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

Your Ultimate Guide to Dance Innovations

What is it? An evening of ballet that shows the art form in all its facets: emotional, philosophical, and, well, pure delight. From light installations to pink wigs to classic white tutus, Dance Innovations has something for everyone.

Who’s it for? Anyone who loves artist Olafur Eliasson, likes puzzling over conceptual ideas, or is just a fan of pure pomp and circumstance.

San Francisco Ballet in Liang's The Infinite Ocean. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean. (© Erik Tomasson)


What Am I Seeing? The latest piece for SF Ballet by BalletMet Artistic Director Edwaar Liang. Created for the 2018 Unbound Festival, The Infinite Ocean explores the liminal space between life and death. Full of complex partnering and deep emotions, this ballet was a favorite among audience members both when it premiered here and on tour in Washington D.C. and London.

What Am I Hearing? A violin concerto by London-based composer Oliver Davis, written in 2018. Davis’s work is being used more and more often by ballet choreographers, including Ma Cong, Peter Walker, and Matthew Neenan.  

What Should I Look For? The central pas de deux: sometimes the trickiness in ballet partnering is making it look simple. That’s not the case here. The partnering is just as complex as it looks as the dancers cantilever themselves into Alexander Calder-like shapes.


San Francisco Ballet rehearse McIntyre's The Big Hunger // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet rehearse McIntyre’s The Big Hunger // © Erik Tomasson


What Am I Seeing? Acclaimed choreographer Trey McIntyre returns to SF Ballet with his world premiere The Big Hunger. Known for often working with pop music, this ballet is a departure for Trey, as he taps into his musical background to explore a classical score by Sergei Prokofiev. But Trey’s dances are rarely solely about the music, and in this case, he’s also playing with some philosophical concepts. Specifically, he’s thinking about the things that give life meaning and the things we sometimes think are meaningful, but really aren’t.

What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2, written in 1913 and revised in .  It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play in the piano repertoire and (as far as I know) has never been used before in a ballet.

What Should I Look For? This ballet is divided into three sections, each featuring a principal couple. These three sections and three couples each represent a different stage toward enlightenment—notice how those relationships are distinct, notice how the sets change between sections, and notice how each couple moves and partners differently.   


San Francisco Ballet in Lander's Etudes. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in Lander’s Etudes. (© Erik Tomasson)


What Am I Seeing? Choreographed in 1948 by Danish choreographer Harald Lander, Études is an ode to classical ballet’s history and form. A series of studies, or “études,” this ballet puts its dancers through their paces. Beginning with exercises at the barre, then foraying into ballet’s Romantic Era past, the ballet ends with a spectacular display of virtuosity and technique.

What am I hearing? A variety of piano études by Carl Czerny, arranged and orchestrated by Knudaage Riisager. These piano pieces were created to challenge and train students, making them a clever match for a ballet about ballet training.

What should I look for? The central ballerina who flits in and out throughout the ballet, sometimes in a short, classical tutu and sometimes in a longer, Romantic-era one. And for the way that the steps you see later in the ballet—the jumps and turns—relate to the earlier exercises you saw at the barre. If you can make that connection, it may well change how you watch all ballets.

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Dance Innovations plays at the War Memorial Opera House February 13, 15, 18, 19, 21, and 23.

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Header image: San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean // © Erik Tomasson

Marc Brew Creates quicksilver on SF Ballet School Trainees

By Hannah Young

The premiere of Marc Brew’s quicksilver introduced more than just new choreography to SF Ballet School students. Drawing from his personal experiences and professional ballet training, Brew—the artistic director of AXIS Dance Company and an acclaimed choreographer who uses a wheelchair—spent several weeks with SF Ballet School Trainees, introducing new ways to think about choreography. First shown on March 13 at SF Ballet’s free Student Matinee and returning for the School’s Spring Festival May 22–24, the six-person ballet resulted from an unconventional movement exploration.

Brew’s unique method for creating choreography pushed the Trainees both technically and creatively. “I wanted to share my process with the students, being aware that this is probably the first time that they’ve worked with a disabled choreographer,” he explained, “I bring some material, an upper body arm phrase, and then ask them to see how they could move the rest of their body.” Prescribing movement for the upper body and asking the dancers to create accompanying movement for the lower body was a new choreographic prompt for the students.

During the creation process, Brew guided the students to consider different physical perspectives. “When I went through ballet school, I was never exposed to anyone with a disability,” Brew said. “The fact that I’m in the studio with them, and working with them, hopefully will change those perceptions around what a dancer is and what it means to be a dancer.” He also challenged the common narrative of an injury ending a dancer’s relationship with dance: “If one day they got injured, maybe that doesn’t mean you just have to sit on the side—maybe there are other ways you can explore.”

SF Ballet School Trainees rehearsing Marc Brew’s quicksilver // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

Brew spent three weeks with the Trainees, helping them find new ways to create movement. By asking a diverse range of artists to engage with the students, SF Ballet School commits to providing an education that not only develops technical prowess but also prioritizes personal innovation. Experiences like these are how students learn a skill imperative to creative success—how to cultivate their own aesthetic and voice.

Experiences like these are only possible with community engagement. We invite you to join us in supporting diverse artistic voices by donating today. Your gift, no matter the size, is critical to bringing in dancers of all backgrounds to nourish the artistic growth of our students.

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School student rehearsal with Marc Brew // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

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

“…two united in a single soul…” Program Notes

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By Caitlin Sims

The myth of Narcissus, who falls deeply in love with his own reflection, is the basis of Yuri Possokhov’s new ballet for the 2019 Season. In Greek mythology, Narcissus is a hunter known for his otherworldly beauty. After rejecting the nymph Echo and angering the Greek gods, Narcissus comes upon a forest spring. Captivated by his own reflection, he wastes away, pining for an unattainable love.

It’s a story has inspired artists and writers, philosophers and psychologists for more than 2,000 years. “It’s a beautiful myth,” says Possokhov. “And I think, inside, all men have a side of Narcissus. Actually, I think everyone has some of this—especially ballet dancers.”

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

Professional dancers spend much of the workday in studios lined with mirrors, and an ongoing pursuit of perfection often leads to a complex relationship with their own reflection. “We all stare at ourselves in the mirror every day for a good portion of our lives,” explains Principal Dancer Joseph Walsh, who dances as Narcissus in Possokhov’s ballet. “You know it can be bad for you, but you keep doing it. Video adds another level to it, and social media. You just constantly see yourself.”           

 Possokhov himself had a long and successful career as a dancer at San Francisco Ballet, during which he also launched a career in choreography that has taken him around the world. Upon his retirement from the stage in 2006, he was named SF Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence. Possokhov has created more than a dozen ballets for the Company, including Magrittomania, The Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Swimmer. He has been fascinated by the myth of Narcissus for some time, first exploring the idea in a short ballet he workshopped for The Royal Danish Ballet in 2012. “There it was small, like a sketch,” he says. “We make it bigger, with more people and new music here.”

Possokhov’s ballet opens with dancers seated in scattered patterns across the stage, centered behind Narcissus. “I’m multiplying the reflections,” he explains. “It’s like a hall of mirrors.” Even when the dancers start to move, one side of the stage is the mirror image of the other, until a solo for Narcissus shifts the perspective.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Possokhov’s “. . . two united in a single soul . . .”. (© Erik Tomasson)

Woven into the dance is an onstage countertenor singer, who connects with the character of Narcissus, providing yet another reflection. The music is a newly commissioned score by Daria Novo, a young Russian composer. Her score centers around several Handel arias originally written for castrati (male singers who were castrated so that their voice wouldn’t change by going through puberty). Today these roles are sung by a countertenor, the highest male singing voice, known for having a beautiful and sometimes otherworldly sound.

Novo fuses classical music with modern sounds to create the ballet’s score. “I took original Handel music and integrated it with electronics and my own music,” she explains, “so that it sounds interesting—and still like classical music. I experimented with different audio plug-ins, libraries, and sound effects to create ‘hybrid’ music.”

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

The contrast between the old and the new in the music is meant to reflect the duality of Narcissus. “My idea was to use a harpsichord as Narcissus’ main instrument in two different ways—acoustic sound from a real harpsichord and processed sound from a keyboard,” explains Novo. “Something real and organic becomes artificial and heartless. Narcissus sees himself in a river and falls in love so deeply that he dies. I tried to use this contrast in music as well.”

Rather than being a step-by-step retelling of the myth, the ballet highlights themes of both connection and reflection, and evokes through movement the gentle currents of a forest stream. Walsh, who has been a part of several of Possokhov’s premieres, enjoys working with his movement vocabulary, which is exhiliratingly challenging, a precise blend of classical and contemporary movement.  “The feeling is weighted,” he explains. “With lots of undulation in his more contemporary work.”

Walsh says there’s a freedom in being onstage, away from the studio mirrors. “When you look toward the audience, where you’re used to seeing a reflection, instead it’s just a void. And then you don’t have to deal with yourself looking back and passing judgement.”


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From Ovid’s Metamorphoses

“No more my shade deceives me, I perceive 

‘Tis I in thee—I love myself—the flame

arises in my breast and burns my heart—

what shall I do? Shall I at once implore?

Or should I linger till my love is sought?

What is it I implore? The thing that I

desire is mine—abundance makes me poor.

Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire

unknown to me before, for I would fain

put off this mortal form; which only means

I wish the object of my love away.

Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run,

and in my early youth am I cut off;

but death is not my bane—it ends my woe.—

I would not death for this that is my love,

as two united in a single soul

would die as one.”

(translation by Brookes More)

Header photo: Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Possokhov’s “. . . two united in a single soul . . .” // © 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