Taking SF Ballet on Tour

Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet made a splash last year with spectacular props, Marco Morante-designed costumes, and music by Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk. Join SF Ballet Production Director Christopher Dennis and Company Manager Juliette LeBlanc to learn about how they pulled the many pieces of this ballet together and how they’ll bring it on tour to London.

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Header image: SF Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

David Finn, Scenic and Lighting Designer, on Die Toteninsel

Scenic and Lighting Designer David Finn discusses his life and career along with his recent work for SF Ballet, Die Toteninsel. He speaks about collaborating with choreographer Liam Scarlett on this ballet, as well as about the many other choreographers with whom he’s worked during his long career.

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: Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel  // © Erik Tomasson

Cavan Conley, Corps de Ballet, on Die Toteninsel

Cavan Conley describes his training and the beginnings of his professional career prior to joining San Francisco Ballet this season as a member of the corps de ballet. He relates the process of creating Die Toteninsel, choreographed on the company last summer by Liam Scarlett, emphasizing Scarlett’s profound musicality.

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: Esteban Hernandez in Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel  // © Erik Tomasson

Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel Program Notes

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By Caitlin Sims

Liam Scarlett’s premiere for San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 Season has a similar dark beauty as his 2016 Frankenstein, an epic retelling of Mary Shelley’s macabre novel. And similarly, this new ballet draws inspiration from another artist’s work: in this case Rachmaninoff’s brooding and hypnotic symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, itself based upon a painting of the same name. (Die Toteninsel is the German name of these works.) Scarlett uses the music and its history as a jumping off point for a more abstract work exploring the deep-rooted questions about what lies beyond this life. If Scarlett’s Frankenstein was a choreographic novel, his new ballet is more a short story—in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations.

Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

Rachmaninoff’sThe Isle of the Dead was itself inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting of the same name. In Böcklin’s work, a solitary boat bearing an oarsman, a shrouded figure, and a coffin traverses whisper-still water toward an island of rocky cliffs and rectangular portals encircling a grove of tall cypresses. A commission from a German widow, who asked Böcklin to repaint an unfinished painting of an island and add the figures in a boat, The Isle of the Dead was such an immediate success that he painted several additional versions.

Böcklin’s illumination of a mysterious island that seems not entirely of this world resonated powerfully and, with the advent of mass-produced lithography, reproductions were pervasive by the early 20th century. Russian novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote that The Isle of the Dead could be found “in every Berlin home” in his novel Despair. Freud had one in his office, Lenin had one above his bed, and (decades after Böcklin’s death) Hitler paid a high sum for one of the originals.

Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, Third Version, 1883

“I’m always first drawn to the music,” says Scarlett, who has a deep appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s works. The music opens quietly with a slow build, all low strings and apprehension. There’s a 5/8 time signature, an uneven tempo that contributes to a feeling of restlessness and foreboding. “Like waves lapping,” says Scarlett, “or breathing in and out, or a heartbeat. There’s a definite and then a faltering step. By putting that second beat on different accents, time shifts and is not as we know it.” He pauses, thoughtfully. “If you’re making a journey to somewhere that’s not in this life, then who’s to say what time is?”

The tempo colors Scarlett’s choreography as well, as it’s not a common time signature for ballet. “Finding steps to go into five counts switches on a different way of thinking,” says Scarlett. “But once you get that rhythm, it sets [the choreographic process] up from the beginning.” Scarlett draws upon the music’s repetitiveness in creating movement that grows and builds, then unexpectedly echoes itself. As a central couple emerges, surging forward and sweeping back in great arcs, their movements are reflected by groups that form and dissipate as easily as waves, giving the ephemeral “a sense of weight, and passing through one another,” says Scarlett.

In rehearsal, Scarlett moves through the room, encouraging dancers to think about how to shape and extend movement phrases. “When you move bigger and slower, you see everything,” he explains. “When you make sure that you enable every fiber of your body, it’s much more visceral and beautiful. It’s a matter of accentuating everything that you do just a tiny bit more.”

Liam Scarlett rehearsing his Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

There’s a softness to Scarlett’s movement that heightens the ballet’s otherworldly feel. “It’s like water and how you move underwater,” he explains. “When gravity is diminished and time is warped into something else, then you don’t need to adhere to the same rules. You twist them a bit, so it’s clear we’re somewhere else.” Exactly where that is will also be up for interpretation. “Everyone has wondered, “What’s the next thing after this life?’” says Scarlett. “Thinking about it raised a lot of questions for me, and I put those questions in the piece.” He smiles enigmatically. “But I haven’t necessarily answered them.”

