It’s summer and instead of living easy, choreographer Geoff Gonzalez has murderous betrayals, passionate lovemaking and scenes from a Degas painting on the brain.
For City Ballet’s upcoming performance of “Reimagined,” which launches the season at a new venue, he has beefed up or altered the stories behind a selection of classical dance sequences, adding depth, drama and a movement style that’s more about expressiveness than technique.
Which is not to say there isn’t deep respect for the originals — “The Dying Swan” or the betrayed Willis in “Giselle” are ballet roles that have remained popular for decades.
“When you are recreating, you want it to be tastefully inspired, not copied,” Gonzalez explained during a recent rehearsal. “And if you are going with a completely new idea, it has to be earth-shattering and cool and have a purpose. It’s tricky sometimes. I’ll be at war with myself over a piece of movement, and it’s just because there is already representation there and I don’t get to start from scratch. It’s a different type of challenge.”
The dancers are challenged as well.
Instead of performing the strict and often strenuous physical nuances they have mastered after years of training, they are free to engage in movement that responds more closely to what they feel.
City Ballet principal dancer Megan Jacobs is performing “The Dying Swan,” but instead of assuming the role of a bird, Gonzalez wants her to imagine dancing her “swan song,” an ending that every female career dancer considers in a time frame that may or may not allow for bearing a child.
“There’s a power in performing that last dance,” Jacobs said after warm-up exercises.
“I think it’s something every dancer thinks about, and ideally, it’s about choosing how and when to let go. I’ve seen dancers who want to have children but for me, it’s always been about not wanting to leave too early because there are more things to say as an artist. Sometimes, you feel like your body is starting to slow down a little bit, but on the other hand, as you get older, your maturity and your artistry grows.”
The traditional role of the dying swan requires arm movements that resemble wings. But Jacobs approaches her solo differently.
“I have hyper extension in my arms and Geoff wants me to use that,” she revealed. “It’s funny because a lot of times he’s correcting that. In ballet, I have to hold it back for the proper position. Now, he’s allowing me to use my natural movement as opposed to small movements held by your back. So much of it is being able to surrender and let go.”
Principal dancer Ariana Gonzalez, the wife of Geoff Gonzalez, will play the part of Myrtha, the Queen of the Willis from the ballet “Giselle.”
Those familiar with the classical ballet will remember that the Willis are women who were betrayed in life and after death, they become vengeful ghosts. But we never learn how they died or how Myrtha, their queen, was betrayed.
Gonzalez wanted to add more drama to the movement by having the dancers imagine gruesome detail in their roles.
As the Willis enter the stage, their dance reenacts their demise. One is shot, another commits suicide and yet another drowns. And their queen has good reason to bear a grudge.
“Geoff has a whole back story and the audience won’t know it, but it’s good for dancers to have,” Ariana Gonzalez explained. “Myrtha is a court lady, and the guy she was supposed to marry decided to marry someone else, so he ordered her death.”
The summer program also includes segments from “La Bayadere,” “Spartacus,” “Firebird,” “The Lady of the Camellias” and the premiere of “Boudoir.”
Gonzalez said the new work was inspired by growing up with his sister, also a dancer. He remembered her sleepover parties with other dancers, and he imagined creating a work that would look like a scene from a Degas painting, set to a Mozart’s Serenade No. 13, also known as “A Little Night Music.”
As with all creative efforts, there was a period of trial and error.
Gonzalez wanted eight female dancers to wear white wigs, which are now in storage.
“They were adorable,” he said with a sigh. “I was going to spray paint them and have overwhelming makeup. But then, I was thinking how much time that would take. There would be so many pins to make sure they didn’t fall off. The ideas come out and then they get chiseled down.”
Ultimately, Gonzalez is intent on surprising an audience with works that integrate the contemporary with the familiar.
“I try to put myself in the shoes of the person who created the first version,” he said. “I would want what I did to create something else in someone else’s mind. That is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to evolve.”
City Ballet of San Diego presents ‘Reimagined’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Torrey Pines Performing Arts Center, 3710 Del Mar Heights Road, San Diego.
Phone: (858) 272-8663
Luttrell is a freelance writer.