Your Ultimate Guide to the Story Ballet Trio

What is it? A chance to see San Francisco Ballet in three epic story ballets during the 2020 Season. 

Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a good William Shakespeare adaptation (though these are closer to The Globe Theatre than to Baz Lurhmann), 1990s romantic comedies (think: mistaken identities, mean girls, and happily-ever-afters), or had a childhood fascination with Peter and the Wolf.

CINDERELLA©

Frances Chung in Wheeldon’s Cinderella© // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame created this delightful ballet in 2012 on the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. But don’t expect fairy godmothers and talking mice: this production uses fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, updating this story for a modern audience.

What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella, op. 87. Prokofiev started work on this ballet in 1940, but WWII interrupted his work. Finished in the Ural Mountains in 1944 (in the company of a group of Kirov dancers who had been evacuated from Leningrad), this ballet is structured like a traditional classical ballet and contains themes for each of the main characters.

What Should I Look For? Although technically the story of Cinderella and her Prince, this ballet is chock-full of secondary characters worth a second look. Particularly keep an eye out for the tree, which in this version replaces the fairy godmother, and for Cinderella’s “evil” stepsister Clementine and the Prince’s BFF Benjamin.

 

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Pacific Northwest Ballet’’s Laura Tisserand and Kyle Davis, with PNB School students, in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. © The Balanchine Trust  // © Angela Sterling

What Am I Seeing? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine was his first original full-length ballet and was quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Balanchine loved the original play—he could recite large parts of it in Russian—so the ballet sticks close to its inspiration, telling the story of four lost lovers in the woods, as well as of a royal fairy court made up of Queen Titania, King Oberon, and mischievous Puck. The narrative lends itself to a wealth of principal and soloist parts and gives ample opportunities for dancers to take on featured roles.

What Am I Hearing? Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, interspersed with several of his other works. The overture was written when Mendelssohn was just 17, but the rest was composed 16 years later. The most famous part of the score is probably the Wedding March, which has had a life of its own ever since Princess Victoria used it for her 1858 wedding. But the score is full of delights beyond this familiar tune. In particular, it contains several vocal numbers, so audiences will get to hear live singers in the Opera House—always a treat!

What Should I Look For? Beyond the mischief caused by the fairies (and do note Balanchine’s comedic timing), this ballet is really about love. But even once everyone is appropriately paired off, none of these characters seem to have the perfect relationship. That’s left for two unnamed characters who appear in the second act’s “Divertissement” pas de deux. In this pas de deux—one of Balanchine’s most beautiful—you see a meditation on what perfect, pure, divine love might look like, something seemingly out of reach even for these fairytale creatures.

 

ROMEO & JULIET

Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno in Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet // © Erik Tomasson

What Am I Seeing? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story—two households, both alike, fair Verona etc—routinely brings the audience to tears. 

What am I hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, op. 64. Written in 1935, this is truly one of the most celebrated scores in all of the ballet repertory. But that wasn’t always the case. Prokofiev wrote this as his first piece upon his return to the Soviet Union, and he soon learned just how hazardous that decision could be. It wasn’t actually performed until 1940 and by that point is was heavily altered (read: censored). The biggest change? Prokofiev’s original happy ending for the young lovers was replaced by the more traditional tragic finale. You can read more about this score’s convoluted history in this New York Times article from 2018.

What should I look for? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are.

Header image: Frances Chung in Wheeldon’s Cinderella© // © Erik Tomasson

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