Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump
Music: Beirut (“A Call to Arms” and “La Banlieue”), Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire (“Beware”), Alexandre Desplat (“See How They Fall—Dans Les Champs De Ble” and “A Self-made Hero—Theme de Heroes”), Philip Glass (“Glassworks/Analog: Orange Mountain Music Archive: Closing”), Max Richter (“The Haunted Ocean 5” and “November”), Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (“Fawn”)
Choreography: Alejandro Cerrudo
Staging: Pablo Piantino
Scenic Design: Alejandro Cerrudo
Costume Design: Branimira Ivanova
Lighting Design: Michael Korsch
Duration: 26 minutes
Premiere: March 15, 2012; Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: March 18, 2016
The 2016 Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump was generously underwritten by Jeffrey & Susan Brotman. The 2018 production is generously supported by Peter & Peggy Horvitz.
Little mortal jump, resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s tenth piece for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, is a bubbling blend of different styles and genres that distills into a fluid, cohesive whole. As a dance, it fuses the technicality of movement, the theatricality of the stage, and the dark humor inherent in relationships. As an experience, Cerrudo aims to transport his audience—to “make them forget what they did today, and what they will do tomorrow,” he says. From cubes that serve as frames and obstructions to diversely characterized couples to vastly contrasting music, Little mortal jump is layered with unexpected twists and turns. This work is a step in the evolution of Cerrudo’s choreographic style, of which he says, “I challenge myself to create more complex works and to do things that I haven’t done before.”
Notes courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU
Music: Shinji Eshima (2011)
Libretto: Gary Wang
Choreography: Yuri Possokhov
Staging: Quinn Wharton
Scenic and Projection Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume Design: Mark Zappone
Lighting Design: Christopher Dennis
Duration: 36 minutes
Premiere: February 3, 2011; San Francisco Ballet
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: April 13, 2018
The 2018 Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU is generously supported by Aya Stark Hamilton, Glenn Kawasaki, Sharon Lee, Ms. Jodi Wong, and Leslie & Tachi Yamada.
Audience Advisory: RAkU contains themes of sexual violence.
RAkU is a story about love and separation, desire and jealousy, violence and grief, told by San Francisco Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov to stunning effect. Based on the true story of the burning of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion in 1950, RAkU (2011) is set in a much earlier time and in a style similar to Noh theater, which presents the essence of a story rather than a literal depiction. “It’s aesthetic lines,” Possokhov says about his ballet, “but not story lines.” His imaginative approach to the story, a commissioned score, and the dramatic, projection-based scenic design combine to make his 13th work for San Francisco Ballet a perfectly melded artistic whole.
The concept for the ballet was off and running with a libretto, a commissioned score, and a small cast—two lovers, a monk, and four warriors. Possokhov’s inventive, classically based choreographic style shares the stage with folk-based steps for the warriors and even some butoh (a post–World War II Japanese dance form utilizing extremely slow movements). But there’s not a single traditional Japanese dance step. With his forward-thinking attitude, Possokhov is more interested in tone, aesthetics, and visual inventiveness than in reenacting history.
According to Possokhov, opera has surpassed ballet in its daring approaches to visual design, particularly in the use of projections. “Opera is using projections in a very good way,” he says. “It’s like you can see a new contemporary vision, because technically now it’s amazing.” Gone are the days when dancing and images shared the stage but weren’t integrated. “Now [the technology] is different, but in ballet no one uses it. I would like to see how ballet could be sophisticated with projections, movies as part of the performance, not just background. It’s part of the movement. For me it’s important, maybe for the future [of ballet].” To help him do that, Possokhov hired designer Alexander V. Nichols, whose use of projections he admired.
Besides its original libretto and experimental visual concept, another element that sets this ballet apart for Possokhov is its commissioned score, his first. He wanted a symphonic score, not traditional Japanese music, and a friend recommended composer Shinji Eshima, a longtime double bassist in the SF Ballet and SF Opera Orchestras. Eshima, who trained at Stanford and Juilliard and taught at San Francisco State University and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has composed music for chamber orchestras, opera, and theater, along with some Buddhist hymns. A bit of history too intriguing not to mention is that his instrument, made by Charles Plumerel in 1843 and known as “the Plumerel bass,” is depicted in Edgar Degas’ painting The Orchestra of the Opera.
The fact that Possokhov envisions a yet-unseen future for ballet makes complete sense to Eshima, who sees the choreographer as “coming from another time, back in time, to push the art form forward. I think [German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche would describe him as a poet from the future.”
As the ballet evolved, Possokhov stripped down the libretto and made choreographic changes that required corresponding alterations in the music. Eshima says it’s difficult to make changes once the music has been written, but he understands why they’re needed. “[Possokhov is] an amazingly intuitive guy. He knows instantly what will work for him and what won’t. He’s good about recognizing things in music on a purely gut level, and he’s really been challenging me.” But the collaborative process also has been rewarding, he says, because it “forces me to recognize my faults [as a composer] and confront them, and that forces me to change.”
Possokhov says that he knew he would hire Eshima even before he heard his music; it was “kind of an instinct,” he says. And when he finally did listen to the sample CD Eshima had given him, it “was perfect,” he says. Because Possokhov particularly liked one piece from the CD, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Eshima borrowed from it, creating a love theme that is heard three times: in the prelude, the main pas de deux, and at the end of the ballet. The theme is “very, very simple,” the composer says. “It alternates a 3/5/3 meter, which I meant to imply a haiku 5/7/5 rhythm.” (Haiku poems have three lines—five syllables in the first and third lines and seven syllablesin the second.) “So it’s based on something very simple,” Eshima says, “but I hoped it would express the emotions of an unspeakable pain.”
The ballet’s score is written for full orchestra, without the addition of traditional Japanese instruments, yet it conveys a Japanese feeling. According to Eshima, that’s been said about his music before, and it makes him laugh. “My parents are both Japanese and I have a lot of that background in being raised Buddhist, but I’ve never been conscious of it,” he says. “But invariably people say that what I write sounds Japanese.” One part of the ballet’s score incorporates the rhythms of a Buddhist chant. “It’s like the vibration of the earth. It sinks into something deep, literally like a mantra. And I’ve heard that all my life, in Buddhist temples,” says Eshima. “It’s the same rhythm, literally the same note.”
One version of the legend this ballet is based on says that the monk who burned the temple was “hideous looking, and he stuttered, and he was humiliated by it,” says Eshima. “[Author Yukio] Mishima talks about why [the monk] might have burned the temple down in his book about the Golden Pavilion.” In the ballet, the Monk suffers unrequited love for the Princess. “So I used this stuttering feature orchestrally, in the marimba, to underlie his main scene,” says Eshima. Taking the stuttering effect a step further, he added a Morse code rhythm to the music that taps out the words “I love her.”
The central theme of his score, Eshima says, is “burning. The burning of desire, of passion, of loyalty; the burn of suffering, of jealousy; finally the burning in death—emotions that are so strong that they overcome the discipline of a Zen monk and overcome the loyalties of samurai. That burn throughout one’s life is what I think is the greatest thing about being human, the beauty of it all. The grief isn’t beautiful, in and of itself, and the loss isn’t. But the empathy for it is, and that’s what I was trying to convey.”
—Notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
Cheryl Ossola’s notes for RAkU were originally written for San Francisco Ballet in 2011 and have been revised by the author for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Crystal Pite’s Emergence
Music: Owen Belton (2009)
Choreography: Crystal Pite
Staging: Hope Muir
Scenic Design: Jay Gower Taylor
Costume Design: Linda Chow
Lighting Design: Alan Brodie
Duration: 28 minutes
Premiere: March 4, 2009; National Ballet of Canada (Toronto)
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: November 8, 2013
Principal support for the 2013 Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere of Crystal Pite’s Emergence was generously provided by Marcella McCaffray. Additional support provided by Glenn Kawasaki, Katharyn Alvord Gerlich, and Aya Stark Hamilton.
Crystal Pite is known as one of the most innovative and exciting choreographers at work in Canada today. National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain commissioned Pite to create an original work for the National Ballet’s 2008/09 season as part of Innovation, a program of new work by Canadian choreographers. The result, Emergence, brought audiences to their feet after every performance and went on to win four Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding New Choreography, Outstanding Performance and Outstanding Sound Design/Composition by Owen Belton.
A riveting dark-hued work that casts a swarming, scurrying group of dancers, insect-like, in an eerily subterranean universe, Emergence dramatizes through its mesmerizing choreographic attack the ways in which the instinct for creating social forms seems hard-wired into life itself. Pite’s inspiration for the work came from reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by American popular science theorist Steven Johnson and considering parallels between the social organization of bees and the hierarchical nature of classical ballet companies.
Johnson’s statement that “simple agents following simple rules could generate amazingly complex structures” became a touchstone for the piece. Pite was interested in individual expression and in collective problem solving through movement, often favoring the visual and kinesthetic appeal of the eccentric over the mundane and the grotesque over the beautiful. Pite rarely works with dancers en pointe and was attracted not only to the dancers’ ease of movement but also to the potential for a creature-like effect. Sometimes fragmented and gestural, with traces of the isolation and popping techniques of hip hop, Pite’s choreographic method was a catalyst for change in the dancer’s bodies.
Key to Pite’s vision for Emergence was her collaboration with composer Owen Belton. Also from the west coast, Belton uses both acoustic and electronic instruments, often in combination with computer processing techniques such as granular synthesis, to arrive at atmospheric palettes of sound and tone. Pite and Belton have incorporated drone-like sounds of bees along with sounds of marching to signify the power and ominous presence of the body politic.
Notes courtesy of National Ballet of Canada.
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“Even the most optimistic champions of self-organization feel a little wary about the lack of control in such a process. But understanding emergence has always been about giving up control, letting the system govern itself as much as possible, letting it learn from the footprints.” —Steven Johnson
“The ants go marching one by one. Hurrah. Hurrah.” —Anonymous
My starting-off point for the creation of Emergence was the structure of a ballet company itself. I wondered if the hierarchal structure of a ballet company had a parallel in nature and I looked first to the beehive as a possible model. I came across some of the writings of Thomas D. Seeley and his colleagues at Cornell who have identified some basic characteristics of a swarm that they believe define the nature of highly intelligent groups. Rather than being led or dominated by a small number of individuals, decisions are group efforts. A large portion of the population contributes information and opinions, and each individual that contributes to the debate has made an informed and independent assessment of the situation. The bees engage in a very lively and competitive debate until opinions start to coalesce. It is not a hierarchy at all. The queen does not govern. This struck a chord with me as I considered the ballet. Other than the competitive element, I didn’t see much of a parallel until I dug a little deeper.
“Emergence” (according to Wikipedia) is the way that complex systems or structures arise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions. Ballet is a great example of this in itself, with a series of simple physical structures and rules (technique) combining into complex dancing (choreography) in the individual. To take it one step further, the dancer contributes to the larger structure of the choreography, often responding to local stimuli: align my body with these five people, face this direction, start our system on this musical cue, etc.
I was commissioned to create this work for the National Ballet of Canada in 2009. The opportunity allowed me to re-discover ballet, and ballet dancers, with more distance and perspective than ever. After ten years away from the ballet world, it was fascinating to re-examine the ecstatic architecture of the ballet vocabulary and the open, clean lines built for the long-view of a 2900-seat theatre. I was thinking about how the swarm locates and builds a nest that is perfectly suited for their shapes, their skills, their needs—a deliberate, specialized space that fits their bodies and facilitates their work. This made me look at these dancers and their theatre in a new light. The stage as a nest, a shelter, a work-space, a place of community and of business. The theater is built for these classical dancers. And vice-versa.
Ultimately, a ballet company, like any business, is neither a complete hierarchy nor an emergent system. Particularly at the creative level, I see it as a complex feedback loop of both, with creators feeding off information, limitation and inspiration provided by the performers, and the performers interpreting and translating information given to them by the choreographer. For this piece, I tried to come up with systems that would help to make the piece make itself. I tried to create a series of codes, applied “locally,” that would echo an emergent system so that the piece could evolve out of its own response to those parameters. However, we quickly discovered that 18 days isn’t much time for an evolution out of chaos and into order. With a multitude of other factors (schedules, budgets, personalities, expectations, responsibilities) adding another layer to the complexity, I found myself having to impose more and more of a leader’s agenda in order to achieve our goal of getting something compelling and cogent on stage in time for the premiere. Most creators work with some kind of generative system or another. In fact, creating systems to self-generate a work is often necessary in order to manifest complex choreography in limited time: give the dancers a task and some clear parameters and see what comes back. Use some of it or all of it or none of it. Re-mix the choice bits and send it back to them with further instructions: translate the scale, quality, orientation, for example, or cut up the phrases and re-order them. Insert other good bits. Get everyone contributing material: delegate, divide and conquer.
Somebody still has to think up the rules, though. Somebody has to impose them.
For me, systems are dry and lifeless in themselves. I don’t enjoy systems. I enjoy watching the dancers apply the systems to their minds and bodies and to see them dance because of, or in spite of them. I’m using these generative systems in order to respond to the parameters and possibilities that are imposed on this work and as a way to help us get past our regular patterns of movement. Ultimately, I hope that these methods, in combination with effort and the nuances of artistry, will expose something beautifully human, something that vibrates with life. I want this piece to echo the intelligence and beauty of emergence in the natural world. And I want both the process and the product to remind us of the wonder of community and collaboration.
—Crystal Pite, July 2013