Reconsidering Mrs. Robinson

by Caitlin Sims

Choreographer Cathy Marston was reminded of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate—on which the 1967 film is based—while browsing in a bookstore in the summer of 2018. Her ballet Snowblind had recently premiered at San Francisco Ballet and her mind quickly flitted to dancers who could embody the central characters of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin. Glancing at the book jacket, she learned that the book had been written in San Francisco, and something clicked. “I immediately thought—this is it,” says Marston. “This is the piece that I need to make for San Francisco Ballet.” 

Marston has become known for her skill in re-envisioning literary works through dance; in addition to her Jane Eyre, which premiered at Northern Ballet in 2016, she’s drawn inspiration from Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities,Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dangerous Liaisons, Lolita, and, for SF Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival, Ethan Frome. In choosing source material, she is often drawn to complex female protagonists such as Mrs. Robinson. “I like characters that aren’t straightforward,” she says. “I like stories where you can’t say who’s the good one and who’s the bad one, who’s guilty and who’s innocent.”

Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Dores André and Lonnie Weeks rehearsing as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

The character of Mrs. Robinson is so embedded in American pop culture that calling someone a “Mrs. Robinson” conjures an immediate mental picture: a sophisticated, cool, calculating older woman who seduces a younger man. But who really is Mrs. Robinson? “In the film, Anne Bancroft is impenetrable,” says Marston. “And that’s genius, because it means you project your own feelings onto hers. I suppose that was the inspiration for the ballet. I wanted to get underneath the surface and find out why Mrs. Robinson is as she is, why she does the things that she does, and make specific choices based on those answers.”

The characters of The Graduate walk a tightrope between the buttoned-up world of post-war American values and a just-emerging youth counterculture. In researching America in the 1960s, Marston realized that Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique was written the same year as The Graduate. Friedan’s watershed book introduced “the problem that has no name”—the widespread unhappiness of housewives expected to focus exclusively on cultivating domestic perfection. That Mrs. Robinson herself has no name other than her husband’s was not lost on Marston, and the correlation of the timing of the publication of the two books gave her an idea. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to rehabilitate Mrs. Robinson, so her destiny is not one of the lonely alcoholic? To give her a chance to have a new life, like some of the women of that era went on to find?”

Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle rehearse as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's new work // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearses Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson


Marston has a tried-and-true method of creating narrative works, one that involves significant planning long before she arrives in the studio to work with dancers. Since 2002, she has worked with dramaturg Edward Kemp, director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to map out the stories she creates onstage. It’s a rare collaboration in the dance field. “When I met Ed, he had systems that you don’t learn about in dance, in terms of structures, hooks, and just a sense of pacing and timing,” says Marston.

In reconsidering Mrs. Robinson, Marston and Kemp went through scenes step by step to anchor the story in her perspective. In the film, “the camera follows Benjamin very, very effectively,” Marston notes dryly. In the ballet, “we’ve tried to follow Mrs. Robinson. What does she want? Need? How does she feel? Where does she want to go?”

When she came to SF Ballet’s studios last summer, Marston worked on the nuances of each character with the dancers, coloring in the details within the overarching scaffolding. She set the characters of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson on three different pairs of dancers, embracing the distinct interpretations they brought to the characters. “They’ve all got such interesting ways to bring emotion, physicality, and themselves to the roles,” she says. “I want to celebrate that. I don’t want to make them the same.”

Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Steven Morse rehearsing the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson  // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson


In reframing the story, it was important to Marston to give Mrs. Robinson some sense of agency. When viewed through Mrs. Robinson’s eyes, the story “becomes much more about a woman who’s trapped in a situation that she didn’t plan,” says Marston. “We know that she got pregnant as a student. Like so many women at that time, she fell into a life that is not what she imagined and not what satisfies her.” In a final duet with his wife, Mr. Robinson puts his arms in a circle, a protective gesture that creates a symbolic shelter. Mrs. Robinson goes under the circle, explores it, then emerges, closing his arms gently but firmly, leaving him and the protection the marriage has provided.

The film The Graduate is also, of course, known for the iconic song Mrs. Robinson, written for the film by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Because she was shifting perspectives, Marston asked composer Terry Davis to create a new score. “I was after music that was not as much about youth culture as about a woman who is in middle age,” says Marston. Davis incorporated saxophone and guitar into two distinct voices: the saxophone—with a sultry, late-night sound that references an earlier era—represents Mrs. Robinson, while the guitar adds a sense of the simmering counterculture.

