Your Ultimate Guide to In Space and Time

What is it? A chance to see three very different takes on ballet: from modernist abstraction to narrative drama to classical virtuosity.

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings.


Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? The Fifth Season, choreographed by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2006, is a study in contrasts. Cool, sophisticated movements and simple costumes coexist with passionate interludes; minimalist music with romantic melodies. Divided into six movements and featuring six principal dancers who dance together in different combinations, this ballet creates an abstract landscape of shifting moods.

What Am I Hearing? Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2 and the largo from Palladio. Tomasson knew he wanted to choreograph to the String Quartet, but wanted six movements in the ballet, so he added in the largo.

What Should I Look For? Look for the central pas de deux to the Palladio largo—it’s full of lyricism and longing. And note how different each of the sections of the ballet are—how do these contrasts make you feel?


San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? British choreographer Cathy Marston’s unique blend of literature, movement, and emotion. Known in Europe for her narrative ballets inspired by literature, Marston decided to use an American story as the starting point for this ballet: Edith Wharton’s short story Ethan Frome. For those of us who never read Ethan Frome in high-school English here’s a quick synopsis: Married man in New England falls in love with his hypochondriac wife’s cousin—who also happens to be his maid.

What am I hearing? A mix of music from Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt arranged by composer Phillip Feeney. Beach and Foote were both part of the “Boston Six,” a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England. Working at the same time as Edith Wharton, these composers were key to the development of American classical music.

What should I look for? Look for the way that the main characters’ movement is driven by their emotions—Marston starts her process more like a theatrical director, letting the character’s thoughts dictate the movement language. And watch the corps de ballet in this work; they alternately represent the cold and snow of New England and the central characters’ emotions.


SF Ballet’s Joanna Berman and Vadim Solomakha in Lander’s Etudes, 1998 // © Marty Sohl

What Am I Seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Études is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.

Your Ultimate Guide to The Sleeping Beauty

What Is It? The first collaboration between the father of classical ballet, Marius Petipa, and famed composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty is the pinnacle of classical ballet. Known for its technical challenges, sumptuous sets and costumes, beautiful music, and happy ending, The Sleeping Beauty is everything you would ever want a ballet to be. And SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson puts a new twist on the classic tale by setting it in Russia before and after the reign of Peter the Great.

In Short: The epitome of classical ballet. A fairytale romance. And the ultimate test of a ballerina’s skill.

Who It’s For: Anyone who loves going to the opera or symphony, or reveling in beautiful music, costumes, and dancing.

What Will I See? OK, so you have to know that this isn’t the Disney Sleeping Beauty (although that version does use parts of Tchaikovsky’s score!). Let’s start at the beginning…


The Plot: Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, a princess named Aurora is born. Her parents, the Tsar and Tsarina, decide to throw a big party for her christening. They trust their Master of Ceremonies to invite all the important dignitaries, and, for the most part, he does. In particular, he invites a whole cadre of fairies to come celebrate the princess and bring her gifts: the Fairies of Tenderness, Generosity, Serenity, Playfulness, Courage, and, most importantly, the Lilac Fairy. One is left out: the Fairy of Darkness. She’s (rightfully) ticked off and curses the princess, saying that someday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Lilac Fairy intercedes, saying that rather than dying, the princess will instead sleep for a hundred years. People are generally satisfied with this idea, but, just to be cautious, the Tsar bans all spindles, needles, and pointy things from the kingdom. Dads.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

What Should I Look For? The fairies are the big highlight in the Prologue. Keep an eye out for how their movements relate to the gifts they are bestowing. And this is the first time we’ll meet the two big forces of good and evil: the Lilac Fairy and the Fairy of Darkness. Notice how their movements—the one dancing classically, the other mostly miming—contrast one another.


