Reconsidering Mrs. Robinson

by Caitlin Sims

Choreographer Cathy Marston was reminded of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate—on which the 1967 film is based—while browsing in a bookstore in the summer of 2018. Her ballet Snowblind had recently premiered at San Francisco Ballet and her mind quickly flitted to dancers who could embody the central characters of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin. Glancing at the book jacket, she learned that the book had been written in San Francisco, and something clicked. “I immediately thought—this is it,” says Marston. “This is the piece that I need to make for San Francisco Ballet.” 

Marston has become known for her skill in re-envisioning literary works through dance; in addition to her Jane Eyre, which premiered at Northern Ballet in 2016, she’s drawn inspiration from Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities,Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dangerous Liaisons, Lolita, and, for SF Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival, Ethan Frome. In choosing source material, she is often drawn to complex female protagonists such as Mrs. Robinson. “I like characters that aren’t straightforward,” she says. “I like stories where you can’t say who’s the good one and who’s the bad one, who’s guilty and who’s innocent.”

Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

The character of Mrs. Robinson is so embedded in American pop culture that calling someone a “Mrs. Robinson” conjures an immediate mental picture: a sophisticated, cool, calculating older woman who seduces a younger man. But who really is Mrs. Robinson? “In the film, Anne Bancroft is impenetrable,” says Marston. “And that’s genius, because it means you project your own feelings onto hers. I suppose that was the inspiration for the ballet. I wanted to get underneath the surface and find out why Mrs. Robinson is as she is, why she does the things that she does, and make specific choices based on those answers.”

The characters of The Graduate walk a tightrope between the buttoned-up world of post-war American values and a just-emerging youth counterculture. In researching America in the 1960s, Marston realized that Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique was written the same year as The Graduate. Friedan’s watershed book introduced “the problem that has no name”—the widespread unhappiness of housewives expected to focus exclusively on cultivating domestic perfection. That Mrs. Robinson herself has no name other than her husband’s was not lost on Marston, and the correlation of the timing of the publication of the two books gave her an idea. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to rehabilitate Mrs. Robinson, so her destiny is not one of the lonely alcoholic? To give her a chance to have a new life, like some of the women of that era went on to find?”

Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's new work // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

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Marston has a tried-and-true method of creating narrative works, one that involves significant planning long before she arrives in the studio to work with dancers. Since 2002, she has worked with dramaturg Edward Kemp, director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to map out the stories she creates onstage. It’s a rare collaboration in the dance field. “When I met Ed, he had systems that you don’t learn about in dance, in terms of structures, hooks, and just a sense of pacing and timing,” says Marston.

In reconsidering Mrs. Robinson, Marston and Kemp went through scenes step by step to anchor the story in her perspective. In the film, “the camera follows Benjamin very, very effectively,” Marston notes dryly. In the ballet, “we’ve tried to follow Mrs. Robinson. What does she want? Need? How does she feel? Where does she want to go?”

When she came to SF Ballet’s studios last summer, Marston worked on the nuances of each character with the dancers, coloring in the details within the overarching scaffolding. She set the characters of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson on three different pairs of dancers, embracing the distinct interpretations they brought to the characters. “They’ve all got such interesting ways to bring emotion, physicality, and themselves to the roles,” she says. “I want to celebrate that. I don’t want to make them the same.”

Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson  // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

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In reframing the story, it was important to Marston to give Mrs. Robinson some sense of agency. When viewed through Mrs. Robinson’s eyes, the story “becomes much more about a woman who’s trapped in a situation that she didn’t plan,” says Marston. “We know that she got pregnant as a student. Like so many women at that time, she fell into a life that is not what she imagined and not what satisfies her.” In a final duet with his wife, Mr. Robinson puts his arms in a circle, a protective gesture that creates a symbolic shelter. Mrs. Robinson goes under the circle, explores it, then emerges, closing his arms gently but firmly, leaving him and the protection the marriage has provided.

The film The Graduate is also, of course, known for the iconic song Mrs. Robinson, written for the film by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Because she was shifting perspectives, Marston asked composer Terry Davis to create a new score. “I was after music that was not as much about youth culture as about a woman who is in middle age,” says Marston. Davis incorporated saxophone and guitar into two distinct voices: the saxophone—with a sultry, late-night sound that references an earlier era—represents Mrs. Robinson, while the guitar adds a sense of the simmering counterculture.

In addition to the central characters, Marston enlists a corps de ballet of women, who move with the crisp efficiency of ideal mid-century femininity—and express the crippling impact of maintaining it. As the piece unfolds, the domestic goddesses are swept into the feminist movement in waves. Does Mrs. Robinson join them? Marston demurs. “I like that the film is ambiguous at the end,” she says. “And I’d quite like to echo that and leave it up to the audience as to the destiny of Mrs. Robinson.”

Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson is part of Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 4.


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Header image: Mathilde Froustey in Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

Female Characters in 2020 Story Ballets

Get to know this season’s complex, compelling heroines and the women bringing them to life.

From prima ballerinas to fairy princesses, female artists and characters have always had center stage in ballet. So much so that George Balanchine, the 20th century’s most influential choreographer, once said that “Ballet is woman.” But while women may get the balletic spotlight, their portrayals can sometimes seem out of step with the times.

Three of this season’s ballets celebrate famous female characters, but with a modern twist. Cinderella, Mrs. Robinson and Juliet originated in eras very different from our own, but the contemporary perspectives of our choreographers and dancers redefine them as thought-provoking, dynamic central figures in these works, saying goodbye to gendered stereotypes of eras past.    

Cinderella

Yuan Yuan Tan in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Yuan Yuan Tan in Wheeldon’s Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Frances Chung in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Frances Chung in Wheeldon’s Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno in in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)
Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno in in Wheeldon’s Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

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Cinderella is synonymous with fairy tales, and her name has conjured dreams of castles, princes, pumpkins and romance since the 1600s, and legends about a poor, mistreated girl rescued by a male hero date back thousands of years. She was ready for a makeover in 2012, when Christopher Wheeldon created our vibrant production, which was co-commissioned with Dutch National Ballet. Instead of the traditional Cinderella, a girl who is abused by her family until she marries the prince who saves her, Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a modern young woman who navigates her own journey to happiness.

            “She’s not just a victim,” says Principal Dancer Dores André, who has performed the lead role since the ballet’s 2013 American premiere at the War Memorial Opera House. “She’s courageous, and she makes choices.” Wheeldon placed this Cinderella in the midst of a messy real life, and he took away the Fairy Godmother; Cinderella has to find her own way to cope with stepsisters who are both lovable and loathsome, and a stepmother with an alcohol problem. “The women in this ballet are not one-sided,” André adds. “Chris doesn’t create simple characters.”

Even Cinderella’s relationship with Prince Charming has unexpected depth, says Ballet Master Anita Paciotti. “You don’t just like these two because they’re good dancers,” she says, “you like them because they’re real with each other.” Rather than hoping a man will swoop in and sweep away her troubles, Cinderella claims her own power and meets him as an equal. As Paciotti says, “There’s a lot to see besides ‘Cinderella gets the prince.’”

Mrs. Robinson

Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

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Women’s liberation and the sexual revolution were only just beginning in 1967, when the iconic, Oscar-winning film The Graduate premiered. Based on the 1963 novella by Charles Webb, the film features Anne Bancroft as the dissatisfied forty-something housewife Mrs. Robinson and Dustin Hoffman as a 21-year-old college graduate she has an affair with. Mrs. Robinson is an icon of a less-equal era, and for this season’s commission, British choreographer Cathy Marston wanted to revisit the iconic character in light of the current culture.

            “What we feel now about Mrs. Robinson is radically different to the commentary in 1967,” says Marston. “That’s an interesting dialog to be having today.” In mid-20th-century America, few women were able to pursue careers and financial independence; the stereotypical housewives of the era were “doing chores, sitting and staring into space,” Marston observes. “But they’re beginning to realize that it’s not enough.”

            The 1960s may seem like a bygone age, but André, who co-created the lead role, sees parallels. “Mrs. Robinson doesn’t fit in,” she observes. “It’s this in-between position that I think a lot of people feel, where you’re trying to change but don’t know if you can.” Paciotti, who saw the movie in 1967, says that women still connect with Mrs. Robinson’s struggle. “She had been an art student, she had dreams of her own that never got fulfilled because she became a wife and mother. It’s completely relevant to the status of women today.”

