Kelly Tweeddale, Executive Director, on her First SF Ballet Season

Host Andi Yannone interviews Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale.  They talk about her journey to SFB, her initial impressions of the Company and artistry of the dancers, and what she’s most looking forward to in the coming years.

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Header Image: Kelly Tweeddale // © Brandon Patoc

SF Ballet Production Staff on Cinderella

Members of the Production Staff discuss the demands of their positions as they “create the magic” of a fairy tale on stage. Jane Green, Production Stage Manager, describes the complexity of running this show; Kate Share, Manager of Wardrobe, Wig, Make-up, and Costume Construction, talks about the elaborate costumes and some of the difficulties the dancers encounter in accommodating them; Ken Ryan, Master of Properties, reveals the “secrets” behind the golden slipper so important to this story.

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Header Image: Sasha de Sola in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

To the Pointe: Cinderella

Join Jennie Scholick, PhD for a quick overview of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella©. Hear about the ballet’s creation, both in Soviet Russia and in San Francisco, revisit the story, and find out what to look for in this delightfully charming ballet!

Header Photo: Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

Tchaikovsky’s Dance of Death

In 1890, Tchaikovsky was riding the high of his opera The Queen of Spades when disaster struck: his longtime patron and confidante, Nadezhda von Meck, confessed that she could no longer sponsor his work. “I suffer a great deal,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother following the news. “Is it wise to accept the offer … to compose an opera in one act and a ballet [The Nutcracker] for the season 1891–92? My brain is empty; I have not the least pleasure in work.”

However reluctantly, Tchaikovsky accepted the Imperial Theater’s commission and began work on The Nutcracker. But when his beloved sister Alexandra died shortly after, disappointment turned into despondency: “For God’s sake … Today, even more than yesterday, I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,” he wrote.

Should it come by surprise, then, that The Nutcracker’s Grand Pas music, which comes just before the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous variation, sounds so melancholic? For this section, choreographer Marius Petipa had asked for “an adagio intended to produce a colossal impression,” and Tchaikovsky delivered. But more than making a “colossal” impact, he offers a moment of musical pathos; the cascading, six-note theme suggests something more intimate than the duet at hand. Was Tchaikovsky writing a “requiem” to his departed little sister, or simply setting the stage for the prince and princess the way he knew best? It may be one of music’s—and ballet’s—greatest mysteries.

Header image: Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


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Ultimate Guide to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances March 6–15.

By Jennie Scholick, PhD

What is it? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine to music by Felix Mendelssohn was his first original full-length ballet and quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Balanchine loved the original play—he could recite large parts of it in Russian—so the ballet sticks close to its inspiration, telling the story of four lost lovers in the woods, as well as of a royal fairy court made up of Queen Titania, King Oberon, and mischievous Puck.

In short: Adventures and misadventures. Mischief and magic. Woodland creatures and fairyland foibles.

Who it’s for: Anyone who loves high fantasy, the pure dance of George Balanchine, or is a sucker for weddings.

What will I see? Our story opens in a forest outside of Athens on Midsummer Eve…

ACT I

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laura Tisserand and Ezra Thomson in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

The Plot: The ballet quickly introduces us to three main groups of characters. First up, the fairies: Puck is a mischievous sprite, and Oberon and Titania are the King and Queen of the Fairies, trapped in a battle of wills over who gets to care for a charming changeling child.

Next, we meet the inhabitants of Athens: Hermia and Lysander, very much in love; Demetrius, who also loves Hermia; and Helena, in love with Demetrius. We also, briefly, meet Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his fiancée Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, as they consider Hermia and Lysander’s request to be married against her father’s wishes. Upon rejecting the request, the lovers run off into the woods, followed by Demetrius and Helena.

Finally, we encounter Bottom, a weaver, and his friends, also wandering the forest on this midsummer night.

