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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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.”
Danish dancer and choreographer Harald Lander (1905–71) created more than 30 ballets during his career, including his most enduring work—Etudes –and was artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet for almost two decades.
Lander was a true product of the Danish ballet tradition. Lander trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1923. But while the Royal Danish is committed to preserving the legacy of previous director August Bournonville, Lander was also open to new influences. In a break from tradition, he moved to New York in 1926 to study with choreographer Michel Fokine, best known for his work with the innovative Ballets Russes.
In 1929, Lander returned to the Royal Danish Ballet and was appointed artistic director in 1931. During his 20-year tenure as director, Lander cultivated a diverse repertory. He restored many of Bournonville’s ballets, including Napoli, La Sylphide, and Flower Festival in Genzano. He restaged several of Fokine’s pieces including Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, and Le spectre de la rose. And he choreographed several ballets of his own. From 1953 to 1963, Lander was ballet master for the Paris Opéra.
Lander’s most well-known piece is Etudes, a one-act ballet he created in 1948 that pays homage to classical ballet training. Etudes begins with dancers at the barre, then quickly transitions into a exhilarating performances that showcase intricate choreography and romantic lyricism.
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.
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.