Composer: Karl Jenkins
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson
Scenic and Costume Designer: Sandra Woodall
Lighting Designer: Michael Mazzola
Music: String Quartet No. 2
World Premiere: March 28, 2006—San Francisco Ballet War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's The Fifth Season (© Erik Tomasson)
Give a choreographer music he has never heard and often inspiration follows. That’s what happened in 2005 when Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson discovered the music of Karl Jenkins. He heard Jenkins’ Palladio and immediately wanted more. And when he listened to Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2, he knew he had found the score for the new ballet he would make for the 2006 Repertory Season, The Fifth Season. “I felt it was contemporary to today, and it’s romantic,” Tomasson says. “Even though it’s in the minimalist genre, there’s a swell of melodic feeling underneath.”
Welsh composer Karl Jenkins entered the professional music scene as a jazz musician, but his career defies categorization. He has composed for the advertising industry and a feature film, along with for orchestras and festivals. In 2005 he was named an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services to British music. His music isn’t often used in ballet— another reason it appealed to Tomasson.
The Fifth Season has been a frequent offering in the Company’s repertory, in the 2007 and 2012 Repertory Seasons and on the 75th Anniversary Tour in 2008. The ballet takes its title from the first movement of Jenkins’ five-part String Quartet No. 2; the phrase intrigued Tomasson, who thought it suggested something beyond the ordinary. “It’s not the fifth season as in the four seasons. It said something else to me, opened up other ideas,” he says. With movements that are musically diverse— from baroque-inspired to a percussive tango to an aggressive waltz, and beyond—String Quartet No. 2 gave Tomasson varied terrain in which to explore his ideas. Because he wanted the ballet to have six movements, he added the largo from Palladio for the adagio pas de deux, expanding the ballet’s range even more.
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's The Fifth Season (© Erik Tomasson)
In his choreography, Tomasson makes the most of the music’s contrasting tones. The pulse of violins lightens the strong movements of the corps de ballet; the waltz is angular, then undulating, then suspended; the dancers alternately attack and melt into the tango’s sharp rhythms. And the pas de deux has “lovely, soft, lyrical qualities,” said Ashley Wheater (then a ballet master and Tomasson’s assistant and now artistic director of Joffrey Ballet) during the ballet’s creation. “Each section of the ballet is very different, and at first I thought they were extreme in their ideas. But you can really see how they link together.” Jenkins is often classified as a minimalist, yet Wheater described the music for The Fifth Season as having “a lot of soul.” And, he added, “Helgi picked up on that.”
In the pas de deux, says Principal Dancer Damian Smith, the music is “almost overwhelming. We’re so drawn to each other, in sync,” he says about performing with Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan. “I’m not just lifting her and turning her—I feel as though I’m the one dancing. I’m doing the same steps; I’m just doing them in my hands,” he says. “I can feel what it’s like for her to be lifted; I can feel the momentum of a turn slowing down. I have to know when to push, when to release, or when to help a little more.”
Throughout the ballet, Tomasson’s choreography maintains a coolness and sophistication that doesn’t obscure its inherent drama. As Smith explains, “We’re not trying to compete with the music, but allowing it to be what it is. We’re flowing with it instead of being aggressive and matching it. There’s a similar thread in most of Helgi’s pieces, in that you’re challenging yourself against the music, allowing it to draw you through the piece rather than trying to push yourself through the music. His steps are not always obvious. There’s a subtlety to his choreography that makes it original.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Édouard Lalo
Choreography: Serge Lifar
Staged by: Maina Gielgud
Music: Excerpts from Namouna
World Premiere: 1943—Paris Opera Ballet, Zurich, Switzerland
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: January 29, 2013—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
San Francisco Ballet in Lifar's Suite en Blanc (© Erik Tomasson)
Suite en Blanc may take you by surprise. Rarely seen in the United States, it’s the kind of show-offy neoclassical ballet that allows a company to flaunt its dancerly riches. But it’s also a stylized piece that refuses to take itself too seriously. Whimsy and humor, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, along with a “ta-da!” presentation and vignettes of stunning beauty, make Suite en Blanc unusual, surprising, and endlessly delightful.
SF Ballet is only the third U.S. company to perform Suite en Blanc. When Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson saw it years ago in Paris, he put it on his mental back burner. A few years ago, the enthusiasm surrounding English National Ballet’s production made him decide that Suite en Blanc should be part of SF Ballet’s repertory. “This is an historic ballet,” Tomasson says.
