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How a new San Francisco Ballet director turned an opera house into a house party

A joyous woman dances in a golden outfit at a lively party, with onlookers smiling and others dancing behind her.
Rising Rhythm dancers mingle with audience members at an after party for the San Francisco Ballet production of Mere Mortals. | Source: Courtesy SF Ballet/Lindsey Rallo

The encore of San Francisco Ballet’s AI-inspired Mere Mortals, a seven-performance run that ends Wednesday, represents the largest and most unexpected bouquet in artistic director Tamara Rojo’s inaugural season. 

For audiences, the surprises began with the show’s printed program. The booklet came sealed with the words “DO NOT OPEN”: part provocation, part dare. The cover was decorated with only an abstract swirl of silky fog. 

Yet the real incitement came when the performance began—not with lilting strings and a curtain raise, but with the low thrum of a single electronic note by British musician Floating Points and a sheer black screen. For the next 66 minutes, the crowd was gripped by a modern retelling of the Pandora myth, the company’s first full-length ballet choreographed by a woman, Canadian American Aszure Barton. Nearly 50 dancers writhed and wiggled on a stage designed with the help of artificial intelligence by Barcelona-based Hamill Industries, all of the performers clad in black reflective bodysuits. 

A DJ with curly hair mixes tracks on a Pioneer setup in a warmly lit event space.
A DJ spins at the San Francisco Ballet's "Mere Mortals" after-party. | Source: Courtesy SF Ballet/Lindsey Rallo

Rojo sat down with The Standard in early April to reflect on the singular vision that inspired her first programmed season at the San Francisco Ballet. “I believe in why I’m commissioning female choreographers and collaborators,” she said. “But I think the work stands by itself.” 

The additional seven performances of Mere Mortals were not pre-planned—rather they were a generous bow to the staggering response received by the ballet’s initial run. Many people who originally came to see the performance knew nothing about it, Rojo said. And very little about the woman who orchestrated it.

“Yet they keep coming back,” she said. 

Rojo, the 49-year-old former principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet who previously served as the director of the English National Ballet, might be winding down her inaugural season as artistic director, but her impact has only begun to reverberate in the San Francisco art world—and across the wider international ballet scene. 

Two women sit near a piano; one is contemplative with a hand on her chin.
Artistic director Tamara Rojo, foreground, watches a San Francisco Ballet rehearsal. | Source: Courtesy SF Ballet/Lindsey Rallo

She’s brought in a decidedly younger crowd to the War Memorial Opera House, and Tuesday night’s performance of Mere Mortals saw flocks of young(ish) audience members rocking multicolored fits, frosted hair and feathered masks. One attendee told The Standard she had seen the performance twice; another had flown from Washington state to San Francisco for 24 hours just to catch it. 

“It was fucking phenomenal,” said Joanna Karlinsky, who was at the show to celebrate her 60th birthday with her girlfriend. “It was as if Alvin Ailey, Lauren Anderson and Brian Eno had a love child.” 

In the process of her first four months of programming, Rojo has done something her predecessors could not: She transformed the vibe of the War Memorial Opera House from a stuffy shrine to the high arts to a people’s palace poised to party. Local DJs Nooka Jones and Mozhgan kept the party going in the lobby after the show, where audience members danced alongside members of the Rising Rhythm troupe.

A group of people behind colorful smoke plumes with a bright light source behind them, casting long shadows.
Steam rises from signage during a Mere Mortals after-party. | Source: Courtesy SF Ballet/Lindsey Rallo

Every production of the just-finished run Dos Mujeres—another breakout success in April, which was the first double bill of female choreographers and the first program dedicated specifically to Latino stories—had the all-female Mariachi Bonitas performing in the lobby post-show. 

“We couldn’t get people to leave the opera house because they were having such a good time,” Rojo said.  

That production, which included stories inspired by Carmen and Frida Kahlo, brought new color into the beige house: balconies festooned with paper decorations, a custom folk art curtain and a replica of Frida Kahlo’s yellow dining table that once stood in her Blue House. 

It’s all part of Rojo’s plan to widen the network of artists who are presenting work at the opera house, which she wants to open up to all Bay Area creatives. 

Dancers in black, outstretched, face a giant screen displaying a fiery cosmic image, all on a minimalist stage.
The San Francisco Ballet performs in Aszure Barton and Sam Shepherd's "Mere Mortals." | Source: Courtesy SF Ballet/Chris Hardy

When asked about the neighboring fine arts institutions experiencing a variety of hardships—such as the departure of SF Symphony music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in the wake of financial struggles and the shortened season of the San Francisco Opera—Rojo insists she’s not looking to score easy points at her rivals’ expense.

“I am in no position to give lessons,” she said. 

Yet the facts of her first, bravura season indicate otherwise. Buoyed by a $60 million anonymous donation in February—the ballet’s largest gift ever—and with ticket sales approaching pre-Covid levels, there’s a lot for the SF Ballet to celebrate. The house was packed Tuesday night for Mere Mortals, and the audience was agape. 

“It was mesmerizing,” said first-time balletgoer Daria Bianchina. Amy Orringer attended the show with a group of friends after hearing her roommate’s glowing review. She likened the show to a modern-day The Rite of Spring, the 1913 Sergei Diaghilev ballet that prompted riots in Paris. 

People dancing joyfully in a festive, dimly-lit hall with red lighting and classical architecture.
Attendees dance during a "Mere Mortals" after-party. | Source: Lindsey Rallo/San Francisco Ballet

Rojo said the more she has tapped into the scene of local institutions and artists—whether it’s mariachi bands, DJs or the Mexican Consulate—the better the response has been. 

“I think that has been part of why this season has been embraced and has been so successful,” she said. “People have felt very welcomed.” 

“I've really thrown so much at them,” she added about her San Francisco audiences, who have lavished the company with adoration. “And the response has been extraordinary.”

A dancer in a fringe outfit performs before an audience in a warmly lit grand hall.
A performer dances during a "Mere Mortals" after-party. | Source: Lindsey Rallo/San Francisco Ballet