Madison Keesler, Soloist, on Sandpaper Ballet

Soloist Madison Keesler reflects on her career path and time at SF Ballet.

Madison Keelser thoughtfully reflects on life as a professional dancer in this discussion about artistic development, international experience, and the physical demands of the career. Valuable insight into Program Two’s The Sandpaper Ballet and Bespoke is also shared.

Like what you heard? Subscribe to our Meet the Artist podcast on Apple Podcasts to access archived episodes and have new ones delivered straight to your devices!

Header Image: Madison Keesler and Joseph Walsh rehearse Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

To the Pointe: Classical (Re)Vision

Join Associate Director of Audience Development, Jennie Scholick, PhD for an exploration of the ballets on Program 2: Classical (Re)Vision. Hear from choreographer Stanton Welch and find out what to look for in his Bespoke, the rotating Director’s Choice ballets, and Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet.

Like what you heard? Subscribe to our To the Pointe podcast on Apple Podcasts to access archived episodes and have new ones delivered straight to your devices!

Header Image: Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

About Stanton Welch’s Bespoke

Stanton Welch’s Bespoke will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. Bespoke is part of Program 02, Classical (Re)Vision, which runs Feb 11–22, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

In Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, expressions of love and gestures of caring abound. This piece, his sixth for San Francisco Ballet, is indeed about love, but it’s not about romance. Instead, Welch explores the love of dancers for their art form—the technique of ballet, the artistry, the rush of live performance. It’s an intense relationship, and one that’s all too fleeting.

That intensity, and the brevity of a dance career, occupy Welch’s thoughts quite often. “It’s a deep love dancers have with ballet,” says Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “I don’t think many professions have that commitment, where you love it and when you’re around 30 to 40, it leaves you. And you know it going in, and that’s difficult.” For a long time after he retired from the stage, Welch reassured himself that he could still dance if he chose to. With the realization that those days are now behind him, he found himself wistful, longing to turn back the clock. And so clock imagery, the idea of time passing, persists throughout this ballet.

The piece begins with a solo man moving in silence. Welch hadn’t planned to start the ballet that way, but the idea came to him as he worked with Principal Dancer Angelo Greco, whom he describes as “hypnotic. He’s young and he’s fearless. He’s exactly what we should be when we first fall in love with ballet.” In the first movement, the dancers are “vital and alive,” Welch says, “with stellar technique—a truth that’s gloriously apparent in the opening moments of silence.

Angelo Greco in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Along with demonstrating brilliant technique, the brief solo introduces some of the movement motifs that characterize this ballet. One is the “ticking” of straight arms, hands flattened and perpendicular to the floor; they snap into place, replicating the movement of a clock’s second hand. One dancer begins this movement, and the others join in—no one is spared the marking of time. With the ballet’s central pas de deux, quiet and poignant, the next stage begins. There’s a struggle here—the man is moving on and the woman can’t accept it. She touches him repeatedly, and each time he covers her hand with his; then she pulls her hand away and tries again. “It’s like he’s breaking, and he’s trying to convince her,” Welch says. The last movement, dominated by walking (symbolizing togetherness) and rocking motifs, is about aging dancers being left behind as class and ballet companies go on, eternal.

At times throughout the ballet, the dancers race across the stage and disappear into the wings, a device prompted in part by Welch’s memory of when he first came to the United States from Australia and was impressed by how much floor space the dancers covered. It’s a characteristic of American-style dancing, he says, and “it’s thrilling to see.” 

This is all subtext, however. What’s on the surface are steps that delve deeply into the intricacies of five musical movements from two early-1700s violin concertos, the only ones by Johann Sebastian Bach that have survived their own passage of time. For Welch, illuminating the music is a big part of the joy of choreographing. “That wonderful [George] Balanchine quote about making music come alive is very much what I think we are all trying to do [as choreographers],” he says. Bach has many layers that listeners might not notice at first, and “the deeper you get into it, the richer it is.” Through movement, Welch points out melodies, rhythms, accents, undertones that delight him or reveal the music’s subtext. “Great choreographers like [Jiří] Kylián and Balanchine, those musical people, they always teach me something about music,” he says. “You go home and re-listen to it and go, “Wow, that is how that’s phrased.”

