Christopher Bernard reviews San Francisco Ballet’s new premiere: Mere Mortals

Light skinned nude-looking dancer with curly dark hair stands with head bowed and covered with light swirls of gauzy cloth.

“Mere Mortals”: Davide Occhipinti, of San Francisco Ballet. From Hamill Industries; source photo: Lindsey Rallo

The Ballet of Terror

Mere Mortals

San Francisco Ballet

War Memorial Opera House

Reviewed by Christopher Bernard

Early on the gloomy day of the performance I attended, I noted it would be an unusually short evening – a mere hour and fifteen minutes, without even an intermission. And I grumbled to myself about short shrift and lean pickings.

But the city has been pasted for weeks with black-and-white photos, scored with the vaguely ominous title and its allusion to ancient gods and goddesses, of a bare-breasted dancer ensnarled in a swirl of white sheet, like a larva breaking from a chrysalis or an angel caught in a damage of wings, flogging the new work – and so my curiosity was keen.

And, as it turned out, with more justification than I could possibly have known.

“Mere Mortals,” the first dance commissioned under San Francisco Ballet’s new artistic director Tamara Rojo (the War Memorial Opera House was illuminated in red in her honor), was introduced to the world on that chilly January evening just before a weeklong train of atmospheric rivers threatened to pummel the Bay Area with reminders of nature’s (or the gods’) ultimate sovereignty.

As it happened, we didn’t have to wait for her salutary raging: the first tempest was brewed, quite satisfactorily, thank you very much, by her most gifted, and most rebellious, child inside the compact, baroque precincts of the War Memorial Opera House.

If you didn’t read the program, you might never have guessed that this dance, which seemed entirely abstract yet was radiant with an urgent and perfectly clear meaning, was in fact about the early Titans of Greek mythology, or Pandora and her cursed jar. Or that the dance drew parallels between the fraught liberation of human power found in those ancient stories, and today’s invention, by “mere mortals,” of something that may render obsolescent even our own highest gifts – namely, artificial intelligence.

But no matter: it was clear within minutes that we were witnessing an allegory about the entwining of liberation and evil at the heart of the human experiment, and the two-sided blade that is hope itself. And it was also perfectly clear that we were in the firm and steady hands of masters of dance, music, and stagecraft; at least one spectator was left in a trance of admiration at what these “mere mortals” were able to magick in a mere hour and a quarter.

The dance unfolds in half a dozen acts, at a rough count, each broken into short scenes, most of them led by Pandora (danced with a darkly inflected, impeccable grace by Jennifer Stahl), the infinitely curious woman who unleashed woe upon the world while also freeing a Hope that encompasses a touch of that creativity of the gods that menaces as much as it promises.

Pandora danced, solo, in a long opening scene until, at its apparently tranquil conclusion, she opened her infamous jar, out of which irrupted a plague of dancers, the Evils she has freed, swarming like an ink of insects onto a stage whose primary colors throughout the evening were the starkest of whites and blacks.

From then on, the dance is an intricate play of the dialectic of ferocious good and implacable evil whose paradoxical result is an endless invention: the evils themselves are provokers of beauty, and Hope itself is serpent-like, ophidian, menacing – freeing.

The Titans –  a dark Prometheus (Isaac Hernández), bringer of fire and liberator of the most gifted of species (the program will inform you this character combines the rebellious Titan with his arch nemesis, Zeus, king of the gods and ruler of the world), and, later, his boyishly joyful brother Epimetheus (Parker Garrison) – compete to dominate the story, but fail to in the end: at the brilliant heart of the piece, Pandora and Epimetheus perform a remarkable pas de deux that actually embodies the romantic drama many fail to capture: most pas de deux are signs of romance but rarely persuade that the couple onstage actually is in love: this one did, profoundly, alchemically.

In the final act, Pandora is resorbed into the cosmos after a lengthy “2001”-inspired odyssey into a chaos of futurity, and the evils (or are they angels now?), dancing like ghosts glittering in silver, ring like an ouroboros and seethe like a horde of bullies and mean girls around the golden boy Hope (Wei Wang), who seems, briefly, triumphant over the chaos.

But even he, with his suspect minions, is finally sucked back into a darkness that remains, beyond either divinity or humanity, absolutely sovereign yet infinitely creative.

The choreographer of this dazzling evening was the Canadian Aszure Barton, who seems to have taken up the ink-black mantle of William Forsythe. In fact, this was one of the most powerful new dances I have been privileged to see since Forsythe’s “New Sleep,” premiered by the Ballet in the 1980s.

The brilliantly original score, by turns driving and lyrical – part electronic, part orchestral, with solos by violinist Cordula Merks,  timpanist Zubin Hathi, and harpist Annabell Taubl – is by Floating Points (known, more pedestrianly, as Sam Shepherd). Conductor Martin West led with thrust and panache. Equal on the bill is a breathtaking production design and visuals by Hamill Industries: Pablo Barquin and Anna Diaz, who helped shape the evening into a complex and satisfying whole. If I have any complaint, it is that the soloists were not identified in the printed program notes or the usual printed fill-in (the tyranny of the cell phone continues apace: a scrambled QR code will sesame you to the neglected information).

The gods of the Ballet were even more generous than giving us a mere work of genius: to make up for a “short” evening, they added an hour-long disco party in the lobby after the performance, with DJ, light-bearing dancers, and cash bars, that was attended by a few hundred dazed-looking audience members, some of whom let down their hair and joined in the dancing. In my mind I called it “The Party at the End of the World.”

I still felt in a bit of a trance when I got home, and posted the following on Facebook:

“I sit here at the computer, feeling relatively speechless, battered by an evening at the ballet. . . .

The words come with even greater slowness than usual, as if from a pit black as pitch, with a silence that . . .

. . . mere mortals break at their peril.

Dance needs to be cautious about evoking such gods.

Pandora danced open a treasure of evils.

Leaving, at the bottom, Hope.

Savage. Demonic. A kind of catastrophe.

If a magnificent one.“

I was left, at the end of the night, with a final question: who, after all, is Pandora? 

Friend reader: is it us?

Is it you?


Christopher Bernard is an award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. His most recent books are the children’s books If You Ride A Crooked Trolley . . . and The Judgment of Biestia, the first two stories in the series “Otherwise.”