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The Artistry of SF Ballet’s ‘Dos Mujeres’ Begins at the Curtain

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Four people stand on large painted canvas on warehouse floor
Oakland artist (center left) Maria A. Guzmán Capron stands with SF Ballet scenic artists (from left) Garrett Lowe, Robert Burg and David Dunn on top of a curtain drop mural Capron designed for 'Dos Mujeres.' (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When audiences make their way into the War Memorial Opera House for San Francisco Ballet’s Dos Mujeres, a double-bill presentation of Arielle Smith’s Carmen (a world premiere) and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, they will rest their eyes upon a very different kind of curtain.

Instead of gold velvet drapery, they’ll be looking at a 30-by-60-foot mural on canvas, a hand-painted translation of a textile piece created by Oakland artist Maria A. Guzmán Capron.

Far in advance of opening night — with warehouse space at a premium — SF Ballet’s scenic artists put the finishing touches on the piece, before all 229 pounds of the painting were folded up to await its eventual unveiling on April 4. (Even this is a big to-do, involving scissor-lifts and hours of steaming.)

Walking across the painted canvas surface in early February, Capron was thrilled to take in the dense design of trompe-l’oeil patterns and colored stitching. “It is a wild experience because I never get to do that with my work, to feel really immersed by it,” she said. “It makes me feel more part of it in some way, like I am in it.”

Two people talk, one gestures with arms in front of brightly painted large canvas on floor
Capron talks with Charge Scenic Artist Robert Burg in the SF Ballet’s San Francisco scene shop in February 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“That’s the way we feel about everything we work on,” agreed Robert Burg, charge scenic artist for SF Ballet. “There’s a very personal connection to the pieces we work on, especially the backdrops we paint.”

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Burg, along with Scenic Artists David Dunn and Garrett Lowe, translated Capron’s 43-by-48-inch textile piece into mural form, tracing the images out in charcoal on paper, priming the massive stapled-down canvas, then creating stencils and special tools to more accurately capture the depth and texture of the original work.

The three men stood over the canvas for about a month, a print-out in one hand and a paintbrush attached to a long stick in the other, rendering cotton, satins and lace at a monumental scale.

One specially made tool, a notched foam roller, was the result of weeks of pondering how to get Capron’s stitches just right. “When we came up with the idea, it worked even better than we thought,” Burg said.

circular foam roller with notches cut into it traces a dotted line across a painted canvas
A scenic artist demonstrates how a foam roller was used to create the ‘stitching’ in Capron’s mural. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Dunn concurred: “It just was such a satisfying kind of way to finish.”

(“I always say, nobody ever loved a tool on a stick as much as David,” Burg said.)

The mural is a merger of the shop’s classic scenic art techniques and SF Ballet’s new direction under Artistic Director Tamara Rojo. “This is just a fun project for us because it’s a little outside of our usual scope of old architecture,” Burg said, describing their traditional fare as “somebody’s cottage or palace.”

“But our company is doing a lot of unusual and new stuff these days, which is wonderful because it’s about keeping the art alive,” he added.

Capron was given a video of rehearsals of Carmen, and footage from previous performances of Broken Wings. Her figures’ overlapping stance, tangled below and heart-shaped above, comes from Carmen’s choreography. The swirl of flowers that surrounds them is an homage to the twirling skirts of the dancers in Broken Wings, a ballet about the life of Frida Kahlo.

Print-outs of mural design propped on stand in front of the painted mural
Print-outs of Capron’s textile collage sit on a table near a large-scale version made by scenic artists in the SF Ballet warehouse. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It’s fitting for a ballet about a visual artist to so involve the work of other visual artists. After the San Francisco Opera moved their scene shop to Burlingame, and American Conservatory Theater closed theirs, SF Ballet now runs the last scene shop in San Francisco, in a cavernous yet unassuming warehouse off Cesar Chavez Street.

The Ballet’s scenic artists are committed to their trade — and the responsibilities that come with this role, which involves painting the backdrops, built scenery, furniture and props for several new productions a year, along with maintenance on older productions being revived.

“Most of what we use to do this job are things we were able to purchase locally,” Dunn said. “Robert prioritizes that. We really are trying to support local businesses and the arts because we need them, right? And they need us.”

For Capron, this commission required releasing her work into a completely foreign process — very different from overseeing studio assistants. “They have so much knowledge already on their own that just the first time I came, I was like, ‘Oh, I feel in great hands,’ you know?” she said. “I don’t even feel like I have to worry in any way.”

On April 4, she plans to be in the Opera House audience, seeing her piece from its proper vantage point alongside her family. But as Burg warns, “It’s never going to look bigger to us than it does now.”

San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Dos Mujeres’ takes place at the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco) April 4–14. Find tickets and more information here.

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