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Mere Mortals

The popular sentiment is clear: Matrix atmosphere meets ballet is a hit. “Mere Mortals,” Tamara Rojo’s first production as new artistic director at San Francisco Ballet, must be counted a success. Inside the overheated War Memorial Opera House, where the chandelier and walls glowed red and the opening rumblings of a heavily synthesized score by electronic composer Floating Points transformed the place into a boiling cauldron, the house looked close to sold out.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet: “Mere Mortals” by Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA, January 26 and 31, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

San Francisco Ballet in “Mere Mortals” by Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd. Photograph by Chris Hardy

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Among the milestones notched by the production, a company sometimes accused of operating as New York City Ballet West broke out of its mixed-rep/story ballet comfort zone with an intermission-less 65-minute work in the Expressionist dance theater mode well-known in Europe but still shocking to some longtime San Francisco Ballet subscribers. Newcomers were pleased, though: Viewers flowed from the standing ovation straight out into the after-party saying, “wow!” and again “wow!”—and notably not much else of substance. 

For this viewer, “Mere Mortals” left a sensation of admiration, but mostly emptiness. Is that emptiness a problem? Seeing the ballet a second time near the end of its run, I felt the answer was yes.

To start with more of the “success” bit: Rojo has brought her impresario playbook developed as artistic director of the English National Ballet to California’s shores most brilliantly. It was shrewd to choose a hot topic, Artificial Intelligence, sure to generate word-of-mouth. It was clever to connect this to the myth of Pandora, which Rojo had been ruminating on since reading Natalie Haynes’ 2020 book, Pandora’s Jar, a reconsideration of Greek myths through a feminist lens. And it was inspired to tap a musician as sophisticated and hip as Floating Points, AKA Sam Shepherd, and have him bring along the visuals team that produces effects for his immersive concerts.

The score, though not a formal masterpiece, brings out the full magnificence of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under music director Martin West. What a sound! Shepherd is in the pit, playing on a vintage Buchla synthesizer and a Therevox 5, but the orchestrations he developed with orchestra assistant Lara Serafin make full partners of the traditional musicians. Passages of tectonically grating chords build to explosive rhythmic sections driven by synthetic drumming, wood block, and timpani. (Deep bow to timpanist Zubin Hathi.) Certain sections of calibrated electronic assault threaten to pierce the eardrums, but other moments let violinist Cordula Merks pour forth with lyricism, and the heart of the ballet, a tender duet between Pandora and Epimetheus, offers a dazzling Middle Eastern-tinged solo by harpist Annabelle Taubl.

San Francisco Ballet in “Mere Mortals” by Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd. Photograph by Chris Hardy

The video-driven visuals by Hamill Industries have three high points: the creepy-crawly sequence of Pandora’s creation, as smoke whirls at warp speed into dust and clay on a ginormous screen; the long passage after Pandora opens the box/jar (or so it seems, as there is no literal vessel present), when Pandora simply stands in silhouette, and behind her the heavens slow down and speed up like Mad Max on amphetamines; and a passage just after, when Pandora presses her cheek to the floor in regret and the eerie frequencies of the Therevox manipulate a glowing white light.

And what of the choreography? It is third-fiddle in the whole package, if you ask me, but I don’t have a problem with that per se. Full disclosure, I have been a fan of Aszure Barton since 2006, when she not only served as the first choreographer in residence at the Baryshnikov Art Center, but also received patronage from dance funder Dianne Vapnek, a Santa Barbara-based festival producer whose residency program DanceWorks later made possible Barton’s enormously popular “Busk” (now in the repertory at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.) 

