Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson
Scenic Designer: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume Designer: Holly Hynes
Lighting Designer: Christopher Dennis
Music: Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 3
World Premiere: April 4, 2014—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Helgi Tomasson, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Luke Ingham rehearse Tomasson's World Premiere (© Erik Tomasson)
“Danceable, very danceable.” That’s what Helgi Tomasson thought when he first heard Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 2. For his first ballet since his 2011 Trio, Tomasson, the artistic director and principal choreographer of San Francisco Ballet, chose music that’s big, exhilarating, and off the beaten choreographic track. “The music is very joyous,” he says. With two adagio sections, the very brief one in Symphony No. 2, plus the generous one he added from the well-known Symphony No. 3, Tomasson ended up with a lively and varied score that allowed him to take a fresh approach to his ballet.
Saint-Saëns, who wrote his first symphony at age 15, is best known for his playful yet poignant Carnival of the Animals, plus several piano concertos. “He was a true child prodigy,” says Martin West, the Company’s music director and principal conductor. “He was playing major recitals when he was five, and memorized the entire Bach Toccata and Fugue by the time he was six—really incredible. And he had huge success with his music.” A brilliant composer, he lived for 86 years, through huge changes in musical genres.
The second symphony was written when Saint-Saëns was 24—for him, “not that early because he was a child prodigy,” says West, “but it’s still quite young to do a symphony of any major importance.” In listening to the second symphony repeatedly, Tomasson realized early on that he would need to add to the score; the adagio, typically a ballet’s centerpiece, flashed by, leaving the choreographer no opportunity to develop an expansive pas de deux. “All that beautiful music—a great beginning, a great finale,” he says. “But it needed something else in there. So I found a beautiful adagio.”
However, that beautiful adagio in Symphony No. 3 (commonly called “the organ symphony”) came with one problem: the Opera House has no organ. Re-creating the organ’s unique quality with a synthesizer sounds wrong when it’s played in the context of a full orchestra. A better option, Tomasson and West agreed, would be to reorchestrate the organ part for various wind instruments (An organ blows wind through pipes, making it essentially a wind instrument, not a percussive instrument like a piano.)
Tomasson’s handling of the two adagios makes the expanded score seem cohesive and natural. He gave the short adagio to a small group of men, first trying it with four and then settling on three. “I felt three extra guys plus the leading man, in this short a span of music, made it feel very crowded,” he says. For the longer adagio, he decided to use not one but two principal couples. Lush and luxurious, it’s emotional without being romantic. “I don’t approach it as a love pas de deux; it’s just an interpretation to me of what that music means,” Tomasson says. “I thought, why not use two couples— first couple, second couple, then both of them together? I thought that would be different structurally.”
Dancing one of the couple roles is Principal Dancer Frances Chung, whom Tomasson has cast in ten of his previous ballets. In this new ballet, she says, “it’s like you’re displaying everything you are as a dancer. There are five movements, and my partner and I are in the first, third, fourth, and fifth movements. So there’s a lot of dancing! It’s quite difficult stamina-wise.” Each movement has a different flavor, she says. “In the first movement, you’re like pow, pow, pow! Nonstop technique. And the third movement, for us, is more playful, which I really enjoy. It starts with the men dancing and then the guys toss me around a little bit. And the fourth movement starts with the adagio couple, and then my partner and I do another adagio; it’s more mature.”
One of the adagio couple dancers is Soloist Shane Wuerthner, cast in his first Tomasson ballet aside from Nutcracker. He calls his role “lyrical, more about the relationship between the dancers. The music is really portrayed there.” In contrast, he says, the first couple is “more virtuoso. They do a lot of tricks and jumps and turns.”
Music as big and grand as Saint-Saëns’ symphony begs for a full stage, and Tomasson responded. He began with five corps de ballet couples, because he likes to work with odd numbers. But as rehearsals progressed, he found that he “didn’t use the five couples the way I thought I would, structurally or musically. And particularly when we got to the final movement, I felt we needed to have more symmetry. I wanted to have a feeling of a big group of people out there, so I added another couple.” Along with more volume, the added symmetry enhances the ballet’s classical feel.
Classical, however, doesn’t necessarily mean formal. In rehearsal one day, Tomasson urges the corps to enter with more abandon. “Be more daring,” he tells them. Later he says the dancers sometimes take a too-serious approach to a classically based ballet. "And I don’t look at it that way. I’m saying, ‘Just go for it. Enjoy.’ I think the music is very joyous.” The freedom to “go for it” comes once the choreography and music have taken hold in the dancers’ minds and bodies. “Once we’re onstage,” Chung says, “we get to play. Helgi really likes it when we play with the music.”
For Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey, new to the Company from Paris Opera Ballet, working with Tomasson was a good way for her to get acquainted with her artistic director, and she was thrilled to be part of the creation of a neoclassical ballet. New classically based ballets don’t exist in Paris Opera Ballet’s Rudolf Nureyev–heavy repertory, she says. “Nureyev is not here anymore, and we can’t change anything; the version is always the same. I have done contemporary fresh [new work], but classical fresh I have never done.
