Program Notes: Starry Nights
Photo by Erik Tomasson
Stanford Live and SF Ballet Present
Friday, August 5, 2022 | 8:00 PM
Saturday, August 6, 2022 | 8:00 PM
7 FOR EIGHT
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Choroegrapher: Helgi Tomasson
IN THE NIGHT
Composer: Frédéric Chopin
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
BLAKE WORKS I
Composer: James Blake
Choreographer: William Forsythe
Casting can be found here.
Read your guide to Starry Nights here.
Starry Nights is dedicated in loving memory to Kristen Avansino and Robert Smelick, longtime Trustees and champions of San Francisco Ballet
These performances are generously supported by Sue and John Diekman, Nancy Kukacka, and Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang.
Stanford Live Arts Festival Series Sponsor:
PROGRAM SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Please be considerate of others and turn off all phones, pagers, and watch alarms. Photography and recording of any kind are not permitted. Thank you.
“Bach is timeless.” So says Helgi Tomasson about his 7 for Eight, an elegant, black-on-black construction set to four keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach. He says he wanted to make a ballet to the revered composer’s music because of its “complexity and beautiful melodies.”
This work isn’t [Helgi Tomasson’s] first foray into Bach (he made Aurora Polaris in 1991), but it took until 2004 for him to feel truly ready to take on a composer who arguably represents the pinnacle of baroque music. “I think in some ways, consciously or unconsciously, having done Concerto Grosso [which premiered at the 2003 Gala and was set to the music of Francesco Geminiani] was steering me in the direction of Baroque music. Bach is the best—why not take the challenge? I love this music and I feel it’s very danceable; it has a lot of motion. George Balanchine gave me advice about choreographing: You have to love the music—that’s half the battle. If you don’t love it, it’s going to be very, very difficult. This music is so pure; it was a challenge for me to come up to that. It doesn’t need anything from me.”
Finn and Costume Designer Sandra Woodall found themselves in sync after seeing a rehearsal; both were immediately drawn to the formality of a simply black space with a strong focus in the center. Together, they brought their black-on-black, light-and-shadow design concept to Tomasson. “We wanted it to have a little freshness but also have that classical look,” says Woodall. “Helgi has this delightful surprise when we said we wanted black—he said, ‘I wasn’t thinking of that, but if it works, great.’ It’s so lovely working in this open, collaborative way.” Finn nods in agreement. “Helgi has a quiet fortitude about what he’s doing—and being so strong about what he wants to do, he can remain open to so many ideas. You get the sense that he expects you to bring the full gamut of your creativity to the process. He looks at everything and then he shapes it.”
In a way, 7 for Eight seems like a love letter to Bach. The dancers yield and flow, drape and arc, turn and wrap, revealing layer after layer of these complex compositions as they foray out to explore the work’s physical and emotional terrain, then circle back to center and each other.
Learn more about Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight on San Francisco Ballet's website.
In The Night
In 1970, only a year after making his masterful Dances at a Gathering, choreographer Jerome Robbins returned to the music of Frédéric Chopin with In The Night, a set of three love stories that shares the earlier work’s strong emotional basis but not its communal spirit. A sense of camaraderie permeates Dances at a Gathering; the characters of In The Night can think of nothing but their lovers. As in many of Robbins’ works, the characters in this ballet triptych are sharply drawn, and their dancing offers a glimpse into the intimacy of their lives. The mood is set for romance as soon as the curtain rises, in silence, revealing a starlit sky. A couple dressed in eveningwear appears and then the music, a Chopin nocturne, begins. In this youthful romantic encounter, the lovers dance with a sense of joyful discovery as the man tenderly drapes the woman over his arms, then either melts with her to the floor or swings her into the air. They play out their youthful declarations of devotion, then exit in a swirl of passionate motion and flowing skirt.
Another couple enters and we see at once, by their reserve and dress, that they are in a more mature phase of love. In Ballet Master Katita Waldo’s mind—she has danced the role many times—they have been together for a very long time. “I think it’s a little peek at a private moment of an established couple—that’s how it has always felt to me. They have weathered the storms and they’re restrained in their emotions,” she says. “There’s history there. They have issues that have been worked out, but perhaps not perfectly.” She describes their presentation as “very elegant” and adds that Jean-Pierre Frohlich, ballet master from the Robbins Rights Trust, told someone new to the role “to think that she was walking in a lovely garden, a formal English garden.” The third couple, in contrast, enters with tempers flaring, and there’s no mistaking the subtext in their relationship. Physical desire and emotional friction seem equally matched, and their relationship is so tempestuous that first one runs off, then the other, then both. Throughout their pas de deux the locus of power shifts back and forth until, in what some (including Balanchine) have considered a controversial gesture, one yields to the other.