In addition to the central characters, Marston enlists a corps de ballet of women, who move with the crisp efficiency of ideal mid-century femininity—and express the crippling impact of maintaining it. As the piece unfolds, the domestic goddesses are swept into the feminist movement in waves. Does Mrs. Robinson join them? Marston demurs. “I like that the film is ambiguous at the end,” she says. “And I’d quite like to echo that and leave it up to the audience as to the destiny of Mrs. Robinson.”

Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson is part of Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 4.

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Header image: Mathilde Froustey in Marston’s Mrs. Robinson // © Erik Tomasson

About Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

The heart of the old, the spirit of the new. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella tells the same uplifting story people have heard for centuries, but this is a ballet full of innovations and modern twists. A co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, then flew across the Atlantic to make its US premiere in San Francisco in 2013.

“Each of Christopher’s works has something unique,” says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer. Wheeldon is an acclaimed dancemaker, in demand at companies worldwide. Formerly a resident choreographer at New York City Ballet and now an artistic associate at The Royal Ballet, he caused a sensation on Broadway with the musical An American in Paris, for which he won the Tony Award for choreography. And he’s a frequent presence at SF Ballet, with 14 works in the repertory. Cinderella was his eighth commission and first full-length story ballet for the Company.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Chris Hardy

Tomasson’s words about originality ring true in Wheeldon’s Cinderella. You’ll find no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach, no clock striking midnight—but you won’t miss them a bit when a tree comes alive and “dances,” or when Cinderella shows backbone and her Prince’s charm runs deep. And you won’t miss them when the dancing and the storytelling come from Christopher Wheeldon. “What I wanted to do,” the choreographer says, “was echo the darkness in the music by taking some of the themes from the Brothers Grimm version rather than the [Charles] Perrault version,” with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach. “The Grimm version is more serious and a bit darker, centered around nature and the spirit of mother.” That’s where he got the idea of a tree that grows from the grave of Cinderella’s mother, “the deliverer of all things magic, which I think is more poetic [than a fairy godmother] and quite beautiful,” he says. “There are comic moments because there’s comedy written into the music, but it’s a more serious Cinderella in a way.”

That music, written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1940 but shelved for several years during World War II, made its first appearance when Bolshoi Ballet premiered Cinderella in November 1945, choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov. “I love it,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West about the score. “It’s immediately striking, and astonishingly clever the way the themes come around, the way he could create an atmosphere out of something very simple.” Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, West says, “came from the heart, but Cinderella is more cerebral. It takes longer to get into, but once you’ve lived with it, it starts to eat at you. Some of it is so beautiful.”

Dores André and Carlo Di Lanno in in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

As a ballet, Cinderella has a lengthy pedigree. It debuted in St. Petersburg in 1893, choreographed by Marius Petipa with Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, famous “fathers” of classical ballet. (This was when ballerina Pierina Legnani first whipped out an unheard-of 32 consecutive fouettés—pirouettes in which one leg repeatedly extends and whips in, foot to knee—a feat that is now a standard of virtuosity.) The West had to wait until 1938 to see a Cinderella, and when the chance came it was Michel Fokine’s one-act version in London, which added the role of Cinderella’s cat. In 1948, Sir Frederick Ashton made a Cinderella for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London, and it was the first English full-length ballet done in the tradition of the 19th-century classics. He based it on the Perrault fairy tale and used the Prokofiev score. Ashton revived an old tradition by casting men—including himself—as the Ugly Sisters. Margot Fonteyn, his choice for Cinderella, was injured during rehearsals, and so it was Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes fame who created the title role.

Ashton’s Cinderella was followed by an onslaught of productions. Among them, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos made Cinderella for American Ballet Theatre in 1984; like Fokine’s, it included Cinderella’s Cat. Baryshnikov had never danced this ballet in Russia; it was the music that enticed him to create his own. Rudolf Nureyev, in his 1986 production for Paris Opera Ballet, set the ballet in Hollywood and gave the beleaguered Cinderella an alcoholic father. And in SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov’s 2006 production for Bolshoi Ballet, the Storyteller (Prokofiev himself) replaces the Fairy Godmother.

Paula Tracy in Christensen and Smuin’s Cinderella in 1973 // © San Francisco Ballet, Courtesy Museum of Performance + Design SF

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella isn’t the first to find a home at SF Ballet—that honor goes to a production by Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin, then co-artistic directors, in 1973. Wheeldon’s version, with all the technological advantages of the 21st century, began percolating when he and Tomasson discussed ideas for a new full-length ballet to be co-produced with Dutch National Ballet. As Wheeldon soon found, creating a production on two continents simultaneously isn’t easy. “It was my crazy idea,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ll do some of it here and some of it there, and we’ll make it work.’” Several Dutch National Ballet principal dancers rehearsed in San Francisco for a few weeks in 2012, and several from SF Ballet went to Amsterdam; that way the choreography could be created on both companies at once. “It promotes a nice cultural exchange,” says Wheeldon, “but it has its pluses and minuses. One dancer hasn’t necessarily followed it through from beginning to end. On the other hand, more people have had the benefit of being created on.”

Listen to an interview of Cinderella choreographer Christopher Wheeldon at the time of Cinderella‘s premiere in San Francisco in 2013.

In creating a world for his characters to inhabit, Wheeldon assembled an artistic team with imaginations as big as his own. Step one was brainstorming with playwright and librettist Craig Lucas, who describes the early stages of Cinderella as “a constant back and forth, teasing out a shared understanding of what is exciting about the story. [We wanted] to burrow into possibilities we had never seen explored.” These included a substitute for the Fairy Godmother—an essential element, according to Wheeldon. “We all toy with the idea that loved ones are always watching over us in some way,” he says. He and Lucas settled on the tree that grows when Cinderella cries over her mother’s grave—in effect, a character, “a living thing that could embrace the action,” says Lucas—and four Fates who offer guidance and protection.

Yuan Yuan Tan as Cinderella with the four Fates in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon also knew he wanted his Cinderella to be in charge of her destiny. Yes, she’s a servant in her own home, but “she knows she doesn’t have to be there forever,” he says. “It is good versus evil; it is that if you’re a good person things can come out right. But it’s not saying if you’re meek or subservient you’ll be rewarded.” Cinderella gains some of her strength from the four Spirits (seasonal fairies in Prokofiev’s score), who, while teaching her to dance, imbue her with such gifts as elegance and lightness of being. The steps she learns form the basis of her solo at the Prince’s ball.

Cinderella’s Prince, too, is more complex than in traditional versions—more than “just a handsome mug,” Wheeldon says. He and Lucas gave the Prince a childhood—and a servant who happens to be his best friend. In a classic mistaken-identity plot device, the Prince masquerades as the servant, so “the Prince sees who Cinderella really is,” says Lucas. “She isn’t reacting to someone’s status; she is treating him [respectfully] as she would the lowliest person, something he isn’t used to experiencing. He has no idea that Cinderella is also hiding her identity.”

Joseph Walsh as Prince Guillaume in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

But what’s a story without a setting? Wheeldon chose Julian Crouch to do the sets and costumes because of his “very fantastical approach to design. He always seems to embrace the darker side of the fairy tales he’s done,” he says. Crouch had designed for theater, opera, and musicals, but ballet was a new world for him. And he discovered that “it needs to be fluid. I think this Cinderella˝ is more fluid than the traditional,” he says. “It moves scene to scene more rapidly; it has more locations. So for me it’s been an exercise in suggestion, really—I’ve had to suggest a location and support the atmosphere and then move fluidly to the next one.” As for the costumes, he says there’s “a looseness about them. Fairy tales are ‘once upon a time,’ not ‘once upon 1870.’” The period is the 1800s “but spread over the century,” he says. “Each character is allowed to drift a bit in time. I’d say it’s timeless; in that sense it has a fluidity as well.”

Crouch describes his design method as “like a purifying process.” Set designs come before those for costumes, and he starts by collecting images that spark his imagination. “You collect these things and they become the beginning of a conversation, with yourself, but also with the people you’re collaborating with.” The images lead to ideas, which then develop into a design concept.

