Basil Twist, a puppeteer, defines that term broadly—as bringing inanimate objects to life. His genius (and he has the receipts, earning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015) is noticing the way objects and materials move and flow, and drawing upon these characteristics to transform them. It takes a creative eye to realize, for example, that a swath of silk could billow into a carriage or that projections could animate a tree, making it wave and sway and seemingly “dance.”
Twist grew up in San Francisco, the child and grandchild of puppeteers. His mother founded a group of puppeteers who performed at hospitals and schools, and his maternal grandfather, Griff Williams, was a big band leader who included puppets that resembled Cab Calloway and Harry James in his shows. Twist made puppets as a kid, grew out of it in high school, returned to puppetry as a college student in New York City, and was admitted to the three-year program at France’s national school for puppeteers in Charleville-Mézières. He’s the only American to have graduated from the program.
Back in New York, his breakout work, Symphonie Fantastique, originated when he found a discarded fish tank. After repairing it, Twist experimented with the different ways fabric and other materials like feathers and bubbles moved in water. For the show, he upgraded to a 500-gallon tank and, similar to a choreographer, set abstract movement to music, in this case Berlioz’ symphony.
Twist’s career has since exploded, and extends from Broadway shows to the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, on which he consulted for the underwater puppetry. On Broadway, Twist has contributed to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory;Oh, Hello; The Addams Family, for which he won a Drama Desk Award; and the Pee-wee Herman Show. Additional work includes The Araneidae Show, Dogugaeshi, Petrushka, Behind the Lid, Arias with a Twist, and Sister’s Follies, among others.
Symphonie Fantastique caught the eye of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the two collaborated on Cinderella for San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, The Winter’s Tale for the The Royal Ballet, and The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet. In dance, Twist has also contributed to Darkness and Light with Pilobolus; Wonderboy with The Joe Goode Dance Company, Underground River with Jane Comfort & Company and Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, a Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet collaboration. His maverick Rite of Spring, a ballet without dancers, premiered in 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill and went on in 2014 at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.
“This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he continues. “And the tree growing onstage … it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” Twist is thrilled, he says, to have “my own tree on the same stage.”
In addition to the fairytale characters, Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is filled with magical creatures, from Spirits of the Seasons who teach Cinderella to dance, to Tree Gnomes and Fates. Photographer Erik Tomasson captured many of the characters backstage, warming up, rehearsing, or just waiting for their cue—offering a close-up, behind-the-scenes at the quirky beauty of this production of Cinderella.
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.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.
SCENE 1: GARDEN ESTATE
Young Cinderella is playing outside with her mother and father when suddenly her mother becomes ill. In terrifying rapidity, her mother is taken from her and Four Fates are left to watch over Cinderella, who weeps over her mother’s grave. A tree sprouts from her tears.
SCENE 2: ROYAL PALACE
The young Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin (the valet’s son) are pursued by Madame Mansard (the prince’s dancing mistress). They dash through the hallways of the palace, causing havoc. Suddenly King Albert and Queen Charlotte appear, stiff and formal. The king is appalled at Guillaume’s lack of discipline, but the queen is more forgiving. The boys dash off again into the garden.
SCENE 3: THE GRAVE
Cinderella, now older, brings flowers to her mother’s grave. Two girls, Clementine and Edwina, appear, followed by their mother Hortensia, on the arm of Cinderella’s father. Cinderella realizes that this is to be her new family. Hortensia hands Clementine a bouquet to present to Cinderella who, horrified on behalf of her dead mother, discards it. Her father insists that she take the flowers, but Cinderella hurls them at Hortensia’s feet. Cinderella’s father will not tolerate this behavior. Fueled by pride, Cinderella assumes a subservient attitude towards the women, thus sealing her own fate.
SCENE 4: ROYAL PALACE GALLERY
King Albert attempts to explain to his grown son the political connections to be gained by marrying a titled princess. Queen Charlotte writes invitations to an upcoming ball, where the prince will meet these prospective brides. Guillaume is distracted by Benjamin, who imitates the many foreign princesses in the portraits hanging on the walls. King Albert becomes enraged at his son’s lack of responsibility to his future kingdom, but Guillaume can’t believe his parents would force him into a loveless marriage. Albert insists the invitations be delivered in person by the prince himself. Guillaume and Benjamin hatch a plan to trade places, pretending to be one another.
SCENE 5: CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
Cinderella stoically serves her family breakfast. The briefest sign of tenderness towards Cinderella from her father is frowned upon by Hortensia. Edwina follows closely in her mother’s footsteps, gaining favors from her. Clementine, the sweeter stepsister, is bullied into following suit. A poor beggar arrives at the door seeking food and warmth. Taking pity, Cinderella brings him into the kitchen, but Hortensia, horrified, casts him out again. “The Prince” (Benjamin) appears at the door. He has discovered the poor beggar outside and insists that Hortensia provide him with food and warmth. Hortensia feigns concern and orders Cinderella to help the beggar. “The Prince” has come to deliver invitations to a ball where he shall choose his bride. Left alone with Cinderella, the beggar (Prince Guillaume in disguise) sees true kindness in this girl. The two pretend to be at the ball, laughing and dancing.
SCENE 6: THE NIGHT OF THE BALL
Cinderella is cleaning the kitchen when the rest of her family appears, dressed for the ball. There was an invitation for Cinderella, but Hortensia throws it into the fire, and her family departs for the palace without Cinderella. The Fates, who have continued to watch over Cinderella, present her with her invitation and lead her to her mother’s grave.
SCENE 7: THE GRAVE
From the tree, spirits of Lightness, Fluidity, Generosity, and Mystery appear to teach Cinderella the steps she will need for the ball. Embraced by the branches, Cinderella is transformed and the Fates send her on her way to the ball — cryptically warning her to keep an eye on the time.
SCENE 1: THE PALACE BALLROOM
The ball is underway when Cinderella’s family arrives. The king and queen witness the rather tipsy arrival of Prince Guillaume and Benjamin, neither in correct attire for such a formal occasion. Cinderella’s stepsisters still believe Benjamin to be the prince, giving the two young men another chance for deception. Guillaume finds he is uninterested in any of the eligible ladies, stepsisters included. A magical atmosphere fills the ballroom as a mysterious masked girl arrives. Guillaume is immediately drawn to her. Cinderella, recognizing Guillaume as the urchin, turns to flee, but is gently guided back to him by the Fates. The couple waltz together. Seeing the interest the prince shows in this mysterious beauty, Hortensia takes to the bottle, humiliating herself. Benjamin dances with Clementine, whom he likes. Guillaume and Cinderella dance, falling deeper in love. When Hortensia rips off Cinderella’s mask, it is time for her to flee. In the chaos caused by her sudden departure, she leaves behind one golden shoe. Guillaume vows to marry her.
SCENE 1: IN THE KINGDOM
Benjamin and Guillaume search for Cinderella, trying the shoe on every female foot they can find.
SCENE 2: CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
Cinderella awakens, and with the help of the Fates, remembers her astonishing night at the palace. Hiding the other golden shoe on the mantelpiece, she resigns herself to her daily chores. Clementine tells Cinderella of the boy she met, and then Edwina turns suspicious when she spies Cinderella dancing steps from the ball. Hortensia viciously attacks Cinderella, and her father must step in. Unannounced, Benjamin and Guillaume arrive, exhausted from trying the shoe on so many feet. When the shoe does not fit either of the stepsisters, Hortensia throws it into the fire. Cinderella comes forward with the matching shoe: Prince Guillaume has found his princess. Cinderella and her prince leave the family behind. All is not lost for Clementine, however, as Benjamin returns to take her with him. And a royal wedding is held.
Cinderella’s “feathered” gold ball gown was actually created by photoshopping feather patterns onto a sheer fabric. “If I would have made the dress with real feathers like on [Crouch’s original] drawing, then you would have been able to wear it once and all those feathers would have been broken,” says Haller. “And now we have this beautiful dress with photographically printed feathers that looks—from a distance, it really looks like real feathers.”
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Created by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame in 2012 to music by Sergei Prokofiev, this ballet leaves behind the fairy godmothers and talking mice in favor of a delightfully human story full of fabulous visual effects. With fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry designed by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, Wheeldon updates this timeless tale for modern audiences of every age
In short: A spunky heroine. A noble prince. Blended families of the evil and not-so-evil persuasion. Tiny feet and ill-fitting shoes. And of course stunning dancing to a fabulous score.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a charming romance, Broadway musicals, or a great pair of shoes.
What will I see? While the ballet has some similarities to the animated classic, Wheeldon chose elements from both the Charles Perrault fairy-tale (the one the movie pulls from) and the Brothers Grimm, which has a few darker tones. So let’s start at the beginning….
ACT I: CINDERELLA’S HOME AND THE PALACE
The Plot: Fairy tales are notoriously hostile to mothers. Cinderella is no different. Our ballet opens with young Cinderella innocently playing outside when her mother suddenly falls ill and dies. (Don’t worry, it gets happier from there.) With her mother’s death, Cinderella acquires Four Fates, who look after her. When she cries over her mother’s grave, a (magical) tree grows out of her tears. We’ll come back to that.
Choreographer George Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet—unfortunately for Cinderella, there are plenty of stepmothers (and stepsisters too!). Her father remarries a vile woman named Hortensia, who comes along with two equally (or are they?) vile daughters, Clementine and Edwina. Though our poor Cinderella tries at first to stand up to these mean girls, her father demands she play nice. Cinderella becomes not just nice, but fully subservient to the family.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, young Prince Guillaume and his best friend Benjamin are growing up under the watchful eyes of King Albert and Queen Charlotte. Albert and Charlotte break the (unsurprising) news that Guillaume needs to find a nice princess to marry. Then, to add insult to injury, his father insists he be the one to deliver invitations to the ball at which he’ll pick a bride.
Guillaume does have one trick up his sleeve though: he has Benjamin pretend to be a prince, while he pretends to be a beggar. A quite Homeric way to see what’s what in a household. Cinderella’s stepsisters are terrible; Cinderella is sweet. She and the “beggar” share a dance as they pretend to be at the ball.
Fast forward a few days and worst-stepmother-ever Hortensia casually tosses Cinderella’s invite to the ball in the fire. Hortensia, Edwina, and Clementine go to the ball, leaving Cinderella alone cleaning the kitchen. At this point those fates take charge, bringing Cinderella to the tree (remember the tree?) who acts in place of the more traditional fairy godmother and gets her all set up with dress, invite, carriage, and a few new dance moves.
What should I look for? This first act obviously sets up a huge amount of plot exposition and character development—but while that’s all good and well, the big moment is actually one that’s just about Cinderella herself and her mother’s love: her transformation at the end of the act, helped by her mother’s tree. This moment features outstanding, magical puppetry.
ACT II: THE PALACE BALLROOM
The plot: This is the ball scene, you know what happens! Guillaume sadly wanders around, displeased with all the eligible ladies. Hortense and Edwina make true fools of themselves. And Cinderella makes a grand (masked) entrance all decked in gold, from tiara to toe shoes. Guillaume immediately falls for her and they dances together. Meanwhile, Benjamin is falling for Clementine, who, it turns out, is perhaps not all bad. Hortensia, on the other hand, is just that bad, and she rips Cinderella’s mask off. Cinderella dashes out and leaves a golden slipper behind (it’s hard to dance in glass).
What should I look for? This scene really plays with the corps de ballet, creating stunning kaleidoscopic formations that both stand on their own and highlight the principal dancers. Also, keep an eye out for those stepsisters—their duet in this act is one of the comedic highlights of the ballet.
ACT II: BACK IN CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
The plot: Guillaume and Benjamin strike out to find the girl who fits the shoe and search high and low before making it to Cinderella’s home. When it doesn’t fit Edwina or Clementine, Hortensia shows her true colors (again) and throws the golden pointe shoe in the fire. Luckily Cinderella is able to produce the matching shoe and she and Guillaume live happily ever after. And, never fear—though Guillaume may have less time for Benjamin now that he’s got a girl, Benjamin makes out pretty well too, sweeping Clementine off her feet and out of her mother’s grasp. What should I look for? While many ballets end with a big wedding, and this one is no exception, it’s a different kind of wedding than is typical: softer, more romantic, less pomp and circumstance. A simple pas de deux for Cinderella and Guillaume under her mother’s tree transforms into a charming outdoor wedding with all our favorites in attendance and the final image of the ballet isn’t an upbeat crowded finale, but just our prince and new princess enjoying a quiet moment, together at last.
George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances March 6–15.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine to music by Felix Mendelssohn was his first original full-length ballet and 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.
