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.

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.

Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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Cover Story
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"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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Advice for Dancers
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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

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