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By Rachel Howard
Elegant and disciplined, the SFB corps member shows surprising maturity.
You can’t help noticing San Francisco Ballet’s Jennifer Stahl. She seems to have everything: long limbs, elegant neck, supple extensions, pliant feet. But when Stahl took the stage at the 2006 world premiere of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s On Common Ground, audiences got a glimpse of something more. Gentle and serene, Stahl seemed to float through a duet with floor-skimming bourrées that displayed her musicality. In her first year as a corps member, she moved with a calm, precocious air of wisdom.
At 19, Stahl has both glamour and maturity. She did not expect to dance the first night of On Common Ground—she was originally third cast—but opportunities have become the norm for her. In 2005, her apprentice year, Stahl danced as one of the Mirlitons in The Nutcracker. Last year, she stood out in a wide range of choreography, from Balanchine’s neoclassical Symphony in C to Julia Adam’s weighted, quirky Night.
Watching Stahl in company class, it may seem like she is simply the beneficiary of tremendous physical blessings. At 5' 8", she has long proportions that present an immediately arresting image. But behind her gifts lie a relentless work ethic and an insatiable desire to learn.
“She’s got brains deluxe,” ballet master Ricardo Bustamante says of the red-haired, blue-eyed corps member. “She assimilates styles and techniques very quickly. She’s a sponge.”
Stahl credits her approach to her first ballet teacher, Maria Lazar, now retired, who trained Stahl in Vaganova technique. Eight years old and an aspiring ice skater, Stahl, who grew up in Orange County’s Dana Point, came to Maria Lazar Classical Ballet Academy to enhance her ice skating. Almost immediately she decided that she liked ballet better, taking quickly to Lazar’s methods. “It wasn’t just ‘Straighten your knee,’ ” Stahl remembers. “It was ‘Lengthen from behind to get the long leg muscles.’ Everything had a reason. Everything had a science in achieving the right line.”
Soon Stahl’s mother, a dentist, was spending much of her time between patients driving her daughter to ballet class. By the time she went on pointe at 11, Stahl remembers, “My goals were set,” and her teacher had great faith that she could reach them.
“I taught for more than 25 years, but I never came across something like this,” says Lazar. “We did so many private classes and she would just not want to stop. She has beautiful lines and harmony of the body, but she did not take for granted what she had naturally.”
Stahl did have some hurdles: When she began ballet, her feet were flat. But she took both private and group class every day. She idolized The Royal Ballet’s statuesque Darcey Bussell. She saw American Ballet Theatre on tour and dreamed of joining the company. At 14, she attended their Orange County summer intensive, and at 15 and 16, she took their intensive in New York.
Then at the 2004 Youth America Grand Prix nationals in New York City, when she was still 16, she won a scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. “The school gave me speed and the ability to be on top of the music,” says Stahl, who admits that the swiftness of Balanchine style did not come easily. She believes she was ideally trained for the technical purity and harmonious lines of the 19th-century classics, and dreams of taking on roles like Aurora someday. But when she danced the lead in Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes for her graduation showcase, she caught Helgi Tomasson’s eye. He offered her a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship that evening.
She accepted immediately, though it caused concern for her parents. Her father, a lawyer, would ask if she shouldn’t apply to colleges “just in case.” But by the time Stahl finished her apprentice year, simultaneously graduating from high school, Tomasson had all but promised her a position in the corps.
She’ll have to stay mentally and physically nimble in the season ahead. For San Francisco Ballet’s ambitious New Works Festival, she’s been cast in world premieres by Stanton Welch, Margaret Jenkins, James Kudelka, and Mark Morris. Stahl felt surprised though pleased to be chosen by Morris as one of just four first-cast women. But the choreography by Jenkins, a Cunningham-trained modernist, was alien to her at first: “We were all so sore the day after first rehearsal!” Stahl says.
A pas de deux in the Welch ballet, Bustamante says, could prove a breakthrough. “Jennifer has a fantastic jump, she’s a terrific turner, and she has a supple body,” he says. “But she also knows how to gel with her partner, how to time herself and be attentive.”
Stahl wants to continue working on her feet. Though she is happy with their shape now, she wants “to get the attack of the toes” required for allegro parts. That’s something Tomasson has told her to work towards, along with staying healthy, a major concern for all San Francisco Ballet dancers during the demanding 75th-anniversary season ahead. But Stahl doesn’t need much prodding. “I’m competitive with myself,” she says. “I have expectations. If you have the ability to be great at something, you should go for it.”
Rachel Howard covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle.