Virtual Ballet Season, Program 2 – A Celebration of Contemporary

Let’s Begin at the End – Dwight Rhoden, 2018 (Unbound Festival)
COLORFORMS – Myles Thatcher, World Premiere
Sandpaper Ballet – Mark Morris, 1999

Well y’all, it was time for program 2 of the San Francisco Ballet virtual ballet season. I forgot to look up the program before I pushed “play,” so I was surprised that there was more to the program than just the world premiere of Myles Thatcher’s COLORFORMS ballet.

The title for this program was A Celebration of the Contemporary. The three works presented were Let’s Begin at the End, a 2018 piece by Dwight Rhoden that had been performed as part of the Unbound New Works Festival, COLORFORMS, a world premiere by Myles Thatcher, and Sandpaper Ballet, a 1999 piece by Mark Morris.

I guess that I could have watched the trailer …

Let’s Begin at the End in 2018 is very clearly a work of this time. There is a certain … I don’t know what to call it – preciousness maybe – that is in fashion in current choreography and this piece is no exception. I won’t get into my feelings about that here. Suffice it to say that a contemporary work can be abstract or it can be narrative, but once you’ve established a narrative, it would be a kindness to your audience to strive for a modicum of coherence.

The work seemed to be about the conflict of male relationships v. male/female relationships. One character kept coming through to disrupt the harmony of the male/female pairings. I interpreted this character as perhaps “bro code” but according to the choreographer, he maybe represented Cupid. I suppose we are all entitled to have different opinions about what love or partnership is.


The second work was Myles Thatcher’s world premiere, COLORFORMS. Because this work was recorded specifically for the 2021 season, it was presented as a dance film versus a live performance capture, meaning that rather than filming one complete run through presented on a proscenium stage, the dance was recorded in various locations with various camera angles and cut together to create one work. The venues included the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a dance studio, the stage at the Opera House, and a grove of redwoods in Golden Gate Park.

Based on the preview videos, I was expecting a linear progression – the dance would start in the museum then a transition to the performance venue. What they gave me was much more interesting – scenes in the museum would seamlessly transition to the dance studio, then back, as if the dancer was stepping into or embodying a piece of art, then returning to their pedestrian existence. The final transition from the stage into the woods was accomplished by the dancers stepping through a frame-like set piece.  I liked the surreal quality created by these transitions, it really created a theatrical feeling and accomplished something that you wouldn’t have been able to if the work had been presented traditionally.


The final work was Sandpaper Ballet. I am a big Mark Morris fan and maybe even more so now. In my mind, Mark Morris is the dance-world analogue to Isaac Mizrahi, and I mean that in a good way. They are both sort of irreverent, but don’t underestimate their skill in their craft or the seriousness of their intention. Later when I read the program notes I learned that Isaac Mizrahi had designed the costumes for this ballet! Am I psychic? Perhaps.

As for Sandpaper Ballet, this work is serious dancing presented in a lighthearted manner. One element of the choreography that stood out for me was the lusciousness of the por de bras. This piece was light and jazzy and technical and complicated and so wonderful.

Your day will be better if you watch this one minute clip of Sandpaper Ballet, trust me.

This program was an excellent counterpoint to Midsummer Night’s Dream and the three works represented a great diversity within the contemporary, abstract dance sphere. Overall, I would say that the virtual ballet season is off to a strong start. Myles Thatcher’s work was very insightfully presented and the Mark Morris piece was exquisite and timeless. Even Rhoden’s work was more interesting than previous work that I’ve seen by him.

Have you had a chance to check out the virtual ballet season? Program 3 will be launching soon, hopefully I can remember to watch it before the last minute this time and give you a chance to check it out.

Ballet Season 2021, Ballet On-Demand

It’s that time again, ballet season. Only this year is a ballet season like no other. This year ballet season has gone virtual. Rather than trekking up to the bay area, this year I am enjoying ballet on-demand at home.

Last spring we went ahead and renewed our tickets for this year; optimism being the best antidote to quarantine doomscrolling. Unfortunately, as we all know, the pandemic continues. To their credit, San Francisco Ballet decided fairly early last fall that they would not have a live season this year and pivoted to produce their first digital ballet season.

There is no denying that I am disappointed to miss my weekend visits, spending time with my mom and sister, getting dressed up, going out to dinner, and especially dissecting the performance on the car ride home. It turns out there is something to be said for ballet on-demand from the comfort of my living room. Especially since I finally got to see Midsummer Night’s Dream!

San Francisco Ballet was able to film one performance of Midsummer last March after the shutdown. One moment in particular almost seemed creepy: in the second act divertissement there was one very flashy pas de deux danced by Francis Chung and Ulrik Birkkjaer. It had all the leaps and turns and lifts that would normally receive a bunch of applause. At the end, when went to take their bows there was silence. Up until that point I had just been enjoying the dancing, suddenly I was thinking about what a different place the world was in March of 2020, how none of those dancers would have ever guessed how they would be spending the ensuing months.