As if this isn’t enough activity already, Oberon, interested both in helping out these young human lovers and in getting back at his queen, has Puck bring him a flower pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Why? When touched by this flower, a person falls in love with the first person they lay eyes on. He instructs Puck to make Demetrius love Helena and to play a trick on Titania.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Laura Tisserand and Ezra Thomson in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

But of course it isn’t that simple. First, Puck accidentally anoints Lysander, not Demetrius, causing him to fall in love with Helena, and then, attempting to remedy the mistake, anoints Demetrius as well. Now, instead of both men loving Hermia, they both love Helena, confusing and upsetting the entire crew.

Meanwhile, Puck separates Bottom from his group and transforms his head into that of a donkey. (Yes, he’s making an “ass” out of him. Shakespeare’s clever like that.) He puts the donkey-headed man near Titania’s bower, douses her in flower dew, and when she awakens … well, she falls in love with the ass. Oberon shows up just in time to release her from the spell, at which point she’s embarrassed enough to make up with her husband.

As the night drags on, the human lovers eventually wear themselves out with fighting and fall asleep, giving Puck a chance to put all the pairs to rights. Theseus and Hippolyta (accompanied by her hounds) find and wake them, and now that everyone’s paired off correctly, they declare it’s time for a triple wedding.

What should I look for? The whole entire plot (five acts in the original play) is condensed down into this single act, so a lot of what you’re looking for is who’s who! But there are a few key dance moments too, especially for the fairies. Notice that Titania and Oberon never dance together, instead Titania dances with a nameless cavalier in a pas de deux that is full of long, elegant lines, and of course with Bottom, in what must be one of the funniest pas de deux ever choreographed! And Oberon has a solo full of quick jumps and what we call “batterie,” or small beats made with the feet while in the air. This is one of the hardest solos that Balanchine ever choreographed, so don’t miss it! And finally, watch Puck, who moves with quicksilver lightness throughout the whole ballet. Created on Arthur Mitchell, this was one of the defining roles of his career.

ACT II

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lesley Rausch and Benjamin Griffiths with company dancers in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

The plot: With all the plot in Act I that leaves … a wedding, of course, for Act II! A triple wedding, that is, as Theseus and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander all tie the knot.

After the wedding entertainment ends, we return to the forest, where we see our reconciled King and Queen of the Fairies. Puck—who brought us into this forest scene—closes out the ballet, as he does the play: “If we shadows have offended/Think but this, and all is mended,/
That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear….So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends,/And Robin shall restore amends.”

What should I look for? This act hinges on the Divertissment pas de deux, in some ways, an odd moment when Balanchine inserts an entirely new couple into the action to dance together at the wedding. This duet seems to show everything that the other couples in the ballet don’t have: decorum, grace, equality, mutuality, respect. Low lifts—never above the shoulder—and careful handholding create a sense of ease and intimacy. A final sweeping backbend suggests a gentle fall into perfect love.  


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Header image: Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Lesley Rausch and Benjamin Griffiths with company dancers in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Choreography © The George Balanchine Trust // © Angela Sterling

The Story of Romeo & Juliet

Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet will be performed on tour at the Royal Danish Opera House in Copenhagen from October 30 to November 2, 2019. Romeo & Juliet will also be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season in San Francisco, on Program 08, which runs May 1 to 10, 2020.

Act I

SCENE I: A Public Square

Verona’s main piazza comes alive with merchants and townspeople, including members of the Montague and Capulet families, who have been involved in a longstanding feud. Among the crowd are Romeo, son of Montague, futilely pursuing the fair Rosaline; Mercutio and Benvolio, friends of Romeo; and Tybalt, nephew of Capulet. A fight erupts between friends and members of the two houses, and only an order by the Prince of Verona restores the peace.

Two households, both alike in dignity

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

SCENES II–V: The House of Capulet

Juliet, the young daughter of Capulet, is in a frolicsome mood with her Nurse until Lord and Lady Capulet arrive with Paris, a count, who asks the reluctant girl for her hand in marriage. That evening, Juliet attends a ball given by her parents. Among the guests is the uninvited Romeo. Juliet and Romeo discover each other, and there is an instant attraction.

Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate!

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

Prodigious birth of love it is to me,

That I must love a loathèd enemy.

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet.
(© Erik Tomasson)

SCENE VI: The Balcony

A restless Juliet wanders out onto her balcony. To her unexpected delight, Romeo appears below. They declare their love for each other in a romantic pas de deux.

