Program Notes

Program 4 Notes

Scotch Symphony

George Balanchine, prolific choreographer that he was, found inspiration in the world that surrounded him, past and present, from classicism to kitsch. And in 1952 he made Scotch Symphony, a ballet that draws on multiple sources: a visit to Scotland, the Romantic ballet La Sylphide, and German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), minus its first movement. In Balanchine’s inimitable way, he melded military imagery, Scottish traditional dancing, the symphony’s lyricism, and the concept of a mystical sylph into a delightful, one-of-a-kind ballet.

Scotch Symphony premiered at New York City Ballet on November 11, 1952, with Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky as the leads. The seed for the ballet was planted during New York City Ballet’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival, where Balanchine observed military performances combining pipers, drummers, and dancers doing traditional reels. He sandwiched the heart of his ballet, a classical pas de deux reminiscent of the set-in-Scotland La Sylphide, between two lively movements of Highland-tinged, virtuosic dancing, as precise as those military spectacles. Rounding out the ballet’s Scottish character along with the music, written after Mendelssohn visited Scotland in 1829, are kilts, feathered hats, and tartan sashes.

It’s difficult to say whether Balanchine was influenced by Philippe Taglioni’s original 1932 La Sylphide or the 1936 Royal Danish Ballet version by August Bournonville. “Balanchine never talked about sources,” says Nancy Reynolds, director of research for The George Balanchine Foundation. “Tallchief, the original Sylph, never ventured a guess.”However, in the early 1930s Balanchine served as guest ballet master at the Royal Danish, where Bournonville’s technique is preserved. And San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, who danced Scotch Symphony many times during his long career at New York City Ballet, sees a strong Bournonville influence in the pas de deux.

Staging the SF Ballet production for the 2012 Repertory Season was Maria Calegari, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, who described Scotch Symphony as “an homage to classicism.”Then she added, “It’s just fun!” She thinks one reason Balanchine created this ballet was to give Tallchief a role worthy of her classicism. “[The role] calls to mind all the old great ballerinas—[Anna] Pavlova, [Alexandra] Danilova, who helped create [Balanchine’s] Coppélia,” says Calegari.“There’s lots of footwork for the ballerina. And the principal man, in true classical ballet fashion, is the ardent lover.” And Balanchine, she says, “brings his incredible musicality.”

The ballet’s heart, a long adagio pas de deux, has both light and dark sides, “happiness and passion,” according to Calegari. As in La Sylphide, the ballerina entices her man, but this isn’t a simple love duet. Referring to two occasions when a phalanx of kilted men picks up the ballerina, sending her into the man’s arms in an illusion of flying, Tomasson draws a parallel to the Romantic era: “I think to[Balanchine] it was the illusion of the Sylph flying through this Scottish countryside, a sort of ethereal floating. Because in La Sylphide the Sylph is in a tree and she leans out—it’s that old-fashioned theater—like she’s hovering in the air.” In a sense, then, the men substitute for the tree, “creating the illusion of weightlessness” for the ballerina, he says. Asked if the moment could be read as the ballerina throwing herself at her love, Tomasson smiles. “Just like the Sylph,” he says.

Leave it to Balanchine to integrate Highland styling into classical ballet steps and make the blend look completely natural. Much of the dancing is fast, and none of it is easy. Along with the second movement pas de deux, Calegari notes “the incredibly difficult solo passage for the [female] soloist in the first movement. And the girls [doing] it are wonderful.” But what makes this ballet challenging is more than the steps and the styling. “It isn’t easy to work on an early Balanchine. You have to honor that and bring something to it, emotionally and physically,” she says. “And there’s the historical context, the reflection on history, which we lose every day in our society.”

Scotland, says Calegari, has “something magical about it,” and that’s the real reason to dance—or watch—Scotch Symphony. “It’s got that magic in it,” she says, “and it’s beautiful.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Within the Golden Hour

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon looks at each new ballet as an opportunity to stretch himself artistically, and that’s the approach he took in creating Within the Golden Hour for San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival in 2008. His choreography, he says, embodies “a kind of synthesis between using the classical ballet technique, which I love, and finding other dance forms to inspire a new, interesting way of looking at a ballet step.”

Wheeldon’s eagerness to explore is obvious in his dance history. He danced with The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet, served as resident choreographer of New York City Ballet, founded and directed (for two years) Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, and has created a broad array of ballets as a freelance choreographer. Outside of the concert ballet stage, he has worked in film (Center Stage in 2000), on Broadway (Sweet Smell of Success in 2002), and in opera (New York Metropolitan Opera’s Dance of the Hours in 2006).

