Paint Your Own Audience

How A Dancer Looking for a Stage Created Her Own Theatrical Oasis in a Desert Ghost Town

Once upon a time there was a dancer looking for a stage.

She had performed on Broadway and been a Rockette, but the roles got sparser as time marched on. One day in 1967, she came across a dilapidated building in a virtual ghost town in the California desert. When she did, this lifelong New Yorker knew that she had found the place that she would make her life’s work. She decided that this was the place where she would paint her own audience.

Marta Becket was 42 when she found herself in Death Valley Junction (founded Amargosa in 1907).

The town is located at what was the terminus of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, just east of Death Valley National Park (also known as two hours from anywhere). In 1925, the Pacific Coast Borax Company constructed a building in the town to serve as a whistle stop for borax mine workers and executives. It included a hotel, restaurant, and the meeting hall that would become the Amargosa Opera House.

photo credit: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Marta leased the theater and got to work making repairs and putting together a show.

I first learned about her when I came across this short (under 10 minute) film about the Amargosa Opera House. I was enthralled. I think that you will find the story as fascinating as I do.

Dust Devil, directed and produced by Poppy Walker

Her first performance was February 12, 1968 for an audience of twelve. For over 40 years, she gave performances three nights a week at 8:15 p.m. (her last performance was in March of 2012 at the age of 85).

Sometimes she performed to an audience of one, sometimes there was no one. Marta never let the number of butts in seats (or the lack thereof) stop her from giving a performance.

To ensure that she would always have an audience she painted one, covering the walls with a fantastical mural that invoked the glamour of an old-world opera house. Why worry about whether there is an audience for your work out there in the world somewhere when you can create your own?

At first pass, the tale of Marta Becket and the Amargosa Opera House is simply a delightfully strange one. I mean, Who does that?  


Think about it.

If you had a flat tire in a desert ghost town and wandered across some abandoned building, would you think, “Ah yes, this is just the place that I am looking for. This is where I am going to create my life’s work.”

But then I suppose the next question should be, Why not?

Why not find your own place to do your own thing?

I’m not suggesting we should all go driving around in the desert waiting to see where we get a flat tire. But I do think that if you find yourself at the metaphorical intersection of passion and purpose there is no reason not to roll up your sleeves and paint your own audience.

Deep Thoughts with Martha Graham

A few years ago, I came across this quote in the course of some random internet trawling that had nothing to do with Martha Graham, dance, or even artistic expression:

You don’t have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille

It really struck me. So I wouldn’t forget, I emailed it to myself and there is sat, in the deep, dark depths of my inbox for some number of years. Recently, I came across the note and thought that Martha Graham would make a good topic for this blog. Of course, today’s post is more of a random survey than a thorough examination of her artistic legacy, but I am just being open to the urges that motivate me.

Did I ever tell you that there was a time in my life that I wanted to grow up to be a dancer in Martha Graham’s company?  It’s true. Although, even in those days I had a hard time visualizing myself living as a starving artist living in New York City.  But there really was a moment in time that I was willing to consider giving up my comfortable, Southern California lifestyle to be a Graham dancer.

Graham technique was very captivating for a young Cynthia whose training up to that point had mainly focused on the classical ballet lexicon.  Not wearing shoes, using the floor in such a way, sure those were novel, but the biggest difference was the power with which one moved.

You see, in classical ballet you are trained to hold your center of gravity roughly around your diaphragm. This enables the lightness and quickness of the legs and feet. Think about lifting, lifting, lifting all of your energy up from your pelvis. Then cap that lift at the shoulders and close your rib cage around it. That energy turns into a little ball that floats around in that area above your waist. You lock it in there and hold it tight, then you move around it.

In Graham technique, you drop your center of gravity below your belly button. I didn’t know anything about Kundalini yoga at that time, but now I would say that you locate your center of gravity in your svadhisthana chakra. All motion then originates and radiates from your center, initiated by either a contraction or release. It creates a very powerful way of moving.

