The British will be staging an invasion of sorts at the War Memorial Opera House this week when San Francisco Ballet for the first time presents two works by giants of choreography: “Song of the Earth” by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and “Marguerite and Armand” by Sir Frederick Ashton.
“British Icons,” on Feb. 9-15, also marks the farewell performances of beloved principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, paired with principal dancer Aaron Robison, in “Marguerite and Armand” on Feb. 10 and Feb. 14.
Shanghai-born Tan joined San Francisco Ballet as a soloist in 1995 and became a principal dancer in 1997. The youngest and first Chinese principal dancer in the company’s history boasts a repertoire of nearly 100 classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballets by George Balanchine, John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon, Helgi Tomasson, Yuri Possokhov, Edwaard Liang, and Wayne McGregor, among others. She has interpreted characters from Giselle, Aurora, and Odette/Odile to the Little Mermaid.
“I am indebted to my mentors and teachers, whose wisdom, encouragement and belief in my potential have been instrumental in my success,” Tan says. “As I reflect on the years gone by and enter the next stage of my career, I am reminded of the importance of contributing to the growth and success of others and inspired to continue making a positive impact in ballet and beyond.”
Set to Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, “Marguerite and Armand,” like Verdi’s “La Traviata,” is based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 tragic love story “La Dame aux Camélias.” Created for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, “Marguerite and Armand” debuted at the Royal Opera House in March 1963 and was rewarded with 21 curtain calls.
San Francisco Ballet’s multiple casts for “Marguerite and Armand” also feature Misa Kuranaga and Joseph Walsh, and Jasmine Jimison and Wei Wang portraying the dying courtesan who experiences flashbacks about her love affair with her young beau.
“British Icons” choreographers exemplified and crystallized the English ballet style known for clean, precise technique and purity of line without exaggerations or mannerisms. “Song of the Earth” and “Marguerite and Armand,” both poignant love stories, also have a strong personal connection for San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director Tamara Rojo.
“Sir Frederick Ashton and Sir Kenneth MacMillan were both fundamental to the creation and consolidation of Royal Ballet, where I danced for 12 years,” Rojo says of the dancer-choreographers who were artistic directors of that company in 1962-70 (Ashton) and 1970-1977 (MacMillan). “I had the pleasure to perform these two works, and I first was moved as an audience member and then transformed as an artist,” adds Rojo.
Principal dancers Wona Park and Isaac Hernández appear in the lead roles of Woman and Man for San Francisco Ballet’s premiere of MacMillan’s “Song of the Earth,” and Hernández reprises the role he performed for the English National Ballet in 2017. The work debuted in Stuttgart, Germany, in November 1965 before its first U.K. staging at the Royal Opera House in London in May 1966.
In “Song of the Earth,” which is set to Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,” MacMillan explores the promise of renewal after Man dies and Woman goes through the cycle of her life before Man returns to her. Scored for a tenor, mezzo-soprano and orchestra, the ballet is a cultural mélange—it has music in German, musical text based on Chinese poems and dramatic hints of Japanese theater as well as British choreography.
The spiritual “Song of the Earth” proved to be a MacMillan standout, and none other than Ashton reportedly told former New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay in 1988 that the work was the one by MacMillan he admired the most.
San Francisco Ballet’s “British Icons” runs Feb. 9-15 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For tickets ($29-$465), call (415) 865-2000 or visit sfballet.org.