Il Distratto

Music: Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 60, `Il Distratto'
Costumes: David Barnard
First Performance: August 4, 1967, San Francisco Ballet Theatre
Principal Dancers: Jocelyn Vollmar, Ingrid Fraley, Patricia Garland, Cynthia Quick,
Krista Scholter, Wendy Holt, Gina Ness, Allyson Segeler, Catharine Warner, Sally Bailey
Number of Dancers: 15
Duration: 30 minutes

Il Distratto Lew Christensen's 1967 ballet Il Distratto was originally created for the advanced class of the San Francisco Ballet School. Christensen described the work as "an exercise in discipline, an instructive analysis of how dancers learn. When you are training young dancers," Christensen explained, "you have to take each part of the body separately--legs, feet, arms, hands, head--and train them to work together. The original idea was to teach the class to dance together under strict discipline, using space and light." What has made Il Distratto such a hit, however, is Christensen's famous wit. The ballet proved to be so popular that it entered the repertory of San Francisco Ballet later that year.

Through the use of clever stagecraft, Christensen emphasizes the "disciplinary" aspect of the choreography. The dancers, dressed in a combination of black and white leotards, are illuminated by "black light" revealing either the upper or lower half of the body. The choreography brilliantly plays on the interaction of the arms, legs, head, and torso. (Left: Corps de ballet in Lew Christensen's Il Distratto (1979). Photo by Gary Sinik.

Il Distratto is set to Haydn's Symphony No. 60, one of his most charming, middle-period works originally composed as incidental music for Regnard's 1774 play Le Distrait. The work gets its name from a clever performance device used in the last movement where the violins raucously retune their lowest string from F to G representing the `distraught' state of the plays principal character. Christensen brilliantly reflects the music in his choreography as the stage is suddenly transformed from distorted anarchy to perfectly symmetrical clarity.

Arthur Bloomfield writing for the San Francisco Examiner captured the spirit of Christensen's choreography: "Four girls for the first exposition, another four for the repeat, with a big crowd getting into action for the development and recapitulation. The music is a nice triple time bounce, ready-made for ballet. But already in that opener there are comic touches. Limbs used like levers, for instance. And when Christensen gets to the andante four tall girls are put through an enormously witty set of leg and ankle wiggles with the lights aimed low, where the action is. Movement is in mirror image and parallel formations with the girls lining up behind one another for a game of "whose leg is who."

"The succeeding presto brings some furioso finger pointing and wrapping of arms, and in the fourth movement, an adagio, there's a hilarious dismemberment sequence engineered by a combination of ultra-violet lights and detergent-drenched apparel which looks fluorescent. What you see is this: the top of one dancer lit up, the legs of another similarly visible. Each dancer had a partner concealed in the darkness who does the hoisting. The result is what you might call an exhibition in two-part dancing. One part here, one part there."

"Christensen's alive sense of humor is still brilliantly turned on in the finale wherein he picks right up on a Haydn joke. Haydn had the violins tune their G strings down a tone, then wrench the string up to proper pitch. During this horrendous passage the dancers are caught in a great group muddle, disentangling themselves as the mistuning is corrected."

Audiences and critics delighted in Christensen's blend of academic discipline and wit. Paul Emerson, writing in the Palo Alto Times, described the premier performances: "The Master is back--and the San Francisco Ballet has its biggest hit of the season. We're speaking of Lew Christensen and his new ballet, an intriguing, classical abstract work called `Il Distratto' (The Distracted). It was Christensen's ballet which got the evening off soaring on fanciful flights of dancing. Christensen is a master at putting dance with classical music, and `Distratto' is no exception. The entire ballet is full of inventiveness, clever, humorous touches and well-thought out themes which tie the whole ballet together."

Il Distratto has proven to be one of Christensen's most enduring works and has been a staple of the San Francisco Ballet repertory for nearly thirty years. Il Distratto has also been staged by many other companies throughout the United States and Europe. The year after its San Francisco premier, Il Distratto entered the repertory of the Joffrey Ballet. Rolf Stromberg, reviewing the New York performances wrote, "Il Distratto... deemed one of the major surprises of the New York spring season."

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