About David Dawson’s Anima Animus

David Dawson’s Anima Animus is part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 24, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

David Dawson’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet, Anima Animus, is, as he puts it, “physically emotional virtuosity combined to make something human.” It is indeed physical, emotional, virtuosic, and human—but there’s something transcendent about this combination. It’s most tangible in the section Dawson calls “Angels,” when the dancers seem to move beyond their mortal selves into a state of throat-clenching beauty. “Don’t do what you know,” he tells his dancers in rehearsal, “do something beyond. Unbound.”

Anima Animus offers a rich mix of contrasts, most meaningful among them Carl Jung’s concept of animus (the male aspect of the female psyche) and anima (the female aspect of the male psyche). Another contrast can be found in the music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso. “It felt to me like music that looks to the past and the future at the same time, much how I like to make dance,” Dawson says.

In making this ballet, Dawson found himself responding to the polarized present-day world. He understands the world’s opposites—light and dark, humanity and architecture, individual and group—“but between those opposites, there’s so much room where people can have choice without judgment,” he says. The spaces between extremes are a kind of fluidity, which Dawson wanted to explore within dance. “My language is the classical art form; I’m trying to do something with that,” he says. Historically, some ballet steps are for women or men only; Dawson shifts this by giving “the opposing energy as a starting point”—in other words, giving animus choreography to a dancer who seems more anima, and vice versa.

In the “Angels” part of the second movement, “we go to archetype,” Dawson says. “In Jung’s philosophy, the female is the nurturer, the mother, the angel, the pure. And the man is the warrior, the strong, the hero. I’m trying to show it all.” Even in these archetypes, the theme of contrasts shows. When the female dancers women float high above the stage, “that’s when they show their form as angels,” Dawson says. “That’s when they touch the sky and they show who they really are.”

San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Wona Park in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson's Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Dawson’s Anima Animus //© Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson's Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson
Carlo Di Lanno in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © Erik Tomasson

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Dawson sends his dancers skyward, but he wants them grounded too. This reads as a paradox—the dancers fly through intricate moves that do indeed make them seem as untethered as angels, and yet they have weight, form, and substance that goes far beyond the light, lifted aesthetic of classical ballet. In rehearsals, Dawson constantly asks the dancers to let their classicism go, asking for movement that is “deeper, squashed, crunched. I want it odd.”

But don’t think for a minute that Anima Animus is odd or ugly. Dawson compares traditional ballet to Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci, “and of course I’m not that. I don’t want to be that; I want to be [graffiti artist] Banksy. I want to take history and show somebody my view on it.” To get there, he starts with an internal process—which leads us back to this idea of physically emotional virtuosity. In choreographing, “I feel my way through the movement,” he says. “Because for me, physicality is driven by emotion. If someone’s angry or sad, it becomes physical—it’s expressed through the body.”

In Bosso’s music, Dawson hears both hope and doom. “You are here to tell us something,” he tells the dancers. “You’re saying to the public, ‘Be careful. It’s not going to end well if you keep going this way.’” Though his message acknowledges doom, it keeps reverting to hope. He’s interested “in the power of the human being,” he says, a mindset that is, in effect, his spirituality. “I believe in the universe,” he says. “We’re energy and carbon and atomic; creation is happening all the time. That’s why I love what we do, because we’re embodying what life is all about.”


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Header image: Wona Park and Joseph Walsh in Dawson’s Anima Animus // © 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

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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.


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

About Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean

Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. The Infinite Ocean is part of Program 03, Dance Innovations, which runs Feb 13, 15, 18, 19, 21, and 23, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

As a dancer, Edwaard Liang loved being in a company, being part of something bigger than himself, one player in the complex, mentally and physically challenging process of creating art. After a major career in ballet and on Broadway, he turned to choreographing, a role in which he not only participates in the creative process, he drives it. Today, as a longtime choreographer, and artistic director of BalletMet since 2013, Liang is known for creating dramatic works, fueled by extreme emotions. His third work for San Francisco Ballet, The Infinite Ocean, hovers in the space between life and death, when spirits must let go of whatever ties them to the physical world. It’s a time he calls “the awakening.”

Liang’s focus of late, both personally and professionally, has been on spirituality and life and death. When Liang was 13, his father died of cancer; in recent years, many of his friends have grappled with terminal illnesses. The idea behind this ballet began to simmer when he got a Facebook message from one of those friends: “I will see you on the other side of the infinite ocean.”

Liang had previously tackled the life-after-death theme with 13th Heaven at Singapore Dance Theatre, but he wanted to work more with the idea of the transition to death. “A lot of people think that ghosts or entities are spirits that cannot let go of the past and this earthly plane, so they are stuck in between,” he says. “The concept [of The Infinite Ocean] is that these are people that, at this particular time, are transitioning. It may not always be what we consider like drifting toward the light. I want it to be a little bit more chaotic.”

For music, he turned to composer Oliver Davis, with whom he’d worked on 13th Heaven. “I like that he writes such a quirky, interesting blend of minimalist music but with this baroque feel,” says Liang. “And he loves to work with strings, and I really wanted a violin concerto [for this ballet]. So it was a natural fit.”

To prepare, Liang pondered what he wanted the dancers to think about. “These are the same questions I was going to ask myself,” Liang says. “Who would you like to see [before you go]? And it doesn’t have to be a who—what would you like to see? What touches and moves and inspires you about the unknown? And whatever your belief is, what is it that makes your heart sing? We want to be heard, we want to be seen, we want to feel connected to something. What does that mean to you? The dancers’ responses would inform and individualize their movement.

When the ballet opens, the “transitioners” are struggling with these questions. “Everybody’s in silhouette,” Liang says, “and they’re walking toward the infinite ocean,” toward a light source inspired by a brilliant orb in a 2003 light installation by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern. As they walk, they should reveal themselves as individuals, with their own needs and desires, Liang says. “You want to walk like the pure essence of you, as energy.”

San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

At first, these transitioning souls resist leaving. “There’s a lot of going toward, reconnecting with each other, disconnecting,” Liang says. “But they’re really not looking at each other, not until a little bit later, when they’re reliving their relationships.” In a duet created on Principal Dancers Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets, the interaction is “soft, spiritual, romantic,” Liang says. Another couple is young, on their first date, facing the loss of promise and potential when their lives are cut short. A men’s dance “a choppy adventure” shows the angst involved in letting go of life, he says.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

In a duet created on Principal Dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz, Liang wanted to play with the idea of soul mates. Their relationship is tumultuous, “a constant circling and trying to find each other,” he says. For this couple, especially the woman, accepting that it’s time to leave bodily life is more difficult than it is for the others. “Obviously there’s some unresolved thing,” Liang says.

One day, during a rehearsal break, Liang turned on the music and started dancing. He began slowly, with small steps that gained speed and power, moving with concentration and obvious emotion. Maybe it was then that he got the first inkling of what he realized when the rough draft of the ballet was done—that it is “a love letter to my father,” he says. “He’s the first person I want to see [when I die]. It’s been so long since his death that I didn’t realize how desperate I am to reconnect with him. That was my journey through this process.”


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Header image: Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © 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.”


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

A Student’s Perspective on Learning to Choreograph

By Pemberley Ann Olson

I started at San Francisco Ballet School when I was six years old. I remember my first day like it was yesterday. We started our class with basic ballet steps and learned some new moves that we could show to our parents. I remember vividly when our teacher, Ms. Kristi, had the pianist play music from Nutcracker and let us dance across the floor. She wanted to see how we could use our musicality, artistry, and creativity in our own dancing. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer.

 

Pemberley Ann Olson in Johnston's Effervescence. // © Lindsay Thomas
Pemberley Ann Olson in Johnston’s Effervescence. // © Lindsay Thomas
Pemberley Ann Olson in Level 1 at SF Ballet School
Pemberley Ann Olson in Level 1 at SF Ballet School
Pemberley Ann Olson in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
Pemberley Ann Olson in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Choreography has been an important part of my journey here at the School. Over the past 11 years, I have watched many ballets performed by the Company, from story ballets to new contemporary works. Watching these inventive and creative pieces has given me ideas and inspiration for my own choreography. What’s fascinating to me is how different choreographers have their own process. Some utilize improvisation and experimentation and others have set ideas, already knowing exactly what they want to see from the dancers. I’m still developing my own process, trying out new things.

To read more on SF Ballet School’s choreography programs: 
Developing the Next Generation of Choreographers

It’s been amazing to work with some of my closest friends, creating a piece that makes them shine in their own way. I love to see a small idea that might not have started out strong turn into a pivotal point in choreography. I’m extremely excited to present my work at the Spring Festival in May. We’ve all worked very hard to make something, and I can’t wait to show the final result.

Being a Choreographic Fellow has been an amazing experience. I’ve discovered how much I love to see my own ideas of movement come to life. Choreographing lets me release all my feelings into movement. I hadn’t realized how much I loved to create until I was given the chance to, and for that, I am so thankful. It’s always been my lifelong dream to be a professional ballet dancer, and being a choreographer is now a new ambition. San Francisco Ballet School has given me so many incredible opportunities: from that first experience when I was 6 years old, dancing Nutcracker, it’s been an incredible adventure.

Pemberley Ann Olson is a student at San Francisco Ballet School and one of the 2018–19 Choreographic Fellows. Her new work will be performed as part of the San Francisco Ballet School Spring Festival. 

Header photo: Pemberley Ann Olson and SF Ballet School students performing a demonstration in the 2018 Student Showcase // © Lindsay Thomas


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Who is Alexei Ratmansky?

SF Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy // © Erik Tomasson

A renowned and lauded choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg and trained at 
Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet School. As an acclaimed principal dancer, he performed with the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet. From 2004-08, Ratmansky served as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet and under his direction, the troupe was named Best Foreign Company twice (2005 and 2007) by the Critics’ Circle in London.

Since 2009, Ratmansky has held the position of artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre and in May and June of 2016, the company celebrated his many contributions to the dance world with a four-program festival of his works, including the American premiere of his ballet The Golden Cockerel.His accolades are numerous and include being named a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and serving as a choreographic mentor to Corps de Ballet member Myles Thatcher through the prestigious Rolex Mentor & Protégés Arts Initiative. In a 2015 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Thatcher remarked, “Alexei [Ratmansky] is an incredibly perceptive person. It’s wonderful to bounce ideas off him. He has so much to share.”

In addition, he is the recipient of a knighthood from Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II in 2001. He has been awarded the Benois de la Danse prize for his choreography of Anna Karenina, Shostakovich Trilogy, and The Tempest.

Ratmansky’s work is prodigious and he has choreographed ballets for many companies including Mariinsky Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, New York City Ballet, and the Australian Ballet, among others. His association with SF Ballet began in 2003, when he created Le carnaval des animaux on the Company. Ratmansky choreographed From Foreign Lands for SF Ballet in  2013. As co-commissions with American Ballet Theatre, he has created Shostakovich Trilogy and The Seasons, which will be performed by San Francisco Ballet in 2020.

With all he has achieved, it’s not surprising that in a review of his ballet The Bright Stream, The New York Times noted, “[Ratmansky is] the finest Russian choreographer since George Balanchine…Mr. Ratmansky has already subtly changed the course of Russian ballet…[and] he is now quietly changing the course of ballet in the West.”

Header image: Alexei Ratmansky // courtesy of Rolex

Developing the Next Generation of Dancemakers


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On a rainy Monday afternoon, a panel of San Francisco Ballet luminaries sat expectantly in a row of folding chairs in a large studio usually used for Company rehearsals. SF Ballet dancers Frances Chung and Sofiane Sylve, dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher, SF Ballet School Faculty member Pascal Molat, and former Associate Director of SF Ballet School Lola de Avila had gathered to watch choreography created by the School’s advanced students.

One by one the students approached the panel to introduce themselves and speak briefly about the short ballets they’d created on their peers. The works were as individual as the dancers—some quirky, some serious, some more classical, others more contemporary. It was the diversity of approach and the depth of talent that revealed an emerging success story: SF Ballet School has been quietly nurturing the next generation of creative as well as performing artists.

Encouraging Creativity

The School’s choreography program has blossomed from early roots as a component of the Trainee program and then a partnership with the Crowden School, an academic and music school in Berkeley. For several years, students from the two arts schools have teamed up, with Crowden students writing music and SF Ballet School students creating choreography. The resulting work was performed in an informal spring performance for fellow students, friends, and family members.

That once informal spring performance has grown into the Helgi Tomasson Choreographic Workshop, an annual spring event. Once SF Ballet students had tried choreography, they wanted more, says Faculty member Dana Genshaft, who oversees the School’s choreography program.

So School Director Patrick Armand expanded the program, giving advanced (Level 8) students the opportunity to propose and create their own choreography for the annual workshop. Were they interested? Last spring, “There were so many works that the Choreographic Workshop was more than two hours long,” says Andrea Yannone, director of education and training, with a laugh. Hence the Monday panel: three of the works by Level 8 students would be selected to be performed at this year’s Helgi Tomasson Choreographic Workshop.

SF Ballet School’s first Choreographic Fellow Blake Johnston.
// © Erik Tomasson

Mentoring Emerging Artistic Voices

The Choreographic Workshop is also where the School’s Choreographic Fellows are identified. Although choreography has always been a part of the Trainee program, Tomasson decided to formalize a Choreographic Fellowship in 2016, with the goal of encouraging and supporting a diverse range of artistic voices. He selected Blake Johnston, then a Trainee, as the first Choreographic Fellow. The program is designed to support one or more students each year. This year there are three: MJ Edwards, Pemberley Ann Olson, and Maya Wheeler. In addition to a scholarship, each Fellow receives mentorship and guidance both artistically and in the less glamorous yet eminently practical matters of budgeting, managing rehearsal time, and working with designers. Each Fellow creates a work for the Choreographic Workshop; the strongest works are selected to be part of the School’s Spring Festival. This year’s Spring Festival, held May 22–24, will include one work by each of the three Choreographic Fellows.

Formalizing the School’s choreographic program has provided structure and encouragement, while including what most students still need—sense of fun and exploration. “What’s really great is that there’s now this really wonderful creative, supportive, curious energy around choreography,” says Genshaft. “Beyond the time we give them for rehearsals, I’ll often see them in the studio just trying movement and playing, which is exactly what you want a creative atmosphere to be.”

A SF Ballet School Success Story

Myles Thatcher rehearsing his Otherness // © Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher choreographed his first work, Timepiece, on his peers while a Trainee at SF Ballet School. It was so successful that it was performed at a festival at Canada’s National Ballet School. While starting his dancing career with SF Ballet, Thatcher returned to the School to choreograph for the students, gaining experience. His first work for SF Ballet, In the Passerine’s Clutch, premiered at SF Ballet’s 2013 Repertory Season Gala, followed by Manifesto (2015), Ghost in the Machine (2017), and Otherness (2018). While still dancing with SF Ballet, Thatcher has also created ballets for The Joffrey Ballet, New York City Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, and more.


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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School Students in Johnston’s Effervescence // © Lindsay Thomas

SF Ballet School Spring Festival Highlights

San Francisco Ballet School launches its first annual Spring Festival, May 22–24, 2019. Formerly known as Student Showcase, the SF Ballet School Spring Festival will include three nights of performances, an opening night dinner, and new interactive activities with opportunities to learn about ballet.

Each of the three performances will feature different programming. All will include a short demonstration by students in Levels 2–8, choreographed by SF Ballet School Faculty member Karen Gabay. This demonstration will be followed by upper-level students and Trainees performing SF Ballet School Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Ballet d’Isoline, a new work choreographed by AXIS Dance Company Artistic Director Marc Brew, excerpts from Jiří Kylián’s Sarabande and Falling Angels, and premieres by SF Ballet School student choreographers. 

Highlights from last year’s Student Showcase, including works by George Balanchine, Karen Gabay, Blake Johnston, and Helgi Tomasson

Proceeds from the May 22 Spring Festival Dinner, to be held at the Four Seasons San Francisco, will support the more than $1 million in scholarships and financial aid the School distributes each year so that talented students, regardless of family circumstances, can have a chance to study dance.


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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School Students performing a demonstration in the 2018 Student Showcase // © Lindsay Thomas

Marc Brew Creates quicksilver on SF Ballet School Trainees

By Hannah Young

The premiere of Marc Brew’s quicksilver introduced more than just new choreography to SF Ballet School students. Drawing from his personal experiences and professional ballet training, Brew—the artistic director of AXIS Dance Company and an acclaimed choreographer who uses a wheelchair—spent several weeks with SF Ballet School Trainees, introducing new ways to think about choreography. First shown on March 13 at SF Ballet’s free Student Matinee and returning for the School’s Spring Festival May 22–24, the six-person ballet resulted from an unconventional movement exploration.

Brew’s unique method for creating choreography pushed the Trainees both technically and creatively. “I wanted to share my process with the students, being aware that this is probably the first time that they’ve worked with a disabled choreographer,” he explained, “I bring some material, an upper body arm phrase, and then ask them to see how they could move the rest of their body.” Prescribing movement for the upper body and asking the dancers to create accompanying movement for the lower body was a new choreographic prompt for the students.

During the creation process, Brew guided the students to consider different physical perspectives. “When I went through ballet school, I was never exposed to anyone with a disability,” Brew said. “The fact that I’m in the studio with them, and working with them, hopefully will change those perceptions around what a dancer is and what it means to be a dancer.” He also challenged the common narrative of an injury ending a dancer’s relationship with dance: “If one day they got injured, maybe that doesn’t mean you just have to sit on the side—maybe there are other ways you can explore.”

SF Ballet School Trainees rehearsing Marc Brew’s quicksilver // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

Brew spent three weeks with the Trainees, helping them find new ways to create movement. By asking a diverse range of artists to engage with the students, SF Ballet School commits to providing an education that not only develops technical prowess but also prioritizes personal innovation. Experiences like these are how students learn a skill imperative to creative success—how to cultivate their own aesthetic and voice.

Experiences like these are only possible with community engagement. We invite you to join us in supporting diverse artistic voices by donating today. Your gift, no matter the size, is critical to bringing in dancers of all backgrounds to nourish the artistic growth of our students.


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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School student rehearsal with Marc Brew // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel Program Notes


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By Caitlin Sims

Liam Scarlett’s premiere for San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 Season has a similar dark beauty as his 2016 Frankenstein, an epic retelling of Mary Shelley’s macabre novel. And similarly, this new ballet draws inspiration from another artist’s work: in this case Rachmaninoff’s brooding and hypnotic symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, itself based upon a painting of the same name. (Die Toteninsel is the German name of these works.) Scarlett uses the music and its history as a jumping off point for a more abstract work exploring the deep-rooted questions about what lies beyond this life. If Scarlett’s Frankenstein was a choreographic novel, his new ballet is more a short story—in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations.

Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

Rachmaninoff’sThe Isle of the Dead was itself inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting of the same name. In Böcklin’s work, a solitary boat bearing an oarsman, a shrouded figure, and a coffin traverses whisper-still water toward an island of rocky cliffs and rectangular portals encircling a grove of tall cypresses. A commission from a German widow, who asked Böcklin to repaint an unfinished painting of an island and add the figures in a boat, The Isle of the Dead was such an immediate success that he painted several additional versions.

Böcklin’s illumination of a mysterious island that seems not entirely of this world resonated powerfully and, with the advent of mass-produced lithography, reproductions were pervasive by the early 20th century. Russian novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote that The Isle of the Dead could be found “in every Berlin home” in his novel Despair. Freud had one in his office, Lenin had one above his bed, and (decades after Böcklin’s death) Hitler paid a high sum for one of the originals.

Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

“I’m always first drawn to the music,” says Scarlett, who has a deep appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s works. The music opens quietly with a slow build, all low strings and apprehension. There’s a 5/8 time signature, an uneven tempo that contributes to a feeling of restlessness and foreboding. “Like waves lapping,” says Scarlett, “or breathing in and out, or a heartbeat. There’s a definite and then a faltering step. By putting that second beat on different accents, time shifts and is not as we know it.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “If you’re making a journey to somewhere that’s not in this life, then who’s to say what time is?”

The tempo colors Scarlett’s choreography as well, as it’s not a common time signature for ballet. “Finding steps to go into five counts switches on a different way of thinking,” says Scarlett. “But once you get that rhythm, it sets [the choreographic process] up from the beginning.” Scarlett draws upon the music’s repetitiveness in creating movement that grows and builds, then unexpectedly echoes itself. As a central couple emerges, surging forward and sweeping back in great arcs, their movements are reflected by groups that form and dissipate as easily as waves, giving the ephemeral “a sense of weight, and passing through one another,” says Scarlett.

In rehearsal, Scarlett moves through the room, encouraging dancers to think about how to shape and extend movement phrases. “When you move bigger and slower, you see everything,” he explains. “When you make sure that you enable every fiber of your body, it’s much more visceral and beautiful. It’s a matter of accentuating everything that you do just a tiny bit more.”

Liam Scarlett rehearsing his Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

There’s a softness to Scarlett’s movement that heightens the ballet’s otherworldly feel. “It’s like water and how you move underwater,” he explains. “When gravity is diminished and time is warped into something else, then you don’t need to adhere to the same rules. You twist them a bit, so it’s clear we’re somewhere else.” Exactly where that is will also be up for interpretation. “Everyone has wondered, “What’s the next thing after this life?’” says Scarlett. “Thinking about it raised a lot of questions for me, and I put those questions in the piece.” He smiles enigmatically. “But I haven’t necessarily answered them.”


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Header image: Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson