San Francisco Chronicle
Motion in kaleidoscope
San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Colorforms’ brings museum to the stage
Have you ever been so taken by a work of art you wanted to step inside it, like Alice through the looking glass?
That question hangs over choreographer Myles Thatcher’s “Colorforms,” which premiered Tuesday, March 14, as part of San Francisco Ballet’s “The Colors of Dance” program.
Played initially in a white gallery stage set, the line between dream and reality, viewer and art becomes thin as dancers frolic between the world of the museum and the color-changing interiors of the museum’s paintings. Also key in the ballet are sculptural paper airplanes that function partly as Jeff Koonslike bursts of pop art and as white rabbits guiding our Alice character to her Wonderland.
“I wanted to express how art can harness our imagination,” Thatcher told The Chronicle after a recent dress rehearsal at the War Memorial Opera House. “There’s a world it can bring us into, it transports you.”
Thatcher has had a nearly three-year journey with the work originally conceived in 2020, his fourth commissioned by the company; the coronavirus pandemic pushed “Colorforms” to the Ballet’s virtual season in 2021. Thatcher collaborated with New York dancer and filmmaker Ezra Hurwitz on the video, using the same music by American composer Steve Reich and several of the same dancers in the staged version, which runs through Sunday, March 19. In the cinematic “Colorforms,” the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art played a major role with additional scenes shot in Golden Gate Park and Yerba Buena Gardens. Both convey the same themes of escapism through beauty and finding community by sharing artistic experiences.
Bringing “Colorforms” from screen to stage is a first for Thatcher, who is also a soloist with the company.
“I wanted it to be a companion piece for film,” said Thatcher, who also didn’t want to feel bound by that previous interpretation. “You can see and appreciate this if you never saw the film. It was always intended to be done onstage.”
Key to both iterations of “Colorforms” has been Thatcher’s collaboration with San Francisco Ballet lighting designer Jim French. In the film version, French created the highly saturated lighting for the scenes danced on the Opera House stage. In the latest “Colorforms,” the world inside the artworks is depicted almost entirely through lighting, as well as variations on the monochromatic costumes by Susan Roemer. The spare gallery set at the beginning of the piece was also designed by French, although
he was quick to note he’s not usually a set designer.
“I’ve certainly never done anything at this scale,” said French. “But Myles is an incredible collaborator, and we have a relationship that goes back several years. I wouldn’t have challenged myself like this for any other choreographer.”
Essential to taking the lighting into a realm that evoked contemporary art were a cyc screen, or cyclorama, onto which color could be projected, and an installation of dichroic, translucent acrylic panels that would reflect and refract the colors behind it. The materials for the structure were upcycled by French from the GitHub Universe event in 2022 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and donated to the Ballet by GitHub and Tinsel Experiential Design.
“Myles and I share a real affinity for the California Light and Space movement,” said French, mentioning artists James Turrell, Bruce Nauman and Doug Wheeler as specific influences on the stage concept.
For his part, Thatcher cited Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder as inspirations to the work. “Those artists especially, they really helped establish our color-blocked palette in the film. But for stage, we asked, ‘What’s the next level of that?’ We decided it’s a kaleidoscope.”
One of the qualities of the film both Thatcher and French hoped to translate to the stage was the quick jump cuts that helped establish whether the 10 dancers were in reality or their artistic dreamscapes. French wanted to maintain the “visual energy” of those cuts’ pace, and ultimately was able to accomplish that through swift lighting transitions.
In addition, Thatcher wanted to create the idea of “heightened, abstracted spaces” that could be relatable to any audience member.
“The fundamental concept of the piece for Myles is the destigmatizing of these venues where we engage with art,” said French. “Theaters, museums, galleries, concert halls — they can hold you at arm’s length, and they can be intimidating. Having people acting childishly and playfully within these hallowed halls makes it human.”