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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Join Associate Director of Audience Development, Jennie Scholick, PhD for an exploration of the ballets on Program 2: Classical (Re)Vision. Hear from choreographer Stanton Welch and find out what to look for in his Bespoke, the rotating Director’s Choice ballets, and Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet.
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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 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.’”
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 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.
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.
Magical is how Tomasson describes his vision for this new Nutcracker, an idea he took into planning sessions with set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume and lighting designers Martin Pakledinaz and James Ingalls. “I wanted a production that not only transports children, but also adults into a realm of the magical and the fantastical,” he says.
Tomasson decided that the best place to set his production was early 20th-century San Francisco. Not only would that make the production unique, but it would also be a tribute to the city. “The first American production of Nutcracker was staged by San Francisco Ballet in 1944 so it seemed fitting to place it here,” the choreographer says.
From the beginning of the planning process, when Helgi Tomasson chose a creative team of set, costume, and lighting designers, he knew that he wanted this production to be one that San Francisco audiences would identify with. “Placing the production in Germany no longer worked for me,” he says. “For this city, the people who live in San Francisco, there is no identification with mid-nineteenth century Germany. That’s an old European idea.”
Tomasson and his creative team had strong ideas about the first act of Nutcracker. Conducting historical research on San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, Yeargan was able to recreate a street scene approaching the Stahlbaums’ house, “with wonderful Victorian steps leading up to the front door, wreaths and candles in the windows,” he says.
Even the Stahlbaums’ stylized drawing room with its Victorian staircase and huge bay window in the back was based on photographs and books published during the time period.
With new choreography and scenery, 172 costumes, a cast of more than 73 company members and 91 School students, this Nutcracker is the largest production that San Francisco Ballet has ever undertaken.
Tomasson’s other source of inspiration for his Nutcracker was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, and San Francisco’s re-emergence post-earthquake. The pavilions at the Exposition, full of exotic exhibits and people from all over the world and the international dances of Act II connected for Tomasson.
For Tomasson, the idea of a Clara transported to “Sugarland” as he calls past productions of Act II, never worked for him. “No one seems to know where Sugarland is,” he says, laughing. “Why can’t Clara imagine that her fantasy is taking place in her own city in one of those incredible pavilions?
“Looking at photographs of the Exposition, it must have been incredible,” says Tomasson. “I thought, ‘Why not use the concept of the beautiful international pavilions—in a loose way, of course—to suggest the time period in Act II?’”
One of the last issues that Tomasson tackled was the ending of Nutcracker. In the Company’s past productions, the ballet ends with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince flying away in a golden swan boat. In this new production, Tomasson felt strongly about creating a greater sense of resolution—having the ballet return to the Stahlbaum’s home, where the audience discovers Clara just awakened in the drawing room, and it’s Christmas morning.
Erik Tomasson has been San Francisco Ballet’s photographer since 2004. Through photographing multiple performances of Nutcracker each year, he has developed a deep familiarity with the production. These images, shot by Tomasson from the wings, offer a rare look behind the scenes of this holiday classic.
Ricardo Bustamante backstage as Drosselmeyer
An SF Ballet Student as Clara onstage during the battle scene
Snowflakes waiting for their entrance
The Snow Queen and King rehearsing a lift before their entrance
Jennifer Stahl waits for her entrance as the Sugar Plum Fairy while butterflies dance
Mother Ginger’s Buffoons’ joyous dance
Sofiane Sylve as the Sugar Plum Fairy during the Waltz of the Flowers
Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances May 1–10.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994 to Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic score, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story routinely brings the audience to tears.
In short:Fair Verona. Teenagers in love. Balconies, crypts, and tragic ends.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves high drama, cinematic music, or a good tearjerker.
What Will I See?A classicist at heart, Tomasson hews close to the classic tale in his Romeo & Juliet…
The Plot: Romeo & Juliet is fundamentally a story of two feuding families, not just two lovers, so first, we meet them in the main piazza of Verona. The Montague crew are represented by Romeo, his two best buds, Mercutio and Benvolio, and his crush-of-the-moment, Rosaline. The Capulets are headed up by Tybalt and friends. Boys being boys, they get in a fight that’s quickly shut down by the Prince of Verona.
Meanwhile, Juliet Capulet is back at the Capulet house, staying generally out of trouble with her Nurse. That is, until her parents show up with a total stranger named Paris, who happens to be a count and interested in marrying her. Juliet, romantic teenager that she is, isn’t that into this idea.
A party, thrown by her parents, gets her out of her funk—especially once she sets eyes on Romeo, who manages to sneak in (masquerade balls are good for this kind of teenage prank). Teenage hormones are flying and the two are instantly enamored. Romeo showing up under her balcony later that night is like the original Say Anything boombox scene.
What Should I Look For? The first act of the ballet puts all the characters on stage, so you’ll want to look for the way that their dancing expresses who they are. This is a 20th-century ballet, so that character exposition happens in movement, not mime. That said, the real showstopper in this act is the balcony scene, set to some of the most romantic music in the ballet canon. Though full of difficult lifts and turns, this pas de deux’s emotional intensity builds organically, until it culminates in Romeo and Juliet’s first passionate kiss.
The Plot: We’ve already discussed those teenage hormones, right? Well, Act II is where we really see them in action. Juliet and Romeo decide that secretly dating someone their parents truly hate isn’t enough, they’re going to go all in and get married. With help from her Nurse and a Friar who really doesn’t ask enough questions about minors entering into a holy matrimony, Juliet and Romeo become man and wife.
It’s not long though before things start to go sideways: Tybalt and Mercutio get into it again and despite Romeo’s best efforts, Tybalt kills Mercutio. Then Romeo kills Tybalt. Not only is killing your wife’s favorite cousin generally a bad idea, but to make matters worse, the Prince of Verona—truly fed up now—banishes Romeo from the city.
What Should I Look For? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet, and they’re on real display in this act. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are. On a lighter note, also keep an eye out for the three acrobats—often a chance for younger soloists to show off. Particularly look for the moment when the two male acrobats work together to toss their female companion in the air, almost like she’s on a trampoline!
The Plot: Act III opens with Romeo and Juliet waking up from their first night together—exile wasn’t going to keep them from consummating the marriage! But Romeo does have to sneak out before the Capulets show up in Juliet’s bedroom with Paris. When she refuses to marry him, her parents threaten to disown her.
Juliet returns to Friar Laurence, who yet again does not seem to really understand his role as the adult in this situation. Instead of telling her to go ‘fess up to her parents and figure out her life, he gives her a potion to drink that will make her appear dead. The plan, such as it is, is that he’ll let Romeo know that Juliet’s alive, just hanging out in her family crypt for the night, and then they can leave Verona together.
Spoiler alert: this plan fails miserably. Romeo never gets that really key bit of information about her actually being alive, and so he returns to Verona distraught. He sneaks into the crypt where he finds Paris still mourning. They fight and he mortally wounds Paris. Then Romeo drinks poison and dies. Juliet wakes up and finds herself next to her dead Romeo. She stabs herself.
The only upside? Brought together by their children’s deaths, the Capulets and Montagues end their deadly feud.
What Should I Look for? Notice how the pas de deux in Juliet’s bedroom reprises some of the musical and choreographic phrases from the earlier balcony pas de deux, creating a sense of cohesion and arc. Also, of course, watch for the end, when Romeo and Juliet each make the decision that it’s better not to live at all than to live without one another. Even without words, their thoughts and intentions are as clear as Shakespeare’s verse.
Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet will be performed on tour at the Royal Danish Opera House in Copenhagen from October 30 to November 2, 2019. Romeo & Juliet will also be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season in San Francisco, on Program 08, which runs May 1 to 10, 2020.
SCENE I: A Public Square
Verona’s main piazza comes alive with merchants and townspeople, including members of the Montague and Capulet families, who have been involved in a longstanding feud. Among the crowd are Romeo, son of Montague, futilely pursuing the fair Rosaline; Mercutio and Benvolio, friends of Romeo; and Tybalt, nephew of Capulet. A fight erupts between friends and members of the two houses, and only an order by the Prince of Verona restores the peace.
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
SCENES II–V: The House of Capulet
Juliet, the young daughter of Capulet, is in a frolicsome mood with her Nurse until Lord and Lady Capulet arrive with Paris, a count, who asks the reluctant girl for her hand in marriage. That evening, Juliet attends a ball given by her parents. Among the guests is the uninvited Romeo. Juliet and Romeo discover each other, and there is an instant attraction.
Juliet: My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathèd enemy.
SCENE VI: The Balcony
A restless Juliet wanders out onto her balcony. To her unexpected delight, Romeo appears below. They declare their love for each other in a romantic pas de deux.