Birds are some of the fanciful creatures in Wheeldon’s Cinderella; pictured SF Ballet //
© Erik Tomasson

One of Crouch’s collaborators is award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, whose primary role with Cinderella˝ was to make the tree be more than scenery—a character that would, in effect, dance. The mechanics aren’t that difficult, he says; it’s just like moving any piece of scenery. But then “you get to the moment when you’re choreographing for the tree, to the music, and you’re saying, ‘Now it makes this shape; now it’s that shape.’ You feel the tree as you would a dancer. That’s when it comes alive.”

Twist has done many productions involving dance and music, and his work spans continents. (His Obie Award–winning Symphonie Fantastique, an underwater puppetry and art extravaganza set to Hector Berlioz’ score, caught Wheeldon’s eye.) But of everything Basil has created, what holds particular meaning for him is the tree in Cinderella. “This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he says. “And the tree growing onstage—it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” So he’s thrilled, he says, to be “doing my own tree on the same stage.”

The tree in Wheeldon’s Cinderella just before her transformation for the ball. San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella //
© Erik Tomasson

The tree’s foliage and movements are enhanced by projections — not in a major way, Couch says, but to “support the atmosphere, like the lighting does.” And lighting is where Natasha Katz comes in. To her, this ballet is “about transitions. Cinderella has moments of revelation and transition, and they’re all tapered to a place of joy.” What that means in terms of lighting, she says, is that “you can’t have light without darkness. The lighting really is the chiaroscuro of emotion. We’re going to have darkness when it’s emotionally dark, and we’re going to have joy when we’re supposed to have joy. And that is light and fluffy and beautiful and fun.” What’s most exciting about this Cinderella, says Katz, “is that it’s completely new, that we all started from the same place together.” She wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed of being Cinderella—but if she had been, she says, “this is the one I would have dreamed about.”

Listen to an interview with Music Director Martin West and pianist Michael McGraw on Prokofiev’s melodic, atmospheric score for Cinderella.

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Header image: Yuan Yuan Tan in Wheeldon’s Cinderella // © Erik Tomasson

*Cinderella© by Christopher Wheeldon

About Stanton Welch’s Bespoke

Stanton Welch’s Bespoke will be performed in SF Ballet’s 2020 Season. Bespoke is part of Program 02, Classical (Re)Vision, which runs Feb 11–22, 2020.

Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola

In Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, expressions of love and gestures of caring abound. This piece, his sixth for San Francisco Ballet, is indeed about love, but it’s not about romance. Instead, Welch explores the love of dancers for their art form—the technique of ballet, the artistry, the rush of live performance. It’s an intense relationship, and one that’s all too fleeting.

That intensity, and the brevity of a dance career, occupy Welch’s thoughts quite often. “It’s a deep love dancers have with ballet,” says Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “I don’t think many professions have that commitment, where you love it and when you’re around 30 to 40, it leaves you. And you know it going in, and that’s difficult.” For a long time after he retired from the stage, Welch reassured himself that he could still dance if he chose to. With the realization that those days are now behind him, he found himself wistful, longing to turn back the clock. And so clock imagery, the idea of time passing, persists throughout this ballet.

The piece begins with a solo man moving in silence. Welch hadn’t planned to start the ballet that way, but the idea came to him as he worked with Principal Dancer Angelo Greco, whom he describes as “hypnotic. He’s young and he’s fearless. He’s exactly what we should be when we first fall in love with ballet.” In the first movement, the dancers are “vital and alive,” Welch says, “with stellar technique—a truth that’s gloriously apparent in the opening moments of silence.

Angelo Greco in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Along with demonstrating brilliant technique, the brief solo introduces some of the movement motifs that characterize this ballet. One is the “ticking” of straight arms, hands flattened and perpendicular to the floor; they snap into place, replicating the movement of a clock’s second hand. One dancer begins this movement, and the others join in—no one is spared the marking of time. With the ballet’s central pas de deux, quiet and poignant, the next stage begins. There’s a struggle here—the man is moving on and the woman can’t accept it. She touches him repeatedly, and each time he covers her hand with his; then she pulls her hand away and tries again. “It’s like he’s breaking, and he’s trying to convince her,” Welch says. The last movement, dominated by walking (symbolizing togetherness) and rocking motifs, is about aging dancers being left behind as class and ballet companies go on, eternal.

