Corps de Ballet member Lucas Erni discusses Etudes and his path to SF Ballet.
Lucas Erni shares insight into his path from Argentina to San Francisco and discusses the ballets on Program 03: Dance Innovations. He also talks about his experience at the Prix de Lausanne and his time at SF Ballet School.
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Join Associate Director of Audience Development, Jennie Scholick, PhD for a deep dive into the three ballets on Program 3: Dance Innovations. Hear from Edwaard Liang, Trey McIntyre, Johnny Eliason, and Lise Lander and find out what to look for in this exciting lineup of ballets.
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What is it? An evening of ballet that shows the art form in all its facets: emotional, philosophical, and, well, pure delight. From light installations to pink wigs to classic white tutus, Dance Innovations has something for everyone.
Who’s it for? Anyone who loves artist Olafur Eliasson, likes puzzling over conceptual ideas, or is just a fan of pure pomp and circumstance.
THE INFINITE OCEAN
What Am I Seeing? The latest piece for SF Ballet by BalletMet Artistic Director Edwaar Liang. Created for the 2018 Unbound Festival, The Infinite Ocean explores the liminal space between life and death. Full of complex partnering and deep emotions, this ballet was a favorite among audience members both when it premiered here and on tour in Washington D.C. and London.
What Am I Hearing? A violin concerto by London-based composer Oliver Davis, written in 2018. Davis’s work is being used more and more often by ballet choreographers, including Ma Cong, Peter Walker, and Matthew Neenan.
What Should I Look For? The central pas de deux: sometimes the trickiness in ballet partnering is making it look simple. That’s not the case here. The partnering is just as complex as it looks as the dancers cantilever themselves into Alexander Calder-like shapes.
THE BIG HUNGER
What Am I Seeing? Acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntyre returns to SF Ballet with his world premiere The Big Hunger. Known for often working with pop music, this ballet is a departure for Trey, as he taps into his musical background to explore a classical score by Sergei Prokofiev. But Trey’s dances are rarely solely about the music, and in this case, he’s also playing with some philosophical concepts. Specifically, he’s thinking about the things that give life meaning and the things we sometimes think are meaningful, but really aren’t.
What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2, written in 1913 and revised in . It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play in the piano repertoire and (as far as I know) has never been used before in a ballet.
What Should I Look For? This ballet is divided into three sections, each featuring a principal couple. These three sections and three couples each represent a different stage toward enlightenment—notice how those relationships are distinct, notice how the sets change between sections, and notice how each couple moves and partners differently.
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.
Harald Lander’s Etudes will be a part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as a part of Program 03, Dance Innovations, from Feb 13 to 23.
Program notes by Caitlin Sims
Etudes, French for “studies,” takes dancers’ prosaic daily ritual—ballet class—and elevates and transforms it for the stage. Designed to gradually warm up muscles and get the body aligned for the day, most ballet classes follow a standard order of exercises that start small and gradually get bigger and more complex. These same movements, even the smallest pliés and tendus, are the building blocks from which classical ballets are constructed. Etudes illuminates these classroom exercises, then illustrates how these simple steps can become art.
Etudes was choreographed in 1948 by Harald Lander, a Danish-born dancer and artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet. The initial inspiration came from composer Knudåge Riisager. On an autumn afternoon in Copenhagen, as he watched a swirl of fall leaves, Riisager heard through a window someone practicing a Carl Czerny piano exercise. He decided to orchestrate the music for a ballet, brought the score to Lander, and the concept for Etudes was born.
Etudes was a departure for the Royal Danish Ballet, which at the time of the premiere, performed mostly narrative works. By 1948 George Balanchine had introduced American audiences to abstract ballet, but it wasn’t yet as common in Denmark. As artistic director, Lander revitalized the Royal Danish Ballet. He both created new work and restored its heritage—the work of August Bournonville, its longtime director during the mid-1800s. Bournonville established the company’s characteristic style of seemingly effortless jumps, quick footwork, and simple rounded arms. Although Etudes is a more abstract work, Bournonville’s style infuses parts of Lander’s ballet like a soft perfume.
Lander continued to update Etudes after the premiere, revising it for performances in Denmark in 1951, and again in 1952 for Paris Opera Ballet, when he was directing that company. He added increasingly challenging steps as well as expanded roles for three lead dancers. Landers revised the ballet a final time for a Danish television recording in 1969. Dancing in the corps de ballet for that recording was Johnny Eliasen, who came to SF Ballet to stage the work last fall.
The curtain rises on dancers doing traditional exercises at the barre, with a twist. Only the lower half of the dancers are illuminated, the rest of the stage is black. The effect is a kaleidoscopic vision of two dozen disembodied limbs moving crisply through ballet steps. The “black barre” exercises may be simple, but the exacting coordination required to synchronize them is anything but. “It’s a beautiful nightmare,” says Eliasen. “It has to be so precise. There’s only one way [to learn it]—just repeat and repeat.”
The ballet progresses to more and more expansive steps as the dancers leave the barre. It then shifts gears with an homage to the sylphs (mythological air spirits) of 19th-century Romantic ballet. The Bournonville ballet La Sylphide is central to the Royal Danish Ballet’s heritage, and this section of Etudes draws from the same well. “How we use our arm, how we use our hands—it can be difficult for companies that haven’t done Bournonville [ballets],” says Eliasen. While he tries to help dancers become fluent in the Danish style (particularly by taking time to teach that same daily ritual of company class), Eliasen also appreciates a regional accent. “It’s important they know the steps and the musicality and hopefully the right arms,” he says. “But each company should have its own identity.”
To perform Etudes requires a deep bench; in addition to three leading roles, there’s a 36-member corps de ballet that’s essential to the ballet’s success. “It’s like a watch,” says Eliasen. “There are three hands. But the hands only work if what’s behind them works.”
Lander packed an enormous amount of dancing into the 40 minutes of Etudes, much of it for the corps de ballet. Part of what has made the ballet such an enduring audience favorite is the irresistible thrill of seeing so many dancers moving at full velocity completely in sync. Etudes culminates with one of the most thrilling displays of turns and jumps in ballet. “It’s brilliantly constructed,” says Eliasen. “The buildup of music at the end is so exciting. People everywhere love it.”
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.”
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.
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.”