“It’s so good to have the choreographer in front of you,” Froustey continues. “To have Helgi with me in the studio makes me feel classical ballet is still alive. It was very emotional.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
Choreographer: Mark Morris
Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls
Music: Trio in D Major, Opus 70, No. 1 “Ghost” Allegro vivace e con brio Largo assai ed espressivo Presto
World Premiere: February 8, 1994—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Twenty years ago, Mark Morris created his first work for San Francisco Ballet, Maelstrom. A prolific, primarily modern-dance choreographer with his own troupe, Mark Morris Dance Group, Morris had done a handful of ballets (for companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey, Paris Opera, and Boston Ballets) by the time Maelstrom premiered in 1994. Since then, he has created works for several other ballet companies, but it is with SF Ballet that he has developed a long-term relationship.
Morris has created eight ballets, including the full-length Sylvia, for SF Ballet. For each one, he has had Ballet Master Betsy Erickson at his side, watching and documenting rehearsals when the ballets are made and rehearsing them in subsequent seasons. For Maelstrom, Morris spent the first few days of rehearsals doing movement studies “to see how the dancers moved, how they listened, how they responded,” Erickson says. “I felt like Maelstrom was quite an exploration for him—what you can do on pointe, and partnering in the more balletic sense.” One thing he knew when he arrived, she says, was that he wanted “clean lines of the arms, no flapping wrists.”
If Morris had to adapt to working with the Company, so did the dancers and Erickson have to adjust to the choreographer’s approach. “It took a bit for all of us to get used to how he works musically, which is so phenomenal,” Erickson says. “When you work with a piece over time, you start to see how he approaches the music, and the thematic material he builds [choreographically] with the thematic material of the music, and how he alters or augments it. It might start out with something big and diminish, or it might start very small and become more elaborate. It was a wonderful thing, a little miracle all the time, to discover how he was hearing the music.”
That music is Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio (so called because of its dark, mournful second movement), composed in 1809, after he had left behind much of the influence of Haydn and Mozart and opted for a more expressive style. Beethoven composed the trio while he was contemplating writing an opera based on Macbeth; his notes indicate that the themes in the trio’s second movement came from his sketches for the witches scene in the opera. More than 30 years later, one of Beethoven’s students, Carl Czerny, wrote that the movement reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father—thus the nickname “Ghost.”
Morris is a stickler for using a musical score in its entirety, repeats included, which can be opportunities for choreographic exploration. Erickson describes a section that has a kind of waltz step that’s done three different ways. “It’s the same basic movement and it goes in the same direction,” she says, “but one goes very slow, one goes almost without rhythm in a very slippery way, and another one is very punctuated and sharp. It’s the same movement and the same music, but it’s three different interpretations.”
The maelstrom in this ballet, if there is one, seems to be more about tension than a tempest. “I certainly see a buildup and I see a release,” Erickson says. “I don’t know if we really see the heart of the storm. There’s a swirling movement, but there are also times when something is disappearing or diminishing, like down a drain. It happens several times—someone will go upstage and disappear into the darkness.”
The third movement, Erickson says, is “joyous and dancey and fun. Maelstrom has so many beautiful movement characteristics in it—swirls and beautiful partnering and wonderful imagery.” Her favorite part? “The second movement, because it’s so mysterious,” she says. “It has some slow lifting in it, which is really difficult. But when it’s done well, it takes your breath away.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Choreography: Yuri Possokhov
Scenic Design: Benjamin Pierce
Costume Design: Sandra Woodall
Lighting Design: Christopher Dennis
World Premiere: February 26, 2013—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's The Rite of Spring (© Erik Tomasson)
On May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, ballet and music 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 preconceptions of the ballet world hard enough to cause a riot. And the shockwaves continue to reverberate. Although The Rite of Spring quickly disappeared from the Ballets Russes repertory, versions of it are now performed by ballet and modern-dance companies worldwide.
Last year, in this ballet’s centenary year, it was SF Ballet’s turn to do The Rite of Spring, as created by Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov. For him, this ballet 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.”
Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring dramatized the ritual of human sacrifice practiced in ancient Russia, humanity at its most primitive. The subject matter was atypical for ballet, and so was Nijinsky’s movement. Depending on whose version of history you read, the turned-in, pounding movement was to blame for the rioting—or the unimaginably strange music was, or both. What’s known is that the audience shouted, yanked hats over eyes, wielded canes as weapons, and threw punches. Uproar turned to brawling, and the police were called. Backstage, Nijinsky stood on a chair yelling the counts to his dancers, who couldn’t hear the music over the roaring crowd. According to Stravinsky, Diaghilev, who enjoyed upsetting the status quo with his Paris-based troupe’s innovations, said of the evening, “Exactly what I wanted.”
San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's The Rite of Spring (© Erik Tomasson)
In his version of The Rite of Spring, Possokhov evokes his native country, both in the movement and in the birch trees that dominate the setting. In rehearsals he emphasized the downbeat, asking for an accent on landings, a downward thrust to the arms. “The Russian way is down; it’s earthy,” he says. “In this ballet, everything should be down.” The birch trees—“one of the prettiest things in my life,” Possokhov says —symbolize beauty. He says the ugliness in Rite is in the people, and thus he 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 that it’s “one step from beautiful to ugly.”
With The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky created “a complete new language,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “He even said 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, deeply buried; 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.”
The score is difficult, West says, but what listeners find so complicated isn’t so bad for the musicians “because it’s so brilliantly written.” The difficulty comes in 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,” he says. “There’s this forward energy, which why it’s so exciting.”
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.” What he hears in the music 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