San Francisco Ballet principal Benjamin Freemantle. Drew Altizer Photography, Courtesy SFB

In His Spare Time, Principal Dancer Benjamin Freemantle Gives Free Haircuts to San Francisco's Homeless

Back when he was a living in a dorm as an international student at San Francisco Ballet School, Benjamin Freemantle developed a new skill: cutting hair. "Most of us didn't have the financial means to go out and get a San Francisco haircut," he says. So he started cutting his fellow dancers' hair and his own.

"I actually kinda lied to my friend and told him I'd done it before," admits Freemantle, with a laugh. "But it turned out really well!"



Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

To this day, Freemantle, who's now a principal at San Francisco Ballet, continues to do his own hair, in addition to some SFB School students' and company members'. Purely self-taught, he has beefed up his skills over the years thanks to tutorials on YouTube.

But Freemantle's hair-cutting hobby has grown into more of a mission: He's expanded his clientele, offering free cuts to San Francisco's homeless community.

"It started when I had an apartment, like a block from the ballet, and every day there was this homeless man who lived in my alley," says Freemantle. The two became friendly, saying hello to each other. "Then one day I invited him to come up, take a shower and have a beer—just relax out of the cold." Freemantle offered his neighbor a haircut and a shave, and he accepted. "I think it meant a lot to him that someone saw him and wanted to help—even if it wasn't money or food, that's what I could offer at the time."

Freemantle in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

So Freemantle thought about how he could build on this experience. "I had the idea—it was a little scary—to go into the Tenderloin, which is our homeless district," he says. He brought a stool, his haircutting set—basic shears from Amazon, combs, a brush and a spray bottle—and a sign that read "Need a Haircut?"

"I cut five people's hair my first day, and the next week I came back again." Freemantle continues to go to the Tenderloin sporadically as his schedule allows.

On a recent visit, he says he ran into some of the people whose hair he'd previously cut. "They were really thankful, just saying how they got a job interview or they're working at Burger King now," says Freemantle, noting how they "felt a little more welcomed back into society."

Reflecting on the experience, he says, "It's reinstilled that they're human—they're someone's daughter, someone's son, niece, nephew, you know? There's a history there and we don't know it." Given San Francisco's large homeless population, it's an especially relevant message. "People tend to throw them to the side without a care, and I don't think that's the way to move forward."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021