Here is a short video of Graham technique:

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an innovator during a time of tremendous artistic innovation. She is sometimes referred to as the mother of modern dance because of the thoroughly developed technique and prodigious repertoire that she created. Graham’s early dance training was at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles where she eventually taught before moving to New York City in the 1920’s. There she began creating her own work. She is noted for creating 181 ballets over her 70-year career. Among her students was Merce Cunningham. Isamu Noguchi created sets for many of her ballets including the 1944, Aaron Copeland commissioned, Appalachian Spring.

 Here is an excerpt of Appalachian Spring with Graham dancing the lead role:

 Ok, back to the quote. The thing about it is that in this statement, she completely eliminates the role of ego from artistic expression (at least in principle). What she is saying is that you don’t have to think you’re great (or even good) and you don’t have to like what you create. Your job is just to be open to the act of creation. There are a lot of people who have used a lot more words to express this same idea. I love how Graham is so no-nonsense about it.

Is there something creative that you’ve been putting off?  Maybe it’s time to do it.

Three Visions of Ballet

On February 15, mom and I attended Program 3 of the San Francisco Ballet 2020 Season.  The title of the program was Dance Innovations. It was an evening of three contemporary works (three visions of ballet), The Infinite Ocean by Edward Liang (premiered 2018), The Big Hunger by Trey McIntyre (a world premiere), and Etudes by Harald Lander (circa 1948).

We had just seen Etudes last year and I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it again. The one thing that I will say about it is that it was a lovely palate cleanser after the two more avant garde pieces and I feel like the dancing was a bit sharper than it had been last year. Both my mom and the woman who sits next to her were delighted by the clean, classical technique and the brightness of the movement. It was very smart to program such a traditional work at the end of the evening.

Since I’ve already discussed that piece, I am going to focus on the other two, which I found tremendously interesting.


Composer: Oliver Davis
Choreographer: Edward Liang
World Premiere: April 26, 2018 – San Francisco Ballet

I had thought that we might have seen this piece last year, but when I went back to check, mom was right, it was not on the program that we saw (don’t you hate it when that happens?).

An interesting synchronicity here is that I have been listening to the City Ballet podcast on my walks and the episode that I had just been listening to that week was Edward Liang talking to Wendy Whelan about his career as a dancer and now as a choreographer. He was talking about a different commission, but it was interesting to hear about his process. I could see how he would have applied the same sort of approach to this piece.

I really enjoyed the music for this work. The composer, Oliver Davis, is Liang’s frequent collaborator.  Liang describes Davis’s style as modern, minimalist baroque. I felt like it enveloped the stage, the dancers, and the movement. There were at least a couple of places in the score that seemed to me like they would make a great car commercial (I mean that as a compliment).

This piece had to do with death and dying, with individuals coming to terms with their own imminent mortality. The interesting things about the movement had to do with how the ensemble would come together, move as a unit, but without any sense of connection – it was as if everyone was one the same journey, but alone.  Even the partnering had that lack of connection.

Liang’s movement vocabulary didn’t fall into the trap of contemporary choreographers trying to make “interesting” or “modern” movements.  He retained a classical vocabulary, but expanded traditional steps with a sense of lightness, softness, freedom. Sort of like the idea of the dancers learning to let go.


Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Choreographer: Trey McIntyre
World Premiere: February 13, 2020 – San Francisco Ballet

Speaking of synchronicity, there seems to be some synchronicity in my small ballet world these days about Prokofiev. There was Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella last month, this piece, but also a discussion of some of his other pieces on that City Ballet podcast. Before now, the things that came to my mind when I thought of Prokofiev were The Love for Three Oranges and Romeo and Juliet.  I’m interested to discover what it is that the universe wants me to learn from Prokofiev.