The final scene, when the couples greet one another, evokes fleeting thoughts of Dances at a Gathering but without its joyful sense of community. In this ballet, the couples merely acknowledge each other politely, as etiquette dictates. The lure of romance holds too much promise, and each man gathers his woman and spins her off into the night.
What better music for such passionate interludes than Chopin’s piano nocturnes, with their dreamy, romantic nature? Robbins seems to have found some kinship in the Polish composer, using his music for The Concert and Other Dances as well as for Dances at a Gathering and In The Night. It’s likely that Chopin’s work reminded the choreographer, who struggled throughout his life with identity issues about his Russian Jewish heritage, of his family’s roots in Eastern Europe. And although Robbins fought conflicting emotions about his immigrant parents, who lacked any display of the kind of heartfelt emotions that were to dominate their son’s ballets, he could thank his mother for his early exposure to the arts. Lena Rips Rabinowitz spared no effort in shuttling her children to piano and violin lessons, where one imagines Robbins might have discovered Chopin.
Learn more about Robbins' In The Night on San Francisco Ballet's website.
Blake Works I
“It’s the perfect time to do a work like Blake Works I, which is a very celebratory piece,” says Ayman Harper, who staged William Forsythe’s ballet in San Francisco. “What better time than now to present what is essentially a love letter to ballet?” Set to seven songs from James Blake’s album The Colour in Anything, William Forsythe’s Blake Works I is a joyous tribute to the art of ballet from one of its most innovative creators. Forsythe’s relationship with SF Ballet started in 1987 when, newly arrived artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited him to create a new work. New Sleep, set to Thom Willems’ electronic score, was fascinating for its compositional and conceptual complexity and electrifying for its accelerated and extreme movement—a cerebral and a visceral thrill. “It was very, very, very different from anything else the company had ever done,” remembers Tomasson, who was thrilled to be providing dancers—and audiences—with new challenges. “I think Bill is so inventive, he’s so incredibly smart and musical.”
When Ayman Harper came to SF Ballet to set Blake Works I in the spring of 2021, he too found the dancers ready not just to learn the steps but to collaborate in absorbing the intricacies of the ballet, from the subtleties of the movement to the emphases in the phrasing—in short the mental as well as the physical challenges. “I am grateful that the dancers trusted me to penetrate the surface level of the work,” says Harper, who in a rehearsal encouraged them to carefully consider the timing of the steps. “What are your musical contributions that will unfold in the form of a ballet?” he asked, later explaining that he “enjoys seeing the dancers riffing musically off one another” and adds, “you know, dancers are musicians by default.”
In Blake Works I, Forsythe starts with ballet vocabulary then tweaks it, layering complex, occasionally kaleidoscopic movement onto James Blake’s evocative vocals and electronic score. Blake Works I may look a bit different on San Francisco Ballet than it did on Paris Opera, or even Boston Ballet, who performed it in 2019, because Forsythe is open to allowing space for individuality and interpretation within the framework of the choreography. “What I value so much about Bill’s work is that it lives and breathes,” explains Harper. “It’s never static. It is something that is always evolving.”
During the initial rehearsals for Blake Works I, SF Ballet dancers were still in pandemic-safe pods, and relatively new to being back to rehearsals. The creativity of putting together Forsythe’s ballet felt like a gift after a year of lockdown, he says: “I felt like it was a very special time to walk into this building and work with these dancers. We really came together both artistically and on a human level.”
Learn more about Forsythe's Blake Works I on San Francisco Ballet's website.
Helgi Tomasson, one of the most venerated classical dancers of his generation, celebrated his 37th and final season with San Francisco Ballet in 2022. Born in Iceland, he danced with Harkness Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, and New York City Ballet, where he distinguished himself as a dancer of technical purity, musicality, and intelligence. Tomasson became artistic director of SF Ballet in 1985. Under his direction, SF Ballet has become a company widely recognized as one of the finest in the world. He has choreographed more than 50 works for the Company, including full-length productions of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet (taped for Lincoln Center at the Movies’ Great American Dance), Giselle, and Nutcracker (taped for PBS’s Great Performances). He conceptualized the 1995 United We Dance festival, in which SF Ballet hosted 12 international companies; the 2008 New Works Festival, which included 10 world premieres by 10 acclaimed choreographers; and the 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works. Tomasson has also connected SF Ballet to the world, through co-commissions with American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Ballet, and Dutch National Ballet; and major tours to Paris, London, New York City, China, and his native Iceland. In 2021, Tomasson received the San Francisco Arts Medallion, created by the Museum of Performance + Design to recognize those individuals whose leadership, action, and generosity have benefited the cultural life of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Jerome Robbins was an award-winning American choreographer, director, dancer, and theater producer who worked in classical ballet, on Broadway, and in films and television. Born in New York City, he joined Ballet Theatre (which would become American Ballet Theatre) and in 1944 choreographed his first work for the company, commissioning a score from a young composer, Leonard Bernstein. Fancy Free was a hit and Robbins expanded it to become the musical On the Town, which launched his Broadway career. In 1949, Robbins left Ballet Theatre to join New York City Ballet as a dancer and associate artistic director, where over the course of fifty years he created major ballets including Afternoon of a Faun (1953), The Concert (1956), Dances At a Gathering (1969), In the Night (1970), In G Major (1975), Glass Pieces (1983) and Ives, Songs (1988). He also created ballets for American Ballet Theatre, his own company Ballets U.S.A, which toured from 1958–62, and other international companies. His last ballets include A Suite of Dances created for Mikhail Baryshnikov (1994), 2 & 3 Part Inventions (1994), West Side Story Suite (1995), and Brandenburg (1996). Robbins’ Broadway shows include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production in 1989, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director. In addition to two Academy Awards for the film West Side Story, Robbins received four Tony Awards, five Donaldson Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Screen Directors' Guild Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors recipient and was awarded the French Chevalier dans l'Ordre National de la Legion d'Honneur.
William Forsythe has been active in the field of choreography for over 50 years. With an initial focus on the organizational underpinnings of academic ballet, Forsythe’s work has extended his choreographic discourse into the field of visual arts over the last 25 years. Forsythe danced with the Joffrey Ballet and later the Stuttgart Ballet, where he was appointed Resident Choreographer in 1976. In 1984, he began a 20-year tenure as director of the Ballet Frankfurt after which he founded and directed The Forsythe Company until 2015. While his work for the stage resides in the repertoire of ensembles worldwide, his installations are featured internationally in both museum exhibitions and collections. His expanded notion of classical ballet practice has been adopted by companies and in educational settings worldwide. Forsythe has been the recipient of numerous awards which include the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale and Der FAUST, both for lifetime achievement.
San Francisco Ballet, long recognized for pushing boundaries in dance, has a history of making history. The Company has enjoyed a long and rich tradition of artistic “firsts” since its founding in 1933, including performing the first American productions of Swan Lake and Nutcracker, as well as the first 20th-century American Coppélia. SF Ballet is one of the three largest ballet companies in the United States. It currently presents more than 100 performances annually, both locally and internationally. The mission of SF Ballet is to share its joy of dance with the widest possible audience—in its community and worldwide—and to provide the highest caliber of dance training in its School. Under the direction of Helgi Tomasson, the Company has achieved an international reputation as one of the preeminent ballet companies in the world. For more information visit sfballet.org.
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7 for Eight
Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson
Costume Design: Sandra Woodall
Lighting Design: David Finn
World Premiere: February 26, 2004—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Costumes constructed by Birgit Pfeffer, Palo Alto, California.
In the Night
Composer: Frédéric Chopin
Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Staged by: Anita Paciotti
Costume Design: Anthony Dowell
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
World Premiere: January 29, 1970—New York City Ballet, New York State Theater; New York, New York
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: April 2, 1985—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Costumes constructed by Christopher Read and Ruth Bartel, and by Sandra Woodall Costumes, San Francisco, California.
Blake Works I
Composer: James Blake
Choreography and Scenic Design: William Forsythe
Staged by: Ayman Harper
Costume Design: Dorothee Merg and William Forsythe
Lighting Design: Tanja Ruehl and William Forsythe
World Premiere: July 4, 2016–Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier; Paris, France
San Francisco Ballet Premiere: February 3, 2022—War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Costumes constructed by San Francisco Ballet Wardrobe Department.
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