SF Ballet Promises Innovative 2016 Season

by Sura Wood

With a menu of 17 eclectic ballets from which to choose this season, SF Ballet audiences can expect to be stimulated and sometimes surprised by the new and different.

“In my 30 years here I’ve been known for taking chances and that’s what I like,” says San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, Helgi Tomasson, as the esteemed company’s 2016 repertory season begins.

“In the ballet world we are known for our innovative new works,” he continues. “Yes, we also do the ‘Swan Lakes’ and ‘Giselles’ and do them well. But the main emphasis for me has always been to look toward the mixed repertory to advance the art of dance and see what’s possible.” Accordingly, this season, San Francisco Ballet features diverse programs that include the beloved story ballets “Swan Lake” and “Coppelia,” modern classics such as Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” George Balanchine’s “Rubies” and John Cranko’s “Eugene Onegin,” as well as a host of adventurous works by distinctive contemporary voices the company has cultivated. Among the latter on tap this season are ballets by William Forsythe, Yuri Possokhov, Justin Peck, Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett, whose “Fearful Symmetries” will have its world premiere at the end of January. In addition, a “Meet the Artist” series of interviews with artists, management and guests of the ballet begins an hour prior to Friday evening and Sunday matinee performances, free to ticket holders.

Tomasson’s “7 for Eight,” set to four keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach, will be performed opening weekend. Sharing the same program, which is repeated the first week of February, is Yuri Possokhov’s whimsical “Magrittomania.” The theatrical and sometimes zany piece, commissioned by San Francisco Ballet in 2001, was inspired by the paintings of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. For the Russian-born Possokhov, a former principal dancer with the company who is marking his 10th anniversary as resident choreographer, his obsession with Magritte blossomed into “mania” during a year when, he says, he paid multiple visits to exhibitions of the artist’s work.

“At the time, I was dreaming of not living in the real world,” he recalls, speaking by phone from his home in Moscow where he spends part of the year. “The ballet is about my relationship, my feelings of the world of Magritte. If you love something you must express that love.” Choreographed to Yuri Krasavin’s rearrangement of Beethoven and comprising eight episodes in which a man journeys from one painting to another, the ballet distills the mysterious surrealistic universe and iconography of Magritte: projections suggest images from the canvases; the dancers don black bowler hats, a Magritte signature; helium-filled balloons, representing large green apples, obscure dancers’ heads; and, in a pas de deux, the faces of the dancers are shrouded as they are in Magritte’s “The Lovers.” (Yuan Yuan Tan reprises the role of the woman in red, which she originated in the 2001 production.) Another Possokhov work, “Swimmer,” based on a John Cheever story but with a European take on American popular culture, is slated for later in the season.

Fifteen years after choreographing “Pas/Parts” for its premiere at Paris Opera Ballet, William Forsythe has created a new, revamped version expressly for dancers in the company. “I wanted to [revisit] it with the San Francisco Ballet because of the quality of the dancing,” Forsythe notes in an informational video. Supported by a 20-section, jazzy, orchestral score by frequent collaborator Thom Willems, the ballet for 15 dancers fuses classical and modern vocabulary in a succession of solos, duets, trios and groupings that culminates with the entire cast onstage. Forsythe moves through different epochs, employing a variety of styles, from the baroque to the linear and sleekly modern. He’s known for his use of rhythmic movement and syncopation; sensual leg extensions can start quickly and then elongate slowly, producing a palpable tension. “The choreography is sensual, even sexy at times,” observes ballet master and assistant to the artistic director Ricardo Bustamante. “He pushes virtuosity to the max, pushes the dancers to do the impossible and packs the ballet with action, while keeping a classical look.”

Often praised for his classicism, inventiveness and musicality, the versatile, in-demand British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony award last year for the Broadway show adaptation of “An American in Paris,” is regarded as one of the most important creative forces in ballet. “We want people to understand that there are many facets to ballet,” Wheeldon told The New York Times in 2009. “It can go from being a remarkable musical sculpture to something that is cathartic and emotional to a kind of mathematical problem.” His neo-classical “Continuum,” created in 2002, is a visualization of the intricate dissonant music of avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Custom-designed for the four couples on whom the dance was set, and primarily made up of duets with generous use of partnering, solos and athletic movement that involves crawling and rolling on the floor, the piece is minimalist and abstract yet attuned to the relationships onstage and the physical differences between men and women, who are starkly attired in unitards. The tone of the piece was informed, in part, by the events of 9/11. Though it cycles through a range of colors and moods, there’s an oppressiveness to the piece that is purposeful, observes ballet master Anita Paciotti, who assisted Wheeldon. Overall it’s not somber, she says, though it does have serious passages, and “a doomsday feeling at the end.”

The feral quality of Liam Scarlett’s “Fearful Symmetries,” which makes its world premiere January 27, is derived from John Adams’ propulsive music of the same title, which the choreographer describes as having “a sense of pounce or attack.” Scarlett’s

choreography was inspired by the William Blake poem “The Tyger”: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” To heighten the dance’s physicality, Scarlett urged the corps to work together as a pack; to achieve that effect, he took the unusual step of putting the women in flat shoes rather than en pointe, helping to create a “gender ambiguous” ballet.

“When you do a group piece and everyone is on the same path to begin with—there’s no pointe shoe, no skirt,” he explains in his program notes. “Then suddenly you have a pack as opposed to a divide.”

With a menu of 17 eclectic ballets from which to choose this season, audiences can expect to be stimulated and sometimes surprised by the new and different. “The audiences here are challenged by many of the things we bring,” says Tomasson. “I often hear people say: ‘I didn’t know ballet could be like that.’”

San Francisco Ballet

Jan. 24 - May 8

War Memorial Opera House

301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

(415) 865.2000/