One Road, Four Choices: William Soleau Brings Multifaceted Seasons to State Street Ballet

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

–Robert Frost, from “The Road Not Taken”

Choreographer William Soleau has been thinking about destiny and choice a lot this year as he puts the final touches to his four-act work “Seasons,” a world premiere for the opening of State Street Ballet’s tenth season.

“What if I had chosen another college?” Soleau asks, “What if I hadn’t met that one teacher? What if I had not fallen in love with that one girl?

“These ‘what if?’ questions are something everyone can relate to,” he says.

Looking back over his career, Soleau certainly has taken a unique path.

“When I was in high school, I was a bit of a jock,” he admits, “a bit of an academic, too. I was a poli sci major. But I started going with this girl who was into art and poetry and that led me to ballet.” His journey led him to be chosen to learn at Alvin Ailey’s school. Once there Joyce Trisler saw him by chance one day and offered him a place in her company. After that, Soleau said, it was “one step in front of another.” But would he have found his way to dance by some other means anyway? Wasn’t that his destiny?

“No, I probably would have wound up a lawyer,” he laughs.

“Seasons” is a quartet of stories about decisions taken, and lives changed, each set, unsurprisingly enough, in a different time of year. However, while the seasons change according to plan, Soleau is setting each story in a different time period, moving from Elizabethan England to a late-18th century Irish whaling village, then from a turn-of-the-century Ellis Island to the Hamptons during the late 1930s.

“At first I was thinking of using four Frost poems as well, with ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ being winter, and so on,” Soleau says. “But there was already so many ideas in ‘The Road Not Taken,’ I stayed with that.”

Soleau, who lives in New York, has worked before with State Street Ballet, and enjoys the chance to return and do something new. Soleau scored a hit here in 1999 with his experimental “Starry Night,” based on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.

“Seasons” marks Soleau’s fifth full piece and his first exclusively written for State Street Ballet, and, he believes, the first time this kind of narrative, with its complex workings of destiny and choice, has been done in dance. “There’s many of these stories in films or literature, but not here,” he says. The challenge is to get these complex stories-the main character in the first piece goes through four age changes and has a child somewhere along the way-into a balletic language that will be understandable to the audience. “It’s very theatrical,” Soleau notes, “But it’s amazing what can be shown.” All 16 members of the company feature in every piece, with a minimum of nine costume changes per section (some of which will occur on stage without anybody noticing).

Soleau’s dancers have a mixture of training from traditional ballet to modern movement, and the pieces all reflect this flexibility. “The Irish section incorporates some Celtic steps,” he says but quickly adds: “It’s not Riverdance!” And the fourth section, elegant and classy, incorporates ballroom dancing. There are no “leads” in this company, he says, everybody has a chance in the spotlight. Soleau tailors his choreography to the dancers’ individual strengths. “When I come in to start a piece, it’s a blank canvas. The dancers are like my paints, and I never pre-paint.”

Soleau hopes to make his show tourable after the Santa Barbara premiere, and so what the performance lacks in a large, detailed set-it’s actually quite minimal-it makes up for in a complex lighting set-up by Lloyd Sobel, and in dramatic, gorgeous costumes by Christina Giannini.

“She’s a world class designer,” he says. “She has studied each period, and has created costumes with realistic detail.” Indeed, the costumes are multilayered, with jackets, vests, and button-down shirts for the men, and all sorts of designs for the women, from Elizabethan court outfits for the women to peasant dress for the Ellis Island immigrants. “Of course, Christina will make this all very danceable. That’s her job.”

None of this would work as well, Soleau goes on, if it weren’t for the music. Soleau has set “Seasons” to the work of four composers: Henry Purcell for the Elibethan number (“I know Purcell came a bit after that area, but it still works.”); for the Whaling village section, Soleau has chosen Gerard Finzi, and for the Ellis Island section, a selection of traditional folk music. Lastly, we arrive in the Hamptons to the comforting strains of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Glad to be back in Santa Barbara, Soleau says that if it weren’t for the pushing of Rodney Gustafson, State Street Ballet’s director, he might not have found the excuse to embark on this full-scale work. “Rodney’s been on me to do something like this for a long time,” he says. “Now he’s seeing what we can do, what his dancers can do, he just says ‘wow.'” Soleau has found himself once again down the road he chose, and the seasons are smiling upon him.

State Street Ballet Presents William Soleau’s “Seasons”
When: Saturday, November 8, 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 9, 2 p.m.
Where: Lobero Theatre
Cost: $20.50-$22.50 (children); $30.50-$42.50 (adults) and $125.00 (Patron)
Information: Lobero Box Office, 963-0761.
www.statestreetballet.com.

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