Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson and Principal Dancer Joseph Walsh discuss the role of Oberon in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Join Helgi Tomasson and Joseph Walsh as they call in from shelter-in-place to discuss the role of Oberon. Learn about what it was like to dance for Balanchine and what it is that makes this role so very special.
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All You Need to Know About A Midsummer Night’s Dream Before You Go!
Join Jennie Scholick, PhD for a quick overview of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hear about the ballet’s creation in 1960s New York, revisit the story to figure out which dancer is Hermia and which one is Helena, and find out what to look for in this magical and mystical ballet!
What is it? A chance to see San Francisco Ballet in three epic story ballets during the 2020 Season.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a good William Shakespeare adaptation (though these are closer to The Globe Theatre than to Baz Lurhmann), 1990s romantic comedies (think: mistaken identities, mean girls, and happily-ever-afters), or had a childhood fascination with Peter and the Wolf.
What Am I Seeing? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame created this delightful ballet in 2012 on the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. But don’t expect fairy godmothers and talking mice: this production uses fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, updating this story for a modern audience.
What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella, op. 87. Prokofiev started work on this ballet in 1940, but WWII interrupted his work. Finished in the Ural Mountains in 1944 (in the company of a group of Kirov dancers who had been evacuated from Leningrad), this ballet is structured like a traditional classical ballet and contains themes for each of the main characters.
What Should I Look For? Although technically the story of Cinderella and her Prince, this ballet is chock-full of secondary characters worth a second look. Particularly keep an eye out for the tree, which in this version replaces the fairy godmother, and for Cinderella’s “evil” stepsister Clementine and the Prince’s BFF Benjamin.
What Am I Seeing? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine was his first original full-length ballet and was quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Balanchine loved the original play—he could recite large parts of it in Russian—so the ballet sticks close to its inspiration, telling the story of four lost lovers in the woods, as well as of a royal fairy court made up of Queen Titania, King Oberon, and mischievous Puck. The narrative lends itself to a wealth of principal and soloist parts and gives ample opportunities for dancers to take on featured roles.
What Am I Hearing? Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, interspersed with several of his other works. The overture was written when Mendelssohn was just 17, but the rest was composed 16 years later. The most famous part of the score is probably the Wedding March, which has had a life of its own ever since Princess Victoria used it for her 1858 wedding. But the score is full of delights beyond this familiar tune. In particular, it contains several vocal numbers, so audiences will get to hear live singers in the Opera House—always a treat!
What Should I Look For? Beyond the mischief caused by the fairies (and do note Balanchine’s comedic timing), this ballet is really about love. But even once everyone is appropriately paired off, none of these characters seem to have the perfect relationship. That’s left for two unnamed characters who appear in the second act’s “Divertissement” pas de deux. In this pas de deux—one of Balanchine’s most beautiful—you see a meditation on what perfect, pure, divine love might look like, something seemingly out of reach even for these fairytale creatures.
What Am I Seeing? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story—two households, both alike, fair Verona etc—routinely brings the audience to tears.
What am I hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, op. 64. Written in 1935, this is truly one of the most celebrated scores in all of the ballet repertory. But that wasn’t always the case. Prokofiev wrote this as his first piece upon his return to the Soviet Union, and he soon learned just how hazardous that decision could be. It wasn’t actually performed until 1940 and by that point is was heavily altered (read: censored). The biggest change? Prokofiev’s original happy ending for the young lovers was replaced by the more traditional tragic finale. You can read more about this score’s convoluted history in this New York Timesarticle from 2018.
What should I look for? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are.
George Balanchine’s Jewels will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances April 15–21.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? George Balanchine’s 1967 evening-length masterpiece, inspired by displays at New York City jeweler Van Cleef and Arpels, is made up of three separate ballets—Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. It both plays with those gemstones as inspiration, as well as explores ballet style in France, the United States, and Russia.
Who it’s for: Anyone who enjoys breakfast at Tiffany’s (or Van Cleef and Arpels), travel to Paris, New York, or Saint Petersburg, or can’t resist a bit of sparkle.
What Am I Seeing? Emeralds, a forest green meditation in long, Romantic-style skirts, draws its audience into a kind of self-contained world. Influenced by the French style of ballet—decorous, restrained, pristine—this ballet is the most reserved of the three, evoking a dreamy, underwater mood.
What Am I Hearing? Excerpts from Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisandeand Shylock. Perhaps best known for being Maurice Ravel’s teacher, Fauré’s work inspired many of the musical trends of the early 20th century.
What Should I Look For? First, look for the “bracelet” solo, which happens about seven minutes in. It begins with a series of arm and wrist gestures, as if she’s wearing a bracelet. It should seem as if the dancer’s arm moves her, rather than that she moves her arm. And keep an eye out for the two pas de deux: one in which the ballerina enters at a stately walk with her partner, hands touching, but never grasping; and one in which the ballerina’s opening passion and confusion is slowly, subtly tamed by her partner.
What Am I Seeing? The middle section of the evening, Rubies, is like Times Square at midnight: bright lights, rushing crowds, a touch of jazz, and just a hint of danger. A soloist woman—often, if not always cast as a very tall dancer—and a petite couple lead a corps de ballet of twelve in a ballet that revels in turned-in legs, jutting hips, and syncopated accents.
What Am I Hearing? Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, written in 1929. Though Balanchine and Stravinsky had a longstanding partnership, and Stravinsky wrote many ballets for Balanchine, this wasn’t one of them. And, ironically, though it’s come to be understood as the “American” section in the Jewels triptych, the piece was written well before Stravinsky moved to the United States.
What Should I Look For? Jazz! And bit of sass. Everything here should be bigger, faster, jazzier, sexier than Emeralds. It’s showing off a new kind of American dancer in contrast to the French Romanticism we just saw. The central pas de deux can catch you by surprise every time, with a kind of humor and playful sensuality. It should be expansive and then crisp, precarious, but self-assured.
What Am I Seeing? The final movement of the ballet, Diamonds, transports us to Imperial Russia. This ballet is Balanchine’s homage to the grand style of Marius Petipa, the father of classical ballet, using his sense of scale and amplitude. The central pas de deux, made for Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, almost seems like what Odette from Swan Lake might have danced were she were from the 20th century rather than the 19th.
What am I hearing? Four sections of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 3 in D major. It’s only fitting that Balanchine would choose Tchaikovsky for this evocation of Imperial Russia, as Petipa and Tchaikovsky together created some of the world’s most famous ballets.
What should I look for? The pas de deux is really the heart of Diamonds. Notice that while there’s an undercurrent of desire between the couple, the ballerina remains a bit distant, almost cold, unpossessable. Watch for the very end: it’s a moment of worship, of devotion to a brilliant, inaccessible diamond.
Hans Christian Andersen’s stories have been the basis of many ballets—George Balanchine’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Bronislava Nijinska’s The Ice Maiden, Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl, Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing, John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid—and of course the most famous ballet movie of all time, The Red Shoes. What is it about Andersen’s work that has inspired these creators? At least in part, it’s the way his fairy tales play with ideas often found in ballets: a man encounters a supernatural creature and they cannot overcome their differences.
This theme plays out, in a way, in his life as well: Andersen never married, but fell in love with both men and women throughout his life, none of whom seemed to return his affection. Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, who discovers he’s a swan; and The Little Mermaid, who transforms herself for love, also seem deeply autobiographical. These stories make rich fodder for an art form which is particularly suited to evoking emotional states and supernatural worlds.
Did you know that Andersen was also a fan of the ballet? He briefly attended the Royal Ballet School in Copenhagen and was friends with August Bournonville, the famous choreographer and artistic director. Bournonville even made a ballet out of his The Steadfast Tin Soldier in 1871. Though the ballet was only performed 14 times in Andersen’s life, he wrote in his diary that after its premiere, he “went up to the stage and thanked Bournonville. He, in turn, embraced me and asked if I could see a touch of my spirit in the ballet.” Today we see a touch of his spirit in all the ballets made of or about his work.
Join SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick, PhD to learn all about Program 2: Kaleidoscope. From George Balanchine’s classical Divertimento no. 15, to Benjamin Millepied’s romantic Appassionata, to Justin Peck’s contemporary Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, this program has something for everyone.