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Lords of the Dance

March 1, 2008

As the San Francisco Ballet reaches its 75th year, Chloe Veltman discovers how it has become a world-leading company

Right from the start, San Francisco Ballet always had to be first in line. Soon after it was established in 1933 to provide dancing talent for San Francisco Opera’s lavish productions, America’s oldest professional ballet company set about making dance history. The organization presented America’s first full-length productions of Coppélia (1938) and Swan Lake (1940). In 1944, it premiered the country’s first complete Nutcracker, kick-starting the tradition of presenting Tchaikovsky’s most popular work during the holiday season. San Francisco Ballet became the first American ballet company to tour the Far East in 1957 and the first, in 1978, to broadcast a full-length American ballet on the PBS television network (then co-artistic director Michael Smuin’s Romeo and Juliet).

A passion for premieres continues to govern the company’s programming to this day. While other arts organizations might take the advent of a major anniversary as the perfect opportunity to celebrate past achievements by dusting off mothballed classics, San Francisco Ballet’s 75th birthday season is defiantly forward-looking. Living choreographers feature heavily on the season’s lineup both in terms of the company’s own offerings and the showcase by three guest groups – The National Ballet of Canada, The New York City Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo -- scheduled for early April. Audiences will glimpse works by such contemporary choreographers as artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Wayne McGregor, Yuri Possokhov, Matjash Mrozewski and Jean-Christophe Maillot. With the exception of a program devoted to the legacy of Jerome Robbins and a trio of pieces by George Balanchine (whose spirit looms large over the company’s history), the only truly nostalgic work in the entire season is Filling Station, a 1938 favorite choreographed by former artistic director Lew Christensen.

Tomasson’s deep-seated interest in working with new choreographers reaches its apotheosis at the tail end of the season with the company’s New Works Festival. Comprising of ten world premieres over three days by ten choreographers including Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon, Paul Taylor, James Kudelka and Margaret Jenkins, the event may be one of the most ambitious festivals of new ballets in U.S. history. “I’m hard pressed to think of a new works festival on this scale attempted anywhere else since New York City Ballet’s mammoth Stravinsky Festival of 1972,” says San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent, Rachel Howard. “It’s going to be a huge challenge getting all ten pieces up on their feet all at once.”

The New Works Festival presents some particularly interesting issues for San Francisco Ballet’s music director and principal conductor, Martin West. The orchestra faces the task of sourcing 14 timpani for Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, the music selected to accompany choreographer Jorma Elo’s festival piece. Obtaining the rights to perform Aaj Ki Raat from the late Bollywood composer Rahul Dev Burman’s soundtrack for the 1973 Indian film Anamika has proved similarly tricky. The Kronos Quartet performed an adaptation of the piece slated to accompany Possokhov’s festival contribution on its Caravan CD of 2000, but the group worked from sketched parts based on the movie score. Meanwhile, West alongside company music librarian Matthew Naughtin are completely re-orchestrating Bach’s Goldberg Variations in order to create a version that uses as many of the orchestra’s instruments as possible and better fits with the concept behind choreographer Julia Adams’ ballet.

To top it all, three of the ten choreographers -- Jenkins, Kudelka and Morris -- have opted to commission musical scores rather than work with existing repertoire, providing the orchestra with an unusually large amount of complex, new music to learn in a short amount of time. The American contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound gave the world premiere performance of John Adams’ score for Morris’ ballet, entitled Son of Chamber Symphony, at Stanford University last December. As rhythmic as a runaway train and intricate as an advanced crossword puzzle, Adams’ music will test the Ballet orchestra’s skills to the limit. “It usually takes longer to start a work from scratch, with the orchestra having no idea of how it’s supposed to sound,” says West, a British national who until recently also served as the English National Ballet’s principal conductor. “The Adams piece in particular looks to be very technically challenging.”

Despite the company’s focus on breaking new ground (it’s possible, for example, to experience two or three different programs in a typical season before glimpsing a single tutu on stage) San Francisco Ballet remains ardently tied to its classical roots. The company’s founders -- Utah siblings Willam, Harold and Lew Christensen – cut their teeth in the 1920s and 30s under the tutelage of the likes of Balanchine and the great Russian choreographer Michel Fokine. The company’s two subsequent leaders, Smuin (who served as co-director alongside Lew Christensen) and Tomasson, grew out of the same tradition as the Christensens. Smuin came up through the ranks of Balanchine’s American Ballet Theatre. The Reykjavik-born Tomasson, meanwhile, became a protégé of both Robbins and Balanchine. Today’s San Francisco Ballet honors this legacy both through its stringent approach to classical technique and its repertoire, whose backbone consists of many works by such American ballet luminaries as Balanchine, Robbins and William Forsythe.

Thanks to sky-high technical standards, a diverse repertoire that encompasses everything from Marius Petipa to Mark Morris, and Tomasson’s choreographer-centric vision, what began as a provincial company has grown to become an organization of considerable international standing. “The San Francisco Ballet ranks as one of the top couple of companies in the country and one of the best in the world,” says dance scholar and author of the new book San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five, Janice Ross. The company’s boundary-defying reputation also owes much to a rigorous touring schedule that takes it regularly to New York, Paris and London among other places for several months every year. As the Sunday Times put it of the company’s 2004 engagement at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre: “Helgi Tomasson’s outstanding artistic direction has transformed a regional American troupe into one of the world’s top ballet companies.”

The San Francisco Ballet’s trajectory to stardom hasn’t always been smooth. In 1974, the company faced bankruptcy, but was brought back from the brink by a grassroots community campaign. Scandal again erupted in 1985 when a dispute between Smuin and higher management led to the co-director’s dismissal. According to Howard, newly-appointed artistic director Tomasson received death threats from enraged Smuin supporters. “Smuin’s contract allowed him to remain in the building for a year,” says Howard. “As you can imagine, there was a lot of conflict.”

Undeterred, Tomasson set about transforming the company, defying expectations from the beginning. His Swan Lake of 1987 was an early surprise. “No one thought the company capable of dancing a major classical work at that time,” recalls Ross. “But Tomasson proved everyone wrong.” Following Smuin’s crowd-pleasing and often pop culture-infused view of ballet, the dance world expected the company to pursue a more traditional path under its new leader. Tomasson, though a classicist, soon proved himself to be as adept at expanding his audiences’ and dancers’ definitions of ballet as he was at staging fresh versions of antique works. “When Helgi Tomasson first came out to the west coast, many people thought he’d build a company on the Balanchine model, like a ‘New York City Ballet Left’,” says Howard. “But Tomasson created a new model, albeit with a Balanchine tinge – a play-box for choreographers from all over the world.”

As Tomasson looks ahead to the future, his focus on “firsts” continues. Beyond emphasizing touring in order to be seen as widely as possible, the company’s leader continues to foster relationships with choreographers from around the world. “It’s important for each season to feature new works,” says Tomasson. “I want to keep bringing in new choreographers and challenging dancers and audiences to experience new things.”



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