Shostakovich Trilogy Program Notes

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By Cheryl A. Ossola

Often not particularly melodic, with rapid-fire shifts in tone and tempo, Dmitri Shostakovich’s music seems more suited for concert halls and film scores than for the ballet stage. But in the hands of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, this music is danceable indeed. Shostakovich Trilogy, a co-production of San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (ABT), consists of three discrete ballets conceived to be performed together. Like George Balanchine’s Jewels, the three ballets complement one another, producing their full impact when seen together. Yet each multifaceted dance sparkles on its own.

SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s first reaction to Ratmansky’s concept was admiration “for going with the same composer for the whole evening,” he says. “Shostakovich is not nearly as familiar to most audiences as other composers. And to use a little bit of his life story—I was very taken by that. If anybody could do it, it would be Alexei.” Certainly no other choreographer has shown as much dedication to Shostakovich as Ratmansky, who has set at least 11 ballets to the composer’s music.

To appreciate any music, it’s best to grasp the context of the times in which the composer worked. That’s particularly true of Shostakovich. Coming of age in Stalinist Russia, he, like all artists, was under scrutiny. He gained celebrity at an early age, and political expectations followed in the form of requests for compositions that exalted the Soviet state. Often he rebelled, and several times he was denounced by the state; he walked a tightrope between survival and artistic choice. “Stalin was interested in music that celebrated everything that was great about Russia, and Shostakovich was at odds with that,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West. “He was trying to create music for all time, not just for Russia.”

Ratmansky, though, had Russia in mind when he created Shostakovich Trilogy, according to stager and ABT Ballet Master Nancy Raffa. “This is an homage to Shostakovich, because of Alexei’s enormous admiration for his talent and for what he symbolizes for Russian people,” she says. “But it’s also an homage to [Ratmansky’s] heritage. He grew up listening to and loving Shostakovich, so this was like a gift [to the composer]. And a gift to Russia.”

Permeating these ballets are the most fundamental human emotions: love and euphoria, grief and despair, and deeply, pervasively, fear—of being watched or followed, or (we assume) disappeared, as so often happened to those in political disfavor during Shostakovich’s lifetime. The color red is prominent; backdrops offer hints of Stalin-era Russia. Yet all three ballets are markedly different.

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy // © Erik Tomasson

In creating Symphony #9, Raffa says, Ratmansky considered “the time the piece was written and the emotions behind what was happening in Shostakovich’s life.” The first principal couple represents Shostakovich and his wife, supporting each other in a time of great danger; the other couple represents “the regime, the communist party, the whole Stalin mentality,” Raffa says. “He wanted them to be almost a caricature, expressing the sarcasm in parts of the score. But everything is abstract. He kept saying, ‘There’s no story, but there’s a lot of meaning.’”

West calls Shostakovich’s ninth symphony “so much fun—it goes by like the wind.” Fun and flashy it is, but it was also was one of the composer’s acts of rebellion. West explains: “When the war was finished, it was agreed that he would write a Beethoven’s Ninth type of thing, to celebrate the beating of the Nazis. He started writing it and scrapped it.” What he wrote instead—this funny, acerbic symphony—was interpreted as thumbing his nose at Stalin. “He was in big trouble,” West says. “They were expecting something triumphal and this is just a bit of fun. [In places] it’s like he’s mocking Stalin. I don’t know if he was, but that’s the feeling you get.”

In Ratmansky’s hands, tension underlies the fun, giving the ballet an edge of fear. The subtext is clear: no one is safe. Raffa tells one couple, “You’re running away from something. The arm is like a window—lookthrough it.” Yet the ballet is buoyed by hope, manifested by a solo principal man Ratmansky calls the Angel. “He’s symbolic of something beyond our tangible, physical world,” Raffa says. “He’s a guide. Despite the turmoil that somebody could live [through], there’s always a way through it. That dancer is symbolic of this.” She tells the Angel dancer to “come out like you’re attacking all the evil. That means you can’t touch the ground. Come out like fire.”