In short: Adventures and misadventures. Mischief and magic. Woodland creatures and fairyland foibles.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves high fantasy, the pure dance of George Balanchine, or is a sucker for weddings.
What will I see? Our story opens in a forest outside of Athens on Midsummer Eve…
The Plot: The ballet quickly introduces us to three main groups of characters. First up, the fairies: Puck is a mischievous sprite, and Oberon and Titania are the King and Queen of the Fairies, trapped in a battle of wills over who gets to care for a charming changeling child.
Next, we meet the inhabitants of Athens: Hermia and Lysander, very much in love; Demetrius, who also loves Hermia; and Helena, in love with Demetrius. We also, briefly, meet Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his fiancée Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, as they consider Hermia and Lysander’s request to be married against her father’s wishes. Upon rejecting the request, the lovers run off into the woods, followed by Demetrius and Helena.
Finally, we encounter Bottom, a weaver, and his friends, also wandering the forest on this midsummer night.
As if this isn’t enough activity already, Oberon, interested both in helping out these young human lovers and in getting back at his queen, has Puck bring him a flower pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Why? When touched by this flower, a person falls in love with the first person they lay eyes on. He instructs Puck to make Demetrius love Helena and to play a trick on Titania.
But of course it isn’t that simple. First, Puck accidentally anoints Lysander, not Demetrius, causing him to fall in love with Helena, and then, attempting to remedy the mistake, anoints Demetrius as well. Now, instead of both men loving Hermia, they both love Helena, confusing and upsetting the entire crew.
Meanwhile, Puck separates Bottom from his group and transforms his head into that of a donkey. (Yes, he’s making an “ass” out of him. Shakespeare’s clever like that.) He puts the donkey-headed man near Titania’s bower, douses her in flower dew, and when she awakens … well, she falls in love with the ass. Oberon shows up just in time to release her from the spell, at which point she’s embarrassed enough to make up with her husband.
As the night drags on, the human lovers eventually wear themselves out with fighting and fall asleep, giving Puck a chance to put all the pairs to rights. Theseus and Hippolyta (accompanied by her hounds) find and wake them, and now that everyone’s paired off correctly, they declare it’s time for a triple wedding.
What should I look for? The whole entire plot (five acts in the original play) is condensed down into this single act, so a lot of what you’re looking for is who’s who! But there are a few key dance moments too, especially for the fairies. Notice that Titania and Oberon never dance together, instead Titania dances with a nameless cavalier in a pas de deux that is full of long, elegant lines, and of course with Bottom, in what must be one of the funniest pas de deux ever choreographed! And Oberon has a solo full of quick jumps and what we call “batterie,” or small beats made with the feet while in the air. This is one of the hardest solos that Balanchine ever choreographed, so don’t miss it! And finally, watch Puck, who moves with quicksilver lightness throughout the whole ballet. Created on Arthur Mitchell, this was one of the defining roles of his career.
The plot: With all the plot in Act I that leaves … a wedding, of course, for Act II! A triple wedding, that is, as Theseus and Hippolyta, Helena and Demetrius, and Hermia and Lysander all tie the knot.
After the wedding entertainment ends, we return to the forest, where we see our reconciled King and Queen of the Fairies. Puck—who brought us into this forest scene—closes out the ballet, as he does the play: “If we shadows have offended/Think but this, and all is mended,/ That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear….So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends,/And Robin shall restore amends.”
What should I look for? This act hinges on the Divertissment pas de deux, in some ways, an odd moment when Balanchine inserts an entirely new couple into the action to dance together at the wedding. This duet seems to show everything that the other couples in the ballet don’t have: decorum, grace, equality, mutuality, respect. Low lifts—never above the shoulder—and careful handholding create a sense of ease and intimacy. A final sweeping backbend suggests a gentle fall into perfect love.
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.
Recipe for a sublime evening: start with one beloved, time-traveling fairy tale. Add a gilded kingdom from long ago, fairytale characters, opulent and imaginative sets and costumes, and classical ballet, all elegance and grace. The result: San Francisco Ballet’s luminous production of The Sleeping Beauty. Like the slumbering Princess Aurora, this ballet has been dozing in the wings—but for a decade instead of a century. Now revived, it’s ready to make audiences fall in love with it all over again.
The Sleeping Beauty was born in 1890 at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Choreographed by the grand master of Russian ballet, Marius Petipa, and set to music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty brought to life one of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, “La Belle au Bois Dormant” (“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”), from his book Stories or Tales from Times Past, With Morals: Tales of Mother Goose. Perrault created a new genre of writing: the fairy tale. Based on age-old folk stories, his tales made social commentaries, targeting the aristocracy and controversies of the day. And his stories lived on, as children’s books and as the basis for movies, operas, plays, musicals—and of course ballets.
With its demanding classical roles—for Aurora and Prince Desiré, a flock of Fairies, a gathering of woodland nymphs, and the Enchanted Princess and her Bluebird—plus massive sets and spectacular costumes, The Sleeping Beautyis fare for only the top tier of ballet companies. At San Francisco Ballet, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson decided his dancers were ready to take on the challenge in 1990. Working with scenic and costume designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae, Tomasson created a brand-new production of this beloved classic, setting it in Russia in the 1600s and 1700s, before and after the reign of Peter the Great. This imaginative design concept shows the passing of a kingdom’s 100 years of slumber via dramatic changes in costuming.
The Prologue and Act I are in the old Russian style, while the rest of the ballet reveals the Western influences that Peter the Great brought to the Russian court—fashions from Italy and France, including powdered wigs. This year’s production has been revamped with costumes and an Act III set designed by Worsaae for Royal Danish Ballet. Although similar to his designs for SF Ballet, these costumes are richer, and the staircase in the wedding scene is noticeably grander. It’s a subtle facelift, but one that enhances the splendor of the original designs.
As jaw-dropping as the scenic elements are, the real glory of The Sleeping Beauty is in the dancing. Simple and clean, with graceful use of the head and neck and softness in the arms, it’s the epitome of classical technique and style—and difficult to return to when the dancers have spent months learning mostly contemporary ballets. “It’s classical technique at its purest and most beautiful,” says Tomasson. “There’s so much in it that is a huge challenge to not only Aurora and the Prince, but so many other roles—all the Fairies, Bluebird, the Jewels. Dancers need to keep up their classical strength and vocabulary. It’s fun to be involved in new creations, but if you don’t come back to your base, you’re going to lose it. That’s why it’s so important to do those ballets.” Dancers can freeze up when they’re overly concerned about being correct, he says. The technique is exacting, but “you still have to dance it. Like the Fairies’ variations—they’re all choreographically beautiful, brilliant, and they have to be approached differently. They’re giving gifts to the child.”
Madison Keesler as the Fairy of Generosity in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty
The style derives from the etiquette and social conventions of the 17th- and 18th-century French court of King Louis XIV, the basis for Petipa’s aesthetic for The Sleeping Beauty. “There is a certain style in the arms, the position of the head, upper torso, and shoulders,” Tomasson says. “It has to do with aristocracy—it was very proper, very elegant, very courteous. The men don’t just bow from the head; it’s through the gesture of the hand, and the body follows.” The low curve of the arms and open carriage of the upper chest come from French court fashions. The style was intended “to show off the beauty in that period,” says Tomasson, “with those beautiful gowns and the women’s bare shoulders and gorgeous necklaces.”
Dancing the role of Aurora ranks high on the wish list of many ballerinas. Besides demonstrating pure classical technique, rock-solid composure, and physical strength, those who dance Aurora must transform from girl to woman, from childish delight to mature love. For Principal Dancer Sasha De Sola, who is dancing Aurora for the second time, it’s a dream role. “It always has been,” says De Sola, adding that she used to watch a video of one Aurora incessantly, Larisa Lezhnina at the Mariinsky Ballet. De Sola was around eight when she first saw The Sleeping Beauty, “and I fell in love with it right then. The first act always captured me the most; it’s so beautiful, and the music draws you in.”
It’s the mesh of character and physicality that appeals most to De Sola, “the strength and fragility of Aurora, which is different from the strength of Kitri [in Don Quixote] and the fragility of Giselle,” she says. “I find Aurora has both, and that’s really hard to master.” Finding that balance is part of how she makes this role her own. “I always think of when [legendary former ballerina Natalia] Makarova was here setting La Bayadère—that’s also very, very classical. She kept referring to how when she watches us do contemporary [works], there’s freedom, there’s breath—she says it’s exactly the same thing [in classical ballets]. I’m trying to remember that. And you can find your own individuality in that, by musical phrasing or the juxtaposition of the brilliance of the legs and feet with the softness and the nuance of the upper body. I think it’s much harder in a classical setting to find that freedom, but it’s just as important.”
In Act I, Aurora is young, excited, nervous—and discovering her power. Later, in the “Vision” scene, when she reveals herself to the Prince and makes him fall in love with her, she’s a different person—more serene and romantic. Tchaikovsky’s remarkable score is one of the elements that can guide this transition, helping the dancer playing Aurora to discover and fully embody the character.
When Tchaikovsky wrote the music for The Sleeping Beauty, says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, “he was a master at the height of his powers. It’s brilliant music.” It’s more refined than the composer’s other two ballets, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, West says. “You have a sense of storytelling within the orchestra.” For example, the Prologue has undertones of the Fairy of Darkness theme; later Tchaikovsky does a variation on it, “which allows him to transfer into another passage, which he’ll bring back in the Lilac Fairy theme. It’s very clever,” says West. “Some people will say, and it’s a little bit true, that there’s not as much heart in The Sleeping Beauty as there is in Swan Lake.” He thinks it’s because the third act isn’t dramatically necessary; Aurora could wake up, dance with her prince, and finito. But what’s a “happily ever after” story without a wedding and some spectacle? Two of the audience favorites in The Sleeping Beauty come in that celebratory third act, the delightful Puss in Boots and White Cat duet and the virtuosic Bluebird pas de deux. Let’s let Tchaikovsky have the last word on the music—he considered The Sleeping Beauty one of his greatest compositions.
If music ushers Aurora down the path of her transformation, so do her friends the Fairies. Five of them—the Fairies of Tenderness, Generosity, Serenity, Playfulness, and Courage—attend her christening, dancing their gifts to her. (Interestingly, the Fairies in the original ballet had less lofty names: Candide, Fleur de Farine, Breadcrumbs, Songbirds, and Violante. But the Lilac Fairy has always been the Lilac Fairy, with one exception—a 1921 Diaghilev production that called her Mountain Ash.) The Lilac Fairy’s name comes from the Russian belief that placing a newborn baby under a lilac tree would bring the child fortune and wisdom, and she quickly proves how much her name suits her. Her gift to the Princess, in response to an evil fairy’s curse, is her own goodness, tempering the intended curse of death to a century of sleep.
The Fairies, like Aurora, dance with purity and precision. And in 1890 they reflected the zeitgeist—the reason Violante (today’s Courage) points her fingers is that in Russia at the time, electricity was brand-new. But not every dancer in The Sleeping Beauty has technique to worry about—the Fairy of Darkness, traditionally called Carabosse, doesn’t do a single classical ballet step. True to her nature, the Fairy of Darkness storms about the stage, furious that the King and Queen didn’t invite her to Aurora’s christening. This evil fairy is an en travesti role (meaning “in disguise”), a theatrical tradition of casting men as grotesque or powerful women. (At SF Ballet, both men and women have performed the role in past years.) The Fairy of Darkness is powerful, but she’s no match for the Lilac Fairy, who not only weakens the curse but also sends its perpetrator packing after the “Vision” scene, leaving Prince Desiré free to find his love.
Most of the time, though, the dancing in The Sleeping Beauty reigns supreme. In early rehearsals, Tomasson coaches the principal couples, finessing the partnering and troubleshooting a difficult balance or the obstacle of an in-his-face tutu. Find the softness, he tells, them, make it “grand, beautiful.” Emphasizing dynamics, he builds contrast by slowing big movements and speeding up fast ones. In fact, dancing The Sleeping Beautyis all about dynamics, from total stillness to lightning-quick beats and bourrées. And about respect for the music, says Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director Ricardo Bustamante. “Choreographers today always try to outdo the music. No.”
Tchaikovsky’s score is a critical component of rehearsals, played by a pianist. At one point, Martin West cues the pianist to slow down, explaining that here the music should be heavy, “more of a feeling than a tempo,” he says, and the ballerina who’s rehearsing Aurora nods happily. The word “tempo” is too simplistic; what’s needed is a deeply felt symbiosis between movement and emotion. A perfect example is the delicate but lively build of the violins for Aurora’s first entrance. And when it’s De Sola’s turn to come onstage, you’ll know what she’s thinking—that she’s making what is “probably the best entrance in any ballet, ever.”