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

The freshness of Welch’s neoclassical movement, says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, comes from “the way the dancers move today; maybe the dancers he was working with brought that out. Time changes all of us. We are influenced by what we see, how society is.”

Step into the studio while Welch is at work and you’ll notice how often he laughs, how delighted he seems to be there. The process of creating is what he enjoys most, he says; it’s more rewarding than a premiere. “When they’re in it and you’re in it, you can go for five, six hours and not wear out, and that’s fun,” he says.

Frances Chung and Esteban Hernandez in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Welch calls these dancers “fantastically musical,” a trait he thinks is one of the Company’s strengths. “[Principal Dancer] Frances [Chung] is a great model of that—she could do the same step 50 times and just change it by accent, and that’s great dancing, and clever. I wanted to make that [musicality] part of the work because I think that’s San Francisco.”

Purchase Tickets

Header image: Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

An Insider’s Guide to Ballet Sun Valley




Thinking of going to San Francisco Ballet’s performances in Sun Valley this summer? Here’s all you need to know to have a wonderful alfresco evening at the ballet.

San Francisco Ballet is bringing two distinct evenings of dance to Sun Valley. The first performance on July 5 is a “gala-style” evening, which means audiences can expect show-stopping dance, with shorter ballets and excerpts from beloved classics. The second performance on July 7 delves a little deeper into recently created choreography, featuring three ballets created for SF Ballet’s Unbound: A Festival of New Works. Think of the first performance as a tasting menu and the second as a three-course meal.

On Program A: Tomasson's Concerto Grosso, here with Wei Wang // © Erik Tomasson
On Program A: Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, here with Wei Wang // © Erik Tomasson
On Program A: Act 3 Pas de Deux from Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty, here with Wona Park and Angelo Greco // © Erik Tomasson
On Program A: Act 3 Pas de Deux from Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty, here with Wona Park and Angelo Greco // © Erik Tomasson
On Program A: Gsovsky's Grand Pas Classique, here with Mathilde Froustey // © Erik Tomasson
On Program A: Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique, here with Mathilde Froustey // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: Welch's Bespoke, here with Sasha De Sola and Lonnie Weeks  // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: Welch’s Bespoke, here with Sasha De Sola and Lonnie Weeks // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, here with Jennifer Stahl // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, here with Jennifer Stahl // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: Peck's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, here with Dores André // © Erik Tomasson
On Program B: Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, here with Dores André // © Erik Tomasson

Performances are held at the Sun Valley Pavilion, an outdoor venue surrounded by emerald green lawns with the Rocky Mountains as backdrop. Attending a performance here is a quintessential summer experience—what’s better than a warm night with beautiful ballet and the sounds of an orchestra floating on a summer breeze?

Sun Valley Pavilion // Courtesy of Ballet Sun Valley

Where should you sit? Some people love to be as close to the stage as possible to catch the details of the movement, while others prefer to be further back to see the “bigger picture.” Tickets for the Pavilion’s 1,600 seats are currently available here. You can also purchase $25 lawn tickets (kids under 10 are free!). You can’t see the stage, but you can watch the performance on a giant jumbotron, and you’ll hear the award-winning SF Ballet Orchestra no matter where you sit. 

Lawn seating at the Pavilion // Courtesy of Ballet Sun Valley

Before the show, gather friends, family—and picnic fare. The lawn surrounding the Pavilion is perfect for picnicking, so get there early, spread out a blanket, unpack your favorite gourmet delicacies, and celebrate summer! Don’t feel like shopping? You can also pre-order a picnic and settle in for a wonderful evening outdoors.

Picnicking at Sun Valley Pavilion // Courtesy of Ballet Sun Valley

Ballet Sun Valley extends beyond the performances at the Pavilion. Three days of free classes for a select group of aspiring young dancers in Sun Valley will be taught by SF Ballet Dancers Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets, and Kimberly Marie Olivier; Ballet Master Tina LeBlanc; SF Ballet School Faculty member Dana Genshaft; and choreographer Danielle Rowe.  

