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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: San Francisco Ballet presents Aszure Barton's 'Mere Mortals' War Memorial Opera House, January 26 - Feb 1, 2024

A raucous standing ovation greets the world premiere of San Francisco Ballet (SFB) and choreographer Aszure Barton’s Mere Mortals on January 26 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.  Like a toddler delighted with a clever trick, what many wanted, me included, was to shout AGAIN!  And indeed, as of the writing of this review I have seen the piece twice within 18 hours. One viewing is from Dress Circle with its birds’ eye view of the choreographic patterns and another from the Orchestra where characterizations are more clearly distinguished.


SFB’s new Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo has much riding on this rule-breaking production, her first commission for the company. She chose the ballet’s theme and paired Barton, the first women to create a full-length ballet for SFB, with composer Sam Shepherd, AKA Floating Points, and production and visual design team Hamill Industries.

Mere Mortals is a contemporary dance exploring the myth of Pandora’s Box, in which Pandora, allowing her curiosity to get the better of her, defies the gods’ wishes by opening the box thusly unleashing unintended consequences upon the peoples of the earth. 


Glowing red chandelier greet guests of San Francisco Ballet's Mere Mortals ballet; Photo by J. Norris


A multi-faceted, confrontational, and yet oddly spiritual 70-minute experience, Mere Mortals’ full meaning isn’t prescribed. Each must craft some of the narrative for themselves, though there is amble stimuli with which to work.  


The focal point of the physical production is large-scale digital displays which move about, splitting the stage when Pandora’s box is opened. Later they form a monolithic backdrop against which a stilled Pandora is silhouetted, observing the catastrophe, in the form of cloud bursts, electrical storms, and fiery sunsets, she has wrought.  Program notes allude to the power of unleashed artificial intelligence, yet the richness of the imagery goes well beyond technology.  References to climate change, nuclear war, militaristic regimes, and blind societal allegiance all rose for me as I watched.


Floating Points has composed an incredibly dynamic score, which moves from uncomfortably loud to harmonious and even reverent.   It is performed live by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West, accompanied by Floating Points, who joins the orchestra in the pit to add his own synthesized sonic spin.  The music deserves more careful attention than I was able to give it, but some takeaways include a barrage of percussion worthy of Mahler, a haunting vocal line and sonorous strings.


The piece features four lead roles: Pandora, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Hope. Barton has dismantled the company’s hierarchy, merging principals, soloists and corps into a monumentally large 40-member ensemble or collective.   


The collective moves in intricate patterns across the space. Their gestures pulse in synchrony against a chaotic aural landscape. Drawn inward like bees protecting the queen bee, they clump into a mass. Bowing toward Pandora, piled atop one another, their bodies form a huge domed skirt around her.  


When moving linearly they resemble a dystopian workforce, or a militaristic cult.  Running backward in huge strides, with arms pumping forward, their progress is scant.  When in distress, some pogo upright while others hump the floor with rolling body waves. Lit in cool backlight only their faces and hands catch the light. There is a haunting effect as forty heads nod in fast-paced unison.  Gestures seem disembodied, as flexed hands become massive chomping teeth at the end of long chopping-arm jaws.  Deceptively simple, but effectively mesmerizing, all the dancers swivel on the balls of their feet, with elbows tight to their waists, their arms hinge in opposition.  An increasing tempo eventually causes the arms and hands to blur.


Michelle Jank’s costumes enrich the piece immeasurably.  The lead men and the ensemble wear belted dark coats with wide padded shoulders over shin-length wrapped skirts, that flare like a whirling dervish’s when in motion.  When still, the shape is that of two triangles whose points meet at narrow cinched-waist.  As the piece progresses, the dancers remove first their coats, and later their skirts, revealing dark shiny bodysuits.  During the final section the Hope and the collective are clad like golden Oscar statuettes.  The why is up to you, but the impact is stunning.


The January 27 matinee cast of Mere Mortals takes a final bow, costumes by Michelle Jank; Photo: J. Norris


Video screens flare as Prometheus (Isaac Hernández 1/26; Joseph Walsh 1/27) brings fire to the world.  The images of flames morph to mushroom clouds, which in turn evolve to dirt encrusted hands forming a giant tree, whose shape is echoed by the clawing hands of the masses reaching upward in the foreground.  


With Zeus-like control Prometheus directs his plebes. Lifted above the scrum, pulling the virtual strings of human-kind, he sweeps his arm causing heads to tilt backward and torsos to follow, swaying away in response.  Joined by his brother Epimetheus (Parker Garrison 1/26; Esteban Hernández 1/27), a fascinating duet unfolds. Beginning with a gestural back and forth dialogue, a friendly competition ensues and finally their matched movements establish their kinship.


Pandora, portrayed by Jennifer Stahl, is newly human and still finding her way. Like Hope she wears only a bodysuit. Barton uses Stahl’s extreme flexibility and long lines to create an otherworldly individual. One who initially treads on four rigid limbs, butt to the sky. A preying-mantis hovering close to the floor, with twisting legs and weaving head she explores the space. Growing quickly in confidence Stahl rises to her feet, and then balances with one leg held fully-extended along the side of her body.


The meeting between, Pandora and Epimetheus, two fearless inquisitive beings, is the most accessible part of the narrative.  Circling each other, their curiosity drives their attraction.  As harp strings thrum, like so many heartstrings, the duo share an extended sensual pairing. As animalistic as human, this pas de deux is fascinating, if overly long. Some would argue that in the age of polyamory, creating a simple duet is a missed opportunity.


The character of Hope opens and closes the show.  Created as a genderless entity, Hope is danced by Wei Wang, first discovered glowing amidst a sea of red fog. Hope’s movement is buoyant, varied, and versatile. With carefully modulated balances and elegant extensions Wang brings peace, play, comfort, and inspiration, lifting Pandora from her despair.  At days end, Hope takes control of the collective, from Prometheus, leading them toward their inner light.


Appreciating the audacious scale of Mere Morals, I realize Tamara Rojo, is our curious, risk-taking Pandora. Opening the box with this sensational premiere, the company’s full potential has been unleashed. And hope, the only thing left in the box per the myth, underpins the whole endeavor.


During her front-of-curtain remarks on gala night, Rojo declared, “The future of ballet begins now,” and indeed it has.  Ballet for, and of, the people has arrived in San Francisco. And it includes a post-performance dance party in the lobby, where one can move and mingle or perhaps discuss the show with a new friend. Just as Barton has democratized the dancers’ status, Rojo seeks to remove the barriers between patron’s box holders and standees.  All voices are welcome here.


Review by Jen Norris, published January 28, 2024

___________________________________________

Production Credits/Casting

San Francisco Ballet

Mere Mortals

Jan 26 - Feb 1, 2024

War Memorial Opera House

Choreographer Aszure Barton

Music Composed by Sam Shepherd/Floating Points

Production and Visual Design by Hamill Industries


FRIDAY JANUARY 26 at 8pm

Conductor: Martin West

Sam Shepherd, Buchla/Electronics

Cordula Merks, Violin

Zubin Hathi, Timpani

Annabelle Taubl, Harp

 

Pandora: JENNIFER STAHL

Prometheus: ISAAC HERNÁNDEZ

Epimetheus: PARKER GARRISON

Hope: WEI WANG

Ensemble: Kamryn Baldwin, Katherine Barkman, Raphaël Brunais Besse, Samantha Bristow, Jihyun Choi, Thamires Chuvas, Rubén Cítores Nieto, Cavan Conley, Benjamin Davidoff, Sasha De Sola, Isabella DeVivo, Luca Ferrò, Jacey Gailliard, Gabriela Gonzalez, Esteban Hernández, Lleyton Ho, Jasmine Jimison, Blake Johnston, Andris Kundzins, SunMin Lee, Norika Matsuyama, Carmela Mayo, Swane Messaoudi, Steven Morse, Sasha Mukhamedov, Pemberley Ann Olson, João Percilio da Silva, Hui-Wen Peng, Simone Pompignoli, Leili Rackow, Nathaniel Remez, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Julia Rowe, Jacob Seltzer, Jasper True Stanford, Anatalia St. Clair, Tyla Steinbach, Alexis Francisco Valdes, Angela Watson, Seojeong Yun

 Arianna Rodriguez, Vocal Soloist


SATURDAY, JANUARY 27 at 2pm

Conductor: Martin West

Sam Shepherd, Buchla/Electronics

Cordula Merks, Violin

Zubin Hathi, Timpani

Annabelle Taubl, Harp

 

Pandora: JENNIFER STAHL

Prometheus: JOSEPH WALSH

Epimetheus: ESTEBAN HERNÁNDEZ

Hope: WEI WANG

Ensemble: Kamryn Baldwin, Katherine Barkman, Raphaël Brunais Besse, Samantha Bristow, Eduardo Cazarez, Jihyun Choi, Thamires Chuvas, Rubén Cítores Nieto, Cavan Conley, Benjamin Davidoff, Sasha De Sola, Isabella DeVivo, Luca Ferrò, Jacey Gailliard, Gabriela Gonzalez, Lleyton Ho, Jasmine Jimison, Blake Johnston, Andris Kundzins, SunMin Lee, Norika Matsuyama, Carmela Mayo, Swane Messaoudi, Steven Morse, Sasha Mukhamedov, Pemberley Ann Olson, João Percilio da Silva, Hui-Wen Peng, Simone Pompignoli, Leili Rackow, Nathaniel Remez, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Julia Rowe, Jacob Seltzer, Anatalia St. Clair, Jasper True Stanford, Tyla Steinbach, Angela Watson, Seojeong Yun

 Georgiana Adams, Vocalist

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