A Diamond's New Settings
“We know we have very high standards here. But sometimes you just have to remind people how good you are. We don’t want to be taken for granted.”
Helgi Tomasson has never been one to brag about his accomplishments during the 24 years he has run the San Francisco Ballet. But this morning as he decompresses in his sunny office during a grueling rehearsal schedule, he just can’t resist boasting a bit about the most daring project of his directorship.
The New Works Festival, which winds up SFB’s 75th anniversary season this month, will unveil 10 ballets over the space of three days. Eight of those premieres will add up to a kinetic history of Tomasson’s tenure. Their choreographers will include renowned dancemakers like Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and James Kudelka, all of whom have contributed over the past quarter century to the company’s eclectic profile. However, four additional ballets will come from Julia Adam, Val Caniparoli, Yuri Possokhov, and Stanton Welch, former dancers whose flourishing choreographic careers have been nurtured at SFB. The debuting dancemakers are the Finnish iconoclast Jorma Elo and, an intriguing choice, pioneering Bay Area postmodernist Margaret Jenkins.
The New Works Festival was inspired by New York City Ballet’s historic 1972 Stravinsky Festival in which Tomasson danced so memorably. But this one, he says, will be even more demanding for the dancers. “At City Ballet, all the works were basically in-house. They all had a certain look and presupposed a certain training,” he notes. “Here, I’m bringing in so many different movement styles.”
For Tomasson, this festival seemed the ideal way to celebrate the 75th birthday of the oldest professional ballet organization in the U.S. The celebration would not have been possible without the SFB Association’s top administrative staff and a supportive board of directors. According to Tomasson, the board responded to his scheme with a single word, “Wow,” and went out to raise the money.
The logistics for the festival have been complex. He requested that the choreographers stay away from piano and chamber accompaniments, “so that we can show off our wonderful orchestra.” There were a few ground rules: no pas de deux, running times between 15 and 30 minutes, and casts that ranged between 7 and 16 dancers.
Further, the choreographers were encouraged to use commissioned scores. Three (Jenkins, Morris, and Kudelka) accepted the challenge. All the choreographers hewed to a rehearsal schedule that found them traipsing through the building, one or two at a time, from midsummer to early spring. Because the preparations in the weeks before the festival will strain the troupe to the utmost, for six days the stage will be turned over to three visiting companies—New York City Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in its local debut.
Tomasson refused to assign or even suggest music to his visiting choreographers, a policy that dates from his early dancemaking efforts at NYCB. He recalls that Balanchine once gave him a particular score to work with. When Tomasson told his mentor that this music didn’t speak to him and proposed another composer, there was a long, ominous silence at the other end of the phone. “I thought that was the end of me,” Tomasson relates. “But Mr. B said, ‘Wonderful, he’s a very underrated composer,’ and he gave me a great piece of advice: ‘Don’t ever let anybody ever tell you what music to use.’”
Kudelka was an early beneficiary of that philosophy. The Canadian choreographer, then almost unknown in this country, bowed at SFB in 1987 with Dreams of Harmony, a surging company piece set to a Schumann symphony. It became a defining moment in SFB’s evolving aesthetic.
Kudelka, whose festival contribution will be The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful (to Rodney Sharman’s orchestrations of César Franck keyboard pieces), believes that Tomasson’s approach generates a healthy energy among the performers. “I think his dancers have become more and more open to working with choreographers. There is still the part of the dancer’s psyche that is impossible to remove, the part that will always consider Odette or Giselle ahead of a newly created role. But, on the whole, I have found the company increasingly open to new approaches and new ways of seeing themselves within dance.”
Artistic freedom for choreographers has been part of SFB’s policy since the more freewheeling Lew Christensen era. Caniparoli, who remains on the roster as principal character dancer, arrived at the SFB School in 1972 and a year later was yanked out of it by Christensen and moved into the company.
“Lew tried to groom me for the cavalier roles. I could lift and partner well, but I did not have a natural physique for ballet,” says Caniparoli. A decade later, he choreographed his first piece for SFB, as part of a Stravinsky festival. He flourished when, in 1985, Tomasson succeeded Christensen after his death.
“Fortunately, I thought positively. Helgi programmed my Hamlet and Ophelia, pas de deux,” says Caniparoli. “Lew had recommended me for the transition team, and I’m still here.” Since then, Caniparoli has made more than 60 ballets for companies from Seattle to West Palm Beach. His greatest success, Lambarena, premiered here in 1994 and has since entered the repertoires of 16 companies here and abroad. The work’s fusion of the ballet lexicon and traditional African dance was potentially inflammatory.
“Audiences go crazy over it everywhere,” says Caniparoli. “Yet a lot of people have decided that Lambarena is politically incorrect. Still, Helgi allowed it to happen. However, I must say now that I have been influenced more by Lew than I ever thought back then, though his work is not in vogue.”
Caniparoli may be alluding to Christensen’s favorable attitude towards narrative. His upcoming premiere, set to a Dvorák quintet, will be a meditation on the strong-minded heroines of Henrik Ibsen’s plays and will incorporate narrative elements.
So, too, will Julia Adam’s new ballet, which offers an irreverent gloss on Sleeping Beauty, accompanied by orchestrations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She describes it as “a little Rubik’s cube.” Adam came to San Francisco in 1988 from the National Ballet of Canada. Her “goofy, eccentric” sensibility served her well when it came both to performing and making dances. She honed her craft in workshops. In 2000 Adam said, “Helgi gave me an amazing opportunity and it sent me into a good place.”
The result was Night, a disarming, semi-satirical dreamscape, and it proved both a hit and career triumph for principal dancer Tina LeBlanc. “The applause that evening was like a wave of wind,” says Adam, who retired from performing in 2002. “That’s the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like Mick Jagger.”
Stanton Welch, artistic director of the Houston Ballet, was anything but a rock star when, fresh from Australia, he enrolled at the SFB School in 1988. Eight years later, he made his first (of five ballets) for the company. “Helgi is adventurous in his musical interests,” says Welch. “He’s very brave and you really want to feel that, if you fail, the company will stand behind you.”
Welch’s festival contribution will unite five couples with Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. “I thought of doing a tutu piece for a change. SFB’s dancers are so fast and stylistically versatile. You can get this wonderful rhythm going choreographically, then go back, add details, and they pick them up.”
The New Works Festival has kept the company’s 82 dancers hopping since last August. Soloist Frances Chung will dance in the Welch, Kudelka, and Jenkins pieces. She has also rehearsed the Morris and Elo. Kudelka, she says, demands “very slow dancing from me, something I never get the opportunity to do.” Welch arrived at the rehearsals knowing exactly what he wanted from his cast. “He was just on top of it.”
By contrast, the preparations for the Jenkins were something else: “Her process was so different from anything I had experienced before and so rewarding,” says Chung. “For four weeks we collaborated with Margey and the eight dancers from her company. She taught us how to work by using our breath. I’m not afraid of improvisation any more.”
Morris’ score, John Adams’ new Son of Chamber Symphony, declares Chung, is the toughest music she has ever danced to. “It worked our brains.”
All in all, the New Works Festival has been inspirational. “I’ve grown a lot,” says Chung. “It’s always great to have a ballet created on you.”
Will all these choreographers’ contributions to the New Works Festival add up to a recognizable SFB style?
“I think that style lies in our musicality and respect for the art form,” says Tomasson. “We use the classical vocabulary, but we never want to use it to the point where it looks rigid or academically correct. We must breathe life into it.
“I tell that to the dancers. I keep reminding them that their careers are so short and that they have nothing to save it for. Do it now. Get the experience. Enjoy. Enjoy.”
Allan Ulrich is a DM senior advising editor and a contributor to publications here and abroad.
Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.