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Header image: Lauren Strongin and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel // © Erik Tomasson

Arthur Pita on Creating Björk Ballet

In his Björk Ballet, Arthur Pita channels the magic and mischief of pop singer Björk’s music. It’s a crazy glamorous ballet that The Guardian called “a ridiculous amount of fun.” Here Pita talks about the creation of this work for SF Ballet’s Unbound Festival. Bjork Ballet returns in SF Ballet’s 2019 Season as part of Space Between, which runs from March 29–April 9.

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Header photo: Elizabeth Powell and Sarah Van Patten in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

What is an American Ballet?

In the 1930s and 40s, choreographers were interested in finding ways to show American life on the ballet stage. Think: Lew Christensen’s Filling Station (1937) or Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938) or Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944). These ballets all blended stories of American life, movement from Broadway and vaudeville, and ballet technique to create a new style of “Americana” ballet.

Aaron Orza, Rory Hohenstein and Matthew Stewart in Christensen’s Filling Station in 2008 //
© Erik Tomasson

Rodeo, created in 1942 by American choreographer Agnes de Mille to music by Aaron Copland is emblematic of this period, telling the story of a young girl finding herself on the American plains.

San Francisco Ballet in de Mille’s Rodeo in 2006 //
© Erik Tomasson

But that’s not the ballet that SF Ballet has recently been performing. Although Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes uses (some of) the same music as the 1942 version, it does away with the story and setting, and the choreography is completely new.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes // © Erik Tomasson

And yet… there still is something in this ballet that seems particularly “American.” The music helps of course. But what else? The high-energy kineticism. The openness of the set. The vitality and athleticism of the dancers. The sense of youth and playfulness. In 2019, Americana ballet may be out, but American ballet is definitely still in.

Header photo: Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes // © Erik Tomasson

Your Ultimate Guide to Space Between

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What is it? Ballet fully unbound. Cool athleticism, modern classicism, and Björk-ian excess mean this program has a little something for everyone.

Who’s it for? Sports fans, art museum-goers, and anyone who took advantage of one of those cheap flights to Iceland over the past few years.


San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Made for 15 men and 1 woman, Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes turns ballet convention on its head—something choreographer Justin Peck, a soloist at New York City Ballet, has been doing a lot lately. From same-sex partnering to ballets in sneakers, he is interested in exploring how the traditional architecture and technique of ballet can adapt to modern ideas and worldviews. This ballet is athletic, competitive, and virtuosic, but also allows space for these male dancers to be vulnerable and sensitive.

What am I hearing? Aaron Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo. The ballet Rodeo was commissioned by the Ballets Russes and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, one of the first great female American ballet choreographers, in 1942. Four Dance Episodes is the symphonic version, orchestrated in 1945. You’ll probably recognize this music: it’s been used in just about every commercial that’s supposed to be “American” in feel.

What should I look for?

The same-sex partnering, the moment of surprise when the woman joins the group, and the way that the pas de deux is a partnership of equals.


Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett’s new work. // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Liam Scarlett is becoming a familiar name to SF audiences after the massive success of his full-length Frankenstein (2017) and his shorter Hummingbird (2014) and Fearful Symmetries (2016). The 33-year-old Royal Ballet artist-in-residence returned to SF Ballet this year to make a work inspired by Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead and set to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tone poem of the same name.

What am I hearing? Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Inspired by Böcklin’s paining, Rachmaninoff’s score suggests the sound of oars or waves, and pulls from the Dies irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead, to create a landscape of sound.

What should I look for? Watch for a recurring movement where the dancers take a low arabesque and sweep their arm in a circle, like waves or oars. And track the six principal dancers—how do their relationships evolve or transform? Who do they seem to be to one another?


San Francisco Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

What am I seeing? Inspired by the music of Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, choreographer Arthur Pita created a ballet full of quirky characters, snippets of narrative, and a stunning full-cast “ballet rave.” It’s glamorous. It’s fantastical. And it’s full of surprises.

What am I hearing? A selection of songs by avant-garde pop star Björk. Pita had been wanting to work with Björk’s music for years. He thought that SF Ballet would be the perfect place to create it becauses both Björk and SF Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson are Icelandic!

