What is it? A tasting flight of contemporary ballet: Stanton Welch’s updated classicism, Liam Scarlett’s moody melodrama, and Mark Morris’s quirky cool.
Who’s it for? Anyone who loves going to the symphony, enjoys arthouse films full of gray-toned landscapes, or has a particularly wry sense of humor.
What Am I Seeing? Australian choreographer Stanton Welch’s neoclassical ode to classical ballet. Inspired by the brevity of a dancer’s career with ballet—most dancers retire by their 40s—Welch created Bespoke in 2018 to show off the dancers of SF Ballet and their love for and commitment to the art form.
What Am I Hearing? J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major and Violin Concerto in A minor. The only two surviving violin concertos that Bach wrote, these pieces have all the intricacy of form that Bach was known for.
What Should I Look For? The way Welch moves his dancers’ arms like the hands of a clock to suggest the passage of time. And the way each dancer gets a moment to shine—Welch says the piece is a reflection of the dancers.
What am I seeing? Liam Scarlett’s first commission for SF Ballet, made in 2012. Hummingbird is a good introduction to this popular young choreographer’s style, showcasing the way he blends classical ballet with contemporary drama. Trained in the Royal Ballet’s period story ballets, Scarlett almost seems to pluck characters from one of those tempestuous tales and transport them into a place of 21st-century abstraction.
What am I hearing? Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Glass is famous for being one of the pioneers of “minimalism,” a musical style that creates a kind of aural landscape through the repetition of melodic phrases and fragments.
What should I look for? Notice how the three main couples seem to have a backstory that never quite becomes clear, and how their movements fluctuate between pristinely placed and dramatically expansive. Scarlett fans may also notice that the sets and costumes are by John Macfarlane, who designed Scarlett’s Frankenstein in 2016, and the lighting design is by David Finn, who lit last year’s Die Toteninsel. Together their contributions add a moody sense of place to the ballet.
What Am I Seeing? Mark Morris, a McArthur Foundation fellow and one of the world’s most influential living choreographers, has made more works for SF Ballet than for any other ballet company in the world. Sandpaper Ballet, created here in 1999, is a cleverly tongue-in-cheek ballet exemplary of his signature musical sensibility, with bodies on stage articulating different parts of the score. Its bright green Isaac Mizrahi costumes add a surrealist element to this quirky ballet.
What am I hearing? A selection of songs by composer Leroy Anderson. If the name isn’t familiar, the music will be, as Anderson was the composer of light orchestral works like Fiddle Faddle, The Typewriter Song, and, most famously, Sleigh Ride, which have made their way out of the concert hall and on to radios and TV screens around the world.
What should I look for? Notice the formation the dancers are in at the very beginning, when the curtain opens. They’ll return to this grid over and over—it serves as a kind of home base or structural reset as the music changes. Also, the overture is distinctive (and I don’t want to give it away!). But think about how it impacts your experience of the dance to hear this particular song right before the curtain goes up.