Ok, enough about that, let’s talk about the ballet.

I won’t go into a whole recap of the libretto; you can find that on the SF Ballet website here. Basically, the whole play takes place in the first act and then the second act is a big divertissement. I love how the action moves quickly and the emphasis on telling the story through the dancing rather than injecting a bunch of pantomime (very Balanchine).

One of my favorite elements of the performance are the bugs who were danced by children from the San Francisco Ballet School. Children in story ballets are often just there to sell tickets but the role of bugs really added a lot to this production. The choreography was suitable yet challenging and their expressions were great. I can’t imagine having to flutter my hands for what seemed like endless minutes, those kids were real troupers.

The star of the show is of course Puck who was danced by soloist Cavan Conley.  This guy kind-of stole the show as far as I’m concerned. The role is both very athletic and comedic and he was dynamic and expressive in his portrayal.

Another excellent soloist was Sasha Mukhamedov who danced the role of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. She is a very powerful dancer, perfectly cast for the role.

Watching the ballet on-demand in my living room, I was able to notice a lot of things that I would have missed if we had been at the opera house. Even so, I’m still hopeful that I will get to see this production live at some point in the future.

The second performance of the San Francisco Ballet digital season, COLORFORMS by Myles Thatcher, has launched. I am looking forward to checking it out and reporting back soon.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Spring

Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Spring

Last weekend, I headed up to San Francisco for the third ballet weekend of the season with mom and sister.  We were all looking forward to seeing San Francisco Ballet perform Midsummer Night’s Dream, a George Balanchine choregraphed fairytale ballet that none of us had seen before.

I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit ambivalent about being around such a large crowd of people given the current public health crisis, but there are certain things worth risking exposure to infectious disease and Balanchine ballets are one of them.

Unfortunately, the mayor of San Francisco doesn’t seem to share my commitment to the art of dance. As I waited at the airport for my flight to board, I scrolled “the gram” and saw notice that the ballet had been closed, there would be no performances until March 30 (later posts indicated a date of March 20 – we’ll see). At least it wasn’t just the ballet, but all city-owned performance venues.

On the one hand, it was a little bit of a relief. But mostly it was disappointing.  Especially after my sister forwarded the review of the opening night performance that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle.

What the review made clear is that SF Ballet excels at these light-hearted, fairytale ballets, bringing to my mind the excellent performance of Cinderella earlier this season or of Don Quixote last season.

As I had already done preliminary research in preparation for my own review, I thought that I would go ahead and tell you about the ballet and we can all hope that they will re-stage this production for the 2021 season.

Midsummer Nights Dream by George Balanchine

Since I wasn’t familiar with the ballet, I dug out my copy of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets and looked it up (you know that he would never leave one of his own works out).

Created in 1962, Midsummer Night’s Dream was George Balanchine’s first original full-length ballet.

Balanchine had performed in productions of the play as a child in Russia and previously been asked to do some dances for various productions of the play, so he was familiar with the music that Mendelssohn had written for it. He credits the music more than the story for inspiring him to create this work. But because there wasn’t a complete ballet’s worth of music, Balanchine created a franken-score, using other Mendelssohn pieces.

The overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn

The ballet is organized into two-acts, and six-scenes. The first act contains all of the plot of the ballet – the fairy shenanigans, mortals getting caught up in fairy shenanigans, adventures and misadventures. The second act, in the fashion of the romantic ballets contains the wedding scene, the divertissement, and a happily-ever-after ending.

The supernatural elements of any fairytale ballet allow for all sorts of wonderful creatures and characters. Combining such a narrative with Balanchine’s athletic and expressive choreography is a recipe for a delightfully whimsical dance ballet.

Midsummer Night’s Dream hadn’t been performed by SF Ballet in 35 years. I hope that it wasn’t a one-night stand.

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.

2020 Ballet Season Opener, Cinderella

It’s that time of the year again!  What time is that?  It’s Ballet Season of course!

Even though the 2020 season opened much like last year with a fairytale ballet, it was certainly not a romantic-era ballet or even an update of a romantic ballet.  This production of Cinderella was created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2012 as a joint commission of the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Its War Memorial premiere was in 2013.

The libretto was written by Craig Lucas, the playwright who you may be familiar with from Prelude to a Kiss (there was a 1992 film adaptation with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan). He brings that same soupçon of strangeness to this work. There is no fairy godmother or mice.  All of the magic in this version of the story comes from a tree that grows out of Cinderella’s mother’s grave.  Of course, you can’t leave Cinderella sidekick-less but instead of mice and birds, she has four fates who provide the magical catalyst (and help her with the chores). This Cinderella also has a respectable amount of gumption for a story where the happy ending entails getting married (spoilers!).

Wheeldon choose to work with Prokofiev’s 1940 score. For me, the music didn’t do much, it is certainly isn’t on par with his Romeo and Juliet.  But I didn’t find choreography particularly impactful either. I don’t know if one fell flat and impacted my impression of the other or if both were just meh. 

As far as the choreography goes, there was a lot of dancing. Really athletic dancing. Maybe too much, as in too many steps. The principals were on stage for long stretches and the corps de ballet really moved. There wasn’t a lot of standing around or running off and on stage. I don’t tend to miss the conventions of romantic ballet, but I do feel that this work would benefit from some of the pauses, stillness, and space that are traditional in the romantic ballets in order to give the brilliant and athletic dancing space to shine.

The night my mom, sister, and I were there, Cinderella was danced by one of our new favorite dancers, Sasha de Sola. She brought a great combination of sassiness and compassion to the role. Luke Ingham was the Prince.  But the stepsister Clementine, who was danced by Ellen Rose Hummel, was the character who really stole the show.  Clementine is the sweet stepsister, who wears glasses and takes the brunt of her mother’s and sister’s meanness when Cinderella isn’t readily available. She is funny and kind-hearted, and she gets the guy too, winning the heart of the Prince’s sidekick.

The novel libretto allows for creative applications of production elements.  The scene where Cinderella is transformed to go to the ball is wonderfully weird and full of inventive staging and effects. For me, this scene is the highlight of the show.

There is so much to like about this production, but like I said before, there was just something about it that felt overwrought.  The last time it was presented was 2017 and I remember enjoying the innovative elements, but I don’t know that it made my heart leap that time either.

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.

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.

Don Quixote

San Francisco Ballet, Program 1: Don Quixote

It’s Ballet Season 2019!  Time to dust off something cute to wear and wing up to San Francisco for a fun night out with mom and sister.  This is our 14th year of having season tickets to the San Francisco Ballet, which seems substantial until you learn that Robbie and Gail who sit in front of us have had their season tickets for over 40 years!  Apparently, it’s the kind of tradition with staying power.

San Francisco Ballet opened their 2019 season with Don Quixote, the rom-com of the classical ballet cannon.  It is silly and corny, and it knows that it’s camp.  At the same time, the Spanish flavor lends a bit of flair to the performances.  It’s like Diana Vreeland would say, “a little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika.”

Don Quixote premiered in 1869 with music by Ludwig Minkus and choreography by Marius Petipa.  Modern productions retain the Minkus score; however, the choreography is derived from Alexander Gorsky’s 1900 update of Petipa’s original.  The San Francisco Ballet version, staged by Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov, premiered in 2003.

The libretto is based on two chapters from Cervantes.  The story begins with Don Quixote dreaming of his beloved Dulcenea and resolving to go on a quest to find her.  From there the story transitions to a town where the inn-keeper’s daughter, Kitri, is rendezvousing with her beloved Basilo, the town barber.  Conflict arises because Kitri’s father wants to betroth her to a rich nobleman.  Soon Don Quixote and Sancho Panza arrive in town to exacerbate the shenanigans.  After much hijinks, including a gypsy camp, tilting at windmills, and hallucinatory driads, Kitri and Basilo are allowed to wed and there is much rejoicing.  Let’s just say that the plot of a romantic ballet is only there to give the illusion of a structure for a bunch of dancing.

The performance that we saw featured Sasha de Sola as Kitri and Aaron Robison as Basilo.  Sasha has been with San Francisco Ballet since 2007 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2017.  I don’t think that we had seen her in the lead of an evening-length story ballet before and I was very pleased with her performance.  She is a stunning, petite blonde with big blue eyes and a radiant smile.  Sasha studied at the Kirov Academy, formerly the Russian Imperial Academy, and her Russian training is evident in her precise technique.  Her Kitri was athletic and joyful.  She wasn’t as sassy as some Kitris, but she didn’t need to be, it wouldn’t have suited her.

There is a ballet term, “ballon” which refers to the illusion that a leaping dancer floats through the air momentarily.  In general, I don’t find San Francisco Ballet dancers possess much ballon; they tend to telegraph the effort of take-off and you hear every ounce of them land. 

The role of Basilo is known for its many virtuosic leaps which Mikhail Baryshnikov immortalized with his ability to appear to actually fly. Aaron also executed these leaps in a powerful-yet-effortless manner and landed every one of them silently.  He managed to be elegantly graceful and cool at the same time, even during the more comic scenes. Aaron first performed with San Francisco Ballet during the 2016 season and returned in 2018.  I hope that he is here to stay.

Now, I can’t neglect to tell you about the real star of the show, Oreo the pony.  Oreo played the part of Sancho Panza’s donkey, Dapple.  The horse who played Don Quixote’s Rocinante was an elegant white gelding.  But Oreo is this adorable, dark-brown, fuzzy pony with a huge, unruly blonde forelock, mane, and tail.  Yes, there is a horse and a donkey in this ballet, why wouldn’t there be?  How would the Don and Sancho make their dramatic entrance without them?

Ballet Season 2019 is off to an auspicious start.  More to come!