The program notes for this piece were really interesting. McIntyre was inspired by a Korean film, to consider the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert’s concept of two hungers. On the one hand is big hunger – man’s search for existential purpose. On the other hand is little hunger – physical needs like food and shelter.  I would equate little hunger to the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – physiological and safety needs, and big hunger to the top tiers – esteem and self-actualization. For McIntyre, conflict arises when little hunger pursuits are given big hunger value.

The dancers were comprised of three couples and an all-male ensemble. The first couple opened the piece.  They were dressed in pink, short, coverall-style jumpsuits. Were they in charge?  Or were they instigating something?  The backdrop featured a very distinct door with illuminated green EXIT sign above it. Then the ensemble makes a bold entrance wearing bright pink pageboy wigs, white collared shirts and short shorts and the first pair make a run for the EXIT.

In the next scene, the space opened up, became more abstract, and the EXIT was graffiti covering the entire back wall. It was like a warning to get out now. The second couple both wore the same wigs and costumes as the ensemble. Were they becoming assimilated into the rat race?

Next scene, the EXIT is gone, now there is no way out. The third pair (both men) enter wearing grey/blue versions of the pageboy wig and long, grey overcoats. At that point the costumes changed to the grey/blue wigs and grey shirts/shorts for all the dancers including both previous couples. We’ve lost the vibrancy from earlier. The dancers have gotten so wrapped up in their little hunger that they missed their shot to satisfy their big hunger.

I loved the athleticism of the movement in this work and the sense of something just being a bit off. I loved the way that things kept degenerating. Even the change from the bright wigs to the grey/blue wigs was like another step in toward the eventual collapse. I really hope that they program this piece again next year, I would really like to see it again.

World Ballet Day 2019

Guys!  It’s World Ballet Day again!

I’m glad that I didn’t mark my calendar after last year’s World Ballet Day because World Ballet Day 2019 is certainly not on the same date.  But there are a bunch of new ballet videos on the internet today for our viewing pleasure, some from companies that we got to know last year and some that are newly discovered.

*Disclaimer: I don’t have hours to spend watching videos of ballet classes and rehearsals either. But by linking a bunch of them here we can all find them whenever we do have time to squeeze in a few minutes of ballet viewing in our day.

The Royal Ballet is back again with four hours of content. I love watching their class so much.  I also really love all of the studio fashion statements.

The Royal Ballet

The Australian Ballet has also posted four hours’ worth.

The Australian Ballet

A new discovery for me this year is Teatro alla Scala.  I skipped ahead to a terrible turns exercise – double attitude, double arabesque, double a la seconde, double pirouette en de dan – the stuff of my dance nightmares.  Fortunately, it looked like many of the professional dancers were having a hard time with it too.

Teatro alla Scala

The Wiener Staatsballett has given us a rehearsal of a Balanchine ballet that they are adding to the repertory.

Weiner Staatsballett

I hope you’ll take a few moments to watch a little ballet today and remember these links are here if you need a fix in the future.  Afterall, ballet season is just around the corner.

Stories of the Great Ballets

I just finished perusing this book titled, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets .  I won’t claim to have read it since I *may* have skipped the first 734 pages. Those pages contained an exhaustive catalogue of “great ballets” according to George Balanchine (from skimming the table of contents, it appears that some of those listed are greater than others). 

It is certainly a “great” reference tool and I will plan on keeping it handy for the next time that I’m going to see a pre-1977 ballet (this was the fifth edition).  I just can’t imagine that anyone would need/want to read that whole list.

The remaining 150 pages seemed interesting so I dug in. 

First was a chapter titled “How to Enjoy Ballet” where Mr. Balanchine explains his thoughts on how someone who is new to ballet should approach seeing a ballet performance for the first time.  What was interesting to me is how much importance he ascribed to familiarizing oneself with the music before one attends a performance.  He didn’t feel that it was necessary to have any technical knowledge of dance, just an appreciation for the skill of the dancers.

