AI at the ballet: ‘Mere Mortals’ dares to hope

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

The lights of the opera house dimmed to a deep red as suspenseful music grew more intense. I was busy taking in the program when my attention was pulled to the curtain seamlessly lifting to reveal a floor of fog. 

Hope first emerges in a glimmering black bodysuit. Demonstrating butterfly-like movement, he gracefully flutters before disappearing back into the fog.

The dancer belongs to San Francisco Ballet’s production of “Mere Mortals,” an immersive show that premiered in January and held encore performances in April. The ballet reimagines the Greek myth of Pandora’s jar and how it parallels the rise of artificial intelligence. 

The performance follows Pandora, the first mortal woman, as she disobeys Zeus by opening the jar he had asked her to keep closed, unleashing all evils into the world and trapping Hope inside.  

The show uniquely combined AI technology with human movement to create an entirely new world which feels both familiar and apocalyptic. SF Ballet commissioned Hamill Industries, a creative studio based in Barcelona, to create a series of moving screens that project both AI and human created art. 

At one point, the holograms depicted smoke which morphed into clay and hands and back to clay and then hands. The lively atmosphere would not have been as immersive or realistic without these special effects. 

Since the original myth does not give Pandora a voice, the team used this as an opportunity to introduce her spirit through movement. 

“The idea of inevitable change was interesting to us,” wrote dramaturg Carmen Kovacs in the ballet’s program. “Pandora’s curiosity is in all of us, and the human brain’s desire to go further and make progress is something we cannot take back or erase.” 

While the ensemble is piled on the floor like a black hole, Pandora is born out from them and rises in their arms. Swirling above them, she crowd surfs on her back in a majestic and peaceful way. She is fearless as she explores every possible range of movement her new body has to offer. In merely minutes, Pandora grows in confidence, leaping through space.  

The characters’ stylistic movements varied starkly. Prometheus and Zeus fight in a brotherly way, mirroring each other while simultaneously showing their own strengths. With mouths agape and sweat flying their energy was truly transporting. 

My experience in the audience was unforgettable. Suddenly, the dark stage flashed with a blinding strobe light that resembled a portal from which dozens of dancers charged forward in soldier-like formations. The crowd gasped in awe as their power surged through us. Goosebumps crawled up my arms as a projection of the sun hovered above the complex patterns of bodies. The symmetry and perfect precision of the ensemble was almost robotic.

The dancers ran and jumped as if defying gravity and moving through a whole universe. 

One of the most emotionally charged moments of the performance comes when Pandora finally opens the jar. She stands in front of a dark wall which opens like a gate to reveal a white light. As a still silhouette for minutes, the screen floods with collages of gorgeous watercolors and storm imagery. Paired with Sam Shepherd’s entrancing and emotional music, everyone watched the madness alongside her. I was brought to tears. 

After Pandora witnesses the misery of the world, she collapses in pain. She is clearly permanently changed, demonstrated in her tired movement. 

Hope enters again, now dressed in a glittering gold bodysuit. Despite being trapped in the jar, he escapes and returns to her. Hope’s style becomes infectious, where the ensemble adapts his movements like rays of light trying to heal Pandora. The scene showed how truly profound hope can be in rescuing us from our darkest despairs.  

The costumes, designed by Michelle Jank, illuminated the stage with vibrancy. The dancers’ glowing bodies were equally as infectious as their movement, making me feel lighter in my seat. 

In only an hour, choreographer Aszure Barton and her talented team crafted an immersive story that shows the extremes of the suffering and hope that accompanies the human experience. Between the imaginative score and complex projections, “Mere Mortals” reinforced the power of interdisciplinary art. By combining our rawest emotions with technology, the performance opened new doors for meaning making. Through examining our past, it was able to reimagine our possible future.

The dancers all run off towards the light, and the curtains close. 

I sat in my chair and thought about how truly inevitable change is. Despite the chaos this ensues, through hope, it can also inspire us to move forward together.