SF Ballet – “Mere Mortals”

SF Ballet – “Mere Mortals”
Friday, January 26, 2024
SF Opera House

Brave New Ballet

Tamara Rojo, the new director of San Francisco Ballet, in her new 2023 program booklet remarks, “Greetings” says commenting on “Mere Mortals” …”I truly hope this ballet leaves you curious about the creative promise that this new technology holds…”

Yes! But are we the ‘older’ audience ready for the use of technology at the ballet when we became so fond of the orchestra (directed by Martin West), clearly visibly sets and costumes and a presentation of solos, duets and group work, either with or without narrative? This reviewer, for one (and many agree) that “Mere Mortals” was a thorough challenge as the opening event of the 2024 season. We have much to learn.

Background. Over half a century ago I, as a dance student, worked with Hanya Holm, a German choreographer (who eventually did “Kiss Me Kate” and “My Fair Lady’). We, the student chorus faced upstage and in total ensemble performed simple walking steps. Meanwhile on the stepped set, a soloist performed. We never saw her. It was “expressionism”! Some of this pattern, for me, was present in “Mere Mortals”.

In “Mere Mortals” the soloists dominate the choreography although from time to time the group is challenged to move with them in various unified patterns. The soloists are all fantastic. In early sections, the group is almost always on its knees. “Ouch”!

There is a complex narrative. Hope (Wei Wang) portrayed by “both male and female dancers” is first. Then Prometheus (Isaac Hernådez) (a rebel who thrives in chaos) steals fire from the Gods. Pandora (Jennifer Stahl) “has a totally different skill set from the group…”. And finally Epimetheus, (Parker Garrison) ,“one of the few fearless beings…who welcomes new ideas and inventions.” If only we knew more of this mythology.

A major problem for this viewer was the lighting (or lack of it) for the opening sections. All the dancers were in black, soloists and chorus. The floor (which I heard later, seen from above) was lit, but it was not adequately lit from orchestra seats. Darkness prevailed although the remarkable light show technology (by Hammill Industries) broke into the darkness. The mythic environment remained dark. The music (by Floatjng Points) added to the “technological update” of this work choreographed by Azsure Barton (a woman from Canada). The “older audience” had much to learn, to experience, to question… and to accept.

Two brilliant dance episodes were worth close observation and appreciation.Jennifer Stahl (Pandora) and Parker Garrison (Eptmetheus) performed a duet that was thrilling in its innovative movement vocabulary. Stahl also held still for a long solo episode while the music and technical visuals surrounded her. All the soloists, (cited above) and Prometheus (Isaac Hernandez), deserve praise and applause.

But it is the chorus, in opening sections, almost always on the ground as worshipers of Prometheus who make the greatest impact as they move in powerful unison. They (all 40 of them) later serve, responding to the other ‘immortals”.

When finally in the last section the costuming changes to gold body suites (for all dancers), the chorus is on its feet, performing brilliantly in geometric patterns behind and with the soloists, particularly with Wei Wang as Hope.

Audiences usually do not read program notes before the show. So…much of the characterization of the soloists challenged their ‘information’ understanding. For many in my seating area “Mere Mortals” was a light show, complete with technical and sound technology, a setting for some stunning soloists performances and much empathy for the dramatic, brilliant corps.

Then, to everyone’s delight as the audience moved into the Lobby, a dance event was going on! SFB promises that will happen after all shows, There, at last, we could understand and enjoy as we are and what it is to be “Mere Mortals”.