Ultimate Guide to Present Perspectives

Present Perspectives will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances March 26, 28, and 31; and April 1, 3, and 5.

By Jennie Scholick, PhD

What is it? A chance to see three of today’s most innovative choreographers—Yuri Possokhov, Benjamin Millepied, and Alexei Ratmansky—reimagine classical forms for a new century.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves a Saturday spent at the De Young museum, a Netflix-binge of indie romance films, or changing out their home décor on a precise seasonal schedule.  

CLASSICAL SYMPHONY

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? Classical Symphony, created by San Francisco Ballet choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov in 2010. The piece is dedicated to Peter Pestov, Possokhov’s teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet School. It’s not academic, as such, but it’s technically challenging and it requires a steely classical technique.

What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Listen close: you’ll hear a section of the third movement here repeated in Prokefiev’s score for Romeo & Juliet later in the season!

 What Should I Look For? For all that this is Possokhov’s homage to classical technique, it’s not purely classical. Notice the costumes: the tutus resemble those found in 19th-century ballets, but they’re lighter, made of only two thin layers of fabric rather than dozens of layers of tulle. The choreography is similar, taking classical steps but twisting them to show new angles.

APPASSIONATA

Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison in 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 2014–16, this ballet features three couples who fall in and out and in to 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. 

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.

THE SEASONS

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Ratmansky’s The Seasons // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? The West Coast premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet The Seasons. Created at American Ballet Theatre in the spring of 2019, this ballet reimagines a lost work by 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa. Ratmansky is very interested in what’s called “ballet reconstruction,” a process of using notation and photographs to recreate Petipa’s works as precisely as possible. But for The Seasons, he takes a different approach, using the libretto of the ballet but completely reinventing its choreography.

What am I hearing? Alexander Glazunov’s The Seasons. Perhaps best known as Shostakovich’s teacher, Glazunov is sometimes overlooked as an artist, but two of his ballets, Raymonda and The Seasons, are among the most popular of his works.

What should I look for? Although he created all new choreography, Ratmansky preserved Petipa’s original libretto, so look for a whole cast of various beings on stage: Frost, Ice, and Hail; a Zephyr and a Rose; a Faun, the Spirit of the Corn, and Bacchus himself. The original cast was a who’s-who of famous ballet Imperial Ballet stars like Olga Probrazhenskaya, Matilde Kschessinskaya, Pavel Gerdt, Nikolai Legat, and Anna Pavlova. There’s a way that aspect of the ballet filters through to this version. It has many principal characters and principal parts, all full of technical challenges and requiring star turns of their dancers.


Purchase Tickets

Header image: Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Possokhov’s Classical Symphony // © Erik Tomasson

About Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata

Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata is part of the 2020 Repertory Season. It will be performed as part of Program 06, Present Perspectives, which runs March 26–April 5.

By Caitlin Sims

Elegant precision becomes passionate abandon over the course of one tempestuous evening in Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata. Set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #23 (also known as the Appassionata), the ballet follows the music’s structure, with two dramatic movements for three couples and an intimate duet. The ballet starts with formality and decorum; as the hour gets late the costumes become less structured, pointe shoes are swapped for ballet slippers, and the women’s hair comes down. “It does get a little more wild as it goes on,” says Janie Taylor who, with Sebastien Marcovici, staged the work for San Francisco Ballet.

San Francisco Ballet in Millepied's Appassionata //© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata //© Erik Tomasson
Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola and Jaime Garcia Castilla in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied's Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

Previous
Next

This aesthetic journey of disciplined perfection to creative spontaneity happens also to echo the progression of Millepied’s career. After more than a decade as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, Millepied shifted into choreography, working for ballet companies worldwide as well as on the film Black Swan. When he choreographed Appassionata in 2016, he was the director of Paris Opera Ballet—one of the most prestigious jobs in the field. The day before the ballet’s premiere, Millepied announced his resignation, frustrated by the slow pace of change at the venerable institution. With his wife, actor Natalie Portman, Millepied returned to Los Angeles, where he currently directs L.A. Dance Project, a contemporary dance company he founded in 2012, and collaborates on film and digital projects.