The other key piece of Mr. Balanchine’s advice for the novice balletgoer really made me smile. It was basically, “if you go to the ballet and you think you don’t like it, just keep going and eventually you will like it!”  I suppose that you could call that the “eat your vegetables” approach to ballet appreciation.  

The next chapter was “A Brief History of the Ballet,” followed by “Chronology of Significant Events in the History of Ballet.”  This was a detailed timeline beginning with Lorenzo de Medici (ballet was imported to France by Catherine de Medici as a part of courtly spectacles). I felt that I had a good grip on the timeline, dissemination, and evolution of ballet, but this had some interesting details in it that raised some questions – I have a few things to look into and will report back!

Next is a brief autobiography by Mr. Balanchine, “How I Became a Dancer and Choreographer.” 

Then, “Ballet for Your Children,” “Careers in Ballet,” and a glossary which contains some very good illustrations of positions and steps.  It was surprising to me how adamant Mr. Balanchine was that children shouldn’t begin studying ballet until they are eight years old.  It just goes to show how long I’ve been away from that world that his talk about dancers’ development was a bit shocking in its frankness.  It certainly isn’t the way that those things are talked about these days.

I love classic books, and this is certainly a great addition to my dance book collection.  If you have questions about a “great ballet,” please let me know and I can tell you what Mr. Balanchine has to say about it!

Shostakovich Trilogy

This past Saturday marked the end of our 2019 Ballet Season. Happily, the program was excellent and left us excited for 2020 (yes, we have already renewed our seats).

This program was comprised of three works choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, all to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich Trilogy was co-commissioned by San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. The SF Ballet premiere was in 2014.

Alexi Ratmansky is a Russian choreographer who is currently artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. Previously, he held the position of artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet where he is known for remounting some of the Soviet-era ballets. You can see the influence of his experience with artistic productions of that era in the deft way that he layered the pieces in Shostakovich Trilogy with nuance evocative of the time and place in which the music was created.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was an early-twentieth century, Russian composer. Unlike Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Stravinsky (1882-1971), Shostakovich spent his entire career in Stalinist Russia where he experienced constraints on his work. Despite these constraints, his music is powerful and timeless. One has to wonder what he could have accomplished if he had the artistic freedom of some of his contemporaries.

Symphony #9 has a movement vocabulary that combines classical ballet steps with traditional Russian folk-dance movements in a very elegant way. The music, composed in 1945, was commissioned by the government as a celebration of the victory of the Soviet people over the Nazis and the conclusion of WWII. This piece sort of switches back and forth from a feeling of self-conscious restraint to rah-rah proletarian propaganda, highlighting the dichotomy of Soviet society at that time.

Chamber Symphony was the most narrative piece in the program. The backdrop for this work was a series of oversized, cubist-style heads suspended in front of the back scrim. The heads shifted and different effects were created with lighting throughout the course of the piece. It created a sort-of “big brother is watching you” feeling. At one point, the music become quite bombastic and the most center-stage heads became quite prominent and menacing.

The main character in this piece represents Shostakovich. Watching it without reading the program notes first made for an interesting exercise in deciphering a story. I was left with the firm conclusion that the central character was a depressive cad.

The corps de ballet in this piece is composed of eight couples who seem to be exerting influence on the behavior of the main character. He alternates between going along with the group, acting out, and utter dejection.   There are also three female soloists who represent different women in the composer’s life. These roles were danced divinely by Sasha de Sola, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Mathilde Froustey.

Piano Concerto #1 was my favorite piece of the three. That being said, I can’t describe the dancing to you at all. I was completely mesmerized by the costumes, which were these extremely simple and effective two-tone unitards. Yes, that’s it. The front was blue, and the back red and it was visually spectacular. I guess that I could say that the dancing was interesting and dynamic because it didn’t detract from the excellent effect of the costumes.

