Elvis in the building in Smuin Ballet premiere of ‘Tupelo Tornado’  

“Tupelo Tornado,” an Elvis Presley-themed premiere (Marc LaPierre is pictured) by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, is part of Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s "Dance Series 2" touring the Bay Area in May. (Courtesy Chris Hardy)

Elvis Presley is the most recent focus of choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who’s known for story ballets about famous people.  

The 20th century musical icon will be in the limelight in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s world premiere of “Tupelo Tornado,” part of the troupe’s “Dance Series 2” opening May 3 in San Francisco. 

Lopez Ochoa recalls a conversation with Smuin Artistic Director Celia Fushille in 2017 when the company presented her “Requiem for a Rose.” 

“Intuitively, I told Celia that if I would create a ballet with songs, it would be songs by Elvis Presley,” she says. “I didn’t know at the time that a movie about Elvis was in the making, and neither did Celia when she asked me to create this work for the 30th anniversary of Smuin.” 

Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, front, rehearses “Tupelo Tornado” with Smuin dancers, back L-R, Ricardo Dyer, Jace Pauly, Tessa Barbour and Cassidy Isaacson. The premiere exploring the King of Rock and Roll is in Smuin’s “Dance Series 2” in the Bay Area in May 2024. (Courtesy Chris Hardy)

The Colombian-Belgian Lopez Ochoa, who has made dances for more than 50 companies, created the dazzling “Broken Wings” about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; San Francisco Ballet presented its North American premiere in April. And her Pablo Picasso-inspired “Guernica” debuted for San Francisco Ballet in 2018.  

“The deeper you dig into someone’s story, the more complete and complex the subject matter becomes,” Lopez Ochoa says.

“The more complex, the more dramatic it becomes and the more challenging it becomes for me. Human nature is a fascinating subject matter.” 

Although Lopez Ochoa grew up listening to music by Presley (1935-1977) and watching some of his movies, she didn’t have a preconceived plan for choreographing a ballet about him. But she learned a great deal about the King of Rock ’n’ Roll during research that influenced “Tupelo Tornado.” 

“It came to my mind that he seemed caged because of the fame he encountered at a very young age,” she says. “I decided to make a mosaic portrait of his persona, music, inspirations, beliefs and struggles. Ultimately, fame alienated him from reality and destroyed him.” 

She was surprised to find that his biggest dream was to become a dramatic actor in Hollywood, which led to her decision to stage “Tupelo Tornado” with a sparse film-set look. 

“Unfortunately, his fame made him receive scripts in which he would always play Elvis Presley the singer,” she says. 

There will be no Elvis impersonators in “Tupelo Tornado.” Rather, Lopez Ochoa says a dancer will metaphorically show Presley’s state of mind throughout the piece. And the music for the ballet is not strictly a hit parade of his songs. 

“The score is more a soundscape with partly Elvis’ music, either performed by other artists or deconstructed,” she explains.

“I wanted to create a journey in which soundbites of interviews of him and with him are interspersed with his music.” 

Smuin’s upcoming program also consists of revivals of Amy Seiwert’s “Broken Open” (2015), which explores beauty arising from scars, particularly in the form of graffiti murals following the fall of the Berlin Wall; Brennan Wall’s energetic “Untwine” (2022) for four couples; and Michael Smuin’s romantic sextet “Starshadows” (1997) set to music by Ravel.  

The program goes to Mountain View, Walnut Creek and Carmel after its run in San Francisco, which will feature live accompaniment by composer-cellist Julia Kent in “Broken Open.” 

L-R, Terez Dean Orr and Mengjun Chen are pictured in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s 2015 premiere of Amy Seiwert’s “Broken Open,” which will be reprised by the troupe in May 2024. (Courtesy Chris Hardy)

As the Amsterdam-based Lopez Ochoa has been busy with the openings of “Tupelo Tornado” and “Broken Wings” in the space of one month in San Francisco, she tries to make the most of her time in the region. 

“Every time I’m here I try to catch dance performances; it’s so varied and multicultural,” she says. “However, every time I come here, my time is limited, and my focus is on creating a new work. This means that I get immersed into the realm of my imagination, and I mainly want to keep researching the subject matter that I’m developing into a performance.” 

Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s “Dance Series 2” runs May 3-12 at the Blue Shield of California Theater at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; from May 16-19 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts; and May 24-25 at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center. For tickets ($25-$89), call (415) 912-1899 or visit smuinballet.org. 

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