Romeo: With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do, that dares love attempt.
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.
SCENE I: A Public Square
Juliet’s Nurse comes in search of Romeo with a note from his beloved. He is to meet her at the chapel of Friar Laurence, who will perform the wedding ceremony.
Romeo: Then plainly know my heart’s dear love is set
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet.
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine…
SCENE II: Friar Laurence’s Chapel
Romeo and Juliet are married in secret by Friar Laurence.
Friar Lawrence: So smile the heavens upon this holy act…
SCENE III: A Public Square
Tybalt emerges from the crowd and draws his sword at Mercutio, who retaliates. Romeo tries to put a halt to their swordplay. But a duel ensues, and Tybalt kills Mercutio. An enraged Romeo exacts revenge for his friend’s death, fatally stabbing Tybalt. The Prince forever banishes Romeo from Verona.
Benvolio: And if we meet we shall not ’scape a brawl,
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
SCENE I: Juliet’s Bedroom
The newlyweds awaken and express their love and their fears in a passionate pas de deux. Romeo takes his leave. The Capulets arrive with Paris, and Juliet informs them that she will not marry him. Juliet’s parents threaten to disown her.
Romeo: More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!
SCENE II: Friar Laurence’s Chapel
A distraught Juliet implores Friar Laurence to help her. He gives her a potion to drink that will induce a sleep so deep that she will appear to be dead. Friar Laurence will get word to Romeo that Juliet is still alive. Romeo will come for her, and they will flee Verona together.
Juliet: Come weep with me, past hope, past cure, past help.
SCENE III: Juliet’s Bedroom
Juliet agrees to marry Paris. Later that night she drinks the potion. In the morning, Juliet’s friends arrive to celebrate her wedding. But no one can arouse her from her sleep, and all believe she is dead.
Juliet: What if this mixture do not work at all?
Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?
SCENE IV: Outside Verona
As word of Juliet’s death begins to spread, Friar Laurence dispatches a messenger to Romeo with the news that Juliet is, in fact, alive. But word fails to reach him, and Romeo decides to return to Verona to die beside his beloved.
Romeo: How fares my Juliet?
SCENE V: The Capulet Tomb
Juliet is buried. After the mourners have gone Romeo enters the crypt and finds Paris already there. The two men fight, and Paris is mortally wounded. Romeo then drinks poison and dies. Juliet awakens from her sleep and discovers Romeo’s body. Heartbroken, she stabs herself and dies.
Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. It will be performed as part of Program 05, Ballet Accelerator, running March 24, 25, 27, and 29; and April 2 and 4. .
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
“Bach is timeless,” says San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director & Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, referring to the music for 7 for Eight, an elegant, black-on-black construction. For many, including Tomasson, Johann Sebastian Bach represents the pinnacle of baroque music; consequently, choreographing to his music was a daunting prospect. And George Balanchine had set the bar high in perfectly melding dance and Bach’s music when he made Concerto Barocco in 1941. That precedent could have intimidated Tomasson, but instead he focused on what Balanchine once told him: “You have to love the music—that’s half the battle.”
And Tomasson does indeed love the music for 7 for Eight, even though “it’s so pure that it was a challenge [to work with]; it doesn’t need anything from me,” he says. At first he heard music that’s “very mathematical and beautiful,” he says. “But once I got into the studio, I started finding a lot of emotion in it. You get ideas. Maybe that is a combination of really knowing the music and having the dancers in the studio.”
What Tomasson chose for 7 for Eight were portions of four keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, when “keyboard” meant the harpsichord, which until then had not been featured in concerto form. He substituted the more dynamically versatile piano for the harpsichord for most of the ballet, keeping the harpsichord for one section to “make the connection back to the baroque. I want audiences to hear how these concertos were played.” Acknowledging that the piece is musically distinctive, Tomasson increased the contrast, distinguishing it choreographically as well by making it a male solo.
In designing 7 for Eight, Costume Designer Sandra Woodall and Lighting Designer David Finn chose a spare but sculpted design — “a little freshness, but also that classical look,” says Woodall. The ballet’s emotional core led them to their black-on-black, light-and-shadow design concept. “I think Helgi relies on a sense of the music and what he likes about it,” Finn says. “There’s a lot about partnership, about relationships. It’s elegant and formal, but there’s this underlying turmoil that’s very modern.”