There was an energy to the dancing on this night. We all got the impression that the dancers really enjoyed performing these works (maybe they were just happy that it was the end of the season). It was nice to see such a consistent program of interesting, contemporary work, I think this had to do with the strength of the music.

At any rate, it was a satisfying end to the season.

The Little Mermaid

San Francisco Ballet 2019 Program 7, The Little Mermaid

This weekend’s ballet adventure was a performance of The Little Mermaid.  This is not your Disney Little Mermaid.  This version, choreographed by John Neumeier, more closely resembles the original Hans Christian Andersen fable.  The ballet was created in 2005 for the Royal Danish Ballet to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth, and it was first staged by the San Francisco Ballet in 2010.

The Little Mermaid is considered one of Andersen’s most autobiographical stories due to his well-documented history of unrequited love of both men and women.  Neumeier inserts an Andersen-like character in the ballet, in the form of “The Poet.” This is a very successful element of the libretto in as much as it clarifies the way in which the little mermaid and the sea witch represent different aspects of the poet’s inner emotional landscape.

The story begins with the poet aboard a ship, remembering when the object of his love, Edvard married Henriette.  A single tear falls into the ocean, serving as the catalyst to ignite the story of the little mermaid in his imagination. The poet spends most of the production on stage, sometimes mirroring, other times seeming to direct the actions of the little mermaid.

Ok, now let’s talk about the production and the dancing.

In addition to the choreography, Neumeier also created the sets and costumes both of which are innovative and interesting.  The way that irregular lines of light (think stage-width florescent light tubes flown in from above) are used to delineate the surface of the water is highly effective.  The combination of the light tubes with stage lighting changes were used to great effect to indicate location changes from onboard the ship to under the sea to on land.

The mermaid costumes are very clever.  They wear these extra-long, wide-legged, silky pants. The ends of the pants can be manipulated by other performers to create the effect of swimming, but the dancers can move around the stage and dance (carefully).  One (three) of my favorite characters were the magic shadows (or as I like to call them, the Dread Pirates Robertses).  These three guys partnered the little mermaid when she was enjoying her happy life under the sea.  One would lift her and the other two would each manipulate one of the long legs of her flowy pants, it was a fantastic effect.  Later, they became the sea witch’s henchmen.  They wore black, billowy pants, long-sleeved black shirts, eye masks and black head scarves the whole time, so no matter what their function was, they were the Dread Pirates Robertses to me.

The dancing was very good.  Again, this is a ballet with characters (even the background dancers were characters) which suits San Francisco Ballet’s strengths.  A couple of crowd scenes on the ship made me think of Sweet Charity.  There was an eclectic assortment of characters and everyone had their own little schtick/movement vocabulary.  I’m a huge fan of Fosse’s work, so those moments were delightful to me.

Yuan Yuan Tan, our favorite, favorite ballerina was the little mermaid.  This role calls for tremendous emotional expression more than virtuosic dancing and she was very effective.  She was not just acting with her facial expressions, her hyper-flexible back and lithe figure helped to convey the difference between her happy, carefree life under the sea and her painful (physically and emotionally) life on land.

This was a psychologically deep ballet.  All of the elements of the production worked together to tell a complex and nuanced story and I really enjoyed the performance.

Lyric Voices

Last Saturday we saw program 5 of San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 season, Lyric Voices.  It was a mixed bill of new work, two ballets that came out of the 2018 season’s new works festival and one brand new piece.

The entire program was very good.  The pieces were complimentary but not derivative and none of them were too long (thankfully!).  This is the kind of dancing that San Francisco Ballet excels at, the dancers are confident and energetic in these kinds of pieces.  There was a lightness and energy to the way that the dancers executed the interesting and appropriate movement vocabulary.

Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem

The first piece, which premiered in the new works festival last spring, was Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem by Trey McIntyre.  The piece was inspired by a photo of a grandfather who he never knew and dealt with themes of loss and longing for connection.

The movement had a lightness, an airiness to it.  McIntyre used a clean, classical movement vocabulary that brought to my mind Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century, neoclassical ballets.

Four of the six movements of the piece very obviously supported the narrative.  I have not been able to decipher the literal meaning of other two movements, one of which was my most favorite dance in the piece.  It was a pas de trois featured Sasha De Sola, Jennifer Stahl, and one of the male dancers who was not the grandfather character.  It was just gorgeous.  For some reason, I am stuck on an idea that Sasha and Jennifer were fireflies.  Whatever they were, their dancing was powerful, clean, and warm.

I will look forward to seeing this piece again and hope to see more work by Trey McIntyre in San Francisco Ballet’s repertoire. 

Bound To

The second piece was Christopher Wheeldon’s contribution to the 2018 new works festival, titled Bound To.  The concept for this piece is the way in which we, as a society, are “bound to” technology and disconnected from the people around us.

In the opening movement, the dancers are all mesmerized by their cellphones.  When they do interact, at least one of the dancers is completely distracted.  The piece then transitions into a series of movements in which the dancers do not have their devices; however, their interactions are still somewhat distant, as if they no longer know how to connect with other people.  In the final solo of the series, this dude loses it.  Everyone goes back to their phones and leave him for dead.

I found myself wondering how this work will stand the test of time.  Will it be something that anyone will want to stage in 20 years?  Will it be “of its time” in a good way?

“…two united in a single soul…”

The title of Yuri Possokhov’s world premiere comes from a line in Metamorphoses by Ovid pertaining to the Greek myth of Narcissus (book III).  The idea of reflection was explored in virtually every element of the piece and was strongly established by the memorable opening scene in which the orientation and direction of each dancer created a powerful hall-of-mirrors effect.

This ballet was gorgeous.  All of the elements were interesting and unexpected – the set, the music, the costumes, and the dancing.

The minimalist set elements were well utilized throughout the work but my favorite effect was at the end of the work.  A black-and-white camouflage pattern projected on the floor reflects the image of a skull on the massive metallic teardrop upstage center.  That moment was a particularly eerie, powerful, and clever use of the scenic elements.

Daria Novo’s musical composition included several arias by Handel sung by a countertenor (the highest male singing voice) and music by Handel was combined with electronic effects throughout.  The singer, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, appeared onstage and interacted with the dancers.  I thought this was a fantastic and effective way to combine operatic singing with dance.  He symbolized another facet of Narcissus.  It was like the singer was telling the story as the dancer showed it.

A great night at the ballet was had by all.

Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director, NYCB

Something happened recently that I think is very exciting – Wendy Whelan was hired as associate artistic director of New York City Ballet (NYCB). Together with Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford, she will be helming the country’s largest ballet company as it emerges from years of scandal following #METOO allegations of misconduct by former AD Peter Martins as well as several male dancers.

You might be saying, “yes, but she is only the associate artistic director, big whoop,” or asking, as the New York Times did, “if the AD job is too big for one person, why not make Whelan and Stafford co-artistic directors?” Fair enough.

Research shows that women are often appointed to C-level roles at organizations in crisis. But not because women are deemed the most qualified to turn things around. The underlying attitude with these appointments seems to be, “well things are already a mess.” It has also been demonstrated that women are judged more critically than their male counterparts for their performance and given less credit for creating positive outcomes.

I think that what NYCB is doing here is a really interesting way to avoid this paradigm. The position that they created for Whelan has clearly defined responsibilities focused around her sweet spot – programming and dancer development.  They are elevating her to a leadership role in which she is likely to be successful, not just to serve as a female figurehead or sacrificial lamb.

Wendy Whelan’s Career

Whelan is one of my all-time favorite ballerinas. Seeing her perform Agon when I was in college was such a formative moment – the way that she attacked the movement, the way that you could see the power radiating from her. From then on, I strove to infuse my dancing with that kind of fearlessness and energy.

