The Future is Here: SF Ballet Presents "next @90"

By Heather Desaulniers

Festival of New Works Features Nine World Premiere Ballets by Nine International Choreographers

While San Francisco Ballet is certainly renowned for grand full-scale productions and innovative mixed repertory bills, there is yet another strand that completes its programming DNA. One that the company revisits again and again. One that thrills audiences and sets the larger ballet community abuzz: a new works festival. The tradition began back in 1995 with the "United We Dance Festival," followed by 2000’s "Discovery Program," 2008’s "75th Anniversary New Works Festival" and 2018’s "Unbound: A Festival of New Works." While indeed different and unique, each festival has had a common goal – to share an eclectic array of choreographic voices and to showcase the future of contemporary and classical ballet.

In a matter of days, yet another festival will join those ranks and launch a historic season at SFB. The company has much to celebrate, most notably its 90th birthday and a new age of creative leadership under the Artistic Direction of Tamara Rojo. And San Francisco Ballet knows how to mark such milestones. From January 20th to February 11th, a collage of nine exhilarating original works will premiere over three curated programs. Abstract, conceptual and narrative themes will meet neo-classical, contemporary and traditional choreography. This is the "[email protected]" festival.

Initially the choreographic cohort for "[email protected]" was supposed to be a bit different. Then, a scheduling conflict arose for one choreographer, which sent the SFB artistic team on the hunt for a replacement somewhat late in the game. But the company knew where to look. To an artist who had the expertise and wherewithal to create a brilliant new work in short order: Val Caniparoli. Caniparoli, who is celebrating his 50th year with the company, was up for the challenge. Quickly, he secured a score (by Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova), recruited a costume designer (Susan Roemer) and headed into the studio to begin working with the eight dancers already cast. “The time constraint definitely shaped the work, with the ballet becoming about that concept of intense unknown,” he explains, “then I saw that same theme mirrored outside the studio - in politics, the economy, global health and transitions – unresolved challenges and struggles all around.” Aptly titled "Emergence," viewers will see those layered emotions come into being on stage, reflected in the choreographic vocabulary, the individual performances and through the design elements, including something new for Caniparoli. “I wanted something different at the beginning of the piece, so I worked with sound designer Ben Juodvalkis on a taped, soundscore collage that sets the mood and tone,” he details, “it will guide the audience to not only sense the tension, but also feel involved and engaged with it.”

San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Caniparoli's "Emergence." © Reneff-Olson Productions. Premieres on Saturday, January 21st and goes through February 8th.

For his [email protected] commission, choreographer Robert Garland looked to the neo-classical style in creating Haffner Serenade, set to a Mozart composition of the same name. Most often associated with George Balanchine, neo-classical ballet has recognizable tenets and characteristics, many of which Garland will investigate in this new work for ten dancers (two principals and a corps of eight). “Speed, syncopation and musicality will be present; the costumes will have the pared down neo-classical feel to them, and the score really lends itself to neo-classical roots,” he notes. But Garland, who will soon become the Artistic Director at Dance Theatre of Harlem, is also injecting his own twists and turns into this familiar genre. “African American vernacular dance and neo-classical ballet vocabulary are going to mingle [in Haffner Serenade] and we will see ballet technique in an ultra-jazzy form,” recounts Garland, “I also want people to experience Mozart in a different way, seeing and hearing the funk, boogie and syncopated rhythms that have always been there, even though his compositions are centuries old.” Another important choreographic focus for Garland was highlighting the challenge of pointe work, “I think we’re at a moment in ballet where we take pointe work for granted - Haffner Serenade will hopefully shine a light on the beauty and finesse of the performers who wear these shoes.” And while neo-classical ballet is typically abstract, without a linear story, it still has the power to connote deep feelings, charges and responses for the viewer. Garland is keenly aware of this truth and has several hopes in what the audience might take away from this new work. “My wish is that people see the value in looking backwards every once in a while, in order to successfully navigate the future and have a vision of where we’re going,” he shares, “and that, with all the recent darkness in the world (still understanding that darkness as a part of our being), let’s take a moment to feel a little bit of joy.”

Haffner Serenade debuts on Friday, January 20th in [email protected]’s Program A and runs until February 11th.

When Claudia Schreier, Atlanta Ballet’s current Choreographer-in-Residence, was first asked to be part of the "[email protected] festival," it was a moment of sheer delight, “to be alongside eight other distinctive voices in such an event is an honor that is somewhat hard to fathom.” But the idea that there might also be room to have a brand-new, original, commissioned score wasn’t even on her radar. Upon learning that it was indeed feasible, she knew who she wanted to work with: composer Tanner Porter. Schreier and Porter had previously worked together on a piece for Boston Ballet, but this would be the first time either of them had been at SFB. “I so value Tanner as a creator and collaborator,” Schreier relays, “we push each other, explore each other’s style and are truly excited about the new places we might encounter.” With that collaboration solidified, Schreier embarked on the creative journey that has yielded Kin, an ensemble work for sixteen. Much was discovered along the way. Broad-reaching themes began to arise in both the music and movement. “There was this metaphor of a subterranean place, a dark underbelly that we are trying to get away from; a clawing upwards to arrive in a more hopeful, yet unresolved space,” she describes. An abstract narrative also emerged that follows the relationship between two central female characters, one that Schreier characterizes as more of a mother-daughter bond. And choreographically, Schreier’s phrase material met with Porter’s lush, rooted composition, “Kin is danced on pointe, but it is definitely contemporary with a grounded movement quality.”

Kin is part of Program C – January 25th – February 7th.

Main Image: Claudia Schreier during rehearsal for her Kin. Photo by Chris Hardy

While Schreier’s personal participation in "[email protected]" has been a joy, she knows that she is one part of a much bigger picture, “I’m grateful, of course, to contribute my voice to the festival, but I also can’t wait to witness all the artistry, the choreography, the collaborations and all the inventions that are going to spill out on stage in the next few days.”

For more information on the "[email protected]" festival, visit sfballet.org

Heather Desaulniers
Heather Desaulniers
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
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