San Francisco Ballet ushers in its 2024 repertory season this week—the first full season curated by artistic director Tamara Rojo—with the world premiere of choreographer Aszure Barton’s “Mere Mortals,” a reimagining of the ancient parable of Pandora set in a modern technological world.
“Artificial intelligence continues to grow and evolve, and ‘Mere Mortals’ will tackle the complicated issues and feelings as well as the exciting creative promise that this new technology holds,” says Rojo, describing the troupe’s first full-length commission from a female chorographer.
While in the Greek myth, Pandora unleashes evil in the world, in “Mere Mortals”—which opens Friday with principal dancers Jennifer Stahl and Isaac Hernández in lead roles—Pandora’s curiosity leads to the release of AI.
“AI’s unknown risks, as well as the uncharted territory we are entering with its development, make it an apt modern-day version of the trapped mythical forces in Pandora’s tale—only now humankind is irresistibly releasing a new technology, even as questions are still being asked about its benefits,” says Rojo.
The premiere features a commissioned electronic and orchestral score by English producer Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), known for the acclaimed 2021 album “Promises,” a collaboration with Pharaoh Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra.
“Aszure Barton and Floating Points are two of the most invigorating artists working in their respective disciplines, unafraid to push the boundaries of genre to create something completely original. Their partnership, alongside the visionary Hamill Industries, has resulted in a truly expansive work that flips a classic story on its head for the modern age,” adds Rojo, who collaborated with Barton for 2016’s “Fantastic Beings,” a commission for the English National Ballet.
The Canadian-born Barton, who studied at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto and in 2005 became the first resident artist of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City, has created contemporary dances for American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater. An educator and founder of the international dance project Aszure Barton & Artists, Barton’s additional collaborators include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Teatro alla Scala, Martha Graham Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Sydney Dance Company.
Barcelona-based inventors and mixed-media artists Pablo Barquin and Anna Diaz of Hamill Industries, frequent collaborators with Floating Points, are creating special effects for “Mere Mortals.” Although their work combines computer, robotic and video techniques, the couple, with a background in traditional storytelling, aims to offer substantive ideas, not simply flashy designs.
Australian designer Michelle Jank, who created the memorable black hooded cloaks for Barton’s bold 2009 opus “Busk,” a stirring interpretation of street performers, oversees costumes for the 43-member cast in “Mere Mortals.”
They likely will be a key thematic element in the fabric of a work San Francisco Ballet promises will “push new boundaries in ballet with gender-neutral principal pairing.”
San Francisco Ballet’s “Mere Mortals” runs Jan. 26-Feb.1 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Evening performances include an after party. For tickets ($29-$495), call (415) 865-2000 or visit sfballet.org.