And with everything he does, music is central to Wheeldon’s creative process.“With each piece I’m very conscious of going through different musical choices,” he says. “What did I achieve with that previous work and how does that inform what I’m doing next?” Additionally, he finds inspiration in art and other choreographers’ works—and even in his own.“Maybe there was something in a previous ballet [of mine] that didn’t work as a whole, but there’s an idea within it that I could use,” he says. “I use that as a starting point, and then it naturally takes a different course.”

For Within the Golden Hour, Wheeldon chose six pieces for strings by young Italian composer Ezio Bosso (The sky seen from the moon, Le notti, Of the Thunders, Dance of the tree, Worried, and African skies), which he describes as “not particularly complex, although some parts get rhythmically layered.” Into that mix, for the penultimate movement, he added the Andante movement from Antonio Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in B-flat Major. The ballet’s seven movements are episodic; Wheeldon arranged the sequence of the unrelated (yet harmonious and perfectly balanced) musical pieces. The ballet, he says, is “like a series of small paintings or sketches that are inspired by the music.”

Wheeldon responded to his score with a strong sense of place. “There’s one part that sounds really Celtic; we call it the ‘Hebrides pas de deux,’ ” he says. “It feels like two people in a big, expansive, barren but beautiful, poetic place, and they’re alone and there’s nothing around except for a little white cottage in the distance and a couple of moo-cows.” Another duet, a waltz makes Wheeldon think of “a Fellini-esque scene with the couple dancing around the Trevi Fountain, and she’s in a purple polka-dot dress with heels and a big ’do,” he says, laughing. Though the dress and the ’do never stood a chance of making it onstage, that imagery contributed to the creation of what the choreographer describes as a “quirky” pas de deux. It’s like a sampling of social dances, with tango and Charleston making fleeting appearances along with the waltz, which sometimes flows with the melody and sometimes becomes fragmented, like the plucked violin strings that create the music’s subtext.

What this ballet shows so clearly is how Wheeldon responds to different tracks, so to speak, in the music. He calls it “punctuating the choreographic rhythm in juxtaposition to what’s going on musically. It’s fun to go in and out of different aspects of the music, to go with the sweep of the melody and then make an unexpected turn and suddenly have the dancers make the underlying rhythm visual. If you follow the melody all the way through, you end up with a rather bland, two-dimensional representation of what you’re hearing.” In the end, he says, “dance is at its most successful when it’s making the music visual.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


From Foreign Lands

Alexei Ratmansky exudes an air of gentleness, an implied generosity, and both are as visible in his choreography as in his bearing. Quick to smile, he slips humor into his ballet; tuned in to his dancers, he matches steps to their personal dynamics. His work seems fresh and young-spirited, yet always there’s a sense of honoring the past—the traditions, culture, and community of ballet. “I love his sense of humor, understatement sometimes—just pure joy,” says Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer. “I watch his ballets and I see a master at work.”

For the 2013 Repertory Season, Ratmansky brings all those gifts to a new ballet, his second commission for SF Ballet. His first was Le Carnaval des Animaux (Carnival of the Animals), in 2003; the Company has also performed his Russian Seasons, which premiered at New York City Ballet in 2006.

Ratmansky, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, trained at the Bolshoi Academy and danced with the Ukrainian National, Royal Winnipeg, and Royal Danish Ballets. After a five-year tenure as artistic director of Bolshoi Ballet (2004–2009),he was appointed artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, a position that, fortunately for the ballet world, allows him to choreograph elsewhere. Along with the Bolshoi and ABT, he has created works for the Dutch National, Kirov, New York City, Royal Danish, and Royal Swedish Ballets, and dances for Metropolitan Opera’s Aida; his new, full-length Cinderella will premiere at Australian Ballet in September 2013. Widely recognized as a fast-rising, gifted choreographer, he received a 2006 National Dance Awards Critics’ Circle prize for his Bolshoi production of The Bright Stream; Golden Mask National Theatre prizes for the Dreams of Japan (created in 1998), and The Bright Stream (2003), and Jeu des Cartes (2007); and a 2005 Prix Benois de la Dance for his full-length Anna Karenina for Royal Danish Ballet. He was named a Knight of Dannebrog for his contribution to the Danish arts.

For his new work, Ratmansky chose German composer Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Orchestra, “From Foreign Lands,” for what he calls its “body movement.” With music like this, he says, it’s like “you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do [the choreographing], because it’s so dansent.”Danceable it is, with influences from Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, and Hungary. Published in 1884 and originally written for two pianos, “From Foreign Lands” wraps traditional tarantella, fandango, and czardas music into a charming package of uplifting, toe-tapping fun.

Moszkowski, born in Breslau, Germany, in 1854, of Polish descent, studied music in Dresden and Berlin. He debuted as a pianist in Berlin at age 19 and toured extensively before giving up performing for conducting. He taught in Berlin and Paris; among his students was the celebrated Polish-American pianist Josef Hofmann. His music was once quite popular, but Moszkowski lost the copyrights to his works during the war years and died in near poverty in 1925.

Although he composed operas, ballets, songs, concertos, and chamber music, little remains of his work. It’s his piano pieces—Etudes, Etincelles, and Spanish Dances—that are most remembered today. “He’s like many composers whose fame has dwindled,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “He had a few big hits. His Spanish Dances was very famous; it’s still played in a lot of places.”

“With music like this, he says, it’s like “you can almost switch your brain off and just let your body do [the choreographing]...”Alexei Ratmansky, choreographer.

Even though “From Foreign Lands” is a dance suite, it appears that no choreographers before Ratmansky snapped it up for their work. Searching for alternate music when he decided against using a work by Paul Hindemith, Ratmansky found the Moszkowski piece in his personal music library. “I bought it because I knew him; in Russia we did Moszkowski Waltz, a concert piece [by Asaf Messerer] choreographed in the 1930s, I think,” he says. “And it’s good music; I always liked it. I like the orchestration. It’s delicate but also it has the character [aspect].” With six well-defined movements of varied personalities, its structure “gives you certain pluses,” he says. “You can color them slightly different, and it’s not one mood throughout. And all the dancers can have their little moments to concentrate. It’s a divertissement—a very old structure that stills works.”

Ratmansky’s ballet begins in silence, with the full ensemble of 12 dancers engaging in what seems like an invitation to the dance. His purpose for opening the ballet that way was more practical than interpretive, however. He had chosen to shape the ballet as a series of quartets (doubled, in the Polish dance, to an octet) with a full-ensemble finale, which meant that “structurally, it needed something,” he says. A ballet made of a series of small groups “needs to start with the whole group and finish with the whole group,” he explains—thus the silent ensemble opening. But those fours and eights are by no means rigid or static. They shift and flow, with solos, trios, and sextets flashing to the surface before disappearing back into the quartet baseline.

High-energy and playful, this ballet is showy and presentational—Ratmansky’s way of gently poking fun at tradition. There are character dances heightened to the point of being self-aware; over-the-top romanticism in the German section; a touch of vaudeville in the Italian; flirtations, rejections, capitulations, and successes throughout. A whisper of sadness emerges in the Polish section, an intentional contrast to the rest of the ballet. “It’s like how in Corot paintings there is always a red spot,” Ratmansky says. “I think it’s important structurally, which also might lead to certain themes. This is something that I don’t analyze; I take it where it evolves.”

Ratmansky’s Russian training and Western influences are both evident in this ballet. Transitions, lightning quick, are critical to him, as is line. “Precision is very important. It’s why I like [Rudolf] Nureyev’s choreography so much—because it’s full of energy and all things Russian, French, Danish, English,” he says. “Of course, it’s his very personal style, but you can read all these great influences in it.”Ratmansky’s use of epaulement (angles of the head and upper body) reveals his absorption of Bournonville style during his years at Royal Danish Ballet; the slower, more fluid form of the upper body often rides above the fast footwork, and vice versa, “to find different rhythms for different parts of the body,” he says. “But I’m staying within the academic vocabulary, I think, because that’s what I know, and also what I want to see. Can it still be alive and fresh? Can it look interesting?”

Ratmansky once said he “liked making the dancers live inside the music.” That was in “Dance With Me,” a 2011 article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, and he was referring to Russian Seasons. But when asked if that might be said about all of his work, he says, “I think it’s the only way to make it alive. Sometimes the choreography can speak for itself—like the structure is so incredibly strong that you just need to do the steps to the music. But it’s rarely the case. If we want the audience to be connected to the dancers, the dancers need to lose themselves in the action and look spontaneous and alive.”

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Scotch Symphony
Composer: Felix Mendelssohn
Choreographer: George Balanchine

Within the Golden Hour
Composer: Ezio Bosso
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon

From Foreign Lands
World Premiere by Alexei Ratmansky
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky

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

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