At times throughout the ballet, the dancers race across the stage and disappear into the wings, a device prompted in part by Welch’s memory of when he first came to the United States from Australia and was impressed by how much floor space the dancers covered. It’s a characteristic of American-style dancing, he says, and “it’s thrilling to see.” 

This is all subtext, however. What’s on the surface are steps that delve deeply into the intricacies of five musical movements from two early-1700s violin concertos, the only ones by Johann Sebastian Bach that have survived their own passage of time. For Welch, illuminating the music is a big part of the joy of choreographing. “That wonderful [George] Balanchine quote about making music come alive is very much what I think we are all trying to do [as choreographers],” he says. Bach has many layers that listeners might not notice at first, and “the deeper you get into it, the richer it is.” Through movement, Welch points out melodies, rhythms, accents, undertones that delight him or reveal the music’s subtext. “Great choreographers like [Jiří] Kylián and Balanchine, those musical people, they always teach me something about music,” he says. “You go home and re-listen to it and go, “Wow, that is how that’s phrased.”

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

The freshness of Welch’s neoclassical movement, says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, comes from “the way the dancers move today; maybe the dancers he was working with brought that out. Time changes all of us. We are influenced by what we see, how society is.”

Step into the studio while Welch is at work and you’ll notice how often he laughs, how delighted he seems to be there. The process of creating is what he enjoys most, he says; it’s more rewarding than a premiere. “When they’re in it and you’re in it, you can go for five, six hours and not wear out, and that’s fun,” he says.

Frances Chung and Esteban Hernandez in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Welch calls these dancers “fantastically musical,” a trait he thinks is one of the Company’s strengths. “[Principal Dancer] Frances [Chung] is a great model of that—she could do the same step 50 times and just change it by accent, and that’s great dancing, and clever. I wanted to make that [musicality] part of the work because I think that’s San Francisco.”

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Header image: Jennifer Stahl and Carlo Di Lanno in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Program Notes for John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid

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By Cheryl A. Ossola

In The Little Mermaid, Hamburg Ballet Director and Chief Choreographer John Neumeier blends dance, dramatic storytelling, and spectacle into a stunning interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable. With choreography, sets, and costumes all by Neumeier, this ballet—as much theater as it is dance—reveals the depths of the choreographer’s imagination. And it demands the heights of artistry from the dancers, who must venture into deeply emotional terrain in order to convey the ballet’s full message.

Neumeier elevates a fantasy into a sophisticated portrayal of psychological transformation and the resilience of the spirit, human or otherwise. Neumeier created The Little Mermaid for the Royal Danish Ballet in 2005 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth. Of all the famous writer’s stories, the choreographer chose this one because of its “very particular concept of love,” he says. “Love that is so strong that it can overcome boundaries, that it can transport her to new worlds, although it may seem to be self-destructive—because the Mermaid re-creates herself at the cost of extreme personal pain. But the story teaches us, at the same time, that no matter how strong our love may be, it doesn’t obligate the object of our love to love us in return.”

San Francisco Ballet in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

“Visually stunning” is how San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson described The Little Mermaid when he first saw it in Hamburg. “It was a very dramatic piece, very emotional,” he says. Always looking for opportunities for his dancers, Tomasson says he felt this ballet would be “wonderful to bring to San Francisco. The role of the Mermaid is fantastic! It’s very difficult, what she has to do.” Tomasson and Neumeier have a long history— as a member of the Harkness Ballet, Tomasson danced in Stages and Reflections, one of Neumeier’s earliest ballets. “We’re talking about 40 years ago,” says Tomasson. But the experience left a clear memory of what it’s like to work with Neumeier. “He’s very demanding— he reminds me of [Jerome] Robbins in that way—every little detail has to be to his liking,” Tomasson says. “I feel that he’s a major artist, and maybe now the time is right for us to see his work more in this country.”

Neumeier, a Milwaukee-born American who has spent nearly his entire career in Europe, trained in Copenhagen and London and began his dancing and choreographic careers at Stuttgart Ballet. After only six years there, in 1969 he became director of the Frankfurt Ballet, where he caused a stir with his reinventions of classics such as Nutcracker and Romeo andJuliet. Four years later he began his tenure as director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet, and in 1978 he founded a school that now supplies more than 70 percent of the company’s dancers. He has created close to 140 ballets for his own company and as a guest choreographer for American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada, and throughout Europe. His extensive list of honors includes dance and arts awards from the United States, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Denmark, and several publications.

