Internationally renowned New York-based choreographer Mark Morris has been spending more and more time in the Bay Area. In addition to his long-standing relationship with the San Francisco Ballet, Morris recently announced a partnership with Berkeley’s Cal Performances that will bring the Mark Morris Dance Group to the University of California campus for two seasons a year. In the episode “The Art of Interpretation,” Spark follows Morris as he choreographs his latest project, a production of Léo Delibes’s little-known ballet “Sylvia” for the San Francisco Ballet.
In 1999, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson approached Morris to do a full-length ballet, a rare event given the deep investment of time, money and resources required for such a production — and a great show of confidence in Morris’s skill and talent. Morris chose to do “Sylvia,” a work that has not been staged in its entirety for more than 100 years, and never by an American company. The production will also be Morris’s first evening-length work for any dance company other than his own.
Morris chose Delibes’s work primarily for the score, but also for its libretto, which the choreographer found to be unusual in a classical ballet. Whereas ballet narratives often feature women abandoned at the alter, forever brokenhearted and doomed to a life of celibacy, “Sylvia” tells the story of a self-sufficient nymph who is dedicated to Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. An unusually modern coming-of-age tale set amidst a backdrop of forests, fantasy and mythological beings, the story follows Sylvia’s transformation as she switches her allegiance to Eros, god of love and sex. Rather than lose her self-sufficiency in this transformation, she becomes a fully fulfilled, sexually conscious and ever-powerful woman.
In an effort to maintain a sense of the original Victorian feel of the work while updating it to a more modern sensibility, set designer Allen Moyer has chosen to use a heavily swagged curtain motif throughout the ballet’s three acts. His choice was inspired by the Paris Opera House, where the work was first performed. Using more than 3,300 square yards of a variety of fabrics, including a richly textured crushed velvet and a fine linen specially woven in Belgium, the sets juxtapose an opulent luxuriance of materials with an uncluttered, spare arrangement. As a backdrop, each act uses a translucent painted scrim featuring images inspired by period wallpaper.
Morris is known for his fresh approach to both modern dance and classical ballet, a reputation that has earned him the distinction of being one of America’s youngest certified national treasures. Instead of having his dancers awe their audiences with a series of difficult moves, Morris tries to instill in his performers a sense of the meaning of the piece so that they may use their skills to express the narrative in ways that are both spontaneous and subtly nuanced. Emphasizing natural over virtuoso movement, Morris believes that this kind of emotive communication has been at the heart of artistic endeavors since antiquity and that is why art continues to affect audiences deeply and personally.
More about San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Ballet was founded as San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1933. Initially its primary purpose was to train dancers to appear in lavish, full-length opera productions. In 1942, the ballet company became a totally separate entity and was renamed San Francisco Ballet. As America’s first professional ballet company, the company presented the first full-length productions of “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” in the United States. Today, under the artistic direction of Helgi Tomasson since 1985, San Francisco Ballet continues to push boundaries with cutting-edge new works by contemporary international artists while remaining committed to the classical tradition.