There is always, Raffa says, the “guidance of your own integrity, your value system. Of hope, where there’s perhaps no hope; light where there’s only darkness.”

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy // © Erik Tomasson

Chamber Symphony is as close to a narrative ballet as the trilogy gets. The lead man is Shostakovich and the three principal women are his loves—the girl he was infatuated with but never made time for, the wife (and mother of his children) whose death undid him, and the young wife who shared his later years. The ballet takes the form of a retrospective—again with the constancy of fear, this time referencing the persecution of the Jews. (Note the Jewish theme in the music, and the fragments of folk dancing.) Loss weighs heavily in this ballet—of loved ones and what Shostakovich risked to be the artist he wanted to be.

In making this ballet, Ratmansky was responding to the well-documented fact that Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an orchestration of his Quartet No. 8, was intensely personal to the composer. He quotes his own music here more than anywhere else, and each movement bears an insistent theme—his signature, “DSCH (D.Sch.),” letters in his name (written in German) that can be played as musical notes. The piece, which includes part of an old Russian prison song, was Shostakovich’s personal protest (the dedication reads, “In Memory of Victims of Fascism and War”), he said. Various sources claim that he said this music could serve as his epitaph.

The way Principal Dancer Mathilde Froustey sees it, “we are what Shostakovich wanted to create. There is a kind of double sense—we are the instruments of Alexei and Shostakovich. There is the choreography, and there is the music. There is the context of the creation of this music.” There’s a moment in this ballet when the Shostakovich character raises a finger in a moment of recognition. Raffa says it’s as if he’s thinking, “Everything I’ve lived through had a purpose, a meaning. I can pass peacefully now because I’ve left something.” In the final tableau, she says, Ratmansky builds an image that pulls the viewers’ eyes up, to a single woman held high, as if to say “what he left is monumental. The scene is like a monument to Shostakovich’s thoughts and ideas, his humanness.”


San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy // © Erik Tomasson

Piano Concerto #1 is the most abstract ballet in the trilogy; Ratmansky is “using the dancers as instruments, creating the music with their movement,” Nancy Raffa says. Yet there’s visible emotion. “Shostakovich is extremely emotional,” Raffa says. “You can’t work with his music and not have that quality in your choreography.”

The music, Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, is mercurial, whipping from one mood to another. West describes the piece as “a very good example of classic proportions where Shostakovich was able to take off on tangents that only a great comedy genius could do. Especially the last movement—it goes nuts. Suddenly he slams on a chord out of nowhere, or he’ll make it sound like he’s going to trill into a little Mozart cadenza [embellishment] and then doesn’t.” That frantic quality in the last movement may have roots in Shostakovich’s youth, when he played piano accompaniment for silent movies. “He was able to make stuff up,” West says. “That’s almost how this concerto is—it’s a ridiculous play on everything.” Yet it has “all styles of music, very deep and serious,” he says, “and the slow movements are beautiful.”

Principal Dancer Vitor Luiz says he loves the contrast in the music, especially during a solo he dances. “The music shifts to this very energetic movement—it’s like showing off—and then it goes back to quiet. It’s theatrical. The image Nancy gave us was of looking out a window to see your future, but you don’t see any future there. That already gives you the idea why you do that solo—because you have nowhere to go,” he says. “If you do this solo right, it will touch people’s souls.”

What’s remarkable about dancing Ratmansky’s ballets, Luiz says, is that “they make you feel good.” Ratmansky shared “his knowledge and his deep attention to details. He said, ‘It’s like fine cuisine. You have to put in all these ingredients, and they are all measured in grams. You have to use all that.’

“The image Alexei wanted is a prisoner in a country,” continues Luiz, “the artists who couldn’t get out. Nancy said, ‘Imagine that you cannot go back to Brazil, and your whole family is there—your daughter, everyone—and you can’t ever talk to them again.’ And so in this moment that’s what you think. You’re trying to find a solution or a way out, and you can’t. Every movement has a meaning. Maybe that’s why you feel good afterward—because you feel like you accomplished something technically but also  artistically.”