As an artist, she was fierce and precisely technical. Her lines were always correct, and she owned the stage. I saw her and Craig Hall perform After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon at USC on March 24, 2011. I had seen this piece before in San Francisco, with Yuan Yuan Tan performing, and had a very vivid memory of the work. For a few minutes, I thought I may have been mistaken, it looked like a different piece. It was Whelan’s clean lines and exacting positions. I was blown away!

She retired from NYCB in 2014 after a 30-year career. I watched the snippets of her farewell concert on the internet, disappointed that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see her dance in person again. Fortunately for me, retirement was the beginning of her career as a modern dancer, and I was able to see her in 2015 and 2017 here in Southern California.

New York City Ballet Leadership

New York City Ballet has a long and storied history. Founded in 1948 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine served as artistic director (and force of nature) until his death in 1983. Jerome Robbins, who had been assistant artistic director since 1948 and Peter Martins then assumed the roles of co-ballet masters in chief. When Robbins retired in 1990, Martins was solely in charge of the company until 2009, when NYBC created an executive director position to oversee the administrative functions of the company. Martins continued to run the company from an artistic perspective until 2018.

I see Whelan’s appointment as the board’s way of signaling an earnest endeavor to change the culture. Beyond her esteemed 30-year career as a ballerina, she has pursued innovative artistic paths and actively worked to cultivate young talent. I am optimistic that the organization will give her the resources and support required and that she will have a significant and lasting impact on the dance cannon beyond her career as a performer.

In Space & Time

In this installment of Ballet Season 2019, I will tell you about San Francisco Ballet program 3, In Space & Time.  This was a mixed bill of three works, one neoclassical, one narrative, and one classical.

The Fifth Season

The first piece was The Fifth Season (2006), choreographed by SF Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson.  Helgi discovered the music of composer Karl Jenkins in 2005 and was inspired to create a ballet using it.  This piece features six movements with six principal dancers in different combinations and a small corps de ballet of eight dancers.  The partnering is for the most part interesting and innovative.  Some of the movements are interpretations of traditional ballroom dances such as the waltz and the tango which I really enjoyed.

The highlight of this piece was seeing our favorite prima ballerina, Yuan Yuan Tan on stage.  I don’t think that we saw her at all last season.  The other leading ladies in this piece, Wona Park (a soloist) and Mathilde Froustey held their own next to Yuan Yuan, an impressive accomplishment.


Next in the program was a success from last season’s new works festival, Snowblind (2018).  Choreographer Cathy Marston used Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome as the plot for this narrative work.  I’m not familiar with the source material and I didn’t find the any of the characters particularly sympathetic, but Cathy was a very efficient storyteller.  She presented well developed characters and a compelling dramatic arc in a short period of time.  Her innovative use pantomime and the corps de ballet was highly effective in furthering the plot and enhancing the drama.  My favorite element was the way that she turned the corps de ballet into a blizzard.  They were fast, unpredictable, and instantly recognizable as a natural phenomenon.  Think Waltz of the Snowflakes from the Nutcracker only dangerous and menacing. 


Etudes (1948), by Royal Danish ballet choreographer Harald Lander closed the evening.  This is what I would describe as a very academic ballet.  The piece is based on the structure of a ballet class, beginning at the barre and progressing through all of the exercises in a traditional class.  These days it can be really refreshing to see a ballet that uses the traditional dance vocabulary so explicitly.

The Danish ballet style is very upright, athletic, and precise, but effortless and light at the same time. These qualities are not the strengths of the San Francisco ballet and I felt that the dancing lacked the sparkle that would have made such a literal ballet demonstration truly successful.

There were bright points in the performance.  I was tickled by the extensive mazurka variation that even included a brief czardas solo.  This is the kind of thing that you are only going to see in the Danish style.  But by far, the highlight of the piece was my beloved Aaron Robinson who again demonstrated that he is the only member of the San Francisco ballet who can actually leap.

It was a fun night out but not a can’t miss program.