SF Ballet in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

Given Neumeier’s tendency to couch ballet tradition in a stylized dramatic format, it’s not surprising to learn that he holds a degree in English literature and theater studies (from Marquette University in Milwaukee). He cites Japan’s Noh theater, a roughly 700-year-old form of musical drama with a fixed repertory and masked performers, as a favorite. Cultural influences permeate his ballets as well; for example, the Mermaid’s hairstyle, makeup, and costume derive from African, Balinese, and Japanese traditional styles. In considering making a ballet about the Mermaid’s story, Neumeier saw the potential for imaginative richness. Its magical premise, fanciful characters, and worlds gone askew make it a perfect vehicle for the kind of dance-theater he does so well.

But Neumeier’s first concern with any ballet is whether its story translates well into dance. “There are certain beautiful stories that are so dependent on words that even the essential conflict, the internal story, is not really possible to present in a nonverbal form of theater,” he says. So first he envisions what is possible to portray onstage. “I always think the job of a choreographer is not to put steps together; it is to create worlds,” he says.

But with this ballet he faced a huge obstacle: finding a way for the dancers who portray the Mermaid and her sisters to move as though they have tailfins, not legs. “How do you do that in a ballet?” he asks. “Because I knew I wanted to do this story, I agreed to do it before I knew the answer to that.” Then, while on tour in Japan with his company, he saw a Noh play, and in it was his answer. “There is a medieval kind of Japanese trousers, which are very, very long, and watching this man moving I thought, ‘That’s it—he has no legs!’” For his Mermaid, Neumeier designed wide-legged silk pants that add fluidity to her movements, pooling onto the floor when she stands and fanning out like fins when she is held aloft to “swim.”

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © ErikTomasson

Helping Neumeier define the distinctions between land, ship, and sea is Russian composer Lera Auerbach. Like the abstract waves of light that divide the stage visually, showing us whether we’re above the water’s surface or below it, the music too sets the scene, evoking both atmosphere and emotional tone. Auerbach, a prolific, award-winning musician (and a poet to boot), earned two degrees at The Juilliard School and completed a piano soloist program at the University of Music and Theater in Hanover, Germany. Her works, performed worldwide, include ballets, operas, symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and other chamber works.

In her score for The Little Mermaid, sweet and haunting melodies for violin flow into brusque passages of atonality and dissonance, making audible the strangeness and discomfort of being out of one’s element. Complex and changeable, with few normal harmonic progressions, in early rehearsals the score challenged the dancers, who can’t fully invest themselves in their roles until they have integrated movement and music into an unquestionable whole.

Beyond its setting, Mermaid offers more riches. Written between the lines of this fable about personal sacrifice was a far more touching story— Andersen’s own torment. According to Neumeier, many scholars believe that this story is probably Andersen’s most autobiographical work. The writer had a history of falling in love with women he could not have, and a few men as well. This tale of unrequited love could well be his own; shortly before he wrote it he had suffered greatly at the marriage of Edvard Collin, a love interest who did not return his affections. “So in a sense,” Neumeier says, “Andersen’s disappointment [about Collin] is the jumping-off point for The Little Mermaid.”

Pascal Molat in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

Neumeier has played on that fact, expanding the ballet’s story to include Andersen as the Poet (who is, like the Mermaid, in love with the Prince). Neumeier didn’t intend to depict Collin specifically; instead, he says “the historical facts inspire and help to create a new Prince—through movement—in the necessary present tense of dance. You can do a lot of research for a ballet, but even if your subject is a historical person, you cannot use intellectual findings as a recipe book for creation.”

But as integral to the story as the Poet and the Prince are, it’s the Mermaid who is at the heart of this ballet. And Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan seems born to the role. She found a strong personal connection with the Mermaid, she says, in the character’s pursuit of “unconditional love. People dream about it. And [the Mermaid] tries to pursue it, and fails, but still believes in it. I think all of us do things we want to do, and if we try and fail, it’s okay; we keep going.”