Romeo: With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,

For stony limits cannot hold love out,

And what love can do, that dares love attempt.

Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.

Anita Paciotti and Diego Cruz in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

Act 2

SCENE I: A Public Square

Juliet’s Nurse comes in search of Romeo with a note from his beloved. He is to meet her at the chapel of Friar Laurence, who will perform the wedding ceremony.

Romeo: Then plainly know my heart’s dear love is set

On the fair daughter of rich Capulet.

As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine…

SCENE II: Friar Laurence’s Chapel

Romeo and Juliet are married in secret by Friar Laurence.

Friar Lawrence: So smile the heavens upon this holy act…

Sofiane Sylve in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

SCENE III: A Public Square

Tybalt emerges from the crowd and draws his sword at Mercutio, who retaliates. Romeo tries to put a halt to their swordplay. But a duel ensues, and Tybalt kills Mercutio. An enraged Romeo exacts revenge for his friend’s death, fatally stabbing Tybalt. The Prince forever banishes Romeo from Verona.

Benvolio: And if we meet we shall not ’scape a brawl,

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.

Act 3

SCENE I: Juliet’s Bedroom

The newlyweds awaken and express their love and their fears in a passionate pas de deux. Romeo takes his leave. The Capulets arrive with Paris, and Juliet informs them that she will not marry him. Juliet’s parents threaten to disown her.

Romeo: More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!

SCENE II: Friar Laurence’s Chapel

A distraught Juliet implores Friar Laurence to help her. He gives her a potion to drink that will induce a sleep so deep that she will appear to be dead. Friar Laurence will get word to Romeo that Juliet is still alive. Romeo will come for her, and they will flee Verona together.

Juliet: Come weep with me, past hope, past cure, past help.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

SCENE III: Juliet’s Bedroom

Juliet agrees to marry Paris. Later that night she drinks the potion. In the morning, Juliet’s friends arrive to celebrate her wedding. But no one can arouse her from her sleep, and all believe she is dead.

Juliet: What if this mixture do not work at all?

Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?

SCENE IV: Outside Verona

As word of Juliet’s death begins to spread, Friar Laurence dispatches a messenger to Romeo with the news that Juliet is, in fact, alive. But word fails to reach him, and Romeo decides to return to Verona to die beside his beloved.

Romeo: How fares my Juliet?

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

SCENE V: The Capulet Tomb

Juliet is buried. After the mourners have gone Romeo enters the crypt and finds Paris already there. The two men fight, and Paris is mortally wounded. Romeo then drinks poison and dies. Juliet awakens from her sleep and discovers Romeo’s body. Heartbroken, she stabs herself and dies.

Prince: For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.


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Header image: Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

About Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony

Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony is part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 06, Present Perspectives, running March 26, 28, and 31; and April 1, 3, and 5.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

For Classical Symphony, Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov tapped into reservoirs of emotion and memories of his boyhood at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Though he described it as “just dance” during rehearsals, this ballet bears a dedication to Peter Pestov, the most beloved and respected of Possokhov’s ballet teachers. Classical Symphony, the choreographer says, is a “dedication to my school, to my teacher, my background.” Created for the 2010 Repertory Season, it was Possokhov’s 11th commissioned piece for SF Ballet.

Possokhov worked with Pestov for the last three years of his training. Pestov, who died in 2011, trained dozens of notable ballet dancers, including Alexei Ratmansky (former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director and current resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre) and Vladimir Malakhov (formerly artistic director of Berlin State Opera Ballet and principal dancer at ABT). Possokhov says, “Our teacher is not just a coach in the studio. For us, he is like a father. He always fed us if we had nothing to eat; he always educated us; he brought us to museums. That’s why we love him—because it was a special time for us.”

Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Possokhov's Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson
Hansuke Yamamoto in Possokhov' Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson
Hansuke Yamamoto in Possokhov’ Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson

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Possokhov links Classical Symphony to his school years and to Pestov in small, personal ways. He first heard the music, Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Classical Symphony,” when Pestov gave it to him. Years later, after he began choreographing, Possokhov thought he would create a ballet to this music “someday, somehow. It’s like I had to do this ballet to this music and dedicate it to my teacher,” the choreographer says.

The Russian-born Prokofiev, one of the major composers of the 20th century, studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Critical of current practices, he began experimenting with dissonance and unusual time signatures, earning a reputation as the music world’s enfant terrible. He modeled his “Classical Symphony” on the style of Franz Joseph Haydn, writing it as Haydn, who died in 1809, might have had he lived into the 20th century. Writing for a classical orchestra (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, plus tympani and strings), Prokofiev paid homage to the classical form, but added new ideas.

Just as Prokofiev forged into neoclassicism, so does Possokhov with Classical Symphony, particularly in the second musical movement. Traditional ballet steps don’t include torso undulations and floor work, but in Possokhov’s hands they seem as natural and organic as if a 19th-century choreographer had thought of them. And shades of the neoclassical influences of George Balanchine can be seen in Possokhov’s changeable patterns, flow of dancers on and off the stage, and use of space.

In his treatment of the third movement, a gavotte that Prokofiev used later in his Romeo and Juliet, Possokhov again moves in an unexpected direction. It’s precisely because of the gavotte’s familiarity that he chose to approach it in a way that might surprise viewers. Once again, memories of his childhood fueled his imagination. “I always liked to watch birds; swallows, I think,” the choreographer says. “Sometimes they are together, changing directions, plunging.” In this men-only section he sends the dancers leaping and banking in distinctly birdlike fashion.

In making a tribute to Pestov, Possokhov shows his respect not only for his teacher but also for classical ballet training. He wanted to give Classical Symphony a feeling of nobility, he says, because to him, those who are trained in classical ballet are “rare dancers. It’s like opera—many people sing, but opera singing is unique.” Too often, he says, “you have to wait for a full-length ballet to see if [someone is a] good classical dancer. So this ballet is also a dedication to artists who should be seen in what they learned for many, many years.” Along with its surprises for the audience, Classical Symphony held one for its creator. Possokhov found unexpected creative choices in Prokofiev’s music. “After making this ballet,” he says, “I thought that it won’t be my last ballet with a classical vision.”


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About Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight

Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, running March 24, 25, 27, and 29; and April 2 and 4. . 

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

“Bach is timeless,” says San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, referring to the music for 7 for Eight, an elegant, black-on-black construction. For many, including Tomasson, Johann Sebastian Bach represents the pinnacle of baroque music; consequently, choreographing to his music was a daunting prospect. And George Balanchine had set the bar high in perfectly melding dance and Bach’s music when he made Concerto Barocco in 1941. That precedent could have intimidated Tomasson, but instead he focused on what Balanchine once told him: “You have to love the music—that’s half the battle.”

And Tomasson does indeed love the music for 7 for Eight, even though “it’s so pure that it was a challenge [to work with]; it doesn’t need anything from me,” he says. At first he heard music that’s “very mathematical and beautiful,” he says. “But once I got into the studio, I started finding a lot of emotion in it. You get ideas. Maybe that is a combination of really knowing the music and having the dancers in the studio.”

What Tomasson chose for 7 for Eight were portions of four keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, when “keyboard” meant the harpsichord, which until then had not been featured in concerto form. He substituted the more dynamically versatile piano for the harpsichord for most of the ballet, keeping the harpsichord for one section to “make the connection back to the baroque. I want audiences to hear how these concertos were played.” Acknowledging that the piece is musically distinctive, Tomasson increased the contrast, distinguishing it choreographically as well by making it a male solo.

Yuan Yuan Tan And Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Chris Hardy

In designing 7 for Eight, Costume Designer Sandra Woodall and Lighting Designer David Finn chose a spare but sculpted design — “a little freshness, but also that classical look,” says Woodall. The ballet’s emotional core led them to their black-on-black, light-and-shadow design concept. “I think Helgi relies on a sense of the music and what he likes about it,” Finn says. “There’s a lot about partnership, about relationships. It’s elegant and formal, but there’s this underlying turmoil that’s very modern.”


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Header image: SF Ballet in Tomasson’s 7 for Eight // © Erik Tomasson