Seven Balletic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Categories: Dance, Events

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Firebird, Photo by Erik Tomasson

Magical creatures abound at the ballet, from your classic flock of enchanted swans to the more obscure wili (seen earlier this season in Giselle). San Francisco Ballet's Program 3, on view February 20-March 2 at the War Memorial Opera House, features a small menagerie of otherworldly beings: hallucinated spirit maidens, abstract apparitions, and miraculous flaming birds.

The evening begins with the famous Kingdom of the Shades act from the ballet La Bayadère, staged by renowned ballerina Natalia Makarova, and then moves to more contemporary fare: SFB resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov's version of Stravinsky's Firebird and English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's Ghosts. In preparation for your encounter with the supernatural, we've compiled a brief field guide to common balletic beasts and their habits.

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Swans, photo by Erik Tomasson

SWANS (Swan Lake, The Dying Swan)

Description: Not to be mistaken for their actual avian counterparts, these swans are maidens in disguise. Graceful necks and pliant wings aside, ballet swans can be distinguished by looking at their feet: if, instead of webs, you see a horrifying mass of bunions, blisters, and calluses cased inside shining satin shoes, you'll know you have one in sight.
Habitat: Often found by a lake of tears in the woods, because beneath every hysteric is a genuine grief.
Alive or Dead: Alive, but frequently encountered en route to a beautiful demise.
Observation Tips: If you see one in your castle ballroom and she seems a slightly different color than the night before, she might not be the swan you fell in love with.

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Wilis, photo by Erik Tomasson

WILIS (Giselle)

Description: Beautiful but murderous spirits who have tragically perished before their wedding days and now dance defenseless male victims to death.
Habitat: The woods on misty nights when you feel like walking alone, like a man.
Alive or Dead: Dead as you'll be if you meet one.
Observation Tips: If you suddenly find yourself in a ring of girls in white dresses who all want to dance, resist the urge to gratify them all, prostrate yourself before their leader, the indomitable Queen Myrtha, and do everything you can to stall until the church bells strike 4 a.m. (ladies gotta get their beauty rest); barring that, just go ahead and castrate yourself.

SYLPHS (La Sylphide, Les Sylphides)

Description: Airy winged specters designed for heartbreak.
Habitat: The woods, or by your fireplace when they're misbehaving.
Alive or Dead: Alive.
Observation Tips: They seem harmless but leave burly, kilted men weeping alone in their kitchens.

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Fairies, photo by Holger Badekow

FAIRIES (The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Midsummer Night's Dream, The Nutcracker)

Description: Powerful beings able to give gifts of virtue or really mess with your love life, depending on how they feel that day.
Habitat: Over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire -- at least, according to Shakespeare.
Alive or Dead: "Spirits of another sort." (Shakespeare again)
Observation Tips: Never forget to invite to a christening but it may be best to keep quiet about your upcoming nuptials.

SHADES (La Bayadere)

Description: Whether smoke in your eyes or ghosts in the underworld, these creatures look much like balletic swans; look for the telltale arm veils.
Habitat: Opium dreams, especially after your humble temple dancing lover has been bitten by a snake planted in her flower basket by your jealous princess fiancée.
Alive or Dead: A great deal of debate surrounds the exact nature of these creatures, which are either dead or imaginary, depending on your personal philosophy of whether being high opens the doors of perception or merely turns unmoored visual stimuli into graceful womanly shapes.
Observation Tips: This is not a time to be active. Surrender to sublime geometry as a corps of innumerable identical figures drift in languorous and divine lines of arabesques along the angle of a ramp and into your vision before waltzing for your pleasure.

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Sorcerer, Photo by Erik Tomasson

SORCERERS (Swan Lake, The Firebird, The Nutcracker)

Description: A sinister man with a penchant for controlling others. Often an unattractive old man with a beard, never to be mistaken for the sleek and strapping young hero.
Habitat: Isolated from all except the society of brutalized swans, princesses, and animated candies over which he presides.
Alive or Dead: Undead as patriarchy.
Observation Tips: It is not recommended to pursue sorcerers unless accompanied by a firebird.

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Firebird, photo by Erik Tomasson

FIREBIRD (The Firebird)

Description: In appearance much like the mythical phoenix, this flaming bird is stronger and smarter and faster than every man except Ivan, who's not strong and smart and fast enough to defeat the sorcerer Kaschei without strength, smarts, and speed of the Firebird--don't think too hard. It's like rock, paper, scissors.
Habitat: The garden. It's a domesticated wild space, get it?
Alive or Dead: More vitally, exuberantly alive than any of us earthbound mortals who don't have flames shooting off our limbs at every step.
Observation Tips: Hold onto that tail feather -- it's a pledge and works nicely as a quill or a wand in a pinch.

San Francisco Ballet presents the Kingdom of the Shades, Firebird, and Ghosts at 8pm Feb. 20-Mar. 2 at the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness). Tickets are $24-$335; sfballet.org

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