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Header image: San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy // © Erik Tomasson

Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel Program Notes

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By Caitlin Sims

Liam Scarlett’s premiere for San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 Season has a similar dark beauty as his 2016 Frankenstein, an epic retelling of Mary Shelley’s macabre novel. And similarly, this new ballet draws inspiration from another artist’s work: in this case Rachmaninoff’s brooding and hypnotic symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, itself based upon a painting of the same name. (Die Toteninsel is the German name of these works.) Scarlett uses the music and its history as a jumping off point for a more abstract work exploring the deep-rooted questions about what lies beyond this life. If Scarlett’s Frankenstein was a choreographic novel, his new ballet is more a short story—in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations.

Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

Rachmaninoff’sThe Isle of the Dead was itself inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting of the same name. In Böcklin’s work, a solitary boat bearing an oarsman, a shrouded figure, and a coffin traverses whisper-still water toward an island of rocky cliffs and rectangular portals encircling a grove of tall cypresses. A commission from a German widow, who asked Böcklin to repaint an unfinished painting of an island and add the figures in a boat, The Isle of the Dead was such an immediate success that he painted several additional versions.

Böcklin’s illumination of a mysterious island that seems not entirely of this world resonated powerfully and, with the advent of mass-produced lithography, reproductions were pervasive by the early 20th century. Russian novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote that The Isle of the Dead could be found “in every Berlin home” in his novel Despair. Freud had one in his office, Lenin had one above his bed, and (decades after Böcklin’s death) Hitler paid a high sum for one of the originals.

Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

“I’m always first drawn to the music,” says Scarlett, who has a deep appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s works. The music opens quietly with a slow build, all low strings and apprehension. There’s a 5/8 time signature, an uneven tempo that contributes to a feeling of restlessness and foreboding. “Like waves lapping,” says Scarlett, “or breathing in and out, or a heartbeat. There’s a definite and then a faltering step. By putting that second beat on different accents, time shifts and is not as we know it.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “If you’re making a journey to somewhere that’s not in this life, then who’s to say what time is?”

The tempo colors Scarlett’s choreography as well, as it’s not a common time signature for ballet. “Finding steps to go into five counts switches on a different way of thinking,” says Scarlett. “But once you get that rhythm, it sets [the choreographic process] up from the beginning.” Scarlett draws upon the music’s repetitiveness in creating movement that grows and builds, then unexpectedly echoes itself. As a central couple emerges, surging forward and sweeping back in great arcs, their movements are reflected by groups that form and dissipate as easily as waves, giving the ephemeral “a sense of weight, and passing through one another,” says Scarlett.

In rehearsal, Scarlett moves through the room, encouraging dancers to think about how to shape and extend movement phrases. “When you move bigger and slower, you see everything,” he explains. “When you make sure that you enable every fiber of your body, it’s much more visceral and beautiful. It’s a matter of accentuating everything that you do just a tiny bit more.”

Liam Scarlett rehearsing his Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

There’s a softness to Scarlett’s movement that heightens the ballet’s otherworldly feel. “It’s like water and how you move underwater,” he explains. “When gravity is diminished and time is warped into something else, then you don’t need to adhere to the same rules. You twist them a bit, so it’s clear we’re somewhere else.” Exactly where that is will also be up for interpretation. “Everyone has wondered, “What’s the next thing after this life?’” says Scarlett. “Thinking about it raised a lot of questions for me, and I put those questions in the piece.” He smiles enigmatically. “But I haven’t necessarily answered them.”

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Header image: Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

A Ballet Rave: Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet

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By Cheryl A. Ossola

There might be no better combination of artists than choreographer Arthur Pita and Icelandic music superstar Björk. If you’ve never seen a ballet rave—and who has?—get ready. Pita delivers that and more with his second piece for the Company, Björk Ballet, an imaginative spectacle that will make you want to jump up and dance.

Pita never forgot the moment he first heard Björk’s music. During his training at London Contemporary Dance School, a friend introduced him to Björk’s album Debut, “which I loved so much,” he says. In thinking about his music for the Unbound festival, he wondered what he could do to make the dancers feel unbound. “And I thought, ‘The music is going to drive them,’ and immediately Björk made sense,” he says. “The music is so theatrical—it’s big, but in a modern way.” And, he reasoned, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson is Icelandic. “I knew [Björk’s music] would mean something to him,” says Pita.

Dores André in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

In this ballet’s episodic form, Björk’s music provides a framework for fragmented stories, dances that are more thematic than descriptive. A lone fisherman provides a ghost of a narrative and, because Björk’s music often references nature, a link to the natural world. Though the set is minimal and abstract, tall grasses create a focal point throughout the ballet. At first they “appear magically,” Pita says; then the dancers rearrange them, emphasizing humans’ relationship to the Earth.

Pita sees the fisherman as “the simple human being.” He wears two masks, one happy, one sad—an idea that came to Pita because of a duality he sees in Björk. “She’s this very playful, naughty fairy, dancing nymph, otherworldly creature, full of light and love,” he says. “And then you’ve got this very deep, mournful, sorrowful, almost tragedy in some of her songs. So it’s like the theater masks.” The fisherman’s journey ends with “The Anchor Song,” which Pita says he read “as a lovely kind of sailor song.” The lyrics—“I live by the ocean / and during the night / I dive into it / down to the bottom / underneath all the currents / I drop my anchor / and this is where I’m staying / this is my home”— might be a suicide note or a love letter to one’s native land; either way, the song conveys a feeling of peace.

Wei Wang in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Woven around the fisherman’s tale are snippets of love stories. In “Bachelorette,” Björk sings that “she’s ‘a path of cinders’ for the person to step on,” Pita says. At the other extreme, “All Is Full of Love” is dangerous, “about falling off things and running and catching and being held. Tempestuous, deep-rooted, immense love,” he says. “Hyperballad” is even more dangerous. Paraphrasing the lyrics, Pita says the song is about “imagining ‘what it feels like to jump off a cliff just so that when I wake up I can feel safe with you.’ That’s so extreme.”

The fisherman, the pas de deux couples, the pixie-like creature who flits through the action—everyone in this ballet is Björk. In trying to capture her essence, Pita goes to extremes with his movement, giving the dancers flicks, squats, and lunges along with concave shapes, flung arms, and references to nature. There are cantilevered duets with an underwater quality and a classically based octet, set to “Frosti,” that Pita says “should look like a ballerina music box on acid.” And then there’s “Hyperballad,” Pita’s ballet rave, with a long jumping sequence to a pumping, driving rhythm. “It’s a metaphor—jumping for joy, jumping for love,” he says. As the ensemble moves into a sideways kick step Pita borrowed from Björk herself, one couple moves into a slow, sinuous, stretched pas de deux, and the pixie-like figure darts past. It’s an enchanting and exhilarating moment.

Dores André and Luke Ingham in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Ultimately, Björk Balletis about birth, life, sex, and death, he says. When Björk sings—about love or joy, sex or death—“it comes from such a human place,” Pita says. For him, “All Is Full of Love” says everything. “It’s such a beautiful lyric—‘You’ll be given love,’ and ‘You’ll be taken care of,’ ” he says. “What a beautiful message! We have to remember that we do have love in the world.”

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Header photo: SF Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

The Story of The Sleeping Beauty

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San Francisco Ballet’s production of the timeless fairy tale “The Sleeping Beauty” is set in Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries. The curtain rises on the Imperial court for the Prologue and Act I, where society is still bound by Byzantine manners and fashion. Acts II and III take place one hundred years later, after Peter the Great had ruled and opened the doors to the influence of European styles and cultures.

SF Ballet as Fairies at the Christening in Helgi Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

Prologue: The Christening

Once upon a time in a faraway land, a princess named Aurora was born to a Tsar and Tsarina. A grand celebration is arranged for her christening. All the fairies of the kingdom are invited and the Fairies of Tenderness, Playfulness, Generosity, Serenity, and Courage each bestow their gifts on the princess. At last it is the Lilac Fairy’s turn. But before she can bestow her gift, the Fairy of Darkness appears, blazing with anger. She had been forgotten; no invitation was sent to her. She, too, has something for the baby: a curse. One day Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle and die.

Anita Paciotti as the Fairy of Darkness in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty

The Lilac Fairy has yet to make her offering. The benevolent Fairy cannot remove the Fairy of Darkness’ curse, but she can soften it. She promises that Aurora shall not die from the prick of her finger, but will fall into a deep sleep for one hundred years and be awakened by a prince’s kiss.

Act I: The Spell

Sixteen years have passed, and the kingdom is celebrating Princess Aurora’s birthday. Four suitors from the North, South, East and West have come to the Imperial court to seek her hand in marriage.

Sasha De Sola as Aurora in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty

 During the revelry, an old woman approaches the Princess and offers her a gift such as the girl has never before seen. It is a spindle! Delighted, Aurora plays with the curious object and then pricks her finger. She falls to the ground. The old woman throws off her cape, revealing herself to be the vengeful Fairy of Darkness. Having fulfilled her curse, she vanishes in triumph. But the Lilac Fairy returns to mitigate the curse, as promised. She weaves a spell of sleep over the entire Imperial court, and creates a forest that grows magically and covers the palace. 

Act II: The Vision

One hundred years have passed, and young Prince Desiré is out hunting with members of his court. But he grows bored with the hunt and separates from his companions. He dreams of a love he fears he shall never attain. The Lilac Fairy appears and shows him a vision of Princess Aurora. Enchanted by what he has seen, Desiré begs the Fairy to take him to Aurora. The Lilac Fairy takes him through the magical forest, leading him to the hidden palace where Aurora sleeps. When the Prince finds the Sleeping Beauty he awakens her with a kiss. The spell is broken.

Sasha De Sola and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

Act III: The Wedding

The entire kingdom joyously celebrates the wedding of Princess Aurora to Prince Desiré. All pay tribute to the bride and groom, while individual characters dance for the delight of the court. In a final apotheosis, the Lilac Fairy appears and blesses the marriage.

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Principal Dancer Wei Wang on Don Quixote

Principal Dancer Wei Wang discusses his early training in Beijing, how he came to San Francisco Ballet, and the role of Basilio in Don Quixote. 

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Header image: Wei Wang and Dores André in Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // © Erik Tomasson

Helgi Tomasson Previews the 2019 Season

Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer, Helgi Tomasson reflects on his 34 years as Artistic Director and his commitment to serving as Principal Choreographer. He comments on the upcoming 86th Repertory Season, starting with an introduction to the Company’s new and newly promoted dancers. He offers an overview of the repertory, emphasizing the success of the 2018 Unbound: Festival of New Works and the five works being reprised this season, then concludes with remarks about the current production of Don Quixote.

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Header image: Helgi Tomasson rehearsing Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty // © Erik Tomasson

What is a Driad?

Classical ballets are populated with all kinds of mystical creatures: sylphs, wilis, nymphs, shades, driads. If it’s a female supernatural being with wings, you’ll probably find it in a ballet.

In Don Quixote, our supernatural being of choice is a driad (a less-traditional spelling of “dryad,” taken from the Russian word, дриада). In Greek mythology, a driad is a wood nymph who inhabits a tree—usually an oak tree.

The most famous driad is Eurydice, whose husband, Orpheus, tries and fails to save her from death. George Balanchine’s ballet Orpheus tells this story. And driads appear in several other ballets as well, like Sylvia, choreographed by a variety of choreographers, including Frederick Ashton and Mark Morris; and The Dryad, made by Lew Christensen for San Francisco Ballet in 1954.

SF Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

In Don Quixote, we meet a group of driads in the Dream sequence, after the Don goes tilting at windmills. They appear with their Queen, Cupid, and Dulcinea (the Don’s ideal woman, who is performed by the same dancer as Kitri). Ethereal and otherworldly, the driads reveal the beauty that lives within the Don’s imagination.

San Francisco Ballet performs Don Quixote from January 25 to February 3, 2019.

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Header image: Jim Sohm as Don Quixote with driads in Tomasson’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson