Not that anyone would want to, but it was almost impossible for a dance fan to avoid Sarah Van Patten the first weekend of May in San Francisco. On opening night of San Francisco Ballet's new Cinderella, the dancer dove into the role of snarky stepsister Edwina with such kicky zest that you feared she would levitate on an updraft of sheer malice. The following afternoon, Van Patten claimed the title role of the ballet and imbued Christopher Wheeldon's creation with a gentleness, innate nobility, and quiet determination that swayed even the hardest heart.

“It was a really challenging weekend," Van Patten noted in a conversation a few days later at the company's headquarters. “But the roles are so different in terms of personality, I simply had to put on another hat, take a moment out, stop and ask myself, 'Who am I now?' "

It's a question that veteran Van Patten watchers suspect she often poses to herself. Wheeldon's idea, to have three of his Cinderellas alternate the parts of the annoying siblings, worked after a fashion; yet, of the three principal dancers who attempted the feat, it was Van Patten, 28, who most eloquently traveled the long road between certifiable slapstick and almost mythical yearning.

Any season in San Francisco will shine with Van Patten moments, performances that transcend technique and seem to glow with a special quality. Who am I now?, an act of great concentration, lay behind the sheer sensuality Van Patten bestowed on the cigarette waltz in Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc or the wit she displayed in the exotically inflected arm movements in the second movement of Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements. Years later, you remember such moments. Paul Taylor's Company B has been absent for a few years but Van Patten's poignant rendering of “I Can Dream, Can't I?" still occasions a sigh.

With Tiit Helimets rehearsing Lifar's Suite en Blanc. Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

She fashions roles from the inside out. Her performances often seem a commentary on what and how she is dancing, and her complex response can seem ambivalent, as in the middle section of artistic director Helgi Tomasson's Trio, in which the ballerina prompts a rivalry between two cavaliers.

In her 11 years in San Francisco, patrons have learned that there is almost nothing in the repertoire that Van Patten cannot dance with distinction. Yes, she was both precocious and lucky in the earlier part of her career. She danced Terpsichore in Balanchine's Apollo when she was 14, and performed Juliet with the Royal Danish Ballet at 15.

I recall, too, her dual assignments, the mermaid and her rival, the princess, in John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid in 2010. Van Patten brought a reserve to roles which all too easily lend themselves to melodramatic excess, and, while the other dancers raged and over-projected around her, she delivered rounded portraits that affirmed the humanity of both characters.

Considering the empathy she displayed in that ballet, it was not a surprise to discover that Van Patten esteems Neumeier as an instrumental figure in her career. She met the American expatriate choreographer, famed for his psychological approach to narrative, soon after she arrived in Denmark in 2000. Thirteen years ago, Van Patten reminds us, the Royal Danish Ballet admitted fewer Americans than today.

Van Patten seemed destined to end up in a major company. A Boston native, she started ballet and modern lessons at 7. Gifted with natural coordination and flexibility, she gradually decided on a ballet career. Her supportive parents, both of whom were active in the arts, warned her of the risky route she was taking, but they gave their blessing and Van Patten began home-schooling after eighth grade to pursue her ideal.

She studied at Ballet Workshop of New England with teacher Jacqueline Cronsberg. “Jackie was giving me one-on-one coaching and she would pick me up and drive me home," she says. Cronsberg detected her talent and challenged Van Patten with learning major Balanchine rep. Cronsberg's daughter, former New York City Ballet member Sandra Jennings, kept in touch with her old colleague Colleen Neary, then co-directing the Royal Danish Ballet, and, at Jennings' suggestion, Van Patten flew over to audition.

She was only 15 when she was hired as an apprentice, but she grew up fast. “Copenhagen was a very nurturing environment," she recalls. “The classes were so different from the Balanchine classes that I was used to." Three months later, Neumeier arrived in Copenhagen for a revival of his popular Romeo and Juliet, spotted Van Patten in class, and chose her to inaugurate the run. “I was in shock," she remembers.

Van Patten got the royal treatment. Her Romeo was one of Denmark's foremost danseurs, Mads Blangstrup, and she received no less than two months of coaching from Neumeier and his assistants. “Mads was just wonderful, and, with tears in his eyes, John himself taught me the crypt scene. Then, with the whole company watching, he said, 'Now it's your turn.'

“I had to go inside myself and block everything out," says Van Patten. “This was my first and most influential acting lesson. I used personal experience to shape my characterization."

The young American Juliet made news in ballet circles. Fortuitously, at the same time, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson had gone to Copenhagen to revive his Sleeping Beauty and was captivated by Van Patten. He found her “very believable as Juliet. Sarah is a very dramatic dancer. But she has been good in Balanchine, too.

“Sarah brings her own special quality to the repertoire," continues Tomasson. “Yet she can be molded; she adapts easily to new situations." He did find her wanting in one area: “I felt that, maybe, her arms were not completely schooled; they didn't look quite right."

The way Van Patten remembers it, “When I was 16 I was still quite green. I had enthusiasm and attack. I would just go out there and dance. Sometimes young dancers have fears or hesitations. I just went for it. But there was a lot that needed to be refined. Helgi said it was time to bring my dancing up to the next level, to use the entire body, to connect all the points. I had to learn a mindfulness about where the arms are between the steps, how you move from one position into the next."

Van Patten's 2002 return to this country after two years in Copenhagen (where she had been promoted to the corps) brought her a soloist contract—and some readjustment. First, she notes, the repertoire is immensely more varied here. Happily, Van Patten's early Balanchine training served her well: “He made me decide that I wanted to be a dancer; he resonated with me. The musicality, the steps, the épaulement—everything made sense."

Wayne McGregor's frenetic, body-testing choreography is about as far away as you can get from Balanchine, but performing in the premiere last winter of his Borderlands generated another kind of experience. “In that central quartet, I felt like I was dancing through fog," says Van Patten. “Wayne emphasized the importance of our sensory awareness of everything on the stage. Ideally, you should feel the strength of those dancers beside you and behind you."

Partnered by Carlos Quenedit in McGregor's Borderlands.

Photo by @ Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Being a part of Wheeldon's Cinderella was “such a joy," Van Patten declares. “Ever since I joined the company, Chris has been a part of it, and we have developed a strong relationship. I've been cast in all his ballets."

Van Patten stresses preparation in the studio—to a point. “You learn the steps, you get to know the music so well that you can sing it, you watch all the performances you can find on YouTube. Then you have to put it all away. You have to resist replicating someone else's performance. It's just you and the role out there."

Van Patten, who is engaged to be married (her sweetheart is a Harvard grad who's in business), is catching up on her education through the LEAP program designed for dancers at St. Mary's College, outside of Oakland. During the summer she taught in South Africa for no money in the townships. “It's a great learning experience," she says. And there's next winter's revival of Giselle to contemplate (“nowhere to hide in that role"). She plans to keep dancing through the next decade and plans to do it in San Francisco.

“I'll confess. It took me time to get in the groove here," she says. “But then I consider the wonderful repertoire I dance in this company and I just feel blessed."

Van Patten in costume for Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour. Photo by Nathan Sayers.

Allan Ulrich is the dance correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle and writes for the Financial Times.


The company makes a rare visit to Lincoln Center, Oct. 16–27. The four programs include works by Edwaard Liang, Mark Morris, and Yuri Possokhov. Of special interest for Sarah Van Patten watchers will be McGregor's Borderlands (see April cover story), Lifar's Suite en Blanc, Tomasson's Trio, Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands, and Wheeldon's Cinderella. See or

“All I ever wanted to do was to make up dances and show them to people.”


Mark Morris has uttered that statement so often during the past three decades you suspect that the motto might be chiseled into the cornerstone of the Brooklyn building that bears his name. But, in reiterating that sentiment in a recent conversation, the choreographer was doing nothing less than reaffirming his trust in his own creative spirit and what, given time, space, and talent, it can generate.


This month, the Mark Morris Dance Group celebrates its 30th anniversary. Few single-choreographer companies make it this far without stumbling, and few have been so consistently productive, broken so many barriers, touched so many audiences, and garnered so many accolades.


It wasn’t always this way. MMDG began its odyssey with Morris, then 24, and nine of the Seattle-born choreographer’s pals cavorting in the Westbeth Cunningham studio on a fateful November evening.


They cavorted well. Four years later, the company found itself featured in the prestigious Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Debuts at the American Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow spread the word. A first London date won Morris an abiding British fan base. Then, just as his popularity was rising in this country, came the three years (1988–91) in Belgium, as resident dance company at Brussels’ Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. Here, some of the choreographer’s most enduring, large-scale works—Dido and Aeneas, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and The Hard Nut—were created.


The company’s rise in popularity since its return from Brussels has been irresistible. Spend an evening with Morris’ company and you will be drawn into his world. Morris peers into the heart and soul of his musical scores in a manner that often rivals Balanchine’s. He wields a wit that can be both gentle and corrosive. He connects emotionally with general audiences, who often equate modern dance with obscurity. He has eradicated that arbitrary distinction between narrative and abstraction; a Morris dance is always about something.


It is easy, also, to fall in love with Morris’ dancers. They come in all body types, sizes, and temperaments. They dominate the stage with supreme stylistic insight, unaffected brilliance, and an incomparable sense of ensemble, yet their humanity is what appeals most. So much so, that when one of the MMDG dancers retires, we respond to the departure with a nagging sense of loss, almost as if we have been jilted.


The Belgian sojourn influenced Morris significantly. In 1998, MMDG bought a derelict Fort Greene building and transformed it into a five-story, state-of-the-art dance center in late 2001. Substantial additions to the structure were completed over the next decade. The building, catty-corner to BAM, serves as more than the company’s home. It houses a free outreach program for 6 to 16-year-olds, in conjunction with Brooklyn public schools, and it offers all manner of dance classes for the public. The center is simply a vital part of its community.


“This place,” notes Morris, waving his arm around his spacious, memento-laden office, “was not part of my quest for world domination. It was never my original intention to have this center and the school. But friends who danced together turned into a company. That means we pay them, we give them health insurance, dressing rooms, hot showers, usually single rooms on the road, and days off after long travel days. Sometimes, they’re coming off four performances in a weekend and it can be tough.”


Brussels had accustomed Morris to the huge performance space and immense studios he found there. He also had a large orchestra at his disposal at the Monnaie, and he liked the way it influenced the movement. Soon, the company was performing exclusively to live music. In 1996, Morris founded the Mark Morris Music Ensemble, which includes a group of regular players and can expand to orchestral dimensions for larger pieces.


The company today comprises 18 dancers (with extras hired for the big works, like The Hard Nut). Morris maintains a large active repertoire, and the center, with its multiple rehearsal studios, allows him to keep it all fresh. “No one else can dance my repertoire as well as my dancers,” says Morris, “which is why I don’t loan it out, except to universities, as learning devices, and I’m all for that.”


When it comes to discussing current MMDG’s level of performance, Morris is not reticent. “Watching them dance in London recently, I realized that you can’t knock them over. I see that happening often to ballet dancers who are stretched and not grounded and fall down onstage. It’s not that my dancers are heavy. It’s a reflection on the training they receive from me.”


His dancers seem relatively free of injuries, and he tells you why. “First, they’re all adults and they’re smart about taking care of themselves; most are in their 30s. I just hired a boy who is 23-24 and that’s young for us. By 26, dancers are considered antiques in the ballet industry,” says Morris. “My work is not injurious. I won’t make up something that is damaging. I don’t, for example, give grand plié in fourth position; it results in too much torque on the joint.


“Also in rehearsal, I let them mark a lift if they’ve done it enough before. And we have a very humane schedule, with an hour for lunch. Everyone covers each other, so there’s never an emergency if someone is ill or injured. We can put it together in a minute.”


Lauren Grant, who has danced with Morris full-time since 1998, offers another perspective of her boss’ classes. “He’s a brilliant teacher, and ballet is a huge part of our day and it can be the most difficult and frustrating aspect of our job,” Grant says. “Like Balanchine, he’s slightly reinventing the language. Even the way you execute a tendu—he takes it apart and examines the quality of it. In most ballet classes, they care what the line looks like. For Mark, what matters is the texture of the action. It’s so nuanced; it gives you a very healthy supportive alignment.”


Today, as 30 years ago, Morris’ dancers are celebrated for their physical and temperamental individuality, their verve and their ability to fit in with what the choreographer calls “the culture” of the company. From the way he describes the audition process, it’s obvious he is seeking more than polished technique:


“A lot of dancers make assumptions about the ease and simplicity of my choreography, which is very, very not true. It’s not just a pointed foot and a flexed foot. It’s a pointed foot, a flexed foot, a stylishly relaxed foot, a slightly arched foot. It’s a very subtle process.”


Are today’s MMDG dancers different from those 25 years ago? “Certainly,” says Morris. “The training is different. Today, they’re more versatile. They have a bit of trouble with my early work—the ancient style, we call it—the dances I was doing until we went to Brussels. Back then I conceptualized a lot—no, it wasn’t tacky stuff. I would ask them to do things like, ‘lean over until you fall down,’ rather than, ‘lean over on five and fall down on one.’ Still, they do Gloria OK, but it comes from a different life style.”


Morris confesses that he is “fiercely protective” of his dancers and finds it almost impossible to fire them. His solution: “I hire them as apprentices for six months, and renew them, or not.”


Morris’ respect for his company’s members may explain why so many of them stay on to work with the organization in various capacities after they retire from the stage. It may also explain why they regard their experience in MMDG as more than a steady paycheck.


Maile Okamura, who joined the troupe in 2001, puts it this way: “It’s like spending time with your family seven hours a day. We get to know each other better than anyone else through our dancing, sensing our strengths and weaknesses.


“There’s a moment in Mozart Dances,” says Okamura, “when we all make a circle and begin to move. The most magical time is when you look into that circle and everybody is moving together. It’s so special, but I’m not sure that it comes across in performance. And, of course, Mark is great to hang out with. I love it that when he finishes a book he gives it away to the dancer who he thinks will most enjoy reading it.”


Grant feels transformed by the experience of working with Morris: “There are so many blessings and miracles in working, not just for a living choreographer, but a choreographer who is at the top of the field and continues to change the art form itself. Sometimes, you turn around and look back at the past year, and you realize how far you’ve come, not only as a dancer, but as an artist and a human being. This, simply, is our home.”



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent.


Photo of Mozart Dances by Stephanie Bergert, Courtesy MMDG.



Upcoming Anniversary Dates (partial listing)


• MMDG tours to 20 cities including in Davis, CA; Tallahassee, FL; Fairfax, VA; NYC; Chicago; Princeton, NJ; and Scottsdale, AZ.


• The Hard Nut returns to BAM, Dec. 10–12 and Dec. 15–19


• Nixon in China to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera, various dates during Feb. 2–19, 2011


• Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare Harris Theater, Chicago, Feb. 25–27, 2011


• Program of premieres at Mark Morris Dance Center, March 2011


For more info, go to

Vampires bare their fangs in the Carolinas, bayadères besiege Boston, and you can’t make a move without encountering a ballet set to Carmina Burana. The dancescape this autumn looks promising. At home, ballet companies favor narratives, some traditional, others original. The touring slate includes major expeditions from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Sankai Juku, and, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the Mark Morris Dance Group.


What’s different this autumn? American Ballet Theatre is missing from the boards (in order to concentrate on its new Nutcracker), but New Yorkers will have the opportunity to enjoy a fall season with New York City Ballet, the company’s first (at Lincoln Center, Sept. 14–Oct. 10). The Oct. 7 gala features a local premiere by the prolific Benjamin Millepied, and the fall run includes a revival of Peter Martins’ charming 1981 production of The Magic Flute. Several of the “Architecture of Dance” commissions (see “Reviews,” page 62) will be reprised.


A national rundown of the always popular story ballets must begin with Swan Lake. You can find our feathered friends at the Nashville Ballet Oct. 29. The Sleeping Beauty has inspired a new version (based on the Petipa original) from Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Christopher Stowell, completing his triptych of full-length Tchaikovsky ballets; the company unveils the production in Portland Oct. 9. More Petipa is due Nov. 4 from Boston Ballet in the guise of the exotic 1877 hit, La Bayadère. Former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Florence Clerc assumes choreographic duties.


For Cinderella, you get a choice. In Toronto, The National Ballet of Canada reprises James Kudelka’s widely seen version Nov. 11. Texas Ballet Theater goes to the ball in Ben Stevenson’s version, set for both Dallas and Fort Worth. No fall season is complete without a Romeo and Juliet. For that, head to the Kennedy Center, where Septime Webre’s Washington Ballet staging receives a revival Nov. 3. At Ballet Arizona, Ib Andersen celebrates his 10th anniversary as artistic director with a revival of his Midsummer Night’s Dream; it opens in Phoenix Nov. 5.


Nobody living knows what Perrot’s original steps for the 1844 Esmeralda looked like, a fact that hasn’t stopped choreographers from attempting their own productions. The latest artistic director to take the plunge is the Milwaukee Ballet’s Michael Pink, whose staging of Esmeralda (inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) will recruit additional dancers from Milwaukee’s junior company for its premiere Oct. 28. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre opens its season Oct. 22 with a revival of André Prokovsky’s The Three Musketeers, with plot adapted from the Dumas novel and music borrowed from Verdi.


For the Halloween season, vampires are giving regional companies a transfusion at the box office. Mark Godden’s Dracula, an erstwhile hit at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, arrives at North Carolina Dance Theatre with music by Mahler. The piece launches the 40th-anniversary season Oct. 8 in Charlotte. In Raleigh on Oct. 14, Carolina Ballet serves up a premiere of its own romantic bloodsucker with choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Dracula will be preceded by artistic director Robert Weiss’ staging of Firebird, which opens the season in tandem with a premiere by principal dancer Timour Bourtasenkov. Also in Raleigh, Bruce Wells’ Pinocchio opens Nov. 24. Michael Pink’s Dracula will be imported by the Colorado Ballet in Denver starting Oct. 15, a highlight of the company’s 50th-anniversary season.


In the category of one-act narratives, few are as compelling or as enduring as Roland Petit’s Carmen. It forms the centerpiece of Pennsylvania Ballet’s season opener Oct. 21 in Philadelphia. Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco and a premiere by resident choreographer Matthew Neenan complete the evening. As for Carmina Burana, John Butler’s version of Carl Orff’s scenic cantata, which has achieved near-classic status, will be revived by Ballet West for its season opener in Salt Lake City Oct. 29. (Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments completes the program.) Not to be topped, Stephen Mills, the artistic director of Ballet Austin, offers his own take on the piece Sept. 24, partnered by the choreographer’s Kai, to music by John Cage.


The fall also abounds in major choreographer tributes. At the Kennedy Center Nov. 17, the resident Suzanne Farrell Ballet offers the former dancer’s stagings of Balanchine’s La Sonnambula and Monumentum Pro Gesualdo & Movements for Piano and Orchestra, as well as Robbins’ In Memory of… . Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet delivers an all-Tharp bill (Opus 111, Afternoon Ball, Waterbaby Bagatelles) Nov. 5. Company premieres by Balanchine and Wheeldon fill the Joffrey Ballet’s opening bill Oct. 13 in Chicago.


Dancemakers will continue to seek outside inspiration for their work. For the bicentennial of the Ballets Russes, Alonzo King prepared his own version of Fokine’s Schéhérazade, not set to the original Rimsky-Korsakov, but to a reinterpretation of the music by classical Indian music legend Zakir Hussain. After performing it at the Monaco Dance Forum (see “Dance Matters,” July), LINES Ballet brings it to San Francisco Oct. 14.


Premieres and debuts are sprouting all over the map this fall. Start with Ralph Lemon’s full-evening creation, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? Described as a “speculative fiction epic,” and danced by Lemon’s Cross Performance troupe, this project involves a collaboration with Walter Carter, a 102-year-old ex-sharecropper, and references Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris. The work opens in San Francisco Oct. 7 and moves to the Brooklyn Academy of Music Oct. 13. Also coming to BAM are Angelin Preljocaj’s Cunningham-esque Empty moves Oct. 27; and—their first trip to the U.S. after Pina Bausch’s death—Tanztheater Wuppertal Sept. 29, with the U.S. premiere of Vollmond (Full Moon). (See more about Bausch’s company on the next page.)


The Mark Morris Dance Group promises a world premiere for the Celebrity Series of Boston Oct. 14. MMDG will also offer three West Coast premieres (Behemoth, Looky, Socrates) when it launches the Cal Performances dance programming in Berkeley Sept. 30.


The expanded Dance at the Music Center series in Los Angeles hosts the West Coast debut of Corella Ballet Castilla y León, which opens the season Nov. 5 with dances by Welch, Tippet, Wheeldon, and María Pagés’ charming duet for the Corella siblings Ángel and Carmen.


Substantial touring schedules loom this fall. The Paul Taylor Dance Company will be performing its glorious repertory in more than a dozen cities in October and November, including Philadelphia Oct. 21 and Minneapolis Nov. 30. Lucinda Childs takes the revival of her classic DANCE to White Bird in Portland, OR, Oct. 7. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has announced an extensive traveling schedule; stops include Berkeley (Oct. 29), Cleveland (Nov. 6), Washington, DC (Nov. 12), Dallas (Nov. 19), and Miami (Dec. 11). The dances are by Duato, Kylián, and resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.


Among the most illustrious visitors this fall is the Japanese butoh troupe Sankai Juku, who will be touring with a pair of the slow-moving epics that have riveted audiences for decades. New York’s Joyce Theater (Oct. 5) gets director Ushio Amagatsu’s recent work Tobari. Most other places, which include Montreal (Sept. 30), Chicago (Oct. 20), and San Francisco (Nov. 11) will see the 1998 Hibiki—Resonance from Far Away. Less familiar to American audiences will be Mexico City’s visually stunning modernist Tania Pérez-Salas, who makes a major tour with her company this month. The troupe opens the Northrop dance season in Minneapolis Sept. 24, then launches the contemporary dance series at the Kennedy Center Sept. 28 before making a Miami debut Oct. 2.


Of all the touring events the next three months, perhaps the most unusual and unmissable may be “FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance.” They are Germaine Acogny, Carmen deLavallade, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar—all instrumental in shaping the modern dance landscape and all presenting solo work here. In their own way, they’re all legends. Catch “FLY” Nov. 2 at the Kennedy Center and Dec. 3 at Oberlin College, OH.



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.


Pictured: Pina Bausch's Vollmond to appaear at BAM's Next Wave Festival. Photo by Laurent Phillippe, Courtesy BAM.





Since he will have the last word, we might as well give Paul Taylor the first word, too.


“All comedy that is really successful,” said the great choreographer in a British TV interview, “is based on a very serious condition in the state of humanity.”


Which may explain why Taylor can look back on a half century of seeing the world from the vantage point of a bemused visitor from a parallel universe. It explains, too, how Taylor, as he enters his ninth decade, can turn out unerring satiric gems, like Also Playing, which will receive its New York premiere during the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s home season at New York City Center (February 24 through March 14).


Not that Taylor is the jester of the dance world (although he dressed like a jester in his early Piece Period). In the 56 years of his company’s existence, he has conjured masterworks from pedestrian movement (Esplanade). He has tested the limits of his dancers’ techniques in muscular romps like Mercuric Tidings and Arden Court. And he has often sojourned in the dark recesses of the human heart in such dances as Banquet of Vultures and the terrifying Last Look, in which we mortals seem unable to resist our capacity to destroy ourselves.


Yet, what has made Taylor such an enduring cultural force is his genius for encompassing extreme moods. The ugly and the droll coexist in his works, and no dancemaker has ever exhibited such a wide range of tonal nuance.


Taylor’s sense of humor can be both wonderfully childlike and sophisticated. His very first dance in the 1950s, Jack and the Beanstalk, revealed a fondness for fractured fairy tales and revisionist narrative that has never deserted him. Flash forward almost 30 years and Taylor is at it again in his version of Snow White. The humor derives from our familiarity with the story in both its printed and cinematic incarnations—and thus, our complicity.  The seven dwarfs are reduced to five (the company’s entire male complement) and billed in the program as “some dwarfs.” They’re all tall guys, so they perform the entire dance on their haunches. The iconic apple becomes “a bad apple,” a dancer in flowing red whose arm is chomped upon by the princess. And, in Taylor’s master stroke, the evil queen and the prince are danced by the same (male) performer, who seems more concerned about checking his profile in a mirror than the fate of the heroine.


Great comedy is always moral, and there’s a lesson here about narcissism and the structure of myth. That Taylor skewers convention with a needle rather than a hammer is a key to his brilliance. Once a comic trajectory is launched, he allows the logic to run its course unimpeded. Consider Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Here, Taylor cuts between a ballet rehearsal led by a domineering ballet mistress and a modern private eye story about a kidnapped baby. You can see the ending coming, yet when the climax, an infanticide, arrives, it is predestined, horrifying, and, because it is so inevitable, truly funny.


Taylor’s wit inclines to the saturnine. He will present you with what you think is a lighthearted romp and then summon a serious element. Your laughter congeals in your throat. Taylor reminds you that the fluffy old Andrews Sisters recordings accompanying Company B and the popular dances of the 1940s that delight audiences were born out of the desperation of World War II. Behind these party people you see the silhouettes of men dying in battle and daring to love each other, and they complicate our responses. Company B is anything but a wallow in nostalgia.


Yet nostalgia and our feelings about the conventions of theatrical and social dances of the past figure substantially in Taylor’s works. In Piece Period, his dancers (the women garbed in stiff Elizabethan finery) cavort in an arch, even mincing approximation of Renaissance dance. In the subversive and often zany Offenbach Overtures, the Romantic tunes envelop you in an aura of enchantment. But gradually, the grisettes fake intoxication a bit too realistically. Soon, too, a pair of cavaliers provoke a duel. Meanwhile, as they go at it, their seconds, who are supposed to maintain decorum, eye each other with increasing infatuation and fall into each other’s arms. So much for the 19th-century code of chivalry.


Sometimes, Taylor sets you up to laugh and then pulls the rug out from under you. My favorite example of this is A Field of Grass. At the beginning, a dancer sits cross-legged on the stage, smoking a joint. Feeling a bit superior, we all smile at this evocation of the druggy, bell-bottomed 1960s, with its Harry Nilsson songs. It all seems so dated. Yet, when the entire cast eases into unisons, accompanied by Nilsson’s “Spaceman,” you succumb to the blissful mood that many of us felt in that era, a mood Taylor so adeptly conjures.


Taylor derives his most winning comic effects from his responses to music. Take Lost, Found and Lost. We don’t know what came first. Was it the music, Donald York’s clever simulation of “wallpaper music”? Or was it the devastating movement—the dancers in trendy get-ups, posturing like fashion models, all bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s blinding studio lighting? Does it matter? The piece is a treasure.


In Public Domain, which has returned to the repertory after many years, Taylor even skewers the conventional relationship that choreographers maintain with music. This is an early (1968) dance, yet, even then, Taylor sent up dancemakers who plunder the world’s classics and then fail, miserably, to engage with them. It’s a delectable parody, a great, sophisticated joke. John Herbert McDowell’s collage score raids Beethoven, Wagner, Sibelius, Ponchielli, Mahler, Handel, an Oscar Wilde play, a routine by W.C. Fields, and heaven knows what else. To all of this sonic input, the dancers, clad in bubble-gum–hued unitards, remain oblivious, as they dutifully rearrange themselves in abstract patterns. Only at the end do the repeated chords at the conclusion of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony (looped) summon them from their reverie, as they hastily realign themselves, racing to the finish line with the music.


One of the things about Taylor that I find fascinating is how the lighthearted and serious pieces seem to have been made in pairs; we might conclude that in some cases they were even created simultaneously. The most dramatic example was the serenely romantic Roses, an antidote to the venomous Last Look. The barbershop-quartet trifle, Dream Girls, followed hard on the wrenching, heroic Promethean Fire. Go back a couple of decades to the sappy Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala, which was a prologue to the austere Musical Offering. Taylor’s sensibility seems to require that constant readjustment between extremes; those of us in thrall to his artistry happily yield to that process.


As he nears 80, Taylor’s satiric targets have become more benign. I don’t expect to see anything like the bouncing Klansmen who were such a baleful presence in Oh, You Kid! I don’t think we will again encounter the cultural arrogance of the pilgrims in From Sea to Shining Sea.
 The new Also Playing is a gentle but loving spoof of dance theater itself. The takeoffs on Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, and all manner of ballet exotica are part of a tribute to the vaudeville era, in which entertainment came in many guises. There’s a kind of narrative thread running through the piece, but you won’t find it revealed here. As Taylor says, “It’s the surprise element, or the shock element (if you’re really doing it right), that will make people laugh—nervously, or not.”


Make ‘em laugh


How do Taylor’s dancers aim to strike the funny bone? Abigail Rasminsky talked to two of PTDC’s funniest dancers to find out how they approach those ticklers.

Robert Kleinendorst Paul is a big believer in letting the movement get the laugh. His thing is to play it seriously. I try to climb into the character and make him three-dimensional in my brain, so I can say, “Would he do this, and why?” Paul will show something and he’ll say, “No, do it like this,” and it’ll be completely brilliant and it’s hard to reproduce it exactly the way he did it. He performs these very subtle and simple things that are hilarious. When you can copy him, it really ends up being a great moment. He doesn’t like us mugging or hamming it up. It’s easy to tip the scales from funny to outlandish, but it gets boring and it’s not funny anymore. The hardest thing to do is to keep it simple. You have to have faith in what Paul’s giving you.


Parisa Khobdeh Without a doubt, the humor is in the choreography. It’s not something we put on. Paul has a pure talent for timing, for surprising you and the audience. It’s never the same from performance to performance. I have to leave myself open to the game, because anything can happen—costumes, slip spots on the floor, a different audience. Some things surprise me as a dancer, and I just stick to who I am, where I am, and the relationship I have to people around me. As long as I stay true to those elements, the character reacts naturally in live performance. When I got Lisa Viola’s part in Offenbach Overtures, it was daunting, so I enrolled in comedy improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. That helped me gain confidence to just be, to trust Paul, to be available, and to play the game.



Pictured: Parisa Khobdeh, left, with Michelle Fleet in Offenbach Overtures. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTDC


Allan Ulrich is a DM Senior Advising Editor and the San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent.

Eric Tomasson

SFB's Yuan Yuan Tan blends glittering technique with subtle artistry to create her stage magic.

PC Matthew Karas

Ask Yuan Yuan Tan if she is a big deal in her own country and watch her choreographed response. In a display of modesty any Giselle might envy, the Shanghai native softens her shoulders and lowers her chin demurely but her eyes cannot dissemble. The effect is endearing. You bet, she's a big deal.

“Not to disappoint," Tan says with typical understatement, “is part of the Chinese character."

No chance of that. Tan is the first Chinese-born ballerina to rise to the top of the American ballet world and remain there. In her 15 years at San Francisco Ballet, she has performed a huge reper­tory, from Petipa to Wheeldon. She has been called artistic director Helgi Tomasson's muse—a bit to his chagrin. She has been photographed by Vogue and W., and made the cover of Time Asia. Having guested with ballet companies in Hong Kong and Shanghai, she was a major reason that the Chinese government approved SFB's premiere tour to her homeland this past fall. At 33, Tan is at the peak of her dancing powers, yet the quality of innocence one noticed in this scrawny Sugar Plum ballerina during a weekday Nutcracker matinee 14 years ago still adheres to her.

Sure, dedication, hard work, and talent have had much to do with her success. But her actual career hinged on nothing more than a toss of a coin. “My family are practicing Buddhists," she says, “and we trust in chance."

Watching a film of Bolshoi great Galina Ulanova on TV convinced Tan that ballet was her destiny. Her athletic ability in grade school impressed a scout for the Shanghai Dancing School. For that institution, she survived several grueling rounds of auditions, which began with over a thousand hopefuls and concluded with 24 finalists.

However, Tan, an only child, met resistance at home. Her father, a semiconductor engineer, forbade her to train as a ballerina. “He said ballet was Western, not Chinese culture," Tan recalls. “Also because a ballerina's career is very short, and because it is not proper for a Chinese girl to be lifted by lots of men. He is part of very old Chinese tradition."

But Tan's mother and the head of the school intervened. Spats erupted daily. The coin was tossed. Dad, who preferred that his daughter study medicine or law, lost. And, at 11, Tan began her training. She soon grew to her full height (5'10"on pointe). Technique wasn't a problem, she says, but it was a struggle to learn to control her musculature. “I needed stamina."

Still, Tan began entering competitions and scoring high. She made the rounds from Helsinki to Tokyo and remains ambivalent about the competition circuit. “This was the first time I saw contemporary ballet and the first time I saw what dancers from all over the world were trying to achieve," says Tan. “The bad part was that I was always close to a nervous breakdown when I competed. If I let myself down, I let my country down."

SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson saw Tan take the gold, junior female division, at the fifth International Ballet Competition in Paris in 1992. “I thought," he says now, “that this was a beautiful young lady, full of promise." Earlier, a New York friend had told him to look out for this extraordinary dancer from Shanghai, suggesting that she might benefit from some experience in an American company.

Tan had already accepted a scholarship to the Stuttgart Ballet's Cranko School (and studied there briefly) when Tomasson invited her to come to the Bay Area as a guest artist. “I was 18, spoke no English, arrived with one suitcase, and decided to stay. I guess Stuttgart is very mad at me," she adds, sheepishly. Her beauty and flexibility in that Nutcracker and in an Esmeralda pas de deux at the 1995 gala sent shock waves through the War Memorial Opera House. Tomasson hired Tan as soloist, but imposed one condition.

“He said, 'You're a good dancer,' " Tan remembers. “ 'But you look like a student. You are too thin. It would be better if you put on weight. I will tell you when it is right.' "

She gained enough weight to be appointed principal in 1997. YY, as Tan is known around SFB, began her historic ascent through the repertory. Her name, Yuan Yuan, translates as “round, round"; she was born during a full moon, a sign of good luck, and where creating new ballets is concerned, fortune has smiled on her.

Choreographers have rushed to capitalize on Tan's willowy extremities, her long torso, her refined port de bras, her ample jump, and her manner of devouring space without shifting gears. Her instinctive command of legato is a quality that cannot be taught.

Christopher Wheeldon cast Tan in his SFB creation, Continuum, and subsequently assigned her the Wendy Whelan part in the After the Rain pas de deux, in which she fused geometry with sensuality. Tan will assume a principal role in Wheeldon's new SFB work, Ghosts, to premiere in February. “YY's physical gifts are exceptional," he says, “and like any great dancer, she has a distinct perfume." He calls her “an artist who can transcend those physical attributes."

Wheeldon's point is worth pondering. Tan might have relied on her architecture and ravishing looks, but she has not ceased to investigate the possibilities of her craft. Every choreographer offers a challenge, another step in her continuing education. She had never seen any Balanchine before arriving in San Francisco and her first appearances in Aria I of Stravinsky Violin Concerto were clearly exploratory. But in 2001, when Tomasson toured Bugaku, London critic Ann Williams wrote online, “She was so beautiful that…it was simply impossible to look away from her."

At a rehearsal last summer for the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, Tan had just stubbed a toe tripping over her costume tail (probably a first for any ballerina). But, in other respects, she enthuses over this psychological recasting of the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
“It's my first Neumeier ballet. He's a great teacher," Tan says. “The dancers are inspired by his concentration. He shows us how to express ourselves through his steps."

Tan knows what she wants from the rehearsal experience. “I like a choreographer to explain his vision. It helps us to absorb the piece. Alexei Ratmansky was wonderful in telling us the background to Russian Seasons last year."

Tan has ventured, too, into Forsythe territory. “He's fascinating," she says. “He pushes you to the extreme, and then you reach a point where he sends you beyond your limitations. It's like going through a wall." And she relishes James Kudelka's advice: “Don't try to be pretty." Nacho Duato heads the list of choreographers whose dances she fancies performing, and she's interested in sampling more of Edwaard Liang's work too.

Audiences have noticed the almost serene quality in Tan's stage manner, and some observers confuse that demeanor with coldness. The impression may derive from the dancer's approach. “I am a perfectionist," she says. “In rehearsal, I will stay afterward to work for an hour on a variation, and I work on the level of a single note of music, a single step. Onstage, I empty my mind; I don't want to think of anything at all."

Tan stands out in company class. Watching her go through barre exercises with three dozen other women on a sunny morning in the SFB Association Building, one notices that she is among the few people who have positioned themselves to face a bare wall, though she can't resist the occasional glance at a side mirror. Even in this roomful of talent, something about her is different. Perhaps it's the chin, raised aristocratically, lending the entire body an almost calligraphic elegance.

Tan does not lack for self-criticism. She wishes her turns were stronger. “I'm OK, but I'll never do them like Tamara Rojo at The Royal Ballet."

But she can accurately chart her progress in the basic repertory. Tan looked at the video of her Black Swan variation and was thrilled to discover that, during the iconic fouetté sequence, she no longer travels downstage. Her interpretation of Giselle has evolved, too. “I have come to believe that she should be more inwards," she says about the role. “Sometimes, emotion inside is so much more intense. She should not go berserk."

What has not changed is Tan's belief that she is a cultural ambassador, a link between east and west. She and Tomasson had talked for a while about a Chinese tour for SFB. But something, like the SARS epidemic, had always stalled the plan. Last year, Tomasson allowed Tan to slip away for a few days to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (and to meet with officials) and the deal was sealed.

“I was so happy to make this happen," Tan says. “It's not for me. It's for the whole company and for Helgi."

But the tour, which met appreciative audiences in both Shanghai and Beijing, was also for China. “My country should see the diversity of the repertory. I hope I can open the door, so that the Chinese will appreciate the speed of Balanchine's movement and his difficult music. I hope they will learn that ballet is about more than just telling a story."

Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.

In the highly competitive upper echelons of the ballet world, what Clara Blanco did several years ago is almost unheard of.


In 2006, the San Francisco Ballet corps member quit the company and headed for England’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. A year later, she was eager, if not desperate, to return to San Francisco. These defections, more often than not, are considered rebuffs to the company that has been deserted. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” seems to be the prevailing philosophy. But after a heartfelt request, SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson took Blanco back in time for the 75th anniversary season’s New Works Festival, and her career has flourished ever since.


A wanderer no longer, Blanco returned a wiser person. “I think Helgi understood how I felt,” said the dancer in a break between rehearsals for Swan Lake and John Neumeier’s Little Mermaid at the SFB Association Building. “Since I returned, I have been given a lot of assignments, and I have learned what I really want from dancing. I’m in a better place now.” 


Critics and audiences have noticed that evolution in Blanco’s performing style and the frequency of her solo appearances. She was part of the cast that has made Christopher Wheeldon’s luminous Within the Golden Hour such a calling-card for the company (it went on the SFB tour to China this fall) and choreographer Yuri Possokhov has tapped Blanco for all of his most recent works. She takes pride in Tomasson’s praise for her Dancing Doll in his Nutcracker, although her fine-boned features have adorned that ballet’s Grand Pas de Deux as well.


Ballet master Anita Paciotti remembers that performance as a defining moment in Blanco’s progress. “Clara showed a real understanding of the classical style. Her port de bras is exquisite. We all often use Clara as the example of just how the arms, neck, and head should look on a certain step.”

But the recent assignment that means most to Blanco is Nora in Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House. Her polish and dramatic projection as the playwright’s “doll” heroine who finally rebels made her a formidable onstage presence, despite her 5'2" height. “Now I love the roles that require characterization,” she said. “When I was younger, I was always afraid of them. I was shy about parts that could not be expressed through the steps alone.”


Blanco explains her reticence by her background, in which pure classicism ruled. A native of Valladolid, Spain, she started dance lessons at 6, deciding at 9 that ballet would be her career. At 12, she persuaded her mother that she should enroll in Maria de Avila’s Estudio de Danza in Zaragoza, and they moved there. It was a life changer.


“I never saw anyone as dedicated as Maria,” Blanco recalled. “I remember going to the studio and never knowing when I was going to leave. She would spend three, four, five hours in a class. We forgot about eating. Maria gave all her knowledge. Her teaching was so pure. If something didn’t work, she would take you into a corner and practice until it did. And I was even more of a perfectionist than her.” (De Avila has furnished SFB with some of its finest male dancers in recent years, including Gonzalo Garcia and Ruben Martin; Blanco was the first SFB woman to come from the school.)


A performance at the 1999 Prix de Lausanne won Blanco an SFB School scholarship. Tomasson offered her a corps contract in 2001. She knew she had chosen wisely after rehearsing the fairies’ entrance in Sleeping Beauty with the formidable Russian teacher Irina Jacobson.


“An amazing woman. She was so particular in every detail, and yet so generous in sharing her wisdom,” said Blanco. “In the first rehearsal, an entire hour was spent on walking on from offstage. But that’s the kind of attention you need in a school.”


The Birmingham year did afford Blanco the opportunity to perform in major ballets by Ashton and MacMillan, who are rarely represented in SFB’s repertory. But she hated the weather in the English city (“I think it rained 300 days that year”) and the touring, and wasn’t prepared for the rigid casting system. (“You are not permitted to do roles until dancers with more seniority have performed them first.”)


So Blanco is not inclined to stray again, especially in light of her assignments for the 2010 season. She has been cast as the ballerina in Fokine’s Petrouchka, the company’s belated centennial tribute to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. “The ballerina doll is a role that requires a lot of work from me,” she said. “This is an old ballet and it has a very specific style that recent creations do not possess.”


And she’s keen on performing in an upcoming Wheeldon premiere, Ghosts, and also The Little Mermaid. “I love it. It’s so European, so Neumeier. We have nothing like it here.” While Blanco sighs about her modest height, she has coped admirably; and when paired with a diminutive, stylish partner, like Gennadi Nedvigin, their admirers easily adjust.


Now 26, Blanco hopes this may be the season when everyone takes notice. Ask her what she thinks she’ll be doing a decade down the line and she cites two former company principals she admires.


“I think of Muriel Maffre or Tina LeBlanc. The dancers in their 30s have all the pains, but they also have all the knowledge to compensate for the pains. Ten years from now,” said Blanco, “I’ll be dancing at my peak.”



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor.


Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Why cry about the economy? It won’t help, and a succession of dirges makes for wretched choreography, anyway. America’s dance companies

and presenters aren’t mourning. They’re making the best of it. They’ll trim and adjust a bit this season. But they know that, for every cutback or compromise, the dance world can still put warm bodies in seats to entrance viewers.


So let’s rejoice. Here’s a look at what’s out there this fall, everything from homegrown ballet classics to gritty dance theater companies from England to exuberant Russian folk dance troupes. Get your calendars out.


The Romantic classics maintain their place in the hearts of American audiences, and none moves us as much as that exquisite 19th-century tragedy of redemption, Giselle. After a Sept. 19 gala, the Boston Ballet gets down to business with a revival of Maina Gielgud’s eloquent staging, modeled after Petipa’s Maryinsky version (Oct. 1–11). The Sarasota Ballet produces Giselle with two starry guests from London’s Royal Ballet, Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, Nov. 27–29. American Ballet Theatre will light up the stage of the Orange County Performing Arts Center for a week of Giselle Nov. 3–8.


If Swan Lake fluffs your feathers, head first to Raleigh, NC, where Carolina Ballet revives artistic director Robert Weiss’ staging of the Petipa-Ivanov version Sept. 17–Oct. 4. Then hop a plane to Columbus, OH, and catch BalletMet’s production, co-created by Gerard Charles, Victoria Morgan, and Devon Carney (Oct. 16–18). It then travels to the Cincinnati Ballet Oct. 23–25. For a radiant Sleeping Beauty, cross the border to Toronto, where the National Ballet of Canada revels in a refurbishment of Nureyev’s elegant version Nov. 13–22. The classic comedy Coppélia launches an extended season at Dennis Nahat’s Ballet San Jose Oct. 3–11.


If Don Quixote tickles your fancy, sample this romantic farce at Colorado Ballet Oct. 16–25. And if you’re yearning for a date with ballet’s most famous lovers, try Jean-Christophe Maillot’s slightly modernized Roméo et Juliette, which opens Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season in Seattle Sept. 24–Oct. 4.


The hunger for more contemporary narratives has not abated. Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet launches its fall fare with the company premiere of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello Oct. 14–25. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet visits Minneapolis’ Northrop Auditorium with the world premiere of Jorden Morris’ Moulin—The Ballet about a painter adrift in Paris during the golden age (Oct. 17). The Atlanta Ballet offers a revival of the Mozart-based Magic Flute (Oct. 15–24). The Grand Rapids Ballet Company greets the Halloween season in Michigan with the premiere of Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s Jack “the Ripper” (Oct. 30–Nov. 1). Salt Lake City’s Ballet West inaugurates its season (Oct. 30–Nov. 7) with Ashton’s enchanting essay on Shakespeare, The Dream.

A number of prominent ballet commissions highlight the fall season. Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan delivers his latest for the company’s opening program Oct. 21–25. San Francisco’s Val Caniparoli travels to PNB for a new setting of Glazunov’s score for The Seasons (Nov. 5–15). Forsythe disciple Helen Pickett will contribute a Japanese-flavored pas de deux to the Boston Ballet’s repertory in tandem with recent works by Viktor Plotnikov and Jorma Elo (Oct. 22–Nov. 1). Canada’s delightful Aszure Barton helms a premiere for the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed bill Nov. 25–29. Dwight Rhoden of Complexions fame joins Sasha Janes and Mark Diamond in contributing dances to North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Innovative Works program (Nov. 5–7; 12–14). Promising dancemaker Jessica Lang will hop all over the map this fall. She’ll be at Kansas City Ballet for an Oct. 15–18 premiere (artistic director William Whitener’s Carmen and Saint-Léon’s The Frescoes share the bill); then she travels to Virginia for the Richmond Ballet’s Studio 1 project (Nov. 3-8).


What’s really new this fall? Well, down in Florida, there’s Sarasota’s Ringling International Arts Festival, a collaboration between New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center and the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art. Dance artists participating in the Oct. 7–11 festival are Aszure Barton, Annie-B Parson, flamenco diva María Pagés, and Israel’s Deganit Shemy. Speaking of Mikhail Baryshnikov, he and another veteran dancer, Ana Laguna, will travel the land this fall in Three Solos and a Duet, with dances by Ratmansky, Ek, and Millepied. Expect the pair Sept. 4–5 at the Broad Stage, Santa Monica, CA; Sept. 25–27 at the Harris Theater, Chicago; and in Portland, OR, Oct. 1–3.


In Salt Lake City, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company features new works by Karole Armitage (Sept. 24–26) and new artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen (Dec. 17–19).


As usual, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival promises a slew of novelties. None is more widely anticipated than In-I, a collaboration between actress Juliette Binoche and English choreographer Akram Khan. This is a U.S. premiere, as will be The Forsythe Company’s Decreation. Also on the list: Armitage Gone! Dance, Australia’s Chunky Move, Wally Cardona, and Reggie Wilson’s Fist & Heel Performance Group in its BAM debut.
Tours will enliven the dance scene during the next four months. The San Francisco-based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, in collaboration with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company launches the much anticipated Other Suns trilogy in San Francisco Sept. 24–26. The project then takes to the road, stopping at Montclair State University, NJ (Oct.15–18), Pittsburgh, PA (Oct. 24), College Park, MD (Oct. 29–30), and Riverside, CA (Nov. 4).


England’s DV8 Physical Theatre returns with To Be Straight With You, Lloyd Newson’s blistering multimedia essay on ethnic and sexual intolerance in the United Kingdom, with texts derived from interviews with victims of homophobic violence (see “Dance Matters,” Oct.). The company plays UCLA’s Royce Hall Nov. 6–7 and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Nov. 12–14.


New to the West Coast will be England’s highly acclaimed Hofesh Shechter Company performing Uprising and In your rooms at UCLA Oct. 16–17 and in Portland Oct. 21. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will offer the West Coast premiere of the Lincoln-inspired Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray in San Francisco Oct. 1–3. New York’s witty Keigwin + Company will tour to the Kennedy Center Oct. 22–23, preceded by the ever-popular Pilobolus (Oct. 3–4).


The center will welcome New York City Ballet Dec. 9–13 with seven ballets by Balanchine, Robbins, Martins, and Wheeldon. Speaking of Balanchine, the remarkable Kennedy Center–based Suzanne Farrell Ballet will venture to Berkeley’s Cal Performances Oct. 24–25 with two programs of excerpts from such Balanchine rarities as Ivesiana, Meditation, and Clarinade and a bit from Romeo et Juliet by Maurice Béjart, in whose company Farrell danced for a spell.


The world dance scene abounds in attractions this fall. The South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma will be unfamiliar to most Americans. Beautiful Me, his postmodern solo inspired by Akram Khan, Vincent Mantsoe, and Faustin Linyekula, will be showcased at Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco Nov. 5–7. One of the fall’s most provocative prospects is A House in Bali, a dance opera by Evan Ziporyn based on Colin McPhee’s influential book on Balinese culture. The U.S. premiere with choreography by Kadek Dewi Aryani comes to Berkeley Sept. 26–27.


The fall months will also bring back some old friends. None is more welcome than the exuberant Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company, traveling the length and breadth of the country. The 85-member troupe of dancers and musicians hits San Rafael, CA’s Marin Center, Sept. 25, Minneapolis Oct. 11, the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 8, and The Egg in Albany Nov. 11.


This autumn, there will be no reason to sit home alone.


Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor and contributes to many arts publications here and abroad.


Photo by Peter Zay, Courtesy NCDT

Maria Kochetkova insists she is not a perfectionist, but from today’s rehearsal, you would never know it.


Her assignment this morning is the Don Quixote grand pas de deux. Her partner is San Francisco Ballet fellow principal Joan Boada, and the mood is subdued, but intense. Kochetkova quietly stretches on the floor in an airy studio in the SFB Association Building. Ballet master Ricardo Bustamante flips on the music; Boada steps on Kochetkova’s toe. She squeals like a kitten, but recovers and runs through the first steps with feline assurance. Still, the dancers aren’t connecting the way they should in this duet. And in her variation, Kochetkova has trouble turning and brandishing Kitri’s fan at the same time. She tries it again, and again, and, somehow, it all comes together.


No purrs of satisfaction, though. “I will probably never get it perfect,” says Kochetkova after the rehearsal. She is small, but exquisitely proportioned. Her face suggests an almost childlike youthfulness that belies her 24 years. The fan incident gnaws at her. “I think that I am clumsy in real life. I don’t worry about fouettés. I worry about the little things, taking somebody’s hand or manipulating the fan. You probably need to be Spanish. It will come with experience.”


Despite today’s fan troubles, since Kochetkova arrived at SFB in the summer of 2007 she has learned quickly, and garnered attention nearly as fast. No new ballerina in memory has left such a deep impression on the company’s audiences in such a short time. The first Russian-trained and born dancer hired by artistic director Helgi Tomasson in several years, Kochetkova found herself deep into a contemporary repertory that she had never considered in her young career.


Although she doubled her assignments in her first season, it wasn’t all new to her. Yes, there was a single Giselle last winter that generated buzz for its lyrical vulnerability. There was the grand pas de deux in Tomasson’s Nutcracker, which was recorded for airing on PBS this December. And there was her hummingbird flight across the stage in Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes. But it was the SFB New Works Festival and premieres by Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, and Jorma Elo that thrust Kochetkova into the spotlight last season. Wheeldon’s romantic reverie on the duet form heralded a mistress of liquid phrasing. Elo’s slashing deconstruction of classicism revealed the ferocious grit behind the angelic face. In every appearance, Kochetkova moved within an aura, eager and pliant, that distinguished her from her accomplished colleagues. Some might call that aura style. Kochetkova attributes that quality to persistence.


“Since I was 10, I had to work hard to get everything,” she says. “Nothing came easy to me. I knew there would be no help from other people.”

The Moscow-born child would have preferred to spend her time at gymnastics or ice skating when, at the urging of her mother, she was admitted to the Moscow Ballet School, the affiliated academy of the Bolshoi Ballet.


“I had no desire to dance, yet I remember my mother saying that when you are 15 or 16, you will have to stop gymnastics,” Kochetkova says. “But, if you go to ballet school, you can continue much longer.”


Mother was right.


“Ballet became a trap, a special world. There is no way back out of it,” she recalls. “You dance, you rehearse, you live only to do it another day.”


Among her teachers at the school, Kochetkova recalls former Bolshoi star Sofia Golovkina most vividly. “She gave one of the best classes in history,” she says. “They were hard, the discipline was perfect. I would shake with fear during the first five minutes. You would never know what Golovkina’s mood would be. One day, it would be ‘Very good, girls,’ and the next, it would be ‘Disaster.’ The classes are much more relaxed here in America.”


Kochetkova left the Bolshoi’s school at 18 without an offer from the company, and, in the new post-Soviet world, she looked West for opportunity. So she entered the turbulent world of international ballet competitions. She says that she wasn’t so much looking for a job as attempting to complete her education in dance. Between 2001 and 2005, she garnered a shelf full of medals—the gold at Rieti, Seoul, and Luxembourg, the silver at Lausanne and Varna, the bronze at Moscow. She remembers the kindness of the great dancer Vyacheslav Gordeyev, who was then running the Moscow Ballet School.


“He sent me to Lausanne and paid for everything. He said, ‘I know you can do it.’ He gave me confidence. He believed in me from the beginning.”


Kochetkova maintains a candid outlook about competitions. “Some people say they are bad,” she notes. “For me at that time, it was the only chance to dance. I didn’t have a choice. The competitions motivated me. They kept me going.”


She expresses pride in noting that she did it mostly by herself. “I didn’t have a coach for the Prix de Lausanne,” Kochetkova says, who trained for the competition during her final year at the Moscow Academy. “I prepared the variations on my own in the evenings at school. It’s hard for me to judge my own strengths and weaknesses, but, in retrospect, I think I became a lot more confident after taking part in competitions. “


In fact, those performances (many of which have been abundantly preserved on YouTube) secured Kochetkova contracts with both The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. Ross Stretton hired her for the Royal. It was an unhappy, but instructive apprenticeship.


“What did I know about companies outside Russia and how they worked? I was so inexperienced,” Kochetkova says. “But when somebody holds you back, you realize how much you want to do something. Unfortunately, I wasn’t dancing much at the Royal. My dad said that I needed to suffer a bit and then I would be OK.”


Kochetkova’s contract was not renewed when Monica Mason succeeded Stretton. But, then, Matz Skoog invited her to join ENB. “It wasn’t as snobbish or bound to tradition as the Royal. And everybody was given the opportunity to dance,” she notes. At ENB, too, she extended her repertory, tackling ballets by David Dawson and Hans van Manen.


Then, on an impulse, she sent a DVD of her dancing to Tomasson ,and he invited her to fly over for an audition. She was encouraged to do so by Christopher Wheeldon at the Bolshoi, where she was taking class and he was creating a ballet. Wheeldon had been working for several years at SFB, both making and reviving dances, and he sensed that Kochetkova might fit in on the West Coast.


Tomasson was captivated by her. “Masha is a beautiful dancer, she had so much potential. She came out, joined a class, and it was just the right fit,” he says. “She is petite and a good partner for Joan, who made her feel immediately at ease.” He also praises her attitude. “She is curious; she wants to experience different kinds of choreography. It may take another year or two before she finds her niche.”


Last season, Tomasson created a part for her in his On a Theme of Paganini, and she will attempt her first Odette/Odile in his new production of Swan Lake in February. This will be a testing year for Kochetkova, as she embraces several movement styles. She will dance in Possokhov’s new work, as well as revivals of Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated (“not the biggest part, but still…”), Balanchine’s “Emeralds,” and, “maybe,” she says, his Stravinsky Violin Concerto.


Last season, Kochetkova learned her first Balanchine, Divertimento No. 15, and she admits that his choreography still gives her trouble. “I have to count and count,” she says. “In some places, it’s so slow, and then, it’s so fast. “We just don’t train that way in Russia. But, I will do more. I think that dancing new ballets has had a positive influence on my technique.”


In everything, she will have Tomasson’s support. “Helgi pulls a performance out of me,” she says. “He’ll say to do it this way, then try it that way. He gives me confidence. I need that.”


Kochetkova is still feeling her way into her first American company. Her impressions are positive. “Dancers here are much friendlier than in Europe, more open. SFB works so hard. They don’t get as much rehearsal time as European companies, but it’s very concentrated. There is less tradition in America, but I feel there is more freedom here.”


Kochetkova offers a study in contradictory impulses. She is so self-critical that she squirms when she watches herself in the PBS Nutcracker. At the same time, she is a canny careerist, having created a website and a blog. She says that was the idea of her husband, British-born filmmaker Edward King, who has moved from London to San Francisco to be with her. Fans are invited to add comments on the website about her performances. Don’t think that Kochetkova is vain or insecure.


“I like the fact that people can leave feedback on my website,” she says. “Of course, my Mum is the best judge of my dancing. She always tells me just what she thinks.” So much for critics.



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine senior advising editor and chief critic for

“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.

On a warm San Francisco spring morning, choreographer Alonzo King leads a pre-professional women’s class and sustains a running patter for an hour. He’s a combination of drill sergeant and guru.


“I don’t want to see a position. I want to see an idea,” King barks. “I want to find the geometry of fifth. It must start inside. This is your instrument. I want to see you play it.” King can be inspirational, but he can also be specific: “No hips, no hula, only the socket,” he commands at one point. You can almost feel the wave of confidence slowly filling the room.


Ask King about the qualities he seeks in a dancer and the answer should explain why his LINES Ballet attracts a stream of performers desperate (to the point of undergoing multiple auditions) to get in. The challenge is simply too tempting for the young and adventurous.


“First, I take it for granted that they have a solid technique,” the choreographer says. “But what I admire in dancers is the same thing I admire in all human beings. I like fearlessness. I like honesty. I like someone who can forget about themselves, to lose their self-consciousness, to be something, rather than to do.”


Inquire, then, about the place of the audience in the scheme.


“Look,” King says. “Life is hard. Who wants to get home, take a shower, dress up, go out to a theater, and be bored?”


Certainly no one among the San Francisco dance crowd, who will assuredly show up in droves this month for LINES Ballet’s two-week, 25th anniversary season. They are drawn to King’s daring, skewed classicism, his arresting choice of music, his enveloping sensuality, and the experience of watching dancers simultaneously stretch their limbs and expose their souls in public.


From any point of view, LINES—a single-choreographer, modern ballet company based on the left coast that has endured and flourished for a quarter century—is a phenomenon. King’s nine dancers, who work on a 38-week contract, participate in two annual home seasons and tour up to eight weeks a year (the past summer’s itinerary included stops at France’s Montpellier Festival, the Spoleto Festival, and gigs in Austria and Poland).


King has also established a choreographic career away from LINES, which may be why dancers flock to San Francisco from all over the map. They have been awed by his works (many of them commissions) performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet, Washington Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theater, Philadanco, the Royal Swedish Ballet, and Ballett Frankfurt. He was recently courted by the Kirov Ballet, but rejected the invitation when he learned that he would have to work with the music of a particular composer. When he tells you, “I love renegades,” you dare not disagree.


In addition to his artistic directorship, King sits atop a mini-empire with a $2.8 million annual budget. He founded the San Francisco Dance Center in 1989, built it into one of the west’s largest dance facilities; and then, six years ago, he inaugurated the LINES Ballet School and the Pre-Professional Program. They’re all housed in a vintage, mildly raffish building just off teeming Market Street. He also heads the BFA program in dance at Marin County’s Dominican University of California.


But King seems happiest in the studio. Before the LINES summer tour, he spent a day reworking Handel (2005). Recently retired San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre was guesting with the troupe and he felt she deserved a special tribute. Without any music cues, four men lift the ballerina and hold her aloft. It’s a high-risk moment; the five of them could crash to the floor in a blizzard of sprained ankles. “Good, good,” King yells. “It would be nice, if it has some contradiction, a bit of traction, so the whole thing doesn’t look too smooth.” Maffre’s back is dramatically arched; her tapered legs float in the air. “Yes,” King shouts, “like a ship’s prow. It’s great.”


King came along at the dawn of an era when barriers between ballet and modern dance were breaking down. He has capitalized on the thirst of audiences and dancers for the new and unclassifiable—a third way, within a recognizable framework. LINES dancers have ballet slippers, bare feet, or, when the piece demands them, pointe shoes. They are turned out, they land buoyantly in fifth position. Yet King energizes their upper bodies; he tests their balances to the point of collapse. He sends limbs jutting at angles that disdain the conventional symmetries of ballet. He instills the spine with an almost moral force. Some fans even speak of transcendence.


Ricardo Zayas, who joined LINES in January after two years with Ailey II, is intrigued by King’s sense of paradox. “I like the fact that the choreography can be both subtle and complex at the same time. I both love and hate the fact that Alonzo lets you play with the movement.”


Six-year LINES veteran Laurel Keen says, “Alonzo has cracked me open. You must maintain your technique, but never at the cost of total abandonment. He made me realize there were infinite possibilities.”


Possibilities were uppermost in King’s mind when, in 1981, he fled New York for San Francisco. “I grew up surrounded by nature in Santa Barbara,” he says. “I couldn’t deal any more with taking a subway ride just to see the horizon.” King had attended California Institute of the Arts and he praises Donald McKayle as a seminal force in his career. He also danced with the “inspirational” Bella Lewitzky before heading east.


King, who once danced in Swan Lake, prefers to see ballet and modern as part of the continuum of Western dance. He often talks in metaphors. “This whole technique is built on the straight line and the circle,” King says during a chat in his tiny office. “The circle is the sun and it must radiate.”


King will tell you what has always annoyed him about the ballet world. “Most ballet companies are like individual belief systems—dioceses or churches. They’re stuck in specific ways of moving,” he says. “You’ll find principal dancers who are skilled but afraid to try something new. The legs are educated, but the torso is lacking. Look at the old Russian training; the torso is so delicious.”


Music of all kinds seems to nurture his creative spirit. Both premieres this month will have live music. The first features a score by the great Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, one of several world music specialists with whom King has collaborated in the past. The other will use baroque scores. He sees no contradiction in the contrast.


“Music for me is music. A lament is a lament, whether it’s Bulgarian or Indian,” King says. “What inspires me is what the music is talking about, no matter what culture it is stamped with.”


King notes that classical music has driven most of his ballets. He recalls growing up in a household that regularly invited musicians to perform. King’s father often gave recitals of German art songs.


King’s working methods with musicians vary with circumstances. “First, you talk and go over the terrain. I might say to Zakir that I would like an adagio at the beginning and one at the end, something different in the middle, and then a strong finale with these particular instruments. As we talk, we drop what we’re attached to; we start again and something new emerges.”


King has also invited musicians to observe the company rehearsing in silence. When the legendary jazz musician Pharoah Sanders started working with LINES, he turned up with his saxophone and his pianist and started improvising as the dancers moved.


“Anything can happen, as long as I fulfill my obligation to classical form,” says King. “And what is classical? We’re talking about what is permanent as opposed to what is temporary. Its real aim is metaphysical spirit, whether it’s Handel’s music, Gothic cathedrals, the igloo, or the teepee. Choreographers must use the instrument of the body in that way.”


That philosophy may explain why King, who is African American, refuses to identify or “brand” LINES as an African American troupe. He has always hired dancers with different cultural backgrounds: “It’s important for me that the company look like the rest of the world.”


King takes a wider view of his own place in the scheme. “It’s tricky. When you’re dealing with art, you’re not in the limited world of race, sex, age, or time. Do we talk of Bach as a white composer?” he asks. “Most definitions don’t give the whole story. I do have a unique experience as an African American. I was taught to internalize things (which I suppose is part of Eastern philosophies) before they became external, which I guess is Western.


But when people say that ballet is white, that’s absurd. How can an idea be a race?”


It seems fitting to ask King what he wishes for the next 25 years. Mostly, he would like an increase in his budget for décor and costumes. But as for King the choreographer, the response is as reassuring as it is predictable:


“I feel like an excavator, and I’m just not finished digging.”


Allan Ulrich is a
Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor and a frequent contributor to American and international publications.

Even in full company class where talent lurks everywhere, San Francisco Ballet principal Muriel Maffre draws your attention and locks in your gaze. She is the five-foot-ten dancer who is not looking into the mirror while she adjusts her épaulement. She’s the one who is working at the barre shrouded in an aura of introspection. She talks to nobody. She corrects her balances, fixes her placement, measures her tendus, and gauges her extension, which seems to taper into infinity.


French-born Maffre has subscribed to this work ethic for all of her 17 years at SFB. Her influence in the company has been profound. She has proved that unconventional bodies can flourish in the American ballet system. She has inspired more than one promising ballerina who did not fit into the standard mold. She has instilled in her consorts a refinement in partnering they never dreamed possible. She has animated exceptional new dances from renowned choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Mark Morris. And she has gathered a host of admirers for whom she represents everything that makes SFB distinctive and forward-looking.


“It’s very comforting,” Maffre says without false modesty, “that people appreciate you for your differences. I used to think I would never fit in.” She will also tell you that, “I have always been less interested in the finished product than in how I got there.”


In her obsession with process may lie the secret to Maffre’s popularity. At their best, her performances in 19th-century classics, Balanchine staples, and contemporary fare fuse an analytic intelligence with an arresting physicality. You know what she is thinking as well as feeling.


Onstage, Maffre summons metaphors. Her fearsomely long extremities, hip joints that almost always do their owner’s bidding, and the sheer elation of her pointe work suggest a winged creature from an ancient mythology. Her Myrtha’s condemnation of Hilarion chills the marrow in its implacability. Her Siren wraps lethal tentacles around the poor prodigal who enters her lair. Her Lilac Fairy is all reassuring warmth. Her performance in Ashton’s Monotones II exemplifies liquid architecture. Her deconstructed Dying Swan deceives you into believing you’ve never seen this chestnut before. Yet, Maffre’s sendup of that droopy fowl in Alexei Ratmansky’s Carnaval des Animaux brings down the house. She brandishes a teasing wit in the Tanaquil Le Clercq solo in Western Symphony and evokes a world of high romance in Liebeslieder Walzer. For many in the SFB audience, William Forsythe’s ballets would be unthinkable without her.


Says SFB director Helgi Tomasson, “Every ballet Muriel dances becomes something interesting to watch.”


It seems impertinent to ask Maffre if she ever wanted to do anything else but dance, a passion that has suffused her limbs since she pestered her mother to take ballet class like her sister.


“No, if you want to go for that sort of achievement, you don’t have a lot of options,” she declares during our interview in the SFB Association Building. “Dance takes all your time.” So the die was cast. “My first public performance,” Maffre recalls, “was on an outdoor tennis court. I was 4.”


Born in a suburb of Paris, Maffre was accepted into the Paris Opéra Ballet School at 9. The training, she says, instilled in her “elegance, refinement, and a very fine aesthetic.” But as her body matured, the reality of her situation hit home. In those bygone (pre-Nureyev) days, POB imposed a strict height limit on women, and Maffre had exceeded it. It bothered her that POB “was its own enclosed world.” She would go elsewhere, but she would go with an artistic goal, which she has never recanted.


“Because of my physique and height, I knew I would not have access to all the roles that interested me,” Maffre says. “I made a pact with myself that no matter how small the part, I would make it my own and explore it totally. This pact has fulfilled me.”


Maffre collected a gold medal at the first Paris International Dance Competition in 1984 and took first prize at the Paris National Conservatory for Advanced Studies in 1985. Her career was launched. Then, after a year at the Hamburg Ballet and five years at the Ballets de Monte Carlo, Maffre was ready for a change. For one thing, French regional companies tour more than they dance in their own cities and their performance schedules are relatively skimpy. Maffre also realized that modern dance works were beginning to pervade ballet in France more often than she liked. She yearned for a company she could call home, where she could establish a relationship with the community.


“I needed to expose myself to something different, a different way of approaching work, a different mentality.” Inquiries to American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet did not yield responses. By then, Paris buzzed with rumors about Helgi Tomasson’s major overhaul of the San Francisco Ballet. Endorsements came from Maffre’s French colleagues, Karin Averty and Jean-Charles Gil, who had danced in San Francisco in the late 1980s. When Maffre saw the troupe during its 1989 Paris tour and took a couple of company classes, she made up her mind. Tomasson hired her after looking at her videos.


It didn’t quite turn out the way she planned. “When I came here, I was on a mission to dance like an American—very heroic, powerful, spontaneous,” Maffre says. “That didn’t work. I don’t have the training and I don’t have the body. It’s not me; and I learned the hard way. After that, it was a matter of finding the right balance. I realized I could develop my own voice and fuse it with what I learned here. Because I am not the same as others, I had the chance to carve my own place in the company.”


Maffre’s thirst for new experiences has served her well. In San Francisco, she can often be spotted at dance concerts, musical events, museums, and galleries and, inevitably, a fan will stop her with a compliment.


“You want to keep up,” is how Maffre explains her perennial curiosity. “For me, it’s necessary to know what’s happening, how people are using ideas.”


It seems logical that Maffre would hit it off with Morris, who has enlisted her for six of his SFB projects. “Opening myself to Mark’s teaching really opened my eyes to a different way of dancing, a different way of looking at choreography.” says Maffre. “I admire the man so much because he embodies eccentricity and wisdom, challenge and respect, love and hate, intelligence and silliness. We’re both very independent.”


Choreographers relish their working relationships with Maffre. Wheeldon, who cast her in Continuum and, with Yuri Possokhov, in the “summer” duet of Quaternary, ranks her as a collaborator on a par with NYC Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and The Royal Ballet’s Darcey Bussell. “They all teach me,” he says. “Muriel guides me; she wants to intellectually penetrate every step she dances. But it’s a quiet process. Some might find that method intimidating. I see her constantly evolving. She dances on this little piece of information and it just takes off.”

On pointe, Maffre stands well over six feet. Her partners, like her countryman Pierre-Franςois Vilanoba, have felt transformed by the experience. “She has given me the best part of my career. Dealing with Muriel’s weight distribution and balances and gaining her trust at the beginning was not always easy,” he says. “She analyzes a lot, I am logical, too. So, at first, we both worked on technique to the point where now we don’t need to think. We know what will happen.”


Maffre has paved the way for other tall women. Elena Altman, recently promoted to soloist, came up through the SFB School and has admired Maffre for more than a decade. “I’m not easy to partner, either. It comforts me to watch her; she thinks about every detail,” says Altman. “And it reads down to her fingertips. After looking at Muriel, I want to dance everything.”


Altman may get the opportunity very soon. At 41, Maffre will retire from SFB in May. Like everything else she does, the decision was not made lightly. Part of the reason is physical (“I have less juice and flexibility these days; it requires so much more time and commitment to stay in shape”). But Maffre also sees her departure as the closing of one chapter in an unusual career and the beginning of another. “Within the environment of the SFB, I have done what I had to do,” she says. “Even, if I don’t say goodbye to the stage, I want the challenge of a different environment. I’ve pushed my body a lot and I am hungry for other things.”


Maffre hasn’t ruled out guesting with other companies, as she did to mesmerizing effect years ago, with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. But her interests are ranging farther afield than performing these days. She has become increasingly passionate about the visual arts and wants to enter the curatorial field. In the works is a project that will bring her dance experience into a gallery setting, which will offer “all the unpredictability of the collaborative experience.”


Don’t shed any tears. Maffre is not sure her departure from the company warrants the ritual gala. Says this least sentimental of artists, “I am simply trying to avoid the melodrama of it all.”



Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.

Jacques d’Amboise: Portrait of a Great American Dancer. Produced by Allan Altman, Video Arts International DVD. $34.95.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Warner Brothers Two-DVD Special Edition. $21.99.

Carousel (50th Anniversary Edition). 20th Century Fox; two DVDs. $26.98.

To understand Jacques d’Amboise’s enduring appeal, go directly to the 50-minute interview with him appended to the incomparable VAI anthology. The ageless enthusiasm with which the dancer recounts the genesis, zenith, and glorious postlude of his performing history is the same quality that attracted choreographers and thrilled audiences for almost four decades.


Those of us with long memories have never forgotten Massachusetts-born d’Amboise in his prime. My first experience was a New York City Ballet evening late in 1958, when Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes was less than a year old. What emerged from that performance wasn’t the standard “Gosh, here’s a red-blooded American guy-next-door type who has defied contemporary social norms by dancing in ballet” impression (although it was all true).


What stayed with me was d’Amboise’s matchless delight in moving on a stage. You felt he was put on earth for the sole purpose of giving himself and his audience pleasure through dancing. He could execute the most demanding Balanchine combination with a debonair freedom that banished all thought of exhibitionism. Born in 1934, d’Amboise was the first American male ballet superstar of the post–World War II era, and his career soared in that propitious period when television welcomed ballet dancers as genuine artist-entertainers, worthy of spending time in your living room.

The VAI release captures d’Amboise in the heady prime (1955–65) of his career in seven roles. From the Bell Telephone Hour archives come the Black Swan pas de deux with Lupe Serrano, the love duet from Todd Bolender’s moody Still Point, a Nutcracker pas de deux, and the pas de deux and finale from Stars and Stripes, all with frequent partner Melissa Hayden. From 1954 comes a complete version of Lew Christensen’s rarely seen 1930s classic Filling Station with d’Amboise ideally cast as the gas jockey, and appearances by Bolender, Janet Reed, Edward Bigelow, and Robert Barnett (amazing when you realize that there was an era when NBC would broadcast a 25-minute ballet in comedian Sid Caesar’s time slot).


D’Amboise proves a buoyant classicist and a smooth partner in the 19th-century material and something more in the Balanchine. His sheer effervescence seems to exemplify what the choreographer so admired in the American spirit; he’s also one of the few guys who actually looks good in Karinska’s military costume for Stars and Stripes.

Yet, what makes this release a priceless addition to the library are the complete performances of Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun and Balanchine’s Apollo. The best of NYCB in that seminal era has been preserved in these black-and-white kinescopes. Tanaquil Le Clercq, in all her radiant maturity, joins d’Amboise in the Robbins, shot, alas, through what looks like gauze. Still, the performers blaze their way through the murk. Both dancers tread Robbins’ narrow path between artistry and narcissism; the kiss d’Amboise plants on Le Clercq’s cheek sends shivers through the viewer.

The Apollo, in which d’Amboise is complemented by Jillana (Calliope), Francia Russell (Polyhymnia), and Diana Adams (Terpsichore), is essential viewing. The performance, conducted by NYCB music director Robert Irving, offers the ballet before the choreographer eliminated both the birth episode and some of Stravinsky’s most haunting music. D’Amboise’s Apollo varies strikingly from the cool, Nordic impersonators that seem to prevail today. This young god startles with his groping for his balances, his unaffected boyishness, his sheer ebullience. Thus, when the summons to Olympus comes, the change in d’Amboise’s expression and musculature, so dramatic in this performance, underlines the moral scheme of the ballet as do few other interpretations.

As d’Amboise relates, it was after a NYCB revival of Filling Station that the movies came calling. The dancer was only 19 when he traveled to Hollywood to make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. On the set, d’Amboise joined Marc Platt from the Ballets Russes companies and Jack Cole disciple Matt Mattox. Released in 1954, the film, directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, was allotted a skimpy budget (check the painted flats) and almost thrown away by the studio, but this frontier musical comedy proved an uncommon hit with the public, opening at the holiest of holies, the Radio City Music Hall.

The 50th anniversary reissue offers a fascinating documentary featuring d’Amboise, Kidd, and others. Fresh from Broadway and dubious about the project, the undersung Kidd was determined that his choreography would emerge from character, and so it does in this magnificently transferred release. Highlights include the barn-building scene, where Kidd blurs the distinction between acrobatics and choreography with dazzling results, and the “Lonesome Polecat” number, which provides a splendid vehicle for Mattox before he evolved into one of this country’s most acclaimed jazz dancers and teachers.

When it came time in 1956 to film Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, 20th Century Fox enlisted Rod Alexander to create choreography that was inferior to Agnes de Mille’s original. Her contribution remains only in Louise’s dream ballet, where d’Amboise dances with both compassion and flair. His matinee idol looks and romantic air make one regret that his movie career was so limited.


Any complete survey of d’Amboise on film should conclude with Emile Ardolino’s 1983 documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. This stirring account of the artist’s work with the National Dance Institute, which he founded in 1976 to instill in school children the pleasure that dancing affords, is probably the greatest Act III of any dancer’s career. Unfortunately, the Oscar-winning film is not yet available on DVD. One can only hope.


Allan Ulrich is a Dance Magazine Senior Advising Editor.

San Francisco Ballet's Tina LeBlanc blends technique, verve, classicism—and range.



At best, judging dancers by their national origin is a fool’s game. But who can resist playing it when the dancer is Tina LeBlanc? Watch her perform for 20 minutes and you will know why she is the quintessential American ballerina.


The purity of her line, the directness of her gesture, the clarity of her articulation, the vulnerability with which she permits the music to engulf her limbs, and the sheer naturalness of her demeanor—all betoken the guilelessness of this country at its finest. LeBlanc’s biography offers no contradiction. She was trained entirely on native soil, launched her professional career in association with one major American dance institution, the Joffrey Ballet, and has attained her glorious peak in another, the San Francisco Ballet, which LeBlanc does not hesitate to call “the best company in the country.” Except for raising a family, there has been nothing else: Her star has risen high in the sky and remains there, radiating a luster that remains undimmed even now in her late 30s.


LeBlanc, who has danced professionally for 24 years, has been a principal at SFB since 1992. She exalts everything from the Maryinsky classics to de Mille’s folksy Rodeo to Balanchine’s cut-crystal Square Dance to Forsythe’s edgy, daredevil excursions. She commands the noblest partners, the highest respect from colleagues, and after a period of uncertainty, on both her part and theirs, the most loving response from audiences.


So, in conversation, you might expect the voice of experience to dominate, a hint of “been there, danced it all” satisfaction, maybe a bit of weariness. Uh-uh. This is the same Tina LeBlanc who, between Swan Lake rehearsals, confides that, “I feel I didn’t mature till a couple of years ago.”


You comment on what seems likes LeBlanc’s preternatural concentration in performance, her coolness in the face of an awesome technical challenge. With a laugh, she tells you that “it’s an illusion.” So, when Jodie Gates, a former colleague at the Joffrey, recalls LeBlanc sitting backstage doing a crossword puzzle while waiting to dance Balanchine’s hellishly difficult Tarantella, you find it all too easy to believe it. “Oh, I know Jodie loves to tell that story,” LeBlanc says, “but puzzles were just a way of channeling my performance anxiety. I got nervous every time I went on. I still do.”


You wouldn’t suspect that from watching LeBlanc in rehearsal for SFB’s Rodeo, a ballet that, oddly, she never danced during her Joffrey days. Even at an early stage of preparation, this is one Cowgirl who can shrink into her skin after being rejected, yet still muster the inner strength to capture both her beau and the respect of an entire prairie town. Today, LeBlanc is having trouble with dancing on the side of her foot. There’s a whispered exchange with Joanna Berman, the retired SFB principal who’s coaching this revival. Smiles, shakes of the head, no scenes, no temperamental displays. The rehearsal resumes.


One might expect this kind of determination from a woman who recalls that, “I was 11 when I thought, ‘If dancing is what I’m going to do, I’d better start working because I only have a few years before I leave home.’ ” LeBlanc doesn’t know where her passion to dance came from, but it also ran among her siblings. Both older sister Laurie and kid sister Sherri enjoyed respectable careers, the latter at both New York City Ballet and SFB.


But LeBlanc, even while training under Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, saw only one company in her future: “ABT, because they did the classics and that’s what I was trained to do.” She went to the auditions at 15; the thought of rejection never entered her mind. “When my number wasn’t called, I thought it was a mistake. And when Patricia Wilde told me I was too short, I was devastated.” LeBlanc, who stands 5'1", faced her first reality check.


“There have been a few incidents when I’ve been considered too short, LeBlanc says. “Sometimes they were right. Sometimes, it wasn’t warranted. My height hasn’t held me back, but I haven’t gotten to do a few ballets I might have liked. [She cites Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, in which she eventually was cast.] Yes, occasionally, I get tired of being considered the small girl.”


After the ABT auditions, LeBlanc went home and entered a regional festival in York, Pennsylvania. Soon enough, a call came from Sally Brayley Bliss to join Joffrey II. Seventeen months later, in January 1984, she was invited into the senior company. LeBlanc wasted no time in attracting attention in a wide range of repertoire. “She was a dazzler, a little spitfire,” remembers Ashley Wheater, a Joffrey colleague who is now a ballet master at SFB. “But, there was an artist there, too.”


Because the Joffrey toured extensively in the ’80s, LeBlanc acquired a national following. Nobody who saw her and the late Edward Stierle in Saint-Léon’s La Vivandière pas de deux has ever forgotten that sublimely harmonious, ineffably exuberant pairing.


Eight years later, it was time for a change. LeBlanc’s husband, Marco Jerkunica, whom she had married at 21, wanted to leave New York. In addition, Robert Joffrey had died and Stierle was fatally ill. Gerald Arpino’s full control of the company was threatened. And there were artistic issues, too.


“The Joffrey was a great company to start with,” says LeBlanc. “They paid attention to details. But I was feeling smothered. When I went onstage, I didn’t know how much was me and how much was the coach. When someone coaching your Juliet tells you what count to breathe on, what you should be feeling…there was no sense that it doesn’t work on me or doesn’t feel good.”


LeBlanc liked the repertoire Helgi Tomasson was building in SFB and she was impressed by the standards on display during the company’s City Center season in 1991. When the Joffrey was on tour in Los Angeles, she called Tomasson, told him she was in the area and drove 400 miles to take class. Not only did he hire LeBlanc; two years later he also engaged David Palmer, her old partner at the Joffrey.


In the beginning, paradise on the Pacific proved elusive.


“The first year I came here, I felt lost,” says LeBlanc. “Helgi is very much an ‘I’ll step back and see how you handle this role’ kind of director. He had me learn everything to see where I would shine. Betcha didn’t know I even learned the Agon pas de deux.”


LeBlanc articulates the difference between working at The Joffrey and SFB. “I came from a company where they spent so much time taking things apart that they sometimes never ran the whole ballet until opening night. Then, I joined a company where, in my first rehearsal, I was running a pas de deux. I didn’t know what I looked like; I was just doing it. I realized I had to break it all down for myself.


“We have a great coaching staff here,” adds LeBlanc. “If you tell them you’re not comfortable, they will find the way that is right for you. Sometime in my second or third year, I found my own voice. As I learned, I became comfortable with the process.”


Still, something was missing. LeBlanc had been hailed for her classical pedigree and acclaimed for her speed and verve, but she still thirsted after the juicy Romantic roles. “They started with Swan Lake,” she recalls. “I struggled, pushing myself to that White Swan adagio.”


Sleeping Beauty presented another challenge. “At first, I didn’t see any character development in Aurora. I was overwhelmed with the technical aspect. I let it bog me down. A couple of years later,” LeBlanc says, “my approach was different. It was still a scary assignment, but I wasn’t overwhelmed.” By the time she tackled Giselle, technique and characterization had fused.


But if you ask LeBlanc about recent satisfactions, she cites Lar Lubovitch’s …smile with my heart. “I thought Lar would give me the bouncy number. But he chose me for the romantic duet.” And LeBlanc says she “demanded” to dance the slow, rapturous “Man I Love” duet in Balanchine’s Who Cares? “I got tired of being thought of as the turning girl.”


Tomasson sensed LeBlanc’s range long ago. “To see such depth come into Tina’s dancing in her maturity is wonderful. She has added another dimension,” he says. “The length of her line, her lyrical phrasing are beautiful to watch.”


In recent seasons, Tomasson has increasingly paired LeBlanc with Gonzalo Garcia, one of the SFB’s most exciting, if occasionally unruly, dancers. Fourteen years her junior, he calls their collaborations inspiring. “I have learned so much from Tina. She has taught me to focus my energy and not waste it. She tells me how to breathe, how to enjoy myself, how to approach it correctly, I found much of my Apollo through her.”


To all in SFB, LeBlanc often seems the most grounded person in the building. She attributes that quality to her marriage (“for a while, it was way up or way down, we were either on our honeymoon or ready for divorce, but we worked it out”), and to her two sons: Marinko, 8 (“He’s a competitive gymnast at the moment”), and Sasha, 3. Combining a career with a home life has, she says, enriched her enormously. The talk of the company is that whenever Tina takes family leave, she comes back dancing better than ever.


LeBlanc agrees. “Motherhood changes your perspective. You focus on what’s real—the home—and treat dancing like fun. I was so stressed after Marinko was born, with all that crying. But when I got back to the studio, it was my quiet time. Dancing, after all, is my side career.”


LeBlanc, who turns 40 in October, knows she can’t avoid the inevitable forever. “I have been thinking about retirement lately,” she says. “My body still feels pretty good. The telling factor will be when I stop enjoying it, when I feel dancing is no longer worth the effort. It will be something inner, a moment when it will be too hard to pull it out of myself. But,” says this most polished of artists, “dancing has never been about being perfect, anyway.”


Allan Ulrich is Dance Magazine’s senior editor.

They made magic.



Memorable partnerships are the great miracles of dance. You can’t arrange them in a balletmaster’s casting dreams or a manager’s office. You can’t predict them. These relationships simply arise in the studio, rehearsal room or onstage, and when they happen, they should be treasured.


How do you know a great partnership? When the pairing adds up to more than the sum of the individual talents, when a man anticipates a woman’s every move, when one dancer seems incomplete without the other, when an aura envelops the room, when you exit the hall spinning fantasies about the couple.


Rules don’t apply, and you can’t generalize, either. Offstage partnerships do not automatically ignite in the theater. But temperamental compatibility matters; so do comparable technical skills and physical harmony—a marked contrast in the height of partners suggests comedy, not romance.


First, consider the contests of Olympians, the partnerships that aim to set bravura standards; anything he can do she can do better and she’ll die trying in the effort. Consider Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones in the Black Swan pas de deux, she stitching fouettés for days, he soaring for the stars, both revving up audiences with consummate showmanship. Recall Patricia McBride in “Rubies,” a thoroughbred showing Edward Villella how fast she can move and goading him to top her in Balanchine’s delirious version of the Kentucky Derby.


Memorable partnerships flourish when one member of the duo looks deeply into the artistry of the other and embraces his or her style, musicianship, and eccentricities. Among Natalia Makarova’s many superb cavaliers, I have always felt that Ivan Nagy deserved pride of place. More than any other, this underrated Hungarian danseur recognized and celebrated Makarova’s characteristic rubato, her seamless drawing out of phrases, and he adjusted his phrasing and attack to complement hers. Does anyone recall the way in which Jock Soto breathed like Wendy Whelan in the monumental Act II pas de deux of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?


Such matches of sensibility are rare. They are to be cherished. One recalls the nobility of gesture in a Giselle with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn. One thinks, too, of the youthful eroticism of Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable in Romeo and Juliet and Les Deux Pigeons. For playful lyricism, who ever matched Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell in The Dream? Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov transformed The Nutcracker from family fare into an adult dissertation on lyrical longing.


When did we start talking seriously about partnerships as a meeting of equals? We could date it from Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection. We started appraising the male dancer for more than his gifts as a porteur. Then, Nureyev launched his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, the West’s most famous ballerina and 19 years older than her co-star. She exemplified the elegant British school of ballet; he was a fiery Tartar who could do anything faster and higher than other men. Yet, this confluence of opposites, this apparent mismatch of sensibilities, blazed its way into the history books.


Consider the career of Suzanne Farrell. At New York City Ballet, she and Peter Martins epitomized the coolest, loftiest principles of neo-classicism (think the pure whiteness of Balanchine’s Chaconne). Earlier in her career, during her sojourn at Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, Farrell and Jorge Donn locked limbs in a partnership that scorched the stage—nothing aloof there. The moral? Alter one factor in the partnership equation and you write a different chapter of ballet history.


Where are the great partnerships of today? Blame their rarity on the jet-setting schedule of dancers, the performances planned years in advance, the emphasis on individual techniques and star turns at the expense of deeper emotional connections. Great partnerships will not, however, vanish. And when you see one, your heart, as well as your eye, will let you know.

Skimpy rehearsal periods, wretched studios, lousy music tapes, dancer injuries. You think choreographers have problems now? Ha! Those traditional vexations pale in comparison to the challenge of confronting the ego of a genuine opera diva. Yet dancemakers are taking the plunge and besieging the world’s opera stages. In some of the most prestigious opera houses, they are running the show.


Choreographers have participated, sometimes peripherally and often anonymously, in the production of opera since its beginnings in 16th-century Italy. From the age of Monteverdi, dance has been an integral element in opera. The French even gave dancemakers the opéra-ballet, a hybrid genre that enlisted ballerina legends like Sallé and Camargo.


When Mark Morris directs a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan Opera this May, it will herald a milestone. This will be the first time in more than 50 years that a famous dancemaker has directed an opera at the Met (the last was George Balanchine, who staged his friend Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in 1953). Similar projects are happening this season in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and Berlin. Directing opera is the newest frontier for adventurous choreographers.


Opera companies in the United States have always welcomed them—in limited amounts. Today, when the plot requires a dance, the Met commissions it from the best and the brightest. Doug Varone’s ultimately topless “Dance of the Seven Veils” for Strauss’ Salome three years ago and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Dance of the Hours” for La Gioconda last fall have attracted favorable notice.


But to evolve from hired hand to boss marks a major step for a dancemaker. The surprise is who is doing it. For the intensely musical Morris, opera seems a natural, evolutionary step. But it has also attracted such varied artists as brainy postmodernist Trisha Brown, text-driven dance theater veteran Joe Goode, and Vincent Paterson, whose background includes dances for Broadway (Kiss of the Spider Woman), movies (Dancer in the Dark, Closer), Michael Jackson music videos, and Madonna tours. If each of these choreographers has arrived at opera through a different route, their goals remain similar: to lavish everything they know about movement on an art form in which posturing and immobility have become routine. Moreover, choreographers are finding that no opera diva can resist enlightened, compassionate stagecraft. The director is there to make them look good.


Paterson, who steered the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Massenet’s Manon last September, came to the project because of his previous collaboration with the charismatic Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. Hired to direct her in a DVD album of classical music videos—which became a bestseller—he quickly gained her confidence. Then, when company director Placído Domingo approached him to direct Netrebko’s debut as one of opera’s most appealing material girls, he jumped at the opportunity.

At the time, opera meant little more to Paterson than the names Callas and Pavarotti. To address this gap, he spent almost three years researching the work, attending more than 30 operas, and apprenticing himself to another director. He had heard “nothing but horror stories” about opera. But once rehearsals were underway, he soon realized that directing it was an extension of everything he had done previously in his career.


“I have always been grounded in narrative, and I have always talked to dancers as if they were actors,” Paterson says, during a break from rehearsals. “Even when doing music videos, I talk to them about subtext, about where the movement comes from, whether its purpose is narrative or abstract.” Paterson has found that the experience of this Manon has enriched the possibilities for his own choreography. “I’ve acquired an understanding of the most explicit yet natural way to move on a stage,” he says. “My aim is to make it so naturalistic and flowing that singers won’t feel like they’re in an opera.” Paterson will restage Manon for the Berlin State Opera in April.


Innovation, he feels, is still possible in the opera world—in contrast to his experience in New York after his Tony nomination for Spider Woman: “I was enticed by that saying, ‘Broadway needs new blood.’ When it came to the reality, they wanted the same old blood.”


Gaining the trust of opera singers is one of a director’s major hurdles. “I like people to feel safe with me,” says Joe Goode. He was seduced into working for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program by its director, Sheri Greenawald. She offered him the opportunity to mount Conrad Susa’s Transformations in the intimate Cowell Theater. This is a music-theater work that places Anne Sexton’s rhymed fairy tales in a contemporary context—in this case a suburban backyard.


On the surface, this was a bizarre match-up. Goode has always devised his own texts for the Joe Goode Performance Group (see “Twenty Goode Years,” June 2006); and, in the past, he has complained about dance’s dependence on music. There’s also no place for dance in Transformations.


So what changed his mind?


“I’m a big Sexton fan. I love the language,” says Goode. “Yes, the music is difficult. I realized that the way to do it was to animate it, to let it be a bit of a cartoon, to let it shimmer on the surface.” About the young singers, he says, “I was nervous. What were these divas like?” recalls the choreographer. “Are they going to stand in one spot and just sing?”


He was pleasantly surprised. “Opera singers train differently these days,” he says. “They come to rehearsals knowing they have to act and be part of the director’s vision. A few of them were terrified, but as soon as we based their contributions in character, we could work together.”


For Goode, opera and dance are a good match. “My work is all about the interior life. That’s what opera is about, too. I’ve never felt such freedom before.” Opera, he believes, may even be where dance-theater is headed. “For the past 10 years, dancemakers have been reinventing themselves according to their own rules,” says Goode. “We’ve been allowed to be interdisciplinary, to bring in other elements. This permission has got us into some interesting territory. Opera, in many ways, is the ultimate interdisciplinary form. We choreographers have been in training for this.”


Trisha Brown made the dances “and a lot of other stuff” for a production of Carmen staged by Italian film director Lina Wertmüller in the 1980s. “I was stimulated by the surrounds of song and the enormous décor,” she says. When, in 1998, the Monnaie Opera in Brussels invited her to direct Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo, Brown steeped herself in the music and history of the score. Yet as a choreographer who inclines to abstraction, she harbored doubts. She turned to her friend artist Robert Rauschenberg for advice.


“I said to Bob, ‘There’s a narrative here. How will I handle it?’ He answered, ‘Trisha, don’t be afraid of a hug or two.’ ”


But there were problems with the singers. “They were, at first, reluctant to do what I wanted,” recalls Brown. “But when they realized how deep was my knowledge of the music, I had their respect. I remember I wanted the singers to roll down a rake. At first, they resisted. I had my company teach them very carefully and they got really involved with it.”


Since then, Brown has collaborated with the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Her production of his Luci mie traditrici (an account of the homicidal 17th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo) led to her directing the world premiere of his Da gelo a gelo last year in Germany. Subtitled, “100 scenes and 65 poems after Izumi Shikibu’s diary,” the work is about an 11th-century Japanese poet and her relationship with a prince.


“It’s a love story, and a cyclical work,” says Brown. “At first, it was a mystery to me. When I realized what Sciarrino was doing, writing 100 scenes of contrasting lengths (some run only three or four seconds), I could see a structure. Because the dramatic impact is in the music, I didn’t have to be literal in my direction.” Da gelo a gelo will be repeated in May and June at the Paris Opéra’s Palais Garnier.


With Rameau’s Platée, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and last year’s production of the latter’s King Arthur under his belt, Morris is the veteran opera director of the group. He staged Gluck’s Orfeo in a touring version in the mid-’90s and made the dances for an even earlier production. His first directing job was a Marriage of Figaro, undertaken in the early ’90s when the Mark Morris Dance Group was in residence in Brussels.


Morris recalls falling in love with opera when he was a teenager in Seattle. His interest lies solely with the score, rather than with the ambiance of opera. He spurns “queer opera heroine worship” and he pokes fun at the typical Met production with “all those staircases.” Morris notes that singers’ egos have never presented a hurdle—and he has worked with some of the best of his generation. “All performing artists,” he says, “have different ways of validating their self-esteem.”


The problems in working with singers are more technical. “Dancers function with rhythm. Singers have trouble with it; they become so self-conscious on the stage that their rhythm goes away. You have to train them to walk on the beat,” says Morris. “So, I focus on physical tempo and breathing. I have found that, with most of the mammals I work with, if they breathe, they can relax.”


The seamless integration of singers and dancers achieved by Morris in King Arthur suggests that he has already intuited the secret of directing opera: “I simply respond to the crashing emotional stuff that happens in the music.”



Allan Ulrich is a senior advising editor of Dance Magazine, an operaphile, and contributor to many publications in the U.S. and abroad.

Grupo Krapp

The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Berkeley, California,
October 31–November 2, 2002

So rarely do Americans have the opportunity to sample any dance from Latin America, except for those packaged-for-tourists ethnographic extravaganzas, that the Halloween night American debut of this Argentine dance-theater troupe would have been a newsmaker—even if the dances hadn't been so insidiously entertaining.

What astonished most about this seven-member, collaborative troupe from the tip of the hemisphere was its pedigree. American observers had no trouble finding comparison with the word-cum-movement essays of Maguy Marin. It was easy, also, to spot the sources of the eclectic vocabulary, suffused with influences of contact improvisation, hip-hop, physical comedy (of the abusive, Three Stooges ilk), and gymnastics. But it was just as easy to note the concerns of a nation that hasn't completely shaken off the tradition of machismo. The troupe's signature work, from 2001, No me besabas? (Weren't you kissing me?) reveled in women giving the men as good (if not better) than they get. The more recent (2002) Río Seco (Dry River) proposed athletic contests as a metaphor for a social order in ferment.

Founded in 1998 in Buenos Aires by Luciana Acuña, Luis Biasotto, and Gabriela Caretti (replaced on this four-city American tour by Agustina Sario), Grupo Krapp's team also includes actor-musicians Edgardo Castro, Fernando Tur, and Gabriel Almendros. The ensemble's name derives from Samuel Beckett's monodrama, Krapp's Last Tape; the two choreographed collaborations featured on this calling-card program revel in a similar absurdist philosophy. In No me besabas?, a series of four monologues (declaimed in Spanish) concern the ways in which we inflict pain on our intimates. The palaver is punctuated by a string of breathtaking duets, in which domination emerges as the theme; watching the spitfire Sario roll the lanky, laconic Biasotto across her knees makes us all complicit in the ritual.

Violence, of a more brutal nature, arrives in the guise of a gangster figure (Edgardo Castro), and he seems to inflict real pain. The music, furnished onstage, was by Fun-da-men-tal (an Iraqi group based in England), Compay Segundo (from Cuba) and Rosamel Araya. The repeated guitars at the end, a fine film noir touch, strike a delicious note of parody.

Nevertheless, Río Seco, the shorter of the two pieces, is also the more coherent. This six-performer opus probes, amid all the zany antics, a measure of hard truth about competitiveness between the sexes, who can't wait to flex their undraped biceps. Structured like a series of Olympics events at a seaside setting, the movement involves sprint postures (and a recurring buzzer), aerobic exercises, and a swim competition, with all the contestants flat on their stomachs, attempting the breast stroke and looking a lot like beached flounders. It's like a company picnic gone bonkers and when, at the end, guitarist Gabriel Almendros sultrily reclines atop an upright piano and serenades the audience with George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," this camp routine impresses one as positively subversive.

Grupo Krapp was presented locally by the University of California's Cal Performances as an entry in its Celebración de las Culturas de Iberoamérica, an admirable new programming initiative that will import emerging and traditional artists from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations. To judge from this attraction, it won't all be castanets and huaraches.

The Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
London, United Kingdom
May 21—29, 2003

Reviewed by Allan Ulrich

The Royal Ballet advertised David Bintley’s Les Saisons as the company’s contemporary creation of the 2002—03 season, but "contemporary" stretched the point a bit; the most forward-looking of England’s leading classicists has spurned the steamy narratives he has favored in the past for an elegantly appointed forty-five-minute romp through Petipa territory. The music, one of Alexander Glazunov’s finest ballet scores, served for one of Petipa’s final Maryinsky commissions, a tribute to reigning assoluta Mathilda Kschessinskaya; it summoned from Bintley a four-part abstraction that generally hewed to the composer’s original libretto and sought formal rigor by bringing on its pack of soloists for farewell turns at the end.

In its details, Les Saisons (The Seasons) commands respect for its fluency of gesture. That much was clear during the opening "Winter" section, when Jamie Tapper led her four frosty minions–Deirdre Chapman, Lauren Cuthbertson, Mara Galeazzi, and Marianela Nu˜ñez–through a series of variations, marked by arched backs and corkscrewing trajectories. "Spring" brought a gorgeous pas de deux for the devastatingly appealing Alina Cojocaru and the elegantly proportioned Johan Kobborg; Bintley reverses the traditional roles. Cojocaru is the pursuer; Kobborg is the delightfully reticent object of desire.

The showier "Summer" duet united the reliable Jonathan Cope with the relentlessly ingratiating Isabel McMeekan for a more conventional allegro pairing, and "Autumn" summoned Martin Harvey and a sextet of randy satyr figures out of Jerome Robbins’s Four Seasons. Even when the choreography falls into routine, Bintley sustains a mood of fête galante. One merely hoped for something more adventurous for this return to The Royal. The major assets of the production included Peter J. Davison’s delicately brocaded backdrops and Mark Henderson’s ultra-modern lighting scheme–striking bars of illumination that denote the changes in the calendar.

Beyond Les Saisons, The Royal’s program mined the company’s legacy for two masterworks from an earlier era–Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de ballet and Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, both in startlingly good performances. Ashton’s geometric 1948 abstraction seems a great gesture of consolidation, melding Balanchine neoclassicism with a typically English reticence. André Beaurepaire’s de Chirico-esque backdrops and his harlequinade costumes have acquired the patina of history, but the movement remains timeless. In Cojocaru and Kobborg, The Royal has found interpreters to cherish; only a male corps, occasionally missing the requisite stamina, besmirched this revival. Barry Wordsworth conducted the Stravinsky score with uncommon élan.

Most ballets set to Gustav Mahler music owe a debt to the 1965 Song of the Earth, an hour-long saga of death and renewal, set to the famous song-cycle, indifferently rendered by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby and tenor John Daszak. Carlos Acosta’s charismatic Messenger of Death, fearsome yet empathetic, compared with the finest exponents of the past. Tamara Rojo’s overt sensuality and Cope’s infinitely compassionate partnering skills generated a high level of tension. That the revival was staged by The Royal’s recently appointed director, Monica Mason (an unforgettable exponent of Song of the Earth in an earlier era) surely helped this new generation of MacMillan interpreters. Call it the good fairy’s kiss.

Dancers wearing thrift-store chic gyrated to pop hits in French choreographer Jerome Bel's The show must go on, at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Laurent Philippe

The Royal Ballet

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

London, United Kingdom

May 21–29, 2003

Reviewed by Allan Ulrich

The Royal Ballet advertised David Bintley’s Les Saisons as the company’s contemporary creation of the 2002–03 season, but "contemporary" stretched the point a bit; the most forward-looking of England’s leading classicists has spurned the steamy narratives he has favored in the past for an elegantly appointed forty-five-minute romp through Petipa territory. The music, one of Alexander Glazunov’s finest ballet scores, served for one of Petipa’s final Maryinsky commissions, a tribute to reigning assoluta Mathilda Kschessinskaya; it summoned from Bintley a four-part abstraction that generally hewed to the composer’s original libretto and sought formal rigor by bringing on its pack of soloists for farewell turns at the end.

In its details, Les Saisons (The Seasons) commands respect for its fluency of gesture. That much was clear during the opening "Winter" section, when Jamie Tapper led her four frosty minions—Deirdre Chapman, Lauren Cuthbertson, Mara Galeazzi, and Marianela Nu˜ñez—through a series of variations, marked by arched backs and corkscrewing trajectories. "Spring" brought a gorgeous pas de deux for the devastatingly appealing Alina Cojocaru and the elegantly proportioned Johan Kobborg; Bintley reverses the traditional roles. Cojocaru is the pursuer; Kobborg is the delightfully reticent object of desire.

The showier "Summer" duet united the reliable Jonathan Cope with the relentlessly ingratiating Isabel McMeekan for a more conventional allegro pairing, and "Autumn" summoned Martin Harvey and a sextet of randy satyr figures out of Jerome Robbins’s Four Seasons. Even when the choreography falls into routine, Bintley sustains a mood of fête galante. One merely hoped for something more adventurous for this return to The Royal. The major assets of the production included Peter J. Davison’s delicately brocaded backdrops and