Your Ultimate Guide to the Story Ballet Trio

What is it? A chance to see San Francisco Ballet in three epic story ballets during the 2020 Season. 

Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a good William Shakespeare adaptation (though these are closer to The Globe Theatre than to Baz Lurhmann), 1990s romantic comedies (think: mistaken identities, mean girls, and happily-ever-afters), or had a childhood fascination with Peter and the Wolf.

CINDERELLA©

Frances Chung in Wheeldon’s Cinderella© // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame created this delightful ballet in 2012 on the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. But don’t expect fairy godmothers and talking mice: this production uses fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, updating this story for a modern audience.

What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella, op. 87. Prokofiev started work on this ballet in 1940, but WWII interrupted his work. Finished in the Ural Mountains in 1944 (in the company of a group of Kirov dancers who had been evacuated from Leningrad), this ballet is structured like a traditional classical ballet and contains themes for each of the main characters.

What Should I Look For? Although technically the story of Cinderella and her Prince, this ballet is chock-full of secondary characters worth a second look. Particularly keep an eye out for the tree, which in this version replaces the fairy godmother, and for Cinderella’s “evil” stepsister Clementine and the Prince’s BFF Benjamin.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Pacific Northwest Ballet’’s Laura Tisserand and Kyle Davis, with PNB School students, in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. © The Balanchine Trust  // © Angela Sterling

What Am I Seeing? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine was his first original full-length ballet and was 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. The narrative lends itself to a wealth of principal and soloist parts and gives ample opportunities for dancers to take on featured roles.

What Am I Hearing? Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, interspersed with several of his other works. The overture was written when Mendelssohn was just 17, but the rest was composed 16 years later. The most famous part of the score is probably the Wedding March, which has had a life of its own ever since Princess Victoria used it for her 1858 wedding. But the score is full of delights beyond this familiar tune. In particular, it contains several vocal numbers, so audiences will get to hear live singers in the Opera House—always a treat!

What Should I Look For? Beyond the mischief caused by the fairies (and do note Balanchine’s comedic timing), this ballet is really about love. But even once everyone is appropriately paired off, none of these characters seem to have the perfect relationship. That’s left for two unnamed characters who appear in the second act’s “Divertissement” pas de deux. In this pas de deux—one of Balanchine’s most beautiful—you see a meditation on what perfect, pure, divine love might look like, something seemingly out of reach even for these fairytale creatures.

 

ROMEO & JULIET

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

What Am I Seeing? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story—two households, both alike, fair Verona etc—routinely brings the audience to tears. 

What am I hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, op. 64. Written in 1935, this is truly one of the most celebrated scores in all of the ballet repertory. But that wasn’t always the case. Prokofiev wrote this as his first piece upon his return to the Soviet Union, and he soon learned just how hazardous that decision could be. It wasn’t actually performed until 1940 and by that point is was heavily altered (read: censored). The biggest change? Prokofiev’s original happy ending for the young lovers was replaced by the more traditional tragic finale. You can read more about this score’s convoluted history in this New York Times article from 2018.

What should I look for? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are.

Header image: Frances Chung in Wheeldon’s Cinderella© // © 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

Your Ultimate Guide to Kaleidoscope

What is it? Three distinct takes on the classical idiom to three musical masterpieces.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves going to the symphony, seeing elite athletes compete, or watching romantic movies.

DIVERTIMENTO NO. 15

Sasha De Sola and Hansuke Yamamoto in Balanchine’s Divertimento #15. Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Divertimento No. 15 may be a pretty tutu ballet, but it’s anything but stuffy. This sparkling masterpiece—choreographed in 1956 by 20th-century genius George Balanchine—features five principal women, three principal men, and a corps de ballet of eight. Keenly attuned to its music, this ballet showcases its dancers, highlighting their technique, musicality, and the pure joy of dance.

What am I hearing? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15, composed in 1777, plus a cadenza by John Coleman, added in the 1960s. Balanchine considered this piece the finest divertimento Mozart ever wrote, and this 1956 version was his second attempt to choreograph to this music.

