City Ballet’s resident choreographer and dancer Geoff Gonzalez likes to think big, which can sometimes pose challenges when working within a budget.
When he choreographed last year’s “The Four Seasons,” for instance, he envisioned an indoor blizzard and contemplated the cost of making real snow for the winter section. The effect he wanted was ultimately produced with expert lighting, but his enthusiasm compels him to shoot for the stars.
His next big project is “Carmina Burana,” staged the second weekend in May at the Spreckels Theater.
Even if you aren’t familiar with “Carmina Burana,” you’ll recognize the powerful opener “O Fortuna,” with its hushed and amplified chanting, medieval melodies and crashing cymbals.
It has been used in numerous movies (“Excalibur,” “Beowulf: Prince of the Geats”) because it sets the mood for epic action.
Then there are the themes of love, lust and living large, which resonate with audiences and leave a lot open to interpretation. As a result, some dance companies have turned “Carmina Burana” into a big theatrical production, incorporating gigantic discs with spinning sparklers to represent the Wheel of Fortune along with other outrageous props that can compete with the choreography.
Gonzalez said he considered an elevated wheel that would rotate in the middle of the stage, but decided on creating an abstract version of that symbolic element instead.
In recent years, Gonzalez has demonstrated a skill for defining the story he wants to tell with beautiful, compelling movement.
In 2014, he introduced “Speakeasy,” the critically acclaimed work that premiered as part of City Ballet’s “Ballet and Beyond” program.
Gonzalez initially considered music by Duke Ellington to accompany his Depression Era work, showcasing more than a dozen dancers. But when he switched to a Rachmaninoff score, it was an unpredictable choice that made his partnering and solos fierce. Combative dance segments kept the audience riveted, and the movement told a clearer story about a time in America when alcohol made a negative impact on social and intimate relationships.
Gonzalez was chosen to be a part of the New York Choreographic Institute in 2016, and earlier this year he won the Outstanding Choreographer Award at the Youth America Grand Prix.
“I felt incredibly fortunate because I competed for six years and never came up with anything,” Gonzales said. “It was a wonderful moment, like owning a lottery ticket.”
Gonzalez won the winning ticket when it came to choreographing “Carmina Burana,” too.
As a young, emerging choreographer, Gonzalez has advantages at City Ballet, where there is “a lot of fire power.”
His wife, Ariana, is a skilled principal ballerina and his in-laws, City Ballet directors Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich, are experienced with all the technical aspects of maintaining a ballet company and school.
When City Ballet members discussed “Carmina Burana” as having potential for the new season, Gonzalez began researching the history of the work and familiarizing himself with “the big picture.”
“I begged them to let me do it,” he said. “I was looking at choreography projects and I ended up throwing myself into it. And they wanted to give me the opportunity.”
“Carmina Burana” was conceived as a choreographed play, or what German composer Carl Orff called a “scenic cantata.”
The music was inspired by a collection of early,13th-century songs and poems written by poets and clerical students, some sentimental, others with salacious and satirical themes.
Orff’s “Carmina Burana” consists of 25 movements that are divided into five major sections titled, “O Fortuna,” “Springtime,” “In the Tavern,” “The Court Of Love” and ending with the riveting “O Fortuna.”
The production was a huge success when it was first performed in Frankfurt in 1937 and continues to be popular with classic and modern dance companies today.
Gonzalez will create choreography that references historic facts with the fate-and-fortune themes of “Carmina Burana” by referencing historical figures and placing them in the Roaring Twenties, right before the stock market crash. His characters will include a banker, a beautiful actress and a group of brokers who “are thirsty for the banker’s life.” Faceless, robed monks are “tortured souls” representing an ominous presence.
The City Ballet production will feature live music by the City Ballet Orchestra, conducted by John Nettles and accompanied by the Pacific Coast Chorale. Resident choreographer and director Elizabeth Wistrich has added a light, neo-classical ballet to music by Mozart that contrasts with the powerful and dramatic “Carmina Burana.”
“The music is so big, so huge, but the subject matter is delicate,” Gonazalez said. “I want to capture the soul of Carl Orff’s music in my story with movement.”
City Ballet of San Diego presents: Carmina Burana and Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp
When: 8 p.m. May 11-12, 2 p.m. May 13. A free lecture begins 30 minutes before each performance.
Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown
Phone: (858) 272-8663
Manna is a freelance writer.