Part of Suite en Blanc’s freshness lies in the fact that it was choreographed by Serge Lifar, a dancer who created the title roles in George Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète (now Apollo) and The Prodigal Son at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Lifar made Suite en Blanc during his 14 years as a dancer with and director of Paris Opera Ballet. Set to music excerpted from the 1882 ballet Namouna by Edouard Lalo, Suite en Blanc is a series of divertissements, separate but linked dances that are diverse in tone— floaty to flirty to majestic to spunky—yet still share Lifar’s signature style.
The names of the dances (for example, Sieste, Serenade, Cigarette) come from the full Namouna score and were keyed to a story; in Suite en Blanc they carry no meaning. (Still, Lifar did enjoy playing on the names at times—watch closely and you’ll see images of wafting smoke in Cigarette.) His favorite movement motif—a flattened profile with shoulders turned 90 degrees to the hips, reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art and clearly rooted in Art Deco style—appears often, particularly in elegant struts on and off the stage.
Former dancer Maina Gielgud, who staged Suite en Blanc for San Francisco Ballet, attributes the interest in this ballet at least partially to the Lifar style, “which is very special to him, and nowadays pretty unique, coming through that whole stable that started with the Ballets Russes and [Léonide] Massine and Bronislava Nijinska. And at the beginning you can almost see some bits of Balanchine in there.”
And Gielgud should know. Suite en Blanc, in which she danced several roles, was with her “for the better part of my career,” she says. When she was a 15-year-old student in Paris, she danced the Cigarette variation for a gala, and her coach was Lifar. “He was larger than life,” says Gielgud, “full of stories about the Diaghilev time, stories about him in the Diaghilev time. I remember his very large emphasis on style and shapes and forms.”
And so, in setting Suite en Blanc, an emphasis on shapes is paramount. In rehearsals Gielgud flits from dancer to dancer, adjusting an arm here, a chin or a hand there. A half an inch makes a difference, as does the direction of the gaze. “The whole place belongs to you,” she tells one of the principal dancers. “Proclaim everything you’re doing.” To another, she says, “Give them the whole world.”
A sense of generosity is essential in doing Suite en Blanc well—and it’s what Gielgud calls the “bee in my bonnet. I think with classical ballet, to make it relevant, dancers need to be generous with their movement—to share their love of dancing, make the audience want to move as they’re watching.” She tells the dancers, “The fun is to indulge in the style, flirt with it, sell it. Treat it like a contemporary ballet.”
Generosity isn’t all that’s needed. To give this ballet its due, Gielgud says with a smile, the dancers “need to have arrogant chic.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Composer: Philip Glass
Choreographer: Liam Scarlett
Scenic & Costume Designer: John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer: David Finn
Music: Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
World Premiere: April 29, 2014—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Liam Scarlett and San Francisco Ballet rehearse his World Premiere (© Erik Tomasson)
In today’s contemporary-ballet–minded world, it’s not often that you find a 20-something choreographer who unabashedly defends classicism. Enter 27-year-old Liam Scarlett, artist-in residence at The Royal Ballet since 2012. “The classical tradition is embedded in me,” says the choreographer, who trained at The Royal Ballet School. “I love working from where I’ve come from, using all the technique I’ve been taught and then trying to put a twist on it.”
Being named The Royal’s artist-in-residence would have been a feather in Scarlett’s cap even if the role (in which he works alongside choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor) had been an existing one. But it was created for Scarlett, which makes the honor even greater. No doubt the fact that he has been prolific in his brief career (in the neighborhood of 19 pieces to date) had much to do with his quick rise, and an Olivier Award nomination for his 2010 Asphodel Meadows surely didn’t hurt. Committed to choreographing, he accepted the appointment and walked away from his corps de ballet position at The Royal.
Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, saw Scarlett’s work and knew he wanted the young dancemaker to create work for the Company. “He’s done so much wonderful work,” Tomasson says. When he invited Scarlett to take a look at the Company, “he saw our season in London and said, ‘Wow! When do I start?’ ”
Scarlett’s ballet for the Company, set to music by Philip Glass, shows the young choreographer’s roots (the tradition) and perspective (the twist). Clearly built on classicism, it’s a three-dimensional ballet not only in terms of space but in his approach to movement. On a macro scale, there’s depth in how he uses levels and fills the space, complexity in his groupings and movement on and off the stage—a sense of fullness that’s also there on a micro scale, in the body. When he demonstrates a tiny twisting movement, you’d swear you could see his intercostal muscles engage. This is a young man who knows, with minute specificity, what he wants.
And what Scarlett wants is movement that comes from deep in the body. When he makes a miniscule adjustment in how a dancer originates a movement, the nature of the movement changes completely. It’s like altering one pixel and having the effect go widescreen. What he’s seeking is “something that’s breathing, from the lungs and from the heart, from the back,” Scarlett says. “Like an earthquake epicenter, it ripples out. It’s using your breath; it’s using your natural body rhythm. It has a human quality because it’s using everything you have.”
With his dancers, Scarlett seems open, calm, and confident. He denies feeling confident but says he’s “always enjoyed being at the front. I think it’s important to connect with the dancers, the audience. Being able to express yourself wholly and honestly is very important. And I endeavor to do that from day one.”
Despite Scarlett’s attention to nuance, he works quickly, so much so that Soloist Sasha De Sola, who dances principal and soloist roles in the piece, says keeping up with him wasn’t easy. It was as if the choreography was “escaping from him,” she says, “and we were trying to catch it.” What De Sola finds both fun and challenging about working with him is “trying to mimic his movement quality. He has a really good sense of dynamic and syncopation and things that make what could be simple steps much more interesting.”
For this commission, Scarlett chose what seems like, on casual listening, simple music, Philip Glass’ 2000 Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (so called because it was partially supported by the Tirol Tourist Board). “I think every choreographer should tackle a piece of Glass at some point,” Scarlett says. When you listen to Tirol Concerto with a choreographer’s ear, it’s far from simple. “It’s a complex, methodical, layered piece [with] different counterpoint melodies from what you’d expect,” he says.
The piece is similar, says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, to the timpani concerto used in Jorma Elo’s Double Evil, created for the Company in 2008. “The driving rhythms, a hypnotic second movement, and then a driving last movement,” he says. “But [Glass] used a very small orchestra, interestingly—just strings and piano. It’s not anything big and spectacular, it’s more intimate.”
In listening to a piece of music before he begins choreographing, Scarlett finds that he envisions aspects of a new ballet. “It’s amazing how, maybe subconsciously, when a certain bit of music keeps coming back, you’ll see the same image,” he says. “And those images get stronger, so that by the time you get into the studio, there’s an idea of what should happen. I’m very keen on having a natural response to music, nothing that’s too superficial. Keeping it surprising as well, but something that seamlessly works its way across the whole.”
What drew Scarlett most to Tirol Concerto was the second movement. “It’s beautiful and touching,” he says. “It has kind of a Ravel’s Bolero-style building and layering. His timings are just right. When a suspension comes, it comes at exactly the right moment, so you feel a natural response to it.”
The second movement’s choreography, De Sola says, is “effective and mesmerizing. I love how just the girls come out, and we do very simple [steps], not really dancing, but hands and weight changes, wrist flicks and things we don’t often do in ballets.”
Scarlett calls what De Sola is talking about “heightened senses,” an elevation of the ordinary to something less tangible and attainable. “There’s something wonderful about an audience member watching the stage and thinking, ‘They’re human beings, but I’d never be able to do that.’ [In part of the second movement] the dancers are just walking, but somehow it’s transcended into something more; it’s gone past ballet technique. It’s the subtleties of the simplistic stuff that I find fun to home in on. I can spend hours on a look, or how you can get there. In essence, it’s trying to make it as real as possible, so that you do have moments of forgetting it’s a dance piece you’re watching, because it’s so human.”
Scarlett’s new ballet digs deep, drawing on the dancers’ emotions—which vary, since they bring personal experiences to their interpretations. That’s fine with Scarlett, who likes watching what evolves as the dancers individuate a role. “I didn’t walk in and say, ‘This is going to be an emotionally charged piece’—you just let it sink in,” Scarlett says. “You’ll see it happen—people will come in after a break, or the next day, and something will have changed. It’s amazing, that change.” It happens in every rehearsal period, he says. And when it does, “for me, it’s the best day.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola