Elizabeth Mateer, Corps de Ballet

Elizabeth Mateer, in her third season as a member of the corps de ballet, reflects on the roles she has enjoyed performing. She describes her preparation for a professional career from training in a small setting to the intense experience at the School of American Ballet, and then her seven years as part of Pennsylvania Ballet. She recalls the excitement of learning the new works for the 2018 Unbound Festival, and she describes the important effects of the festival going forward.

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Header image: SF Ballet in Possokhov’s “…two united in a single soul…”  // © Erik Tomasson

Clare Croft, SF Ballet’s 2019 Visiting Scholar, on American Ballet

Join SF Ballet’s 2019 Visiting Scholar Clare Croft, PhD for a talk on “What makes a ballet “American?”

Several works on Programs 5 and 6 beg the question, what makes a ballet “American?” Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall be a Great Poem draws its title from famous American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and McIntyre’s memories of his grandfather, a man he describes as “just so American.” On Program 6, Justin Peck re-imagines one of the most iconic of Americana ballet’s, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes—with the open, expansive sound of Aaron Copland’s music. In our contemporary moment, what—and who—is American is a polarizing, too often violent debate. How might ballet help us imagine “American” as an identity that can be reimagined and inhabited by many?

Like what you heard? Subscribe to our Meet the Artist podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Play to access archived episodes and have new ones delivered straight to your devices!

Header image: Isabella DeVivo and Steven Morse in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

The curtain rises on Christopher Wheeldon’s new ballet, Bound To©to reveal the dancers mesmerized by their cellphones. For viewers the moment of recognition is instantaneous—we are bound to technology. In this ballet, Wheeldon comments on what happens to us when we’re tucked behind our screens. “It’s a false sense of safety because you’re not actually with someone; the screen is like a shield,” he says. When we let the world rush by unnoticed, “we’re not seeing the beauty in life.” On the flip side, he’s addressing what we can achieve when we’re together—when we see, acknowledge, and interact without any screens to shield us.

Wheeldon recognizes that he is as bound to technology as anyone else. “I read a really interesting article in The Atlantic about how teenage culture is changing,” he says, adding that when he was a kid, “you couldn’t wait to get out of the house to meet your friends and socialize.” No more. Last year, on vacation, he saw kids and their parents hunkered down with cell phones or iPads instead of talking to each other, and he realized that he wanted to make a ballet about “this lack of connectivity, the way that technology is shifting our instincts for community and social interaction,” he says. “It’s not like we’re at a point where we’re not relating to one another at all, but I think it’s definitely heading in a bit of a scary direction.”

To help him convey his ideas, Wheeldon chose music by British composer Keaton Henson. They had worked together on a project for Ballet Boyz, which paired choreographers and composers in a 14-day creative process. Wheeldon says Henson’s music has a “grounded, real, human aspect—I love that in his music there’s always a child laughing, or the birds, or traffic.” In the ballet, these sounds amplify the idea that while we’re busy texting or scrolling through social media pages, the sights and sounds of daily life are going on—and we don’t notice.

San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. (© Erik Tomasson)

The phones come and go in Bound To©, giving the ballet something of a narrative at times; the rest of the time, they’re metaphorical. At first, the phones dominate. Later, right before a pas de deux made on Principal Dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno, one of the dancers snatches Tan’s phone from her hand. “It’s like when you leave your cell phone somewhere and you don’t have it for 24 hours, and you go, ‘Oh, I remember this.’ It’s kind of a relief, in a way,” says Wheeldon. In the pas de deux, the dancers reconnect, hardly separating, as if they need to touch each other in as many ways as possible. “It’s the idea of literal human connection, the need for the warmth of skin and not just the icy-cold blue of a screen,” Wheeldon says. In rehearsals, he tells Tan and Di Lanno to “keep the energy easy so it’s intimate and placed. It’s at its best when it’s contained. You represent how much of the natural beauty we miss when we’re texting—all the beauty that’s been created for us to enjoy.”

In contrast, a dance for four women is filled with embraces, dependence, the love and longing of friendship. “If there’s going to be a subtitle about this dance,” Wheeldon tells the women, “it would be ‘Remember when we used to talk?’” Choreographing a port de bras—arms lifting and opening, the back arching—which the dancers do twice in succession, he says, “The first one is a reminder, and the second one is a full conversation.”

Much of the movement in Bound To© features resistance, groundedness, or manipulation of the body (one’s own or others’), all of which seem to represent both the theme and a visual aesthetic. The women do not wear pointe shoes. “There’s something free about the movement of the shoe,” Wheeldon says, “of the toes on pointe, but”—he hesitates for fear of being overly literal—“[the ballet addresses] a bit of a heavy subject, so the idea of weight in movement makes sense. The pointe shoe is something very special and quite inhuman, in a way. You put a woman in a pointe shoe and her physicality changes. That’s one of the things that’s so appealing and beautiful about ballet—they’re like gods up there. And I didn’t want this to be about gods; I wanted it to be about people.”

And he wants it to be about people who reveal their struggles and their humanity. Rehearsing a solo with dancer Lonnie Weeks, who is hunched on the floor, Wheeldon asks for more vulnerability: “Make it more protected, not just the arm over the head.” Weeks pulls his legs in, deepens his posture. Later, Wheeldon wants more risk: “After you break and fall forward, can you be a little bit braver about where you put your foot?” As Weeks whirls through an insanely fast sequence of chaînés (a series of turns on two feet), Wheeldon calls, “It should be manic—you should be busting out about now.” Imagery helps the dancers pinpoint the feeling of a moment or step. When the other dancers hold Weeks upside down, his body arched, Wheeldon says, referring to Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “It’s quite Gates of Hell.” To the quartet in a men’s dance, he says, “Make sure there’s a lot of breath through the body.”

Wheeldon’s people live in a world created by scenic and costume designer Jean-Marc Puissant, who has worked on many Wheeldon productions at The Royal Ballet and elsewhere. “He’s so willing to dare,” says the choreographer. “He doesn’t ever go for the obvious, and he often pushes me to work that way with him. It’s not always obvious to the audience what’s going into his work, and I enjoy that a lot. And I think for this piece it’ll be useful, because it marries two worlds. It opens with quite a literal statement about where we are and what we’re doing. By the same token, they’re dancing, so then it instantly becomes something a bit more poetic.”

As a choreographer, Wheeldon says he feels “like I’m in a constant state of evolution.” His work on Broadway and with contemporary companies like Ballet Boyz is part of that evolution, as is day-to-day life. “I’m very much a person who tries to live in the moment, so what I’m reading or listening to at this moment in time often ends up partly informing what I’m doing,” he says. “I saw the movie Detroit the other night, which was so hard to watch, but such a reflection, especially now, of the times we live in and the times we come from and how little we’ve learned.”

Enter the temptations and pressures of social media, inundating us with reminders of what Wheeldon calls this “very weird world we live in now.” Choreographing is, for him, a way to put his mind and energy into something productive. “One of the joys of being immersed in making a new work,” he says, “is that you really are immersed in it.”

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Header image: SF Ballet in Bound To© by Christopher Wheeldon // © Erik Tomasson

Composer Daria Novo on her Score for “…two united in a single soul…”

Can you describe the score you’ve created for this ballet?

Daria Novo: I took original Handel music and integrated it with electronics and my own music so that it sounds interesting and still like classical music. I experimented with different audio plug-ins, libraries, and sound effects to create “hybrid” style music. It was a challenge, frankly speaking, it was my first big project with so much production.

What was your process in creating this music?

DN: I had to create a demo very quickly so that Yuri could begin rehearsing. I took original Handel arias and played them with sample orchestra, simultaneously adding electronic elements. For some arias Yuri wanted to have more music, so I composed my own transitions and sections trying to fill out empty spots organically.

After I was done with the demo, I created a score for full orchestra. Since there are electronics, I had to figure out the simplest way to integrate those elements into live performance. I used software called Ableton Live to trigger audio playback (which will be playing together with the live orchestra) to create my own samples, which will be performed from the keyboards live from the pit. The process was complicated for me, but I did my best so that it would not be complicated for the musicians.

How much direction did Yuri Possokhov give you?

DN: Yuri knew what he wanted and was very clear. He explained all his ideas and described every movement. It was very helpful. There were some changes and revisions, but not a lot. I have never worked with a ballet before and I think I learned a lot from Yuri.

Did you have the myth of Narcissus in mind while creating the music?

DN: Definitely. My idea was to use a harpsichord as Narcissus’ main instrument in two different ways—acoustic sound from a real harpsichord and processed sound from a keyboard. Like reflection in a wrong mirror, something real and organic becomes artificial and heartless. Narcissus saw himself in a river and fell in love so deeply that died. I tried to use this contrast in music as well.

Have you worked in dance before? Are the priorities different in creating/arranging music for dance?

DN: I have never worked with dance before, but I always wanted to. I had to remember to keep in mind that dancers can only dance so long. I tried to make contrasting sections in long movements so that Yuri could change groups of dancers accordingly.

What would you like audience members to know about you and about the music, to better understand the piece?

DN: I have a very strong classical education and I began working with electronics only after I came to the USA about three years ago. Although I work almost in any genre (mobile games, films, orchestrations, vocal covers, choral music, etc.), I would say it is important for me to have this purity and harmony of classical music in my style. In other words, I want my music to sound beautiful and not too experimental or strange.

Daria Novo is a Russian composer, arranger, and orchestrator working mainly in scoring for films, animation and games, as well as music for theater. Her original arrangements for a cappella choir have a special place in her work.

Novo earned her master’s degree in choral conducting from the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory named after N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov in 2010. While studying at the Conservatory, she worked as a singer and arranger for the Saint Petersburg Concert Choir conducted by Vladimir Begletsov, where she composed her first program of arrangements entitled “Forbidden Songs” (2008). Since 2013, Novo has held the position of orchestrator in residence for the St. Petersburg Theater of Musical Comedy.

Novo has worked as an orchestrator alongside many famous Russian film composers such as Ivan Burlyaev (Prizrak, Attraction), Maksim Koshevarov (“Young Guard”), Dmitry Noskov (“Quackerz”), Michail Chertischev (“Barboskiny,” “Luntik”). She has composed music for puppet shows at “Stray Dog” Puppet Theater and Krasnodar Regional Puppet Theater.

Novo is the laureate of the Youth prize of St. Petersburg in the field of Art (2013). In 2017, she graduated from a Professional Study Diploma in Technology and Applied Composition at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Novo is currently working at San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a recording engineer and music composition teacher, composing music for mobile games, and continuing working with Russian theaters remotely.

Header photo: Daria Novo

Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem Program Notes


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by Cheryl A. Ossola

Trey McIntyre came to San Francisco Ballet knowing he would make a piece about his grandfather. What he didn’t know was how that idea would play out choreographically—but he always trusts his subconscious during the creative process. And when he finished his ballet, Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, he saw that it was about loss and remembrance, pain and happiness—a mind-meld of sorts between grandson and grandfather in a family from the American Great Plains.

San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson

The idea for this ballet, McIntyre’s second for the Company, began percolating when McIntyre’s father died a few years ago. Among the family photos was a 1920s portrait of his grandfather in a football uniform of high-waisted trousers and heavy boots. McIntyre, a photographer and filmmaker as well as a dancemaker, was intrigued. “My grandfather was a giant like me. I’m six-foot-six and he was six-three, but that was probably six-six for the 1920s,” he says, laughing. “Even though I never knew him, I always envisioned some life perspective that he and I might have shared.”

That’s the idea he brought with him to SF Ballet. Then came the solar eclipse, coinciding with the first day of rehearsals, which McIntyre thought was auspicious. “How I pictured it,” he says, “was the sun and the moon lining up, creating this portal through time—that I had this chance to be with my grandfather, to get to know him.” The portal idea led to the ballet’s structure of two solos, danced by the same man, bookending the “eclipse” section, which could be read as vignettes from the grandfather’s life. The solo man is the grandfather, but so are all the men, conceivably. For McIntyre, the eclipse is potent because he has begun to think that “all time is happening at once,” he says. “I always thought that was kind of woo-woo. But I thought of the piece in that way—[my grandfather’s] lifetime is happening all at once.”

Benjamin Freemantle in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson

Two aspects of his grandfather’s life give the ballet its emotional tone—death and dementia. “There is a picture I paint because he was an undertaker,” McIntyre says. “There’s a morbidity to living in a funeral home, in a way that resonates with me. I’m interested in the darkness of experience; I’m interested in the contrast of light and dark.” Images of death permeate the ballet, in lingering leave-takings, loving touches tinged by sadness.

The ballet’s ending, though, comes from a specific memory. McIntyre’s grandfather had dementia late in life, “and I remember one story of him walking around the neighborhood in his underwear,” the choreographer says. What he liked about the story was “thinking about life as reincarnation—going through life [from childhood], and in our old age returning to a childlike state,” he says. “Dementia underlines that even more because you lose the experience that you had. And so I wanted, especially in the final solo, to have it be my grandfather wandering around in his underwear and experiencing life in reverse.”

San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson

The ballet’s themes are both supported and belied by the music, songs by Chris Garneau from his album El Radio. Some of the rhythms are bouncy, the melodies catchy; others lament, “We left too soon,” or “It drags me down.” “I wanted something that had some quietness to it,” says McIntyre. “I like how varied and interesting the instrumentation is; it isn’t just a bunch of ballads.” With these songs as a soundtrack, he fills the ballet with buoyancy, playfulness, charm—yet somehow instills an undertone of loss. “You learn happiness because you have it in contrast to the sorrow that you’ve had,” he says. “I like having those elements all in play at once.”

Being a filmmaker has influenced McIntyre’s approach to transitions, and it has slowed him down. “There are probably more moments of quiet in this piece, and stillness, because of making film,” he says. He doesn’t mean pauses or inaction; the stillness is built into the steps. It’s an approach that accommodates introspection. McIntyre, imagining looking back at life after death, says “it would be pure empathy for every moment.” That’s how he imagines his grandfather would see this ballet. “You realize that life is just this big, amazing experience and that the pain was just as valuable as the joy.”


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Header image: Isabella DeVivo and Steven Morse in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson

Trey McIntyre On Creating Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem

Choreographer Trey McIntyre talks about creating his ballet Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem—and how a lunar eclipse affected his work. Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, created for SF Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival, returns in SF Ballet’s 2019 Season as part of Lyric Voices (March 27 to April 7, 2019).

 

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Header photo: Trey McIntyre rehearsing Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. // © Erik Tomasson

Your Ultimate Guide to Lyric Voices


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What is it? Ballet is an art form without words. Usually. But in Lyric Voices, three choreographers—Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon, and Yuri Possokhov—work with song and text to show how blending dance, music, and lyrics can produce something spectacular.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves memoirs, is too attached to their phone, or has a soft spot for Greek mythology.

YOUR FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM

San Francisco Ballet in McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem //© Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Standing six feet six inches tall, choreographer Trey McIntyre has a rare perspective on the world. But it’s one he may have shared with his also-very-tall grandfather. In Your Flesh Shall Be A Great Poem, McIntyre imagines what it might be like to see through his grandfather’s eyes. The ballet imagines a portal into his grandfather’s life. Unexpectedly moving, this dance merges quirky, playful gestures with moments of stillness and introspection.

What am I hearing? Tracks from singer-songwriter Chris Garneau’s album El Radio. McIntyre is known for working with pop music, including The Shins, Amy Winehouse, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

What should I look for? Look for the piece’s episodic structure. What might these individual encounters represent? And look for the central figure whose solos open and close the work, lending it an emotional through-line.

BOUND TO

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Bound To // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? When’s the last time you rode Caltrain and looked out the window rather than scrolling Instagram? Or left your phone at home and totally unplugged for the day? Bound To© by Christopher Wheeldon starts with these questions. It explores the loneliness and disconnection that our constant state of digital engagement can cause. This is tech-influenced ballet for a tech-obsessed city.

What am I hearing? A collection of works by singer-songwriter Keaton Henson. The ballet’s score blends Henson’s classical music with one of his final vocal racks.

What should I look for? Look for the way dancing with cellphones changes the dancers’ movements. Ballet is usually about connection, either between the dancers on stage or the dancers and their audience. But here, they are inwardly oriented. They fixate on technology in ways that change the line of their heads and necks. And notice how when the dancers’ movements become more expansive when they lose their phones.

“…two united in a single soul…”

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Possokhov’s “. . . two united in a single soul . . .” // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? A world premiere by SF Ballet choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov based on the myth of Narcissus. Possokhov is the choreographer of dramatic, sensual, and evocative ballets like The Rite of Spring, Raku, and Swimmer. Here, he blends Greek myth, Baroque music, and classical ballet to create a visual spectacle worthy of its inspiration. If you loved the excitement of last year’s Unbound festival, you won’t want to miss this new work.

What am I hearing? A variety of George Frideric Handel arias as arranged by Russian composer Daria Novo. The selected arias were written for castrati—men who were castrated young to preserve their high voices—and now sung by countertenors. You’ll see a countertenor onstage with the dancers, adding another dimension to this elaborate work.

What should I look for Notice the mirror imagery that appears throughout the ballet. The myth of Narcissus is about a man who falls in love with his own reflection in a lake. Unable to tear himself away, is transformed into a flower. Notice too the way Possokhov pulls many different kinds of production elements together. He’s known for working with many different art forms and this ballet is no exception.

Header image: SF Ballet in Wheeldon’s Bound To // © Erik Tomasson


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To the Pointe: Lyric Voices

SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick, PhD dives deep into Program 05: Lyric Voices. Learn about Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To©, and Yuri Possokhov’s “…two united in a single soul…” and find out what to look for in these ballets!

Header image: Dores André and Benjamin Freemantle in Wheeldon’s Bound To © // Photo © Erik Tomasson