the earth.”

The Rite of Spring dramatizes the pagan ritual of human sacrifice practiced in ancient Russia, depicting humanity at its most primitive. The subject matter alone was not exactly typical of ballet, and neither was Nijinsky’s movement. Depending on whose version of history you read, the turned-in, pounding, grotesque movement was to blame for the rioting at the premiere—or the unimaginably strange music, or both. What’s well documented is that the high-society ballet goers and young artists of Paris shouted in protest, yanked hats down over eyes, wielded canes and umbrellas as weapons, and threw punches. Uproar turned to outright brawling, and the police were called. Backstage, shouting above the din, Nijinsky stood on a chair yelling out the counts to his dancers, who couldn’t hear the music over the boisterous crowd. And according to Stravinsky, Diaghilev, who enjoyed upsetting the status quo with the innovations of his Paris-based troupe, said of the evening’s turn of events: “Exactly what I wanted.”

“For me, this music is so matched to political and social life of the earth.” Yuri Possokhov, SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence

What Possokhov  wants, in creating his own interpretation of this famous ballet, is to avoid the past, meaning his own training in Grigorovich-style movement (“close to folk,” he says) as well as the versions of The Rite of Spring he’s seen, which include Nijinsky’s and Pina Bausch’s. “I’m trying to avoid everything that I saw before. I think it’s hopeless,” he says. “A couple you can’t escape from, especially the first version.” For him, the first one was Nijinsky’s, which he saw when he was 20 or 21, performed by Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi. “It was very shocking inspiration; I loved it so much,” Possokhov says. “I was thriving on the [kind of] ballet I never saw; strange, with strange music.”

Though its roots are Russian (choreographer, composer, and setting), The Rite of Spring is so universally appealing to choreographers “that it’s beyond tradition,” Possokhov says. Among the many productions are those by Leonide Massine (1920; with Martha Graham in 1930), Mary Wigman (1957), Maurice Bejart (1959), Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1962), Vladimir Vasiliov and Natalia Kasatkina (1964),Glen Tetley (1973), Pina Bausch (1975), Paul Taylor (1980), Angelin Preljocaj(2001), Adam Hoagland (2009), and Christopher Stowell (2011). The centenary year will be filled with revivals and premieres, including Wayne McGregor’s for the Bolshoi.

Although he doesn’t see The Rite of Spring as representative of Russia, Possokhov does evoke his native country in his version, both in the movement and in the birch trees that dominate the setting. In rehearsals he emphasizes the down beat, asking for an accent on landings, a downward thrust to the arms. “The Russian way is down; it’s earthy,” he says.“Classics always [accent the] up; here it should be more earthy. In this ballet, everything should be down.” The birch trees— “one of the prettiest things in my life,” says Possokhov— symbolize beauty. The ugliness in Rite, he says, is in the people, and so he has opted to physically distort the Elders who choose the sacrificial victim. The choice of whom to kill “should come from people who are abnormal,” he explains. “So to show this abnormality, I have to find a shape of ugliness.” He wants to show the coexistence of beauty and ugliness, that it’s “one step from beautiful to ugly.”

In pairing his concept and movement with the music, Possokhov says he decided to work with “phrases I can hear myself” rather than relying on the written score. At first this music is hard to understand, he says, but once you do, it has “such harmony. There’s a  logic to it.”

“The score is hard,” agrees Music Director& Principal Conductor Martin West, “but it’s very satisfying.” What listeners find so complicated, he says, isn’t so bad for the musicians “because it’s so brilliantly written.” The difficulty is with the size of the orchestra and the piece’s rhythmic drive. “It’s very hard to get maybe 80 players—it’s a huge orchestra—to lock in on one rhythmic groove,” West says.“There’s this forward energy, which why it’s so exciting.” Portions of the score (for example, “The Glorification of the Chosen One”) are “a conductor’s nightmare,” West says. “The meter changes every single bar, but with huge venom, so it doesn’t take much to shake you off the track, only a slight wobble. And when you’re playing in the orchestra, there’s always a wobble. It’s like driving a car—you’re always veering around to correct the camber on the road. So the orchestra is always adjusting itself.”

With The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky created “a complete new language,” says West. “He even said that he didn’t know how to write it down. He knew what it was meant to sound like, but there was no language for it. The rhythms are outlandish.”The music is based on folk melodies, but they’re deeply buried. So part of what Stravinsky was doing, West says, was trying to re-create the sound of Russian folk instruments. “That’s why the bassoon is so high in the beginning,” he explains.“Nowadays it sounds beautiful. But a hundred years ago bassoonists could barely play it. It was meant to sound horrible.”

Possokhov calls working with this rule-defying Russian composer “passing through the school of Stravinsky music”— a necessary part of learning to make what he calls “big ballets.” So given the chance to make a The Rite of Spring,  he says, “I had to do it.” And happily, it’s here in San Francisco that he’s doing it. In the next year he has plenty of projects that willtake him far from home, including to Russia’s Ural region for a new ballet based on Alexander Pushkin’s story “The Snow Storm” and to Slovenia to make a full length ballet for his friend Irek Mukhanedov, formerly of the Bolshoi and Royal Ballets, who now heads Slovenian National Theatre Opera and Ballet Ljubljana.

The Rite of Spring, says West, creates “a very visceral response.” In the “Glorification” movement, “it’s like the world is rocking,” he says. “The orchestra is just whipping; the maestro is almost throwing it in the air.” What Possokhov hears in the music for Rite of Spring is brutality, and his visceral response is “not to be sophisticated with choreography,” to make the steps “more rough, more spontaneous.” There is deep meaning in this music, he says, and it’s up to him to reveal it.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Guide to Strange Places
Composer: John Adams
Choreographer: Ashley Page

Composer: Bohuslav Martinů
Choreographer: Mark Morris

The Rite of Spring
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov

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San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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