Students in Ballet Sun Valley’s Education program // Courtesy of Ballet Sun Valley

Want to learn more about dance without donning ballet slippers? The Community Library hosts two free events the morning of July 6. In the Lecture Hall, Helgi Tomasson will share stories from his distinguished career as a dancer and his 34 years as artistic director and principal choreographer of SF Ballet. In the Children’s Library, Principal Dancer Sasha De Sola will read the bilingual children’s book On Tiptoes/De Puntitas, which tells the story of her dance journey and how it helped her overcome shyness.

Insider tip: If you’re coming from out of town and need a place to stay, Ballet Sun Valley has recommendations.


Reserve Tickets to Ballet Sun Valley

Ultimate Guide to Classical (Re)Vision

Classical (Re)Vision will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances February 11, 12, 14, 16, 20, and 22.

By Jennie Scholick, PhD

What is it? A tasting flight of contemporary ballet: Stanton Welch’s updated classicism, Liam Scarlett’s moody melodrama, and Mark Morris’s quirky cool.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves going to the symphony, enjoys arthouse films full of gray-toned landscapes, or has a particularly wry sense of humor.


Mathilde Froustey in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? Australian choreographer Stanton Welch’s neoclassical ode to classical ballet. Inspired by the brevity of a dancer’s career with ballet—most dancers retire by their 40s—Welch created Bespoke in 2018 to show off the dancers of SF Ballet and their love for and commitment to the art form.

What Am I Hearing? J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major and Violin Concerto in A minor. The only two surviving violin concertos that Bach wrote, these pieces have all the intricacy of form that Bach was known for.

What Should I Look For? The way Welch moves his dancers’ arms like the hands of a clock to suggest the passage of time. And the way each dancer gets a moment to shine—Welch says the piece is a reflection of the dancers.


San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Hummingbird // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Liam Scarlett’s first commission for SF Ballet, made in 2012. Hummingbird is a good introduction to this popular young choreographer’s style, showcasing the way he blends classical ballet with contemporary drama. Trained in the Royal Ballet’s period story ballets, Scarlett almost seems to pluck characters from one of those tempestuous tales and transport them into a place of 21st-century abstraction.

 What am I hearing? Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Glass is famous for being one of the pioneers of “minimalism,” a musical style that creates a kind of aural landscape through the repetition of melodic phrases and fragments.

What should I look for? Notice how the three main couples seem to have a backstory that never quite becomes clear, and how their movements fluctuate between pristinely placed and dramatically expansive. Scarlett fans may also notice that the sets and costumes are by John Macfarlane, who designed Scarlett’s Frankenstein in 2016, and the lighting design is by David Finn, who lit last year’s Die Toteninsel. Together their contributions add a moody sense of place to the ballet.


San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? Mark Morris, a McArthur Foundation fellow and one of the world’s most influential living choreographers, has made more works for SF Ballet than for any other ballet company in the world. Sandpaper Ballet, created here in 1999, is a cleverly tongue-in-cheek ballet exemplary of his signature musical sensibility, with bodies on stage articulating different parts of the score. Its bright green Isaac Mizrahi costumes add a surrealist element to this quirky ballet.

What am I hearing? A selection of songs by composer Leroy Anderson. If the name isn’t familiar, the music will be, as Anderson was the composer of light orchestral works like Fiddle Faddle, The Typewriter Song, and, most famously, Sleigh Ride, which have made their way out of the concert hall and on to radios and TV screens around the world.

What should I look for? Notice the formation the dancers are in at the very beginning, when the curtain opens. They’ll return to this grid over and over—it serves as a kind of home base or structural reset as the music changes. Also, the overture is distinctive (and I don’t want to give it away!). But think about how it impacts your experience of the dance to hear this particular song right before the curtain goes up.

Purchase Tickets

Header image: Elizabeth Powell and Jahna Frantziskonis in Scarlett’s Hummingbird // © Erik Tomasson