Wona Park in MacMillan's Song of the Earth // © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo
Misa Kuranaga and Joseph Walsh in Ashton's Marguerite and Armand // © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo

San Francisco Ballet Program 2

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
Share This:

“Song of the Earth”
Choreography: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Composer: Gustav Mahler
World Premiere 1965, Stuttgart Ballett

“Marguerite and Armand”
Choreographer: Sir Frederick Ashton
Composer: Franz Liszt
World Premiere 1963, The Royal Ballet, London

Are story ballets doomed? During the run of San Francisco Ballet’s winter season Program Two: “British Icons,” featuring two British ballets from the early 1960’s, the company announced a mind-blowing, anonymous, $60-million-dollar gift, earmarked for the creation of new work. This, apparently, is the challenge being presented to new Artistic Director Tamara Rojo: “Rest lightly on your laurels. You’re on Silicon Valley’s doorstep now.”

As the company moves from a Balanchine aesthetic promoted for decades by New York City Ballet alum and beloved former San Francisco director Helgi Tommason, will Rojo turn everything British? Will that even work in a 21st-century, multi-cultural company not trained in the polite style of all things royal?

A look at Rojo’s inaugural programming season shows the director playing her cards wisely. While excitement (and high ticket sales) surrounded the premiere of possibly the world’s first AI ballet (“Mere Mortals,” a revisioning of the Pandora myth as a “meditation on artificial intelligence” with electronic music, choreography by Aszure Barton, and projections by Barcelona-based designers), the season is otherwise well-laden with fusty story ballets, from “Swan Lake” and “”A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to newer “narrative” works of two Latina choreographers being presented on one program as “Dos Mujeres.”

The $60-million gift then, is possibly a nudge for Rojo to leave aside the ballets she once danced in London at the Royal Ballet, now dated, like both of those on display in the “British Icons” program, and to begin to explore the future of ballet.

Of the two British ballets on display on Thursday night, “Song of the Earth,” by Sir Kenneth Macmillan, created a more powerful impression. The rich orchestral score by Gustav Mahler was built around a tenor and mezzo-soprano and text from Chinese Tang Dynasty poetry. Said to be a journey through the intense inner life of the composer, the balletic interpretation featured, “man, woman and death.” It also offered choreography that was experimental for its era, in line with possible openness to adventurous choreography at Stuttgart Ballett, where the piece premiered. The dance is full of darkness and light that mingle, like the colors of the orchestra. The corps plays a particular role here, shaping the playing space with dynamic, angular geometries. Having the singers, Gabrielle Beteag and Moisés Salazar,  planted on the corners of the stage and not in the pit, underlined the humanity and reality of the dance, alongside the brilliance of the music. “You breathe it in and dance it out,” said Steven McRae, the Royal Ballet star, who is quoted in a SF Ballet promotional video. McRae said that as a dancer, having singers in close proximity was surprisingly profound.

“Marguerite and Armand,” created in 1963 as a vehicle for the May-December partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, (she performed the piece into her 50’s) is a predictably romantic classical story ballet— about acting, star power, lyricism, and that always useful plot device: consumption. Ashton is said to have invented the English style during his tenure at Royal Ballet. The style can be described as more precise, lyrical and narrative, versus the more dashing intensity of Russian style, and the athleticism and abstraction of American Neo-classical technique.

Rojo, who can be seen dancing the Fonteyn role on YouTube, coached the San Francisco dancers in “Marguerite and Armand” and is clearly offering an introduction to Ashton and the Royal Ballet style which was her style for much of her dancing career. If the plot of the ballet seems familiar, it may be because it was based on the same story adapted by Verdi in 1853 for his opera, “La Traviata.” “Marguerite and Armand” tells the tale of Marguerite through flashbacks; at her peak, she is a popular courtesan in Paris who meets Armand, the love of her life, moves with him to the country, is forced to leave him by societal pressure, and returns to Paris to die. What better role for an aging ballerina?

“Marguerite and Armand” also served, this season, as the perfect farewell performance vehicle for the elegant dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, who starred at San Francisco Ballet for 29 years. However, time does not stand still. At the performance I saw, the next evening, Jasmine Jimison, a soloist in the company, danced Marguerite beautifully (along with the slightly shaky Isaac Hernández). At the curtain call, there was the surprise appearance of director Rojo on stage, bearing a bouquet of flowers. A day after one prima ballerina left, in a shower of flowers, Jimison, in tears, was given her own bouquet, and publicly promoted to principal dancer status.

It will be interesting to see how Rojo spends her $60 million.

The 37th Albuquerque International Flamenco Festival once again brings the cream of the crop of Spanish (and non-Spanish) flamenco artists...
In the ongoing conversations about choreography that I shared with Fernando Alonso, architect of the Cuban ballet training system, he...
American Ballet Theatre’s farm team, the Studio Company, is made up of 13 dancers age 17-21. These aren’t just any...
Search CultureVulture