These days, critics and audiences admire San Francisco Ballet (SF Ballet) for its integration of high tech and multimedia into ballet. But the company is also proving itself to be a force on the commissioning front: it's just announced a slew of new work for the 2018 season from 12 acclaimed choreographers, an international cohort that includes one San Franciscan, Alonzo King.
The 2017 season, which formally opens on Tuesday, Jan. 24, features five brand new pieces. And if the two new short works on offer at the Jan. 19 gala -- Trey McIntyre’s tender, offbeat romp and Benjamin Millepied’s caffeinated charge through a mercurial soundscape by John Adams -- prove a reliable harbinger, things are off to an exhilarating start.
Here are thoughts on the five new works for this season, based on conversations I had with the choreographers themselves:
Jiří Bubeníček's Fragile Vessels (Jan. 24–Feb.4)
Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček has been obsessed with Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto since he was 16, and draws on the Russian composer’s work for his new piece Fragile Vessels. “For me, this symbolizes human beings,” Bubeníček says. “We are the sensitive vessels floating on waves of life. My goal was to make the energy of this wonderful music visible through the emotional language of choreography.”
His recent adaptation of Doctor Zhivago for the Slovenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre also mines Rachmaninoff's work, as well as that of other Russian composers: “I needed the tragedy, love and passion of Rachmaninoff to express the drama of Doctor Zhivago,” Bubeníček says, while in Fragile Vessels, the choreographer says he wishes, “to express not just drama but the human soul through this music.”
Despite the lack of narrative in his new work, Bubeníček say there is a hidden story in this piece. “I believe that the audience will discover the fantasy by themselves,” he says.
Yuri Possokhov's Optimistic Tragedy (Jan. 26–Feb. 5)
Longtime San Francisco Ballet resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov takes his latest inspiration from a 1932 play by Soviet dramatist Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Optimistic Tragedy, which was in turn inspired by the life and times of Larissa Reisner, a legendary intellectual and revolutionary Bolshevik leader.
For the lead ballerina role, Possokhov chose dancers Lorena Feijoo of Cuba and Chinese native Yuan Yuan Tan, “I immediately thought of Lorena Feijoo and Yuan Yuan Tan, due to their origin and roots as well as their understanding of these kinds of historic revolutionary events," Possokhov says.
Possokhov’s recent choreography for both San Francisco Ballet and the Bolshoi reflects a growing trend away from linear storytelling in the artform, towards impressionistic interpretations of iconic literary works. Optimistic Tragedy may further the trend: “We don’t closely follow the play itself,” Possokhov says. “We try to show the emotional side of the events and drama of the times of the Russian Revolution of 1917.”
Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein (Feb. 17–26)
Artist-in-residence at London’s Royal Ballet, Liam Scarlett has made one shorter work on San Francisco Ballet to date, the plotless Hummingbird, which proved to be a keeper.
Frankenstein, Scarlett's first foray into evening-length narrative ballet, is a co-production with the Royal Ballet, which premiered the work in London last season. San Francisco Ballet bet big on this work, investing about $1.5 million in the venture. That's roughly on a par with its investment in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in 2012, a co-production with Dutch National Ballet that proved itself to be a solid hit on both continents.
The payoff with Frankenstein looks less certain though. The show received lukewarm reviews in the U.K. Scarlett laments the fact that major ballet works don’t typically have the luxury of a “tryout run” in a smaller city outside of New York or London, as is usually the case with Broadway and West End musicals. “As a choreographer, you sit in the theater on opening night and suddenly you see things in a different light, and wish you’d had just one more day!” Scarlett says of his Frankenstein. Scarlett has reworked the piece slightly for the San Francisco opening, but notes, “the essence of the piece is still the same.”
Scarlett tackles the story in traditionally linear fashion. Out of the many strands of narrative, he focuses on those that he feels reflect Mary Shelley’s grappling with the traumas in her own life. “The book, in my opinion, is about love,” Scarlett says. “Pure love, lustful love, love for family, unrequited, jealous, unseen and unfilled, and love that is learned too late. It is macabre, but it is also a cry for help in the dark.”
Arthur Pita's Salome (Mar. 9–19)
The Portuguese, South African-born choreographer Arthur Pita danced with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures dance company (and was also a teenage disco champion). The Guardian describes one of the choreographer’s recent creations as “a little bit Snow White, a little bit Hellraiser.”
“I am certainly drawn to the macabre, but I am equally drawn to the absurd,” Pita says. “The stories that I am always drawn to are actually the most human ones, no matter how strange and wonderful -- it’s the souls of the characters that interest me.”
Set in the present day, Pita’s re-imagining of Salome for San Francisco Ballet is influenced by the work of Oscar Wilde and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as the many painting and film adaptations of this infamous tale of King Herod’s daughter, who demanded the head of John the Baptist and performed the erotic ‘Dance of the Seven Veils.’ "These stories capture our fascination with sex and death," Pita says. "Themes that lend themselves very well to dance.”
Myles Thatcher's world premiere, title TBD (Apr. 5–18)
Corps de ballet dancer Myles Thatcher, 26, is creating his second work on the company, the title of which has yet to be determined. Like the budding choreographer's first effort, which debuted in 2015, he says this one highlights the ensemble and is driven by a need for community.
Welded to fragments of film scores by minimalist composer Michael Nyman, the piece, Thatcher says, is “reflective of the polarized social climate of our times, with its heightened fears and tensions.”
Thatcher prefers to work in an abstract setting, but has created a few distinct characters to populate this new work. To describe the general mood, he quotes the comedian Louis C.K.: “The world is amazing and nobody’s happy.”
“That’s beautiful -- in a sad way,” Thatcher says.
For tickets and information regarding SF Ballet's 2017 season, see here.