Program 4 of San Francisco Ballet’s current season features a world premiere by Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre and former director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Also on the program is Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony and Christopher Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour.
It’s the Balanchine work which opens the performance - a ballet which was inspired partly by New York City Ballet's first visit to the Edinburgh Festival, partly by Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 3 (The Scottish), and there’s a decided hint of either Philippe Taglioni’s 1932 production of La Sylphide - or August Bournonville’s production for the Royal Danish Ballet of 1936 - which was also set in Scotland.
Whatever the source of the inspiration, Balanchine incorporated into his ballet the excitement of the Military Tattoo on the Castle battlements - the precision of the drumming, the skirling bagpipes, the vivacity of the Highland Reel. Reflecting by turns its light and dark sides, Scotch Symphony balances split-second footwork with flowing passion - eloquently demonstrating the legendary versatility of its choreographer.
From Foreign Lands is Alexei Ratmansky’s second commission for San Francisco Ballet, his first having been Le Carnaval des Animaux in 2003. Born in St Petersburg and trained at the Bolshoi Academy, Ratmansky has danced with the Ukranian National, Royal Winnipeg and Royal Danish Ballets, and held the position of artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet from 2004 - 2009. In addition to creating works for his home company, American Ballet Theatre, Ratmansky has also choreographed for the Bolshoi, Dutch National, Kirov, New York City, Royal Danish and Royal Swedish ballet companies, created dance for Metropolitan Opera’s Aida, and will premiere his Cinderella for Australian Ballet in September.
Ratmansky’s work is described as “fresh and young-spirited” by SF Ballet’s program annotator, Cheryl A Ossala, whilst “honoring the past - the traditions, culture and community of ballet”. Helgi Tomasson, the Company’s artistic director and principal choreographer, says: “I love his sense of humor, understatement sometimes—just pure joy. I watch his ballets and I see a master at work.”
From Foreign Lands is set to Moritz Moszkowski’s Suite for Orchestra of the same name. Originally written for two pianos, and published in 1884, it’s representative of the music for which Moszkowski is probably best known - inspired by the tarantella, the fandango and the czardas. Ratmansky chose the Suite from his personal music collection. “I bought it because I knew him; in Russia we did Moszkowski Waltz, a concert piece choreographed [by Asaf Messerer] in the 1930s, I think,” he says. “And it’s good music; I always liked it. I like the orchestration. It’s delicate but also it has the character [aspect].”
Christopher Wheeldon likens Within the Golden Hour to "a series of small paintings or sketches that are inspired by the music” - six unrelated pieces for strings by Italian composer, Ezio Bosso, plus the Andante from Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in B-flat Major.
The ballet was created for San Francisco Ballet’s New Works Festival in 2008, with Wheeldon approaching it as he does each new ballet, in an almost entrepreneurial fashion, pushing at the boundaries of his artistic capabilities. He refers to his choreography as “a kind of synthesis between using the classical ballet technique, which I love, and finding other dance forms to inspire a new, interesting way of looking at a ballet step.”
Wheeldon’s inherent versatility and pioneering spirit are reflected in his career path. He has danced with both The Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet - where he had the opportunity of studying under master choreographers, Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and where he later became the first artist in residence, a position created for him by NYCB director, Peter Martins. He also founded and directed Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, has won numerous awards for his many and highly successful ballets, and has also worked in film, on Broadway and in opera.
His creativity is driven mainly by music, but he says he also draws inspiration from the works of other choreographers, as well as his own, maybe extracting an idea from a previous work, using it as a starting point, “and then it naturally takes a different course”. In Within the Golden Hour Wheeldon shows his ability to respond to the varying pieces which make up the score. “It’s fun to go in and out of different aspects of the music,” he says, “to go with the sweep of the melody and then make an unexpected turn and suddenly have the dancers make the underlying rhythm visual. If you follow the melody all the way through, you end up with a rather bland, two-dimensional representation of what you’re hearing........ dance is at its most successful when it’s making the music visual”.
San Francisco Ballet presents Scotch Symphony, From Foreign Lands and Within the Golden Hour at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, between 1st and 9th March. For details of performances, times and tickets, please visit the San Francisco Ballet website, where you can also watch video clips of Scotch Symphony and Within the Golden Hour.