Your Ultimate Guide to Ballet Accelerator

What is it? Ballet at full speed for the 21st century featuring works by two Brits, Cathy Marston and David Dawson, and our own Helgi Tomasson. 

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves a modern update on a classical theme, picked up The Feminine Mystique in undergrad, or enjoys the pure thrill of watching elite athletes compete. 


Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson


What Am I Seeing? 7 for Eight does what the title says: it’s a ballet in seven sections for eight dancers created by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2004. Its black-on-black color scheme, dramatic lighting effects, and shifting moods update the Baroque music for a modern era.

What Am I Hearing? Seven keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach written between 1729 and 1741. Six are played with a piano. One, played during a man’s solo, is performed on a harpsichord, as it would have been in the period.   

What Should I Look For? Notice how the number of dancers on stage shifts and morphs throughout the ballet. The eight dancers seem to be able to make an infinite (or, rather seven) number of shifting groups, from solos, to duets, to trios, and full ensemble configurations. And notice how the ballet’s mood changes throughout: from yearning and reaching to playful and clever.

Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearsing Cathy Marston’s new work // © Erik Tomasson

Cathy Marston World Premiere

What Am I Seeing? Cathy Marston is one of the hottest names in choreography right now. Following major premieres in New York and Chicago, this ballet is her second commission for SF Ballet. Set in 1960s California and focused on a love affair between an older woman and a younger man, this new work explores questions of love, sex, identity, femininity, and feminism.

What Am I Hearing? A newly commissioned score by British composer Terry Davies. Written specifically for this ballet, the score provides a structure for the movement. 

What Should I Look For? Cathy’s ballets tell stories, but not through traditional mime. Rather, she creates movement phrases and gestures based on words that help establish character and narrative. See if you can identify these repeated movements throughout the work and what they tell you about its protagonists. 

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson


What Am I Seeing? An example of physically emotional virtuosity by dancemaker David Dawson. Anima Animus is ballet pushed to every extreme; technique stretched to its outer limit. Playing with the idea of opposites—man-woman; black-white; lifted-grounded—this work nods to ballet’s past while pointing toward its future.

What am I hearing? Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1 “Esoconcerto.” Bosso’s score creates a sense of driving motion matched by the dancing.

What should I look for? The second movement and its virtuosic play between the two principal women and the four men. For the way that Dawson manipulates ballet technique: rarely is a dancer truly upright—everything is leaning, at an angle, off-balance. And for the wing-like gestures the dancers’ make with their arms, evoking flight.

Ballet Accelerator plays at the War Memorial Opera House on March 24, 25, 27, and 29, as well as April 2 and 4.

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Header image: Norika Matsuyama in Tomasson’s 7 For Eight // © Erik Tomasson

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