The Plot: The real substance of the story begins in Act I with Aurora’s birthday party, which is really more like a debutante ball. She arrives and dances for her guests and then her father tells her how beautiful she is, and—big news—that she’s now old enough to find a husband. She dances with four suitors in a very famous section of the ballet known as the Rose Adagio. In it, she essentially takes each gentleman for a test run and, spoiler alert, finds each lacking. As the celebration continues, a mysterious guest appears with a present for the princess. Turns out this gift is a spindle and the mysterious woman, the Fairy of Darkness. Aurora, fascinated by this novel object, pricks her finger and collapses. Luckily, the Lilac Fairy wasn’t going to miss her goddaughter’s birthday and does her magic, making Aurora and the whole court fall into an enchanted sleep in lieu of dying.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

What Should I Look For? This is the first time we get to see Aurora dance and she does so spectacularly: a few variations—what ballet people call solo dances—and the big event, the Rose Adagio. You want to look for her balances as she moves from suitor to suitor—they should look secure and confident.


The Plot: In Act II, we finally get to meet our leading man, Prince Desiré. We’ve also fast-forwarded 100 years. Our prince, out on a hunt with friends, has a problem: no wife. Good news though: the Lilac Fairy tells him that she has just the girl for him. The only issue: she’s under a curse. But the Lilac Fairy has a solution: she makes Aurora appear in a vision so she can meet Prince Desiré while still sleeping. Long story short: they dance together, and he proclaims his love for her. Then he goes off into the woods to find her castle, kiss her, wake her up, and thereby end the Fairy of Darkness’ curse.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Chris Hardy

What Should I Look For? The way the sets and costumes have changed between Acts I and II: we’ve moved forward 100 years in time, so we’ve entered an entirely different era of fashion. Also, about the nymphs in the vision scene: this section is essentially a Romantic ballet and this scene shows off the corps de ballet.


The Plot: Wait, aren’t we done? Christening, birthday, curse, kiss—that’s it, right? Not so fast. What’s a big classical ballet without a wedding? This final act one big celebration of gorgeous music, costumes, and dancing. We see some guests—the Diamond, Sapphire, Gold, and Silver Fairies; some characters from other fairy tales like Puss in Boots, the White Cat, the Bluebird, and Princess Florine—and we see the couple dance their wedding pas de deux.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

What Should I Look For? The wedding pas de deux: coming at the end of a long ballet—especially for the ballerina dancing Aurora—this dance is hard and it’s her job to make it look easy. Notice the way some of the steps from the Rose Adagio return here and look for the “fish dives,” when Aurora seems to “dive” through the prince’s arms and he catches her. These are awe-inspiring and have become the centerpiece of Act III, in spite of the fact that they weren’t added into the ballet until the 1920s.


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Instant Expert: The Kitri or Plisetskaya Jump

One of the distinctive features of Don Quixote’s choreography is the “Kitri jump.” In this step, Kitri jumps into the air and as she does so kicks her back leg so that she nearly hits herself in the head. This shape appears throughout Don Quixote, with characters including Kitri’s friends and Mercedes performing versions of it, to give the ballet a Spanish flair. But it’s Kitri’s whose are most spectacular. The step is also sometimes called the Plisetskaya jump, after Soviet ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who made the step famous.

Frances Chung in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote


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Your Ultimate Guide to Don Quixote

What is it? This ballet is pure fun. Inspired by Cervantes’ famous (and very long) novel, the ballet Don Quixote (first choreographed in 1869 by Marius Petipa to music by Ludwig Minkus) takes a few short episodes from the book to craft a charming story that’s become known for its sassy heroine, Spanish setting, and—of course—its donkey. Our version, created by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson and choreographer Yuri Possokhov, features beautiful sets and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz.

In short: Spanish lovers. Tilting at windmills. A horse and a donkey. And pyrotechnic dancing.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves great literature, vacationing in Madrid, or romantic comedies.

What will I see? Well, you need to know that this ballet doesn’t contain all of Cervantes’ plot—that would be a really long ballet! Instead, it focuses on three chapters in the second half of the book, which tell the story of a young man named Basilio and his love, Quiterio, or, as we know her in the ballet, Kitri…


Jim Sohm and Pascal Molat in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

The plot: Remember how your parents told you that too much television would rot your brain? Well, in some way that’s the premise of this tale—but instead of tv, it’s books (the 16th-century version of tv!).

The ballet opens in a musty study in La Mancha, Spain circa 1550, where we meet Don Quixote, a lesser nobleman with a taste for chivalric romance novels. Engrossed in his books, which tell tales of knights in shining armor, daring adventures, and damsels in distress, he falls asleep and dreams he’s a knight in love with the ideal woman, Dulcinea. His sleep is interrupted by the entrance of Sancho Panza, a peasant from the village, clutching a stolen ham and chased by a band of housewives. Convinced the tales he’s read are true, Don Quixote decides to embark on an adventure—with Sancho recruited as his squire—to defend the code of chivalry throughout the land.

What should I look for? This is our first chance to note the dynamic between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—how does Sancho react to this sudden change in his fate?—and gives us a hint of the comedy to come.


Frances Chung in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

The plot: Now we get to meet the ballet’s hero and heroine: Kitri and her love Basilio. We see them dance with friends—Espada, a matador, and his sultry lover, Mercedes—and with each other. But all’s not well in this Spanish paradise: Lorenzo, Kitri’s father, decrees that his daughter isn’t going to marry some poor barber, but instead a foppish nobleman named Gamache.

Right as this is all going down, Don Quixote and Sancho arrive on a horse and donkey respectively—and yes, they are real animals—and join the festivities. Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for his love, Dulcinea, squaring off the love triangle between Basilio, Kitri, and Gamache. Amidst all the merriment, Kitri and Basilio manage to sneak off, hotly pursued by Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Lorenzo, and Gamache.

What should I look for? This first act is full of fabulous dancing. Watch for the way that Kitri and Basilio alternate dancing—this comes out of traditional ballets where women’s and men’s solos alternate, but in this particular ballet, it also has the sense of a conversation, or flirtation, in which each is trying to one-up the other. Also, note how Spanish flair is added on top of classical ballet, through arm gestures pulled from flamenco, and big kicks and leaps, including the famous “Kitri” or “Plisetskaya jump,” where the dancer almost kicks herself in the head!


Koto Ishihara in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

The plot: Kitri and Basilio sneak into a gypsy camp, where they explain their predicament (that her father wants to marry Kitri to an awful man) and the gypsies agree to help them. When the whole crew—led by Gamache on the donkey—arrives at the camp, the gypsies distract them with a puppet show. Don Quixote gets confused (again) and thinks one of the puppets is Dulcinea, so he attacks the puppet stage, causing everyone else to scatter. Then he thinks a windmill is a giant, and attacks it too, before collapsing with exhaustion.

While knocked out, Don Quixote dreams that Kitri becomes his Dulcinea and that he meets (a female) Cupid, the Queen of the Dryads, and a whole slew of other nymphs. When he awakens, Sancho drags him off to a tavern. Kitri and Basilio are already there, still pursued by Lorenzo and Gamache. Basilio and Kitri beg to be allowed to marry and when Lorenzo refuses, Basilio threatens to stab himself.

Which he does.

Except, it’s fake, but only Kitri knows. Basilio begs Lorenzo to allow him to marry Kitri as his dying wish. He also recruits Don Quixote to his side—supporting a dying wish does seem to be the chivalric thing to do after all. As soon as Lorenzo relents, up Basilio pops, good as new.

What should I look for? In the dream scene, you’ll want to look for the Kitri/Dulcinea character to be able to really change personalities—as Kitri, she’s fiery and sexy, but here she’s regal and pure. The Queen of the Dryads and Cupid give other dancers an opportunity to shine—look for crisp technique and high contrast between these two characters. Oh, and watch of course for Basilio in the tavern—it’s the comedic high point of the ballet.


San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

The plot: But wait! We aren’t quite done. There has to be a wedding. Many friends and acquaintances return, including Espada and Mercedes, and, of course, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who come to wish the couple well. A big wedding celebration ensues and everyone lives happily ever after, with the Don and Sancho heading out to their next big adventure.

What should I look for? This act is all about the pas de deux. Kitri and Basilio get to show off for the crowd and for each other in a duet that’s become a regular feature at ballet galas and competitions. The catch? It’s much harder after dancing the rest of a two-hour ballet. Watch especially for their variations: the double turns in the air for Basilio’s, how Kitri manipulates her fan and her hops on pointe (harder than they look!), and their series of consecutive turns in the coda. Though not as famous as the fouetté turns in Swan Lake, these are just as impressive and are a place where dancers put their own spin (pun intended) on the choreography, adding in tricks with fans, multiple turns, and sometimes changes of direction.


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