City Ballet brings back its popular ‘Carmina Burana’

After a successful premiere last year, choreographer Geoff Gonzalez tests his fortune with a bigger, bolder show


When City Ballet staged “Carmina Burana” in May of last year, resident choreographer Geoff Gonzalez wanted to try a different approach.

He decided to create a new narrative to the music composed by Carl Orff, connecting its medieval verses to a moment in American history.

The risk paid off, and now, Gonzalez says, he’s going to “bring the firepower.”

The multimedia production, accompanied by the City Ballet Orchestra and an 80-member chorus, launches City Ballet’s 27th season at the Spreckels Theatre this weekend, along with choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich’s “Straw Feet,” which opens the show.

The work incorporates the whole company, whereas only half the dancers performed last year. And custom costumes have been made for the added roles.

“I didn’t want to overwhelm the stage with extra motion that could be distracting last time,” says Gonzalez.

“Now I have the confidence that the story reads and everything will work out fine. I can go in and create more choreographic wonders.”

City Ballet is a family-operated organization that includes Gonzalez’s wife and principal ballerina, Ariana, and his in-laws, Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich, who co-founded the company in 1993.

Elizabeth Wistrich says that “Carmina Burana” was one of the City Ballet productions that proved to be “a boon to the company.”

“Geoff’s version just struck a note with people,” she says.

“We could have done more performances. You do have to realize what your audience likes and it’s like a new ballet now.”

The musical concert “Carmina Burana” premiered in Frankfurt in 1937. The opus Orff described as a “scenic cantata,” with time signatures both savage and soothing, continues to be a popular work for orchestra and chorus.

The stand-out piece of music often used in films is “O Fortuna,” a chilling number with the tempo of a military march.

When presented as a ballet, “Carmina Burana” is typically choreographed in a way that complements the lyrics to Orff’s arrangement — verses, taken from an ancient manuscript, that speak to carnal pleasures, romantic love and the consequences of indulgence.

While researching ideas for his “Carmina Burana,” Gonzalez became intrigued with the Roaring Twenties and the stock market crash of 1929.

He saw the connection between the extreme contrasts of that era, reflecting fortune and then crushing poverty, and the themes of “Carmina Burana.”

Gonzalez imagined sets and costumes that told a visually rich story.

Before the Great Depression, speakeasies sold liquor on the sly, flappers shimmied in short fringe skirts and bankers in three-piece-suits swung gold watch chains and swallowed shots of whiskey in one gulp. Then, the wheel of fortune turned and bank accounts froze, families went broke and the desperate plummeted to their deaths from high-rise windows.

There were certain infamous people in that era that would provide strong acting roles for the City Ballet dancers, such as Marilyn Miller, a “glorious redhead and Broadway ballerina” who inspired the part of Mistress Marilyn, played by Ariana Gonzalez. And principal dancer Brian Heil plays the character based on the life of New York banker J. J. Riordan, who shot himself with a pistol. Dancer Megan Jacobs returns in the role of the golden-swathed Goddess of Fortune.

The show will open with “Straw Feet,” another contemporary ballet that has been updated for this weekend’s opening.

Wistrich created the fast and physically demanding choreography to an original, percussive score by Brian Kohn. She says the dance is inspired by scenes of Africa, specifically the migration of animals across the Serengeti. The backdrop for the dancers is a hazy, noonday sun, shimmering against a sea of blue and the dancers wear leotards in desert colors of orange and yellow.

“We have beautiful dancers from our summer intensive,” Wistrich says. “We are thrilled. I think it will be stunning.”

City Ballet of San Diego presents: “Carmina Burana” and “Straw Feet”

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 1-2, 2 p.m. Nov. 3

Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown

Tickets: $25 to $92

Phone: (858) 272-8663


Artistic director Steven Wistrich lectures for 30 minutes prior to each performance.

Manna is a freelance writer.