What should I look for? Note the solos for the principal women and one principal man—Balanchine made this ballet for some of his favorite dancers and each of these variations on a theme showcases something unique about their personalities and technique. Also note the numbers games he plays. Like Mozart’s music, which exemplifies the clarity, balance, and formality of classical style, this ballet moves its dancers in pairs and threes to create a sense of symmetry and proportion.

APPASSIONATA

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? An intimate exploration of love and passion created by LA Dance Project director Benjamin Millepied. First created for the Paris Opera Ballet, where Millepied was director from 2014 to 2016, this ballet features three couples who fall in and out of love over the course of its 30 minutes.

What am I hearing? Ludwig von Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, commonly known as the Appassionata. Fiendishly difficult to play, this sonata is explosive, volatile, and impassioned—a stark contrast to the sunny clarity of Mozart’s Divertimento.

What should I look for? The heart of this ballet is in the central pas de deux set to the andante. This romantic interlude interrupts the frenetic pace set in the opening allegro and transforms the emotional energy of the ballet.

HURRY UP, WE’RE DREAMING

Dores André and Joseph Walsh in Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Inspired in part by walking through San Francisco, Peck’s new ballet, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, crafts an evolving dreamscape to an album by electronic music group M83. Oh, and did we mention it’s danced in sneakers? Although a ballet choreographer—look for how his dancers move through classical shapes—Peck has been experimenting of late with choreographing not in pointe shoes, but in sneakers. It’s a choice that changes the dancers’ relationship to weight and the floor, grounding them in a way that seems freshly modern.

What am I hearing? Excerpts from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, an album by French electronic music project M83. Written when M83 creator Anthony Gonzalez moved to Los Angeles, this album was what Peck found himself listening to when he was visiting SF in 2015.

What should I look for? Look for the three duets and how they differ from one another. And for how soloists appear and disappear within the greater mass, suggesting not just a community, but a whole world of inspiration and dream.

Your Ultimate Guide to Kaleidoscope

What is it? Three distinct takes on the classical idiom to three musical masterpieces.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves going to the symphony, seeing elite athletes compete, or watching romantic movies.

DIVERTIMENTO NO. 15

Sasha De Sola and Hansuke Yamamoto in Balanchine’s Divertimento #15. Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? Divertimento No. 15 may be a pretty tutu ballet, but it’s anything but stuffy. This sparkling masterpiece—choreographed in 1956 by 20th-century genius George Balanchine—features five principal women, three principal men, and a corps de ballet of eight. Keenly attuned to its music, this ballet showcases its dancers, highlighting their technique, musicality, and the pure joy of dance.

What Am I Hearing? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento No. 15, composed in 1777, plus a cadenza by John Coleman, added in the 1960s. Balanchine considered this piece the finest divertimento Mozart ever wrote, and this 1956 version was his second attempt to choreograph to this music.

What Should I Look For? Note the solos for the principal women and one principal man—Balanchine made this ballet for some of his favorite dancers and each of these variations on a theme showcases something unique about their personalities and technique. Also note the numbers games he plays. Like Mozart’s music, which exemplifies the clarity, balance, and formality of classical style, this ballet moves its dancers in pairs and threes to create a sense of symmetry and proportion.

APPASSIONATA

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? An intimate exploration of love and passion created by LA Dance Project director Benjamin Millepied. First created for the Paris Opera Ballet, where Millepied was director from 2014 to 2016, this ballet features three couples who fall in and out of love over the course of its 30 minutes.

What Am I Hearing? Ludwig von Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, commonly known as the Appassionata. Fiendishly difficult to play, this sonata is explosive, volatile, and impassioned—a stark contrast to the sunny clarity of Mozart’s Divertimento.

What Should I Look For? The heart of this ballet is in the central pas de deux set to the andante. This romantic interlude interrupts the frenetic pace set in the opening allegro and transforms the emotional energy of the ballet.

ANIMA ANIMUS

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

What Am I Seeing? An example of physically emotional virtuosity by UK 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.