Tan says she didn’t expect to experience any monumental transformations as a dancer at this point in her career. But dancing the Mermaid “brought my dance skill up to another level,” she says. “I have to say this role changed my career. I didn’t think I could have grown anymore; I thought, ‘I’m pretty comfortable with where I am.’ And now I express myself more and I have less worries about what I’m doing. I think I’ve come to a stage [where] I just feel happy to dance—not as an obligation, not as a job, but as a joy. The mind and soul—it’s all there. Life goes on, things change, and you grow and you learn. So it’s a combination of the whole. I’m much happier.”

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

Dancing the Mermaid requires an emotional investment on a level not often found in ballet. The character’s psychological journey is not only searing, it’s an endurance test for the dancer, who remains onstage for long stretches of time. With no chance to stand in the wings and prepare for the next emotionally devastating scene, it requires a mental presence that’s immediate and committed. “John told me, ‘Don’t act,’” Tan says. “He doesn’t want the girls all doing the same stuff, because everybody’s different. Because he’s the creator, he gives you the steps and the music to express yourself.” Within the choreographer’s parameters, the dancers brought their own feelings and experiences to the role. “One time he said to me, ‘I can see you’re working on it, and I can see a lot of improvement. And now [I want] more. I will tell you if it’s too much.’” In conveying what he wanted, Tan says, Neumeier didn’t need words. “I could see through his eyes what he wanted. And he saw my expressions in my body and knew what I was trying to say. So it’s communication without speaking.”

As the Mermaid makes her way through physically and emotionally disturbing terrain, we see the world through her eyes. And so everything underwater is beautiful and serene. “She is in her element [there]— gorgeously, beautifully, and belonging,” says Neumeier. “She knows this world, and yet she has a desire to go beyond that.” But what she discovers when she leaves her watery home “is that our dreams, our answered prayers are not always what we wanted—not always as we imagined them,” says the choreographer. “The earth world, which she so desires, can have some very sharp edges.”

Those edges become visible in the searing pain she endures as she walks on the feet she wanted so much, the bizarre behavior of the ship’s passengers, the nightmarish atmosphere to the Prince’s wedding, and the horror of being bound by ceilings and walls instead of free to roam an endless oceanic paradise. Toward the end of the ballet Neumeier reveals, in his set and in the Mermaid’s actions, the trap she has laid for herself.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © ErikTomasson

And yet the Mermaid’s terrible sacrifice leads not to tragedy but to redemption, and that’s what makes this story compelling. “There is a sense of transcendence in the last dance [the Mermaid and the Poet] do together,” says Neumeier. “I think that the story is, in its essence, so beautiful. I don’t know of another story in literature with such a vision of love.”

And that’s the secret to The Little Mermaid’s power. Yes, it offers up stunningly original dancing and high theatricality. But audiences and dancers connect to it because of its story. Tan says she was shocked at the impact the ballet had on her. “After the premiere, the bow, I couldn’t stop crying. And I had to get John onstage, and he was crying, and he gave me a hug and we cried onstage. I would never have thought this would happen, but it was good.” Her face lights up in a huge smile. “Because my heart was out there.”

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Header photo: Yuan Yuan Tan, Tiit Helimets, and Sarah Van Patten in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid // © Erik Tomasson

Insights into Don Quixote

By Cheryl A. Ossola

For anyone who has read Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote or seen the musical Man of La Mancha, the name “Don Quixote” conjures an addled, would-be knight and his roly-poly counterpart, Sancho Panza, who pursue adventure in the name of chivalry. But in the ballet world’s Don Quixote, it’s a love story that takes center stage—starring Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, and Basilio, the town barber—with the “knight of the woeful countenance” and his reluctant squire playing supporting roles.

Don Quixote is filled with physical humor and fiery dancing, topped off with a wedding—a virtuosic celebration often performed as a stand-alone ballet titled “Kitri’s Wedding.” But the full ballet offers much more than a fabulous finish. It’s a romantic comedy done ballet style—dressed up in tutus, tiered dresses, and bolero jackets and peopled with passionate young lovers, rowdy townspeople, dashing toreadors, the foolish Gamache, a band of Gypsies, and even Cupid and her Driads (in a romantic dream sequence in which Don Quixote sees Kitri as his idealized true love, Dulcinea). There’s even a horse or two. To Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, one of Don Quixote’s most appealing aspects is “the joy it gives you—you could say it’s a little bit of a farce. It’s nothing dramatic or psychological. It’s upbeat; it’s fun.”