Barton has worked with Tamara Rojo before—she made “Fantastic Creatures” in 2016 for ENB’s “She Said” program—and she has done a laudable job on “Mere Mortals.” Much of the movement for the 40-dancer ensemble has terrific texture and syncopated punch—a mad arm-swinging like crow’s wings above a hunched-over, turned out hop; a hypnotic pattern for the hands, fingers meeting like an infinity sign, as the dancers coolly step forward and back. I particularly like a fleeting quartet for Prometheus, Epimetheus, and their two unnamed henchmen (Esteban Hernandez and Cavan Conley on opening night), as they fling their legs like something out of a Nicholas Brothers tap dance and grab their crotches, aided by the padded shoulders and whooshing skirts of Michelle Jank’s ingenious costumes. Meanwhile, the sleekly bodysuited Pandora is resplendent in her liquidity (brava Jennifer Stahl), even if her passages overly rely on huge split extensions and a few other repeated tropes. The opening and closing sections for Wei Wang as shining Hope, meanwhile, highlight a pristine balleticism, as light and clear as the “Bluebird” variation in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

San Francisco Ballet in “Mere Mortals” by Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd. Photograph by Chris Hardy

But now to the emptiness at the center of all this. What is going on with the dramaturgy by Carmen Kovacs? Only enough to make the abstraction of the myth serve as a vehicle for all the spectacle, I fear. We don’t follow the characters as in a story ballet (I don’t think most of the audience knew who the characters beyond Pandora were). Fair enough, I like that sort of thing. But the interactions, even if hovering between the literal and the abstract, still need to have import, emotional consequence. Especially if the whole package is being sold as something that is going to make you think about the ethics of artificial intelligence.

In plunging the viewer directly into a vision of the near-future mashed up from sci-fi movies and Alien, Kovacs faces a difficult dramatic set-up. Blurrings of meaning feel more convenient than intentional. The universe before Pandora opens the box (or jar, as Hesiod’s original text has it) is already horrifying—how could the evil she unleashes make human life worse? What was there ever to save? True, it would be difficult to portray an early state of relative goodness without sentimentality, but worth the challenge. Otherwise, what moral questions are there here worth thinking about?

The emotional incomprehensibility of the protracted final section, when the ensemble returns in dazzling gold with Hope at their center, feels like a final shrug in the face of this problem. The passage plays out with baffling shifts. Hope dances with Pandora; she leaves. The lighting (by Jim French) shifts, somewhat dimming the gold bodies with a tinge of grey. In the most interesting moment, Hope picks up his own foot (as though teaching himself to walk?) and the mass ensemble (humanity?) imitate him. But there’s no sense of relationship between that undeveloped idea and the next moment, when the mass faces the diagonal and everyone stands in fourth position, rippling, before launching back into the goon-like shuffling run from the ballet’s early sections. They then rearrange into a giant arc, rippling rather crudely like fans at a football stadium as Hope flits and flutters in the center. It just feels like an attempt to vacillate the mood from major to minor (as happens in the music behind this all), to imply some mix of light and dark in the ballet’s resolution, perhaps—but a mix that has not taken us to any new plane.

Jennifer Stahl and San Francisco Ballet in “Mere Mortals” by Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd. Photograph by Chris Hardy

Finally, the whole ensemble just runs off to the back. I took one friend to opening night, and another companion to the second cast. “Is that it?” my companions said both times, though one loved the whole show, and the other was not sold.

If the ballet itself did not support much substantive conversation for the after party, the dancers did. In addition to the wonders of Wang and Stahl, Joseph Walsh was brutally effective as Prometheus. (I slightly preferred his square jaw and gestural intensity to Isaac Hernandez, who danced opening night.) Corps member Parker Garrison made sweetly vulnerable beauty out of Epimetheus’ pas de deux with Pandora; Esteban Hernandez seemed more tentative in his partnering, but then again he had been slated to dance with Nikisha Fogo, who was announced as second-cast Pandora but did not perform, a real disappointment. (If injury is to blame, one hopes Fogo heals soon.)

As I write these final lines, SF Ballet has just announced an encore run for “Mere Mortals” in April of seven more shows. What Rojo has done with this first statement of her artistic direction is overall a good thing for the company, I do think, and not just in ticket sales. And yet a certain hollow sadness—the effluvium of a post-human, post-ethics era?—continues to gnaw. 

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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