Monday, January 16, 2017

The Beauty of Ballet: San Francisco Ballet Opens a New Season This Week and Debuts the Thrilling All-New ‘Frankenstein’ by Liam Scarlett

Think of ‘Frankenstein’ as The Winged Energy of Delight…an emotional flight though fantasy and myth, love and loss.

I’m in ballet bliss. San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 season includes both classics of the repertoire as well as thrilling and provocative all-new productions.

Come and see my picks below, and the ballets you should not miss.

This is a long-form report. I propose pouring a nice crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Noir. Get inspired. Plan your ballet season.

Vanessa Zahorian in Tomasson's Haffner Symphony.
(© Erik Thomassen)

‘Frankenstein’…I propose that you quickly make a reservation or two.

This is the co-production with the Royal Ballet. It opened in London where is left audiences gasping, crying, and applauding wildly.

Steven McRae as The Creature and Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.
(© 2016 The Royal Opera House. Photo by Bill Cooper)

Set designs by John Macfarlane for Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.
(Courtesy The Royal Ballet)

Steven McRae as The Creature, Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein and Alexander Campbell as Clerval in Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.
(© 2016 The Royal Opera House. Photo by Bill Cooper)

Set designs by John Macfarlane for Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein.
(Courtesy The Royal Ballet)

Liam Scartlett

I have been fortunate to meet Liam Scarlett. He is engaging, very attractive, and highly talented, and probably the most admired new choreographer in the world.

Scarlett is a classically trained dancer who boldly adds his own quirky, engaging, idiosyncratic, and witty choreography.

Choreographically, ‘Frankenstein’ is tied, and bound and laced with emotional characterizations, and filled with daring movement that is distinctly Scarlett’s. You’ll be captivated by the quirky choreography that Ricardo Cervera, a ballet master at The Royal Ballet, calls “Liamisms.”

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh rehearse Scarlett’s Frankenstein (©Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet rehearses Scarlett’s Frankenstein (©Erik Tomasson)

Liam Scarlett tells the story of ‘Frankenstein’ through movement in a poetic way, embodying all the dualities of Shelley’s book—mystery, beauty, humanity, lies, love and hate, curiosity and fear, desire and guilt—within one man, Victor Frankenstein.

That duality is amplified by the overarching design concept.

In every scene, we see two worlds: Victor’s, represented by the 18th-century buildings he inhabits, and the Creature’s world, a landscape described by scenic and costume Designer John Macfarlane as conveying “an overwhelming sense of emptiness.”

When Kevin O’Hare, The Royal Ballet’s artistic director, pitched the idea to Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, he described Scarlett’s vision for the production.

“I was intrigued right away,” said Tomasson. “I’m always looking for something new, and it’s hard to find full-length stories that are different and daring.”

Prepare for a glorious evening.

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Thomassen)

Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyanin Tomasson's Swan Lake.
(© Erik Tomasson)

The Importance of Feeding the Eye and Heart — New Works I’m Looking Forward to Seeing

Here are programs I’m looking forward to the most. Naturally, we don’t have images of the newest ballets which are in rehearsal but have not been performed on stage.

Fragile Vessels (World Premiere)

Composer: Sergei Rachmaninov
Choreographer: Jiří Bubeníček
Scenic Design: Otto Bubeníček
Costume Design: Uroš Belantič
Lighting Design: Jim French

World Premiere: 
January 24, 2017

A ballet from Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček, is a package deal: Jiří and his twin brother, Otto, collaborate on creating works for companies in North America, Europe, and Asia. In choreographing Fragile Vessels for San Francisco Ballet, Jiří had Otto at his side, as designer, assistant, and advisor. What this prolific choreographer has created is a ballet that carries tremendous emotional weight for him, in both music and concept. 

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Jewels.
(Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson)

Optimistic Tragedy (World Premiere)

Composer: Ilya Demutsky
Choreographer: Yuri Possokhov
Scenic and Projection Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume Design: Mark Zappone
Lighting Design: Christopher Dennis

World Premiere:
January 26, 2017

When Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov commissioned music from Russian composer Ilya Demutsky, he had no idea he would end up making a ballet about revolution. Demutsky hadn’t anticipated it either. But when Possokhov told him the music brought to mind the 1933 play An Optimistic Tragedy about the 1917 Russian Revolution, Demutsky immediately understood the connection. Possokhov turned to the play for its story and to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin for visual inspiration, creating a dramatic ballet driven equally by emotion and aesthetics.

Salome (World Premiere)

Composer: Frank Moon
Choreographer: Arthur Pita
Scenic and Costume Design: Yann Seabra
Lighting Design: Jim French

World Premiere:
March 9, 2017

Salome deals with mature themes and subject matter. Not recommended for children under 12.

When a choreographer with an affinity for David Lynch films gets his hands on the story of Salome, unusual things are bound to happen. And they do, in Arthur Pita’s first commission for San Francisco Ballet. His Salome is inspired by two other works by that title, Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play and David McVicar’s staging of Richard Strauss’ opera, plus the Bible story and the style of David Lynch. But the influence of previous works is overshadowed by Pita’s freewheeling imagination and textured contemporary movement. His Salome explores power, ritual, and desire like you’ve never seen it done before.

The way Helgi Tomasson sees it, Pita’s work is dance theater. He had been keeping an eye on Pita’s career. “I knew he was very much a theater person, and I thought that would be good for us,” he explains, noting that he likes that Salome is “completely contemporary, It’s not in biblical costumes. The story is strong.”

New Miles Thatcher (World Premiere — as yet unnamed)

Composer: Michael Nyman
Choreographer: Myles Thatcher
Costume Design: Susan Roemer
Lighting Design: Jim French

World Premiere: 
April 5, 2017

Choreographers contemplating a new work find inspiration in all kinds of places—a piece of music that stirs up emotions, an image that triggers an image or memory, a snippet of history that leads to a story idea. SF Ballet Corps de Ballet member Myles Thatcher’s imagination was sparked by a quote by comedian Louis C.K.: “The world is amazing and nobody’s happy.” Thatcher interpreted the quote to mean that “it’s easy to get stuck in our own personal agendas, baggage, and dramas,” he says. “To get out of that, first we need each other, to relate to each other and be there as a community.”

For Thatcher, the first step in creating a new work is finding the music. For this as yet unnamed ballet, the second he has created for SF Ballet, he turned to the work of composer Michael Nyman. Thatcher selected seven short pieces and arranged them in a structural and emotional arc to fit his concept. “I wanted [music] that had some darkness and pain, but also had lightness and joy to it.”

Myles Thatcher rehearses his 2016 new work.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Myles Thatcher during rehearsal of his 2016 new work.
(© Erik Tomasson)

The ballet opens with a couple in conflict. In rehearsals Thatcher tells Principal Dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Joseph Walsh that the first moments of their duet “should feel like a face-off at an old abandoned warehouse.” Later he explains that they’re like “those people who enjoy confrontation. In the beginning, we’re not sure if they’re having fun. It’s like when you have chemistry with someone who isn’t really good for you; there’s a toxicity there, but there’s pleasure in that. I wanted that kind of dynamic.” 

Yuan Yuan Tan in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
(Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson)

2017 Repertory Season

The following are particular favorites of mine. After ‘Frankenstein’ (can’t wait), the following are the programs I’m looking forward to. So many new works…and the classics.

* Program 1 *

Opens Tuesday, January 24 with Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony, a new work by Bubeníček, and NYCB Resident Choreographer Justin Peck’s In the Countenance of Kings. Haffner Symphony, is set to Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major.

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Haffner Symphony.

* Program 5 *

Contemporary Voices

Fitkin, Burman/Possokhov/ Pierce/Woodall/Ingalls


Fearful Symmetries

March 9 eve, 11 mat & eve, 14 eve, 15 eve, 17 eve, 19 mat

Lorena Feijoo and Luke Ingham in Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries.
(© Erik Tomasson)

* Program 6 *

Swan Lake
Tchaikovsky/Tomasson after Petipa, Ivanov/Fensom/Tipton/Ortel/Ward

March 31 eve; April 1 mat & eve, 2 mat, 6 eve, 7 eve, 11 eve, 12 eve

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake.
(© Erik Tomasson)

* Program 8 *


April 28 eve, 29 mat & eve, 30 mat; May 2 eve, 3 eve, 4 eve, 6 mat & eve, 7 mat

Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Watching and immersing myself in a ballet performance, I’m at once observing and experiencing the emotion of the virtuoso dancers, but also attuned to the ever-changing structure of a dance, the deft geometry of steps and movement across the stage, and the ensemble of costume design, set, lighting, and the mood created. My ear is following the violin or cello or cymbal, my eye is feasting on color and movement and abstract pattern. My brain follows the composition and structure, and my skin tingles with the evanescent beauty.

Doubtless the dry scent of the stage, and frissons of moving air from tutus and ballet slippers and whirling tulle stir memories of dancing class, the Paris Opera ballet, Margot Fonteyn’s lyricism, the Lyon ballet’s clashes, and the wildly erotic male dancers of the innovative Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.

In the profound creative terrain of Balanchine, for example I see the history of ballet re-invented, just as modern architecture re-evaluates classical architecture.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Wheeldon's Within The Golden Hour©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Behind the Scenes: New Ballets in Rehearsal San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco

Arthur Pita and members of San Francisco Ballet rehearse Pita's 2017 Salome.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Lorena Feijoorehearses Possokhov's Optimistic Tragedy.
(© Erik Thomassen)
Jiri Bubeníček and Dores André rehearse Bubeníček's Fragile Vessels.
(© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet

“The San Francisco Ballet company delivers performances where nothing is more engrossing than the choreography. The sense of selflessness is a crucial characteristic of good Balanchine style,” wrote New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay.” The San Francisco dancers are a remarkably unmannered, elegant and grown-up company. The adult quality is impressive. Ballet elsewhere so often looks to be a matter for girls and boys.”

San Francisco Ballet, the oldest professional ballet company in America, has emerged as a world-class arts organization since it was founded as the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1933. Initially, its primary purpose was to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length opera productions. The company now performs it repertoire from January to May each year in San Francisco, and then presents programs around the world, including, recently, in Paris and in Beijing.

San Francisco Ballet Dancers V
anessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan to Lead Pennsylvania Ballet Academy Following 2017 Season

Dancers give so much pleasure and emotional uplift, that when they retire or depart the company we all cry, applaud, wish them well, and loudly clap to show how much we appreciate their dancing. It is truly bittersweet.

San Francisco Ballet has announced that Principal Dancers Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan will retire from the Company, following the 2017 Season. The married couple has been appointed joint artistic directors of the Pennsylvania Ballet Academy. This summer, the Academy will move from New Cumberland to Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, where it will open a brand-new facility. A Farewell Performance is planned toward the end of the season, with details to be announced.

Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan in Balanchine's Jewels.
(Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson)

“Vanessa Zahorian has a rivetingly elegant physique, sparklingly precise legs and feet, a beautiful face offset by raven-black hair, and apparently complete technical accomplishment,” said Alastair Macaulay in the New York Times. “She switches effortlessly from sustained adagio to scintillating presto, and the fluent conception of legato behind everything she does helps to give her the pose of a rare artist.” — Critic Alastair Macaulay, New York Times, Feb 14 2010

For More Information and Tickets:

All performances of San Francisco Ballet take place at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

War Memorial Opera House. Photo by Cesar Rubio.

San Francisco Ballet 84th Season Gala
8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. (415) 865-2000,

All photography here courtesy the San Francisco Ballet.

Photography by Chris Hardy and Erik Thomasson.


1 comment:

carrps said...

Such good timing! I just read today about Mary Shelley and her book, "Frankenstein." I hadn't realized how different the book was from all the movie versions we've all seen. I'm guessing this ballet is closer to the original book. Although I haven't read it, the book sounds so much deeper, and, dare I say, serious than the movie versions. I did read the original Bram Stoker "Dracula" last year, and it was surprisingly readable for a book of that vintage. Definitely has staying power!