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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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.”
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.
British choreographer Cathy Marston drew from Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome to create a stunning character study of a doomed love triangle in a repressive New England winter. Here she discusses creating Snowblind for SF Ballet’s Unbound festival of new works. Snowblind is on Program 03 (In Space & Time) of SF Ballet’s 2019 Season, running Feb 14–24.
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.