What should I look for? Keep an eye out for the fisherman. His narrative arc opens and closes the piece. Also for the pixie-like creature who weaves her way through the ballet and for a couple who seem in the midst of a tumultuous, passionate love affair. Oh, and for a heart-stopping moment set to Hyperballad.

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

A Ballet Rave: Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet

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By Cheryl A. Ossola

There might be no better combination of artists than choreographer Arthur Pita and Icelandic music superstar Björk. If you’ve never seen a ballet rave—and who has?—get ready. Pita delivers that and more with his second piece for the Company, Björk Ballet, an imaginative spectacle that will make you want to jump up and dance.

Pita never forgot the moment he first heard Björk’s music. During his training at London Contemporary Dance School, a friend introduced him to Björk’s album Debut, “which I loved so much,” he says. In thinking about his music for the Unbound festival, he wondered what he could do to make the dancers feel unbound. “And I thought, ‘The music is going to drive them,’ and immediately Björk made sense,” he says. “The music is so theatrical—it’s big, but in a modern way.” And, he reasoned, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson is Icelandic. “I knew [Björk’s music] would mean something to him,” says Pita.

Dores André in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

In this ballet’s episodic form, Björk’s music provides a framework for fragmented stories, dances that are more thematic than descriptive. A lone fisherman provides a ghost of a narrative and, because Björk’s music often references nature, a link to the natural world. Though the set is minimal and abstract, tall grasses create a focal point throughout the ballet. At first they “appear magically,” Pita says; then the dancers rearrange them, emphasizing humans’ relationship to the Earth.

Pita sees the fisherman as “the simple human being.” He wears two masks, one happy, one sad—an idea that came to Pita because of a duality he sees in Björk. “She’s this very playful, naughty fairy, dancing nymph, otherworldly creature, full of light and love,” he says. “And then you’ve got this very deep, mournful, sorrowful, almost tragedy in some of her songs. So it’s like the theater masks.” The fisherman’s journey ends with “The Anchor Song,” which Pita says he read “as a lovely kind of sailor song.” The lyrics—“I live by the ocean / and during the night / I dive into it / down to the bottom / underneath all the currents / I drop my anchor / and this is where I’m staying / this is my home”— might be a suicide note or a love letter to one’s native land; either way, the song conveys a feeling of peace.

Wei Wang in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Woven around the fisherman’s tale are snippets of love stories. In “Bachelorette,” Björk sings that “she’s ‘a path of cinders’ for the person to step on,” Pita says. At the other extreme, “All Is Full of Love” is dangerous, “about falling off things and running and catching and being held. Tempestuous, deep-rooted, immense love,” he says. “Hyperballad” is even more dangerous. Paraphrasing the lyrics, Pita says the song is about “imagining ‘what it feels like to jump off a cliff just so that when I wake up I can feel safe with you.’ That’s so extreme.”

The fisherman, the pas de deux couples, the pixie-like creature who flits through the action—everyone in this ballet is Björk. In trying to capture her essence, Pita goes to extremes with his movement, giving the dancers flicks, squats, and lunges along with concave shapes, flung arms, and references to nature. There are cantilevered duets with an underwater quality and a classically based octet, set to “Frosti,” that Pita says “should look like a ballerina music box on acid.” And then there’s “Hyperballad,” Pita’s ballet rave, with a long jumping sequence to a pumping, driving rhythm. “It’s a metaphor—jumping for joy, jumping for love,” he says. As the ensemble moves into a sideways kick step Pita borrowed from Björk herself, one couple moves into a slow, sinuous, stretched pas de deux, and the pixie-like figure darts past. It’s an enchanting and exhilarating moment.

Dores André and Luke Ingham in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

Ultimately, Björk Balletis about birth, life, sex, and death, he says. When Björk sings—about love or joy, sex or death—“it comes from such a human place,” Pita says. For him, “All Is Full of Love” says everything. “It’s such a beautiful lyric—‘You’ll be given love,’ and ‘You’ll be taken care of,’ ” he says. “What a beautiful message! We have to remember that we do have love in the world.”

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Header photo: SF Ballet in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson

To the Pointe: Space Between

Join SF Ballet’s Jennie Scholick, to learn about Program 06: Space Between. From Justin Peck’s Rodeo, to Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel, to Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, this program has something for everyone. Hear about the creative process, the music, and what to look for in these three ballets.

Header image: Dores André in Pita’s Björk Ballet // © Erik Tomasson