Mere Mortals Opens a Pandora's Box of Surprises at San Francisco Ballet

01/27/2024

January 27, 2024—If there were any doubts that incoming Artistic Director Tamara Rojo would shake up San Francisco Ballet, they were dispelled at the War Memorial Opera House last night with the world premiere of Aszure Barton's idiosyncratic Mere Mortals. The first performance of Rojo's first programmed season, Rojo has combined Barton's quirky choreography with the electronic music of Floating Points, aka DJ Samuel Shepherd, and electronic visuals by the Barcelona design company Hamill Industries. The visuals included a fog machine of sorts in the lobby and a series of horizontal light tubes alternating red and white, placed in the lobby and hallways, as well as red spotlights and red lightbulbs in hallway lights and the auditorium chandelier.

Jennifer Stahl in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. Photo © Chris Hardy
Jennifer Stahl in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. Photo © Chris Hardy

The story of Pandora, in a nutshell, tells how Zeus had the human woman Pandora created to punish humans for Prometheus giving them fire, then had Prometheus' mischievous brother Epimetheus marry Pandora, who opened a jar containing all the woes of humanity, releasing them upon the world. Mere Mortals retells the story by replacing the jar of woes with Artificial Intelligence and all the ills that it befalls upon humankind. Or that's what Aszure Barton says. In Mere Mortals there is no scene resembling such a release, but that may be beside the point.

Pretty much everything about Mere Mortals is unique and downright offbeat, likely to please some people and displease others. For starters, it's a 75-minute performance without intermission, which could seem like it's over before you know it. But there is so much going on visually, musically, choreographically, and emotionally, that I didn't notice the time.

The 43-member cast included principal dancer Jennifer Stahl as Pandora, with Isaac Hernández as Prometheus, Parker Garrison as Epimetheus, Wei Wang as Hope, and Esteban Hernandez and Cavan Conley as Trio Members, accompanied by the Company. Stahl's gracefully lithesome arabesques, turns, and, unconventional for a ballet, splits and walking on all fours were elegantly supple. Wang was similarly impressive, as were all six main dancers. Costumed in skintight, shiny black, their exquisite dancing, especially by Stahl and Wang, was about the only dancing among the 43-member cast.

Jennifer Stahl and Parker Garrison in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo
Jennifer Stahl and Parker Garrison in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo

Much of Mere Mortals consists of the darkly costumed ensemble moving and gesturing rapidly in anguished unison to ominous music, in dark lighting, in front of electronic screens displaying swirling swirling lava or clouds. The synchronous movements of the cast were impressive, yet they were seldom actually dancing. The identical costumes of the six main dancers and dim lighting made them at times hard to distinguish. At one point Stahl (I think it was Stahl) stood with her back to the audience gazing at projections of swirling clouds. This went on for what seemed like several minutes. 

As the performance progresses and Wei Wang's Hope brings optimism, the music becomes peaceful, the spotlights and chandelier turn from red to blue, and the ensemble returns to the stage in shiny, skintight gold costumes (which I overheard some in the audience say resembled Emmy Oscars or the Star Wars robot C3PO).

San Francisco Ballet in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. Photo © Chris Hardy
San Francisco Ballet in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's Mere Mortals. Photo © Chris Hardy

The audience, mostly a younger crowd for a ballet, responded with a thunderous, standing ovation. Inded, the frenetic, anguished pace of Mere Mortals at times reminded me of the movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which has been generally well received by younger audiences and not by the older crowd. The rapid pace and anxiety of these productions seem to resonate with their hectic lives in these anxious times, so maybe Barton is on to something.

However, the appeal of Mere Mortals needn't be split along a generational divide. A little tweaking to make some scenes more literal and a less abstract would help, such as the iconic Pandora's Box. And more actual dancing by the ensemble would reach more dance fans.

Rojo got the idea for this spin on the Pandora myth after reading the book Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes . A pre-performance talk with Haynes will be held at the Opera House on January 31 at 6:00 followed by a book signing 6:45. 

Mere Mortals runs through February 1st at the War Memorial Opera House. For more information, see sfballet.org.

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