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Watch this ‘Vertigo'-inspired dance film that’s a love letter to San Francisco

Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Benjamin Millepied's film "Dance of Dreams."
Ellen Rose Hummel and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Benjamin Millepied’s film “Dance of Dreams.”
(San Francisco Ballet)

Dancer Joseph Walsh descends down a set of stairs at the brutalist San Francisco Art Institute in the opening to “Dance of Dreams,” a short film directed by Benjamin Millepied. The score from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” swells as Walsh looks out over the city and begins a short solo by New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck.

Shot near the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts, the foggy and wind-swept city is a prominent character in the six-minute film, which premiered Thursday on the San Francisco Ballet’s social platforms.

It features a cast of principal dancers and soloists from the San Francisco Ballet and choreography from Peck, Complexions Contemporary Ballet founding artistic director Dwight Rhoden, L.A. Dance Project company member Janie Taylor and the Royal Ballet artistic associate Christopher Wheeldon.

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San Francisco Ballet artistic director and principal choreographer Helgi Tomasson commissioned Millepied, founder and artistic director of L.A. Dance Project, to create the work. Millepied, along with the dancers and choreographers, donated their time to the project.

Millepied said he was inspired by his love of the 1958 thriller “Vertigo,” set in San Francisco. The idea wasn’t to replicate the film, he said. “It’s just more about these dancers expressing themselves in their city and in this moment. There’s a sense of honesty in the dancing because they’ve been in their apartments for months.”

Shot in June, “Dance of Dreams” includes two solos and two pas de deux. (The pas de deux were performed by dancers who sheltered in place together.) The music incorporates more than 150 tracks recorded remotely by more than 60 musicians in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

Wind whips through dancer Frances Chung’s clothes as she begins her solo on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the city at Cavallo Point. Chung said that dancing in the film was her first time performing since quarantine began.

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She learned Taylor’s choreography via FaceTime. The two traded videos, with Chung practicing at home and later in an open field.

Being part of the project was a nice break from the routine of the past few months, she said. Although the windy weather wasn’t ideal — making it difficult for the camera crew to set up shots — and the cliff was a much smaller space than she’d planned for, “I haven’t danced or performed or done something for film in so long that it honestly doesn’t even matter what the elements were like,” she said.

Frances Chung dances by the bay at Cavallo Point in Millepied's Dance of Dreams
Frances Chung in Millepied’s Dance of Dreams
(San Francisco Ballet)

Millepied, who will direct and choreograph the upcoming feature film “Carmen,” directed the short film from L.A. He scouted locations virtually and, during the shoot, watched playback from camera operators from his home on Zoom.

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“I was live on set,” Millepied said. “I was seeing what the camera was doing at all times. And I would communicate with the operator between takes.”

Although he wasn’t physically there with the dancers and crew, “it was more about getting different angles. ... We wanted to move the camera, just getting something that felt intimate.”

While she danced, Chung wanted to express love for San Francisco and its people during this tough time.

“The city is struggling to say the least, and it’s just a message of hope or things will hopefully go back to what it once was and we’ll be back onstage.”

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The coronavirus crisis forced dance companies — folklórico, ballet, modern — to find ways to make money and reach audiences. Think screens, not stages.


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