San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Bright Fast Cool Blue’ triple bill

Happy is the ballet company that has such a wealth of works in its repertoire that it can schedule six triple bills and a four-ballet program in one season. San Francisco Ballet enjoys this status – and is in the unique position of  including in this total  12 world premieres which have been written specifically for the Company.  Already this season we’ve seen one of the three full-length ballets – The Sleeping Beauty – and still have Frankenstein to come, as well as a visit by the National Ballet of Canada with its production of Nijinsky. Bay Area audiences are indeed spoiled for choice.

Mid-February sees the opening nights of two of the triple bills – within a couple of days of each other – the first bearing the title Bright Fast Cool Blue – which gives a good indication of what to expect.  It features three very different works: George Balanchine’s Serenade, Benjamin Millepied’s The Chairman Dances – Quartet for Two, and Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes by Justin Peck.

Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz in Balanchine’s ‘Serenade’ (Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Erik Tomasson)

Serenade was the first original work that Balanchine choreographed after his arrival in the United States in 1933, and one that wasn’t initially intended for performance. He actually created it as a ballet lesson for the students of the School of American Ballet, to teach them how to dance on stage, which is why it retains elements of the classroom in its choreography. A dancer rushes in late for class, another trips and falls, and yet another dancer’s hair falls loose – he left all these incidents in.

This is one of those gorgeous classical works in the Russian tradition, that needs no set or synopsis to enhance it. The dancers are elegantly clad in delicate pale blue romantic tutus – designed by Barbara Karinska – against a deeper blue backdrop, and the work is set to the exquisite Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky – a composer, according to the Balanchine Trust, for whom the choreographer had a special affinity. The work, which was composed in the autumn of 1880, was initially intended to be either a symphony or a string quartet, but during the six weeks that it took Tchaikovsky to write it, he decided on a serenade, which by definition falls midway between the two. It was a “popular triumph” when it premiered in St Petersburg in October 1882, and at its first performance in Moscow it even won unqualified praise from none other than Anton Rubinstein, who had spent years as an unrelenting and fierce critic of Tchaikovsky.

In its present form, Serenade has four movements – Sonatina, Waltz, Elegy and Russian Dance, however Balanchine reversed the order of the last two movements, ending his ballet on a somewhat melancholy note.

French-born choreographer Benjamin Millepied has had a career which is interesting, to say the least. Winner of the 1994 Prix de Lausanne while a student at the School of American Ballet, he developed his talent for choreography whilst at New York City Ballet where he became a principal dancer. He founded an international touring company – Danses Concertantes – spent a year as choreographer in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center, and was made a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture in 2010 – the same year in which he choreographed and appeared in the film Black Swan. Two years later he founded the LA Dance Project, then founded an artist collective, Amoveo, and in 2014 became artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet for two years. Taking his leave of this company in 2016, Millepied returned to Los Angeles and the LA Dance Project, which recently participated in the PIVOT Festival 2018 in San Francisco, in which three of his works were performed. His first feature film – a musical adaptation of Carmen, scheduled for release in 2019, will be one to watch for.

If Millepied’s ballet The Chairman Dances – Quartet for Two seems to have a slightly unusual title, you’ll work out why when you hear that the music was written by contemporary Bay Area composer John Adams, one of whose most well-known works was the opera Nixon in China. For the first part of Millepied’s work he uses an ‘out-take’ from the opera, written for a sequence in which Chairman Mao and his wife were supposed to dance a foxtrot together. The other piece is Christian Zeal and Activity, the middle section of Adams’ American Standard. The Chairman Dances – Millepied’s first commissioned work for San Francisco Ballet – had its world premiere at the Company’s gala presentation in January last year, where it earned itself the status of one of the high points of the evening.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s ‘Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes’ (© Erik Tomasson)

When choreographer Agnes de Mille created Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she is quoted as saying that she wanted “the best American composer for the music, Aaron Copland” – and although the company was apparently somewhat reluctant about commissioning this score, it became de Mille’s best loved and most frequently performed work, premiering at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in October 1942. Copland subsequently created a symphonic suite by shortening four of the main dance scenes from the ballet, which he called Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, and it’s this score which Justin Peck uses for his ballet which he calls Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes.

Peck has put an interesting spin on his work, though. Instead of choreographing it for a mixed group of dancers, he has 15 men and just one woman, dispensing completely with the traditional storyline and simply going for broke in terms of energy, athleticism and incredible style. At its premiere in 2015, according to The New York Times, it “caused a sensation”, and coming from an artist who’s regarded as one of the most interesting of today’s young choreographers, this is hardly surprising. Resident Choreographer of New York City Ballet since 2014, Justin Peck is fast becoming a name to be reckoned with in the world of dance creation, having choreographed ballets for companies such as the Paris Opera Ballet, LA Dance Project, Lincoln Center’s Fall for Dance Festival and the School of American Ballet, as well as San Francisco Ballet, which premiered his impressively successful In the Countenance of Kings in 2016.

San Francisco Ballet, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Martin West, presents Bright Fast Cool Blue at the War Memorial Opera House from February 13th to 24th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

The Balanchine Trust

Tchaikovsky – a biography by Anthony Holden

Benjamin Millepied

Justin Peck


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