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

Cervantes’ Don Quixote had been captivating readers for well over a century when the first ballet version was presented. That was in Vienna in 1740, choreographed by Franz Hilverding. Version after version followed: Jean-George Noverre’s in 1768, Charles-Louis Didelot’s in 1828, Paul Taglioni’s in 1850. Of the 20th-century versions, George Balanchine’s is probably the best known, partially for the perceived parallel between Don Quixote’s love for his Dulcinea and the choreographer’s for his muse, Suzanne Farrell. But the most influential version is the one by the great French choreographer Marius Petipa. He staged Don Quixote in Moscow in 1869, making changes and adding more music for a St. Petersburg production in 1871. Alexander Gorsky restaged Petipa’s version in Moscow in 1900 and again in St. Petersburg two years later, and it is this Petipa/Gorsky version that has endured.

Don Quixote first took the stage at San Francisco Ballet in 2003, choreographed by Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov, then a principal dancer and now choreographer in residence. Possokhov grew up with Don Quixote as a student at the Bolshoi, dancing various roles, and though he and Tomasson based their Don Quixote on the Petipa/Gorsky version, they included much of what Possokhov remembered. To help tell the story, they made some choreographic changes; for example, giving the lovers, Kitri and Basilio, an intimate pas de deux. And rather than ending with the grand pas de deux and Don Quixote’s exit as some versions do, Tomasson added music (also by Ludwig Minkus, who wrote the ballet’s score) that extends the wedding festivities.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Chris Hardy

Tomasson looks at Petipa’s libretto as a ballet version of commedia dell’arte, a type of dramatic improvisation popular throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. It relied on stock character types to enact variations on recurring themes, such as a father who tries to marry off his daughter to a moneyed, older gent. She’s in love with someone else, of course. Translating that plot to Don Quixote, we find Kitri, who’s in love with Basilio, rejecting the older and ridiculous Gamache, her father’s choice for her. And Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire, is essentially a Zanni—a stock servant character. Commedia dell’arte always involved healthy doses of deception, chase scenes, and physical humor, and Tomasson says he finds “a lot of similarities. The chasing, Harlequin taking Columbine away—it’s the same thing here. They just happen to be in Don Quixote’s story.”

Mathilde Froustey in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

Although the choreography remains unchanged in the new production, the ballet was updated with a completely new look: 19th-century Spain was brought to life with scenery and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, a Tony Award–winning designer whose credits include Tomasson’s Nutcracker. Pakledinaz, who died in 2012, said that the most important resources for Don Quixote were “the visuals of Spain, both the cities and the countryside, not only of La Mancha but Andalusia. [The story] technically takes place in the larger cities of Sevilla, Barcelona, but we decided to create our own village.” He was always influenced by fine artists, he said; for Don Quixote, he turned to some 17th-century sources (including Francisco de Zurbaran and Jusepe de Ribera).

In planning to stage Don Quixote again in 2012, Tomasson decided it was time to give the Company its own production. (Previously the sets and costumes were rented from Royal Danish Ballet.) His priority in terms of production design was to allow things to flow, especially in the second act’s transitions from scene to scene. “The second act is in three sections,” says Tomasson, “and I like it to keep going as much as possible, at the same pace and rhythm” as the rest of the ballet, without bringing in the curtain and playing transitional music. The result is a smooth transition between scenes.

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson

Working with Tomasson was “very intense in a friendly way,” Pakledinaz said. Together they brainstormed how best to tell the story, clarifying characters and relationships through entrances and exits, costuming, and even the palette. Tomasson wanted to stick to the traditional, and Pakledinaz responded with what he described as “a dusty study where we discover Don Quixote; a bright, Spanish, earth-toned plaza; and a plain, barren terrain with a spooky tree and a windmill.” In his creative process, the sets came before the costumes. “You have to find out what your world is before you know who the people are that inhabit it.”

Along with doing research, Pakledinaz said he “constantly referenced the previous production, sometimes purely for the choreography and sometimes to see if I felt that the scenic changes or the costume changes needed to be the same or could be readdressed.” In redeveloping a classic, he said, it’s important to “drop what you’ve seen and try to make it your original production.”

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Header photo:  San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote // © Erik Tomasson