            Marston imbued the ballet with the same emotional ambiguity and eroticism that made the film so compelling, but she steers the plot toward a more hopeful outcome. Yet ultimately, Mrs. Robinson’s future is in the eyes of each observer. “It’s up to you to understand what she is going to do,” André says. “It shows that feminism is a personal journey, and everyone will experience it for themselves. That’s how life actually is.”

Juliet

Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson
Misa Kuranaga and Ricardo Bustamante in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson
Misa Kuranaga and Ricardo Bustamante in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson
Misa Kuranaga in Tomasson's Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson
Misa Kuranaga in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

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Juliet may be famous for loving Romeo, but Shakespeare’s tragic teenage heroine is far more than a hopeless romantic. “She’s a rebel,” says André. “She is questioning the status quo, and she is gonna fight against it.” Four centuries after the play’s 1596 publication, Juliet still embodies a woman’s odyssey toward standing up for her values, making her own choices and accepting the consequences.

             Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris, the suitor her parents have chosen for her, reflects both the depth of her commitment to Romeo and the power of love to vanquish the hatred between their warring families. “She’s not going to stop herself from loving him,” says Paciotti, who often plays the pivotal role of Juliet’s nurse. “This is somebody trying to break the habit of the older generation, someone whose sense of humanity compels them to say, ‘Enough. I don’t want to fight anymore.’”

Indeed, there’s nothing cookie-cutter about Juliet, and her complexity lets every ballerina approach her in a unique way. “What’s so amazing about Juliet is that she’s a feminist before her time,” says corps de ballet member Jasmine Jimison. Juliet is the first lead role Jimison—still a teenager herself—is taking on, and she’s kept an eye on other dancers’ performances. “All the Juliets have very different interpretations,” Jimison says. “I relate to Juliet being young and happy, and having her first love.”

Paciotti sees Juliet as a role model unbound by time, place and culture. “She’s gutsy, she’s defiant, she’s willing to risk herself to change the status quo,” she says. “People see a better way, and that’s what sets them apart. That’s what makes them heroes.”

Although they originated in different eras and different parts of the world, Cinderella, Mrs. Robinson and Juliet represent universal aspects of women’s experiences. And though the original stories were written by men, it is the female artists of San Francisco Ballet who will bring the characters to life on the Opera House stage, in contemporary and uniquely personal ways. Discover your own perspective by experiencing all three ballets—and all of these compelling women.


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Header image: Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

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

7 FOR EIGHT

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

ANIMA ANIMUS

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

To the Pointe: 2020 Season Preview

Join SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick for a surprise summer season preview. Learn what SF Ballet’s up to this summer and what to look forward to on the 2020 season!
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: San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

2020 Season Tickets Available Now

Instant Expert: Arranging Music for Ballet


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Which came first: the ballet or the score? Like the chicken and the egg, this question may be more complicated than it seems. For some ballet choreographers, the answer is the score: their process begins with the music and they choreograph to the music as it is written. But for others, the answer is the ballet—or, at least, an idea of a ballet. In this case, the music, either preexisting or created for dance, must be adapted and changed to suit the choreographer’s idea.

Program 03, entitled In Space and Time, features three ballets with three scores that have been expressly arranged for dance, but each in a different way. For The Fifth Season, SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson wanted to use Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2. However, he knew he wanted six sections in his ballet, and it only had five. So Tomasson added in a section from another piece Jenkins wrote.

In Snowblind, choreographer Cathy Marston wanted to create a soundscape that matched the story she had to tell about New England in the early 1900s. She worked with composer Philip Feeney to select music by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote—composers working in Boston during the period—as well as Arvo Pärt. Feeney arranged those scores together, and added in some music of his own.

Finally, for Etudes, the inspiration actually came from the arranger: Knudåge Riisager, a Danish composer, had the idea to orchestrate a series of Carl Czerny piano etudes for full orchestra and choreographer Harald Lander ran with the idea, creating this iconic ballet.


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Header Image: Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

Cathy Marston on Creating Snowblind

British choreographer Cathy Marston drew from Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome to create a stunning character study of a doomed love triangle in a repressive New England winter. Here she discusses creating Snowblind for SF Ballet’s Unbound festival of new works. Snowblind is on Program 03 (In Space & Time) of SF Ballet’s 2019 Season, running Feb 14–24.

 

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

To the Pointe: In Space and Time

Join SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick, PhD to learn all about Program 3: In Space and Time. This episode covers Helgi Tomasson’s neoclassical The Fifth Season, Cathy Marston’s dramatic Snowblind, and Harald Lander’s thrilling Etudes–and you’ll get a peak behind the scenes as we talk to Cathy Marston about her ballet and to repetiteur Johnny Eliasen about Etudes. If you like minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings, this program may have something for you.

Header image: Mathilde Froustey and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

Your Ultimate Guide to In Space & Time

What is it? A chance to see three very different takes on ballet: from modernist abstraction to narrative drama to classical virtuosity.

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings.

THE FIFTH SEASON

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? The Fifth Season, choreographed by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2006, is a study in contrasts. Cool, sophisticated movements and simple costumes coexist with passionate interludes; minimalist music with romantic melodies. Divided into six movements and featuring six principal dancers who dance together in different combinations, this ballet creates an abstract landscape of shifting moods.

What am I hearing? Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2 and the largo from Palladio. Tomasson knew he wanted to choreograph to the String Quartet, but wanted six movements in the ballet, so he added in the largo.

What should I look for? Look for the central pas de deux to the Palladio largo—it’s full of lyricism and longing. And note how different each of the sections of the ballet are—how do these contrasts make you feel?

SNOWBLIND

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? British choreographer Cathy Marston’s unique blend of literature, movement, and emotion. Known in Europe for her narrative ballets inspired by literature, Marston decided to use an American story as the starting point for this ballet: Edith Wharton’s short story Ethan Frome. For those of us who never read Ethan Frome in high-school English here’s a quick synopsis: Married man in New England falls in love with his hypochondriac wife’s cousin—who also happens to be his maid.

What am I hearing? A mix of music from Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt arranged by composer Phillip Feeney. Beach and Foote were both part of the “Boston Six,” a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England. Working at the same time as Edith Wharton, these composers were key to the development of American classical music.

What should I look for? Look for the way that the main characters’ movement is driven by their emotions—Marston starts her process more like a theatrical director, letting the character’s thoughts dictate the movement language. And watch the corps de ballet in this work; they alternately represent the cold and snow of New England and the central characters’ emotions.

ETUDES

SF Ballet’s Joanna Berman and Vadim Solomakha in Lander’s Etudes, 1998 // © Marty Sohl

What am I seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Etudes is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.

Your Ultimate Guide to In Space and Time

What is it? A chance to see three very different takes on ballet: from modernist abstraction to narrative drama to classical virtuosity.

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes minimalist music, 19th-century literature, or Degas paintings.

THE FIFTH SEASON

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? The Fifth Season, choreographed by SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson in 2006, is a study in contrasts. Cool, sophisticated movements and simple costumes coexist with passionate interludes; minimalist music with romantic melodies. Divided into six movements and featuring six principal dancers who dance together in different combinations, this ballet creates an abstract landscape of shifting moods.

What Am I Hearing? Karl Jenkins’ String Quartet No. 2 and the largo from Palladio. Tomasson knew he wanted to choreograph to the String Quartet, but wanted six movements in the ballet, so he added in the largo.

What Should I Look For? Look for the central pas de deux to the Palladio largo—it’s full of lyricism and longing. And note how different each of the sections of the ballet are—how do these contrasts make you feel?

SNOWBLIND

San Francisco Ballet in Marston’s Snowblind // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? British choreographer Cathy Marston’s unique blend of literature, movement, and emotion. Known in Europe for her narrative ballets inspired by literature, Marston decided to use an American story as the starting point for this ballet: Edith Wharton’s short story Ethan Frome. For those of us who never read Ethan Frome in high-school English here’s a quick synopsis: Married man in New England falls in love with his hypochondriac wife’s cousin—who also happens to be his maid.

What am I hearing? A mix of music from Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt arranged by composer Phillip Feeney. Beach and Foote were both part of the “Boston Six,” a group of composers working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New England. Working at the same time as Edith Wharton, these composers were key to the development of American classical music.

What should I look for? Look for the way that the main characters’ movement is driven by their emotions—Marston starts her process more like a theatrical director, letting the character’s thoughts dictate the movement language. And watch the corps de ballet in this work; they alternately represent the cold and snow of New England and the central characters’ emotions.

ETUDES

SF Ballet’s Joanna Berman and Vadim Solomakha in Lander’s Etudes, 1998 // © Marty Sohl

What Am I Seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Études is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.