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SF Ballet dances into new territory this week

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SF Ballet dances into new territory this week

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s announcement last month that he wouldn’t be returning for another stint as the San Francisco Symphony’s music director sent shock waves through the Bay Area arts community. But one institution’s uncertainty highlights a neighboring company’s smooth transition, as Tamara Rojo’s inaugural season as San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director goes from strength to strength.

Just weeks after receiving an anonymous $60 million donation, the largest in its history and possibly the largest ever to an American dance company, S.F. Ballet is presenting “Dos Mujeres,” an unprecedented program featuring the world premiere of Arielle Smith’s “Carmen” and the North American premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Broken Wings,” a color-saturated production exploring the world of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

With seven performances April 4-14, the program marks not only the company’s first double bill by female choreographers. It’s also the first program dedicated specifically to Latin American stories, reflecting the inclusive vision that Rojo, who was born in Montreal to Spanish parents and grew up in Madrid, brought from the English National Ballet.

Commissioned by S.F. Ballet, “Carmen” is a radical reimagining of the Prosper Mérimée novella that inspired the libretto for Bizet’s enduringly beloved 1875 opera and Roland Petit’s perennial 1949 ballet set to Bizet’s score. It’s the North American debut by Smith, an Olivier Award-winning choreographer, with a Latin jazz-influenced score by pianist and Grammy Award-winning composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, and costumes by Uruguayan-born designer Gabriela Hearst.

“Arielle has come up with a beautiful version of ‘Carmen’ set in Cuba,” O’Farrill said, contrasting the tragic arc of the Bizet opera with Smith’s new work. “In this setting Carmen is not betrayed. She’s an emancipator. In the end Carmen belongs to no one and the future belongs to her.”

The son of pioneering Cuban composer and arranger Chico O’Farrill — who collaborated with modern jazz patriarchs Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker — and the father of jazz artists Adam and Zachary O’Farrill (on trumpet and drums, respectively), Arturo has worked to build bridges musically and personally throughout his career.

Since founding the New York-based Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in 2002 he’s released a series of Grammy-winning albums, while commissioning new works from a diverse cadre of composers. Before “Carmen,” he spent years working with Mexican son jarocho musicians from Veracruz and a panoply of jazz stars on the “Fandango at the Wall” project, which ended up encompassing a live album recorded in New York City, a live and studio album recorded at the U.S./Mexico border, and an HBO documentary about the cross-border collaboration.

“I don’t see borders,” he said, while noting that he brings the same genre-crossing sensibility to “Carmen.” “I’ve written for symphony orchestras and I’m not an orthodox orchestrator, even with jazz. I’m going to expect the musicians are adaptable and creative. Conceptually, the S.F. Ballet Orchestra can handle anything. The notes are not static on the page, and come to life with these wonderful artists.”

Coming to life is what happens with Frida Kahlo’s canvases in the world of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s work “Broken Wings.” Kahlo (1907-1954) famously turned her painterly gaze on herself, creating a dazzling record of her physical and psychic struggles in a body devastated first by polio and then a bus accident.

Drawing on motifs and imagery from Mexican folk and indigenous culture, “she painted her life, and if I wanted to make a portrait about her I had to bring her paintings to life,” Lopez Ochoa said. “I thought she was a really interesting character, so full of pain, but with a lot of humor, and very playful.”

With a score by Peter Salem (centering on Chavela Vargas’s classic version of the Mexican folk song “La Llorona”), the ballet premiered in 2016 in London with Rojo dancing the role of Kahlo for the English National Ballet. The fantastical décor is by prolific Dutch designer Dieuweke van Reij.

Born in Brussels to a Belgian mother and Colombian father, the Amsterdam-based Lopez Ochoa has long found more inspiration from painters than fellow choreographers. She’s created dance from the works of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. “I love the Surrealists,” she said.

Her first work for S.F. Ballet, “Guernica,” premiered at 2018’s Unbound festival, inspired by the immense canvas Picasso created in response to the aerial terror bombing of the Basque city during the Spanish Civil War. Coincidentally, she’s now working on her own version of “Carmen,” using Bizet’s score with variations and extensions by a Colombian composer.

But Kahlo isn’t the only iconic artist she’s bringing to a Bay Area stage. She’s working with Smuin Contemporary Ballet on “Tupelo Tornado,” a dance set to the music of Elvin Presley. It’s the last work commissioned by outgoing artistic director Celia Fushille, “a mosaic portrait of who Elvis is and his music,” Lopez Ochoa said. “Not just the sweet Elvis.”

Smuin presents the world premiere of the new work across the region in May as part of the “Dance Series 2” program with performances at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts (May 3-12), Mountain View Center For the Performing Arts (May 16-19), Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center (May 24-25), and Carmel’s Sunset Center (May 30-31).

Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected]


SAN FRANCISCOK BALLET

Presents “Dos Mujeres,” featuring “Carmen” (world premiere), by Arielle Smith, and “Broken Wings,” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

When: April 4-14

Where: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Tickets: $29-$495, sfballet.org



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