Program Notes

Program 7 Notes

Criss -Cross

When San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson made Criss-Cross, in 1997, he was exploring the potential of a hybrid form. And while it would be easy to say that Criss-Cross juxtaposes the old and the new, that’s too simplistic a summary. Tomasson makes sure he blurs the lines, musically and visually. Baroque music dominates the first movement, and while the second movement moves on in time, hints of that older style linger. Costumes, suggestive of two eras, share a color palette, and the choreography waltzes along a spectrum of neoclassicism.

For the first movement of this ballet, last seen in 1999, Tomasson chose portions of four concertos by Charles Avison (1709–1770), based rather faithfully on harpsichord sonatas (using four per concerto) by fellow baroque-era composer Domenico Scarlatti. In the second movement, a concerto by Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) inspired by music of another baroque-era composer, George Frideric Handel, serves as counterbalance. The result is that three 18th-century composers create a musical foundation for Criss-Cross, with the more modern Schoenberg stepping in to stir things up.

The idea for this crossing-the-lines ballet emerged from Tomasson’s love of Handel’s music. “I had heard the Schoenberg, which I was fascinated by,” Tomasson says, calling it “Handel, but something different.” He liked the thought of pairing two pieces of music that had been revisited by other composers, “changing them a little bit the way they heard them,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I take their interpretations of those two composers and make them all one, and show it in my way so that they cross over from one place to another?’ I could approach one more classically and the other one more quirkily because the music was Schoenberg.”

Key to this idea is the fact that when Schoenberg wrote his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in 1933, he used Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7 merely as a jumping-off point; it’s barely there beneath the surface. “He liked tinkering with pieces from the past,” says Martin West, SF Ballet’s music director and principal conductor. “So with the Handel, Schoenberg basically took the form—but it’s not Handel by any stretch of the imagination. His own style is very much in it, more colors. He took chunks of a theme by Handel to where he thought Handel would have taken them. This is a new piece of music that borrows from Handel.”

Schoenberg’s concerto, half again as long (at 22 minutes) as the Handel piece it borrowed from, makes dramatic turns away from the baroque harmonies and style. “In the baroque time you’d have basic harmony,” says West. “Schoenberg’s harmonies change a lot more; his harmonic language is so much fuller.”

In each of Criss-Cross’ two movements, Tomasson works with 12 dancers—a structural consistency that, like the mute-toned costumes, gives the ballet cohesiveness, and in turn conveys a sense of timelessness. It’s there in the choreography, in the classical roots that are forever etched into Tomasson’s mind and body. Even as he reveals the contrasts in music and movement, he manages to remind us that although much of what we’ve grown familiar with changes over the years, some things stay the same.

As is typical of Tomasson, he takes a soft-spoken approach to his time-traveling ballet. Instead of walloping audiences over the head with the differences, he lets Schoenberg, the flashy man among this collective of choreographer and composers, lead him into contemporary movement ideas that cling to their classical roots. There’s a tonal shift, to be sure, along with flashes of humor. But Criss- Cross doesn’t intend to shock. The contrasts are there, and so are the connections. As its name implies, this is a ballet that weaves its differences into an openwork cloth. The threads are visible, but the points where they begin and end are buried within the dance.

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Francesca da Rimini

The story of Francesca da Rimini, immortalized in Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, has a long and varied pedigree in the art world. The snippet of history has made its way from literature to opera to symphonic fantasia to ballet—and, in 2012, to San Francisco Ballet, in the creative hands of Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov.

Tchaikovsky’s Dante-themed Francesca da Rimini, a 25-minute symphonic poem based on the tale of Francesca and Paolo, adulterous lovers destined to spend eternity in Hell, attracted Possokhov years ago. He describes it as the most romantic music in history, with an ending “like an apocalypse. You can’t escape from this music.”

Tchaikovsky wrote Francesca da Rimini in October and November of 1876, and the piece premiered in 1877. To tell this story, Tchaikovsky brewed a wild, whirling storm of a score, revealing what some music historians say is the influence of Franz Liszt, the “father” of the symphonic poem (a form based on a literary, pictorial, or other non-musical source). Tchaikovsky’s emotional connection to the story is obvious in the music, particularly in the plaintive clarinet solo that introduces the adagio. It speaks for Francesca, who in Dante’s poem says, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery.”

Though it spans only a few dozen lines in the fifth canto of “The Inferno,” Francesca’s story is a potent one. Married to Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini (who, according to historical accounts, was quite ugly, and a cripple or hunchback), Francesca falls in love with his younger brother, the handsome Paolo. The lovers are discovered by her husband, who murders both of them; they spend eternity whirling through the Second Circle of Hell (for those who sin through sensual pleasure), near enough to touch but never together.

Possokhov isn’t the first choreographer to find Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem irresistible. Francesca da Rimini first appeared in ballet form in 1915, choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Maryinsky. Then, in 1937, David Lichine choreographed a version for Col. De Basil’s Ballet Russe, presented in London and New York. Nicolai Kholfin choreographed the same story to a different score, one by Boris Asafiev in 1947, for Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. Another production, by William Dollar, premiered at Le Theatre d’Art du Ballet in Paris in 1961.

The fine and literary arts often yield inspiration for Possokhov—cases in point are his painting-inspired Magrittomania and literature-based Damned, a retelling of the Greek tragedy Medea. So it’s not surprising that for a ballet based on Dante, Possokhov references Rodin’s sculpture The Gates of Hell, bringing to life the three Shades that top the doors. They are instantly recognizable: three male figures tucked into a tight circle, their fists leading the viewer’s eye to the famous quote from “The Inferno” inscribed on the gates: “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”

Possokhov’s three Shades, in his ballet, do in fact seem like gatekeepers of hell. And illuminating the action are five women, an ensemble mirror for Francesca, echoing “her feelings, her emotions, maybe her senses,” says Possokhov. But at the ballet’s heart are the two lovers, Francesca and Paolo, who dance a pas de deux, a 10-minute adagio of breathtaking beauty,  that fills nearly half the ballet.

In creating movement, Possokhov starts with an ideal—what he sees in his own body—and then fits that ideal to the dancers. “I adjust to my aesthetic and my musicality,” he says. “I have to find another way for [the dancers], with my aesthetic but different execution.” In Francesca da Rimini, Possokhov uses the floor extensively, as if subliminally referencing hell. And he pushes for musicality, asking for more sweep, more suspension, more resistance. “Don’t be dancerly,” he says during a run-through, and the dancers comply. Yet the result, in both line and musicality, is pure.

In his Francesca da Rimini, Possokhov says, the marriage, betrayal, murders, condemnation are merely the “frame of the painting.” And the painting itself? It’s the pas de deux, that glorious, passionate whirlwind of love.

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola


Symphony in Three Movements

In George Balanchine’s hands, Symphony in Three Movements, the music that Igor Stravinsky called his “war symphony,” became a jazzy, bouncy, multifaceted dance. Named for the score Stravinsky wrote during World War II and which premiered in 1946, the piece had long been on Balanchine’s wish list (he first heard it in Hollywood, when Stravinsky was still writing it), it didn’t become fuel for him until the 1972 Stravinsky Festival presented by New York City Ballet. Symphony in Three Movements got crossed off Helgi Tomasson’s wish list in 2000, when the San Francisco Ballet artistic director and principal choreographer added it to the Company’s repertory. His ties to this ballet go back to 1972, when he danced in its premiere.

According to Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (which includes music intended but never used for the film score for Song of Bernadette) is “one of the archetypal neoclassical pieces.” And yet it’s not typical of neoclassicism, he says, because “it was inspired by the war; Stravinsky even admitted that. That didn’t fit in with the whole movement of neoclassicism, which was to get rid of those big program symphonies like [Gustav] Mahler was doing. Stravinsky and [Paul] Hindemith said, ‘Let’s just write music for music’s sake. Stop having it be about something.’ ”

If anyone has a sense of Balanchine’s intent with Symphony in Three Movements, it would be Tomasson, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet for 16 years. His impression, after creating a lead role in the ballet, is that it’s “high-energy, fun. I don’t see anything about war in it. Like Mr. B said, ‘Just dance, dear. Don’t make it complicated.’ ”What he remembers most about preparing Symphony in Three Movements for the Stravinsky Festival was that “there was so much going on. Mr. B was choreographing; Jerry [Robbins] was choreographing; we had a few other choreographers doing things. It was just nonstop,”

Tomasson says. “And the role that I did—I’m the guy who comes jumping in with all the ladies on the diagonal—it’s one of the few times I can remember that Balanchine didn’t seem to find right away what he was looking for. So he kept changing it. And when we went to Saratoga [for the summer season] he was still fussing with it.”

Very likely the reason for Balanchine’s frustration was sheer overload. At that same time, he was making Stravinsky Violin Concerto (“and they’re so different, and big works,” says Tomasson) and Le Baiser de la Fée, for Tomasson and Patricia McBride. “What did we do, about 21 ballets? And Mr. B did at least half of them,” Tomasson says. “And he was fast—he did the variation in Baiser in an hour and 20 minutes. I could barely keep up with him.”

Sharing Tomasson’s belief that the ballet doesn’t have a subtext is Richard Tanner, a former New York City Ballet dancer who has staged Symphony in Three Movements at least half a dozen times. Balanchine filled his ballet with high ponytails, Charleston- and jitterbug-influenced movements, and swinging arms and syncopation, all of which Tanner calls “really appealing and fun. I love the fact that the girls are in ponytails because there’s all this jogging and the ponytails are bouncing. A lot of the music makes you want to dance, and I feel that Balanchine captured all that.”

The second movement, a serene pas de deux with steps called “Balinese hands” and “prayer lift,” creates a striking contrast to the frenetically paced first movement; it’s about as far from the idea of war as you can get. In the score, next to the first notes of this adagio, Balanchine wrote a single word: “mysterious.” “It’s like you’re in a dream; it should look mysterious and weird,” Tanner said to SF Ballet dancers in an early rehearsal, adding that their hands should move like fish or eels. What Balanchine wanted, he says later, was a “vague, gauzy look. So you try to give them images that they can use.”Then, he adds, “they have to find their own way.”

With its rhythmically complex score, this is no easy ballet. Setting it is made even more complicated by the fact that Balanchine often counted the same musical phrase differently for different groups of dancers. Of the Balanchine ballets set to Stravinsky that Tanner has danced or staged, he says Symphony in Three Movements is the most complicated. He told the dancers, “The counts are a nightmare, but you end up singing it—you do!”

During one rehearsal last fall Tomasson was watching, his body moving with still-engrained steps. Later he said, “You get onto that treadmill of the rhythm and you just go with it.”

-Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

Composer: Domenico Scarlatti, Arnold Schoenberg
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson

Francesca da Rimini
Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov

Symphony in Three Movements
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreographer: George Balanchine


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