Appassionata is less a reflection of that turbulent time than a response to one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano sonatas, says Taylor, who danced with Millepied at New York City Ballet and now works for L.A. Dance Project: “Benjamin is definitely a music-driven choreographer,” she notes. Beethoven’s Appassionata, complex and mysterious, notoriously difficult to play, has been massively popular since it was published in 1807. He wrote the music during his “middle” period when, aware of his impending deafness, he had a surge of creativity, bursting away from conventional classicism (sound familiar?) into new realms of imagination so profound they helped to usher in the Romantic Era of music. Appassionata tested the limit of the five-octave pianoforte of Beethoven’s time with storms of notes that crash up and down the keyboard like a hurricane. Millepied’s choreography, fast and expansive with ever-shifting groups of dancers, matches Beethoven’s fervor. Dancers soar and fall with the same urgency as the cascading notes, and feet quiver to trills in the music. “It really needs to move, move, move,” says Millepied during a rehearsal at SF Ballet. “Make it wilder.”

There are also moments of stillness in the ballet. A recurring musical motif is both familiar and ominous—the Da-Da-Da-DUM later made famous in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As a dancer pauses, this “knocking” motif brings another onstage, then repeats, hanging in the air between them like a question.

In addition to teaching the ballet’s steps, Taylor and Marcovici are also charged with illuminating Millepied’s choreographic style. “Benjamin’s movement quality can be fluid and free, but it also requires a certain clarity,” says Taylor. “That can be difficult because clarity to a ballet dancer can mean something that’s really exact. So it’s helping them find the balance between showing a step clearly, but also letting it move and bend and not feel constricted.”

In rehearsal Millepied urges the dancers to be more spontaneous—and to focus on phrasing the movement to illuminate the subtleties of the music. “It needs to make more of a statement,” he says. “Just do one thing at a time. You’re in your pirouette and you’re running late—so what? I’d rather you be late. Then you have to accelerate, and then you’re alive.”

And, of course, it’s about relationships. “Benjamin likes there to be a human aspect in his pieces,” explains Taylor. “He wants dancers to interact with each other onstage in a very human way.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the second movement. Millepied watches closely as Principal Dancers Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer work through the ballet’s tender and playful central duet. It’s beautifully balanced between serenity and ecstasy, intimacy and playfulness. As they finish, he smiles. 

Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson

“Honestly, it didn’t look like anyone else who has done it,” he says. “And at certain moments I almost didn’t recognize my pas de deux! But I loved it. I don’t want to change anything. It’s beautiful.”

It’s this same expressiveness he asks all of the dancers to cultivate. “It’s important that you feel free,” he explains. “You’re dancing somebody’s choreography, so that’s structure that’s not yours. But within it, you have to be yourself. It should be different with every single dancer. “We want to see you,” he says emphatically. “It’s all about expression. Don’t forget that. That’s why we dance.”

Benjamin Millepied

Benjamin Millepied // © Drew Altizer Photography

Benjamin Millepied is a choreographer, filmmaker, and artistic director distinguished by his career as a dancer at New York City Ballet and his growing body of creative work. Born in Bordeaux, France, Millepied trained with his mother, Catherine Flori; at the Conservatoire National de Lyon; and at the School of American Ballet before becoming a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. His choreography is performed by New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Berlin Staatsoper, Mariinsky Ballet, among many others, and was featured in Darren Aronofsky’s award-winning film Black Swan, in which he also starred. Millepied founded L.A. Dance Project in 2012. In 2013, he was appointed director of Paris Opera Ballet, where he was the subject of the documentary film Reset. He returned to Los Angeles in 2016 to focus on L.A. Dance Project and his own choreography and filmmaking. He is currently working on two feature films, one of which is a musical adaptation of Carmento be released in 2019. Among many awards and honors, Millepied was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture.


Purchase Tickets

Header Image: SF Ballet in Millepied’s Appassionata // © Erik Tomasson 

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.

To the Pointe: Kaleidoscope

Join SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick, PhD to learn all about Program 2: Kaleidoscope. From George Balanchine’s classical Divertimento no. 15, to Benjamin Millepied’s romantic Appassionata, to Justin Peck’s contemporary Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, this program has something for everyone.

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

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.