Program Notes

Program 6 Notes

Raymonda Act III

Raymonda is a glorious spectacle, with virtuosic dancing that captures the allure of Eastern Europe, choreographed to a ravishing score by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, his first ballet. Typical of its creator, Marius Petipa, the choreography is classically elegant, combining formality and spirited folk dance. And in the interpretive hands of the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, who created his own adaptations of both the full-length and this one-act version, Raymonda gains yet another element— the earthy passion that made Nureyev unlike any dancer before him. As Grant Coyle, who staged Raymonda Act III for San Francisco Ballet for the 2012 Repertory Season, says, “Every solo shows his influence; he has put his stamp on it. There are some very Rudolf touches.”

Petipa choreographed the three-act Raymonda in 1898 for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. But the story, set in medieval Hungary, was more hindrance than help in keeping audiences engaged. From that convoluted tale—of a love affair, an attempted abduction, and a duel to the death—what has survived, for the most part, is the celebratory third act, which anticipates the nuptials of Raymonda and her love, Jean de Brienne.                  

Nureyev had danced in Raymonda in 1959, soon after he joined the Mariinsky Ballet (also called the Kirov). After defecting to the West in 1961, he staged his version of the complete ballet on The Royal Ballet at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in 1964, dancing Jean himself with Doreen Wells as Raymonda. (Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev’s preferred partner since 1962, missed the premiere because her husband, Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias, had been critically injured.) Nureyev staged his full-length Raymonda around the world: Australian Ballet in 1965, Zurich Ballet in1972, American Ballet Theatre in 1975, and Paris Opera Ballet in 1983. The Royal Ballet premiered this one-act version at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1966.

A one-act Raymonda entered San Francisco Ballet’s repertory in 2000, extracted from Nureyev’s full-length version. This season’s production is the one-act made for The Royal Ballet, which includes three solos pulled from other parts of the full-length ballet. Nureyev added them to provide “more opportunities for the audience to see the strength and style of the female artists in a one-act ballet,” said former Royal Ballet dancer Bruce Sansom last season, then a ballet master and assistant to Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson.

In this one-act, Coyle sees “a definite personal style” infused by Nureyev, especially for the men. “The choreography is quite heavy and challenging,” Coyle says. What he describes as “well-grounded, basic technique—very strong, and masculine” is common now. But, he adds, “when Nureyev did it, in the early ’60s, it was not so common for men to do this much in classical ballet. We owe this development to Nureyev.”

Raymonda Act III has take-your-breath away spectacle in the form of sets and costumes by designer Barry Kay, which Coyle describes as “absolutely ravishing, so opulent and lush.” The white costumes, detailed with gold, fur, and feathers, pop against the rich tones of the massive set. And there’s spectacle, too, in the brilliance of the dancing. That’s one reason why Tomasson likes to keep this ballet in the Company’s repertory—maintaining a balance between the technical challenges of classical work and the freedom of contemporary ballets is vital. “It’s fun to experiment with new works,” he says, “but to keep that level of excellence in your technique, you need to dance the classical ballets. [Raymonda] fits into that idea of getting back to basics technically.”

Coyle describes Raymonda as “very exposed—this classical purity is very demanding. Dancers strive to achieve this every day in class, so to be doing it in performances is good. Raymonda is all about “style and finesse,” he says, adding that it has “one of the most wonderful endings.” With the full cast doing a unison side-to-side step, “it builds and builds,” he says, “and suddenly it’s finished. That’s what great classical dance is about.”

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Ibsen’s House

In making Ibsen’s House for San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival in 2008, choreographer Val Caniparoli wanted to create a tour de force for five women. For source material he turned to Nordic playwright Henrik Ibsen, mining strong female characters from five of his plays. However, Caniparoli is quick to say that knowing the plays isn’t essential to enjoying the ballet. “I’m not telling any story,” he says, explaining that he took “the essence from the plays, using that as the point of departure. If I’ve done it right, you can sense five women, five different relationships, and their predicaments.”

Still, watching Ibsen’s House does offer a sense of Ibsen’s work, whether or not viewers are familiar with his plays. Ibsen, known as the “Father of Modern Drama,” challenged Victorian societal conventions in his plays of the late 1800s; in that sense he was an early feminist, outraging viewers with his radical ideas about gender roles in society. Caniparoli chose women from these five plays—A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881),Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady From the Sea (1888), and Hedda Gabler (1890) because of their dominant characters.“They were being challenged about what was the norm, what you could or couldn’t talk about,” he says. “Ibsen was a rebel in that way.”

Caniparoli, a principal character dancer with the Company, choreographs widely, most recently for Richmond Ballet (Swipe), Joffrey Ballet (Incantations), Ballet West (The Lottery, to a commissioned score by Robert Moran), and Singapore Dance Theatre (Chant, to music by Lou Harrison). A world premiere for Colorado Ballet, to music by Poul Rugers, will open in March. A theater major in college, Caniparoli has often blended dance with literary art forms. At San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater he worked with Artistic Director Carey Perloff on A Christmas Carol, A Doll’s House, and The Tosca Project. And he has done his fair share of story ballets: The Nutcracker, Lady of the Camelias, and A Cinderella Story. “I grab from my[theater] background in all of that,” Caniparoli says. “What makes Ibsen’s House different is that I’m not telling one story.”

For the score, Caniparoli chose Piano Quintet No. 2 (minus the third movement) by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. The music was written in 1887, around the same time Ibsen’s plays were. And Dvorak’s score has layers of feeling that mirror the passions buried within Ibsen’s characters; emotions, once freed, that are compelling enough to lead them to defy traditional mores.

Emotions are everything in Ibsen’s House. Ensuring that the dancers understood their characters was a crucial part of developing the movement, so Caniparoli had the dancers read the plays or watch them on DVD, and he brought Perloff into a rehearsal to describe key motivations and responses for each character. Disregarding the dancers’ ages, he freed himself to create movement based purely on the characters’ feelings.

In the ballet’s first two movements, Caniparoli first presents the women alone and then in duets with their male counterparts. He uses small, simple gestures to reveal character (the smoothing of a dress, a hand brought to the mouth), then snatched away (a fist thudding against a chest). He revels in letting the choreography be driven by emotion, describing how, in the first movement, the character of Nora from A Doll’s House dances to music that “you’d normally have someone doing histrionics to. But all she is doing is standing with her back to the audience and doing this slow gesture. To me that makes more sense.”

For the third movement, Caniparoli goes beyond the confines of the plays, exploring the consequences of the characters’ shattered lives. “It’s like the aftermath,” he says, “how the men are feeling, which you might not see in the play.” But still the women predominate, threading their way through the men’s psyches like reminders of what has been—or what might have been.

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Symphonic Dances

In Symphonic Dances, his first work 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.”

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. A former soloist with New York City Ballet, he performed on Broadway in Fosse and then joined Nederlands Dans Theater. Named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2006, Liang received a Choo-San Goh award for choreographic potential for his work with The Washington Ballet. After guesting for a few years with such companies as Norwegian National Ballet and Morphoses, Liang retired from dancing to choreograph full-time. Now he creates ballets for companies worldwide, including Singapore Dance Theatre and the Joffrey, Houston, Tulsa, Shanghai, and Kirov Ballets. Besides Symphonic Dances, two other Liang works, Distant Cries and Somewhere in Time, are in SF Ballet’s repertory.

The way Liang sees it, his 2012 commission for San Francisco wasn’t just a new ballet; it was a creation tailored to the Company. And so his choice of music was critical. He’d been “a huge fan of [Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances] for years,” and decided that, though intimidating, it was perfect for SF Ballet. “It’s a huge orchestration, really just big, bold music,” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to it.”

Rachmaninov made his name not only as a composer in the Romantic tradition, but also as a brilliant pianist. 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, written in 1940, was his last composition. Calling it Fantastic Dances at first, Rachmaninov hoped Michel Fokine would choreograph to it. 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.”In studying the score, he knew immediately where the three pas de deux would fall, and 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.”Working on the third-movement pas de deux in early rehearsals, he told the dancers, “It’s lush, but what’s going to create this is your connection together. Find that.”

Liang infuses his rehearsals with what seems to be a perpetual air of serenity and calm. Those hours in the studio are the most rewarding part of choreographing, he says. But the process is still a mystery. “For me there is no recipe,” Liang says. “I’m just lucky that I get to do what I do.”

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Raymonda Act III
Composer: Alexander Glazunov
Choreographer: Rudolf Nureyev

Ibsen's House
Composer: Antonin Dvorák
Choreographer: Val Caniparoli

Symphonic Dances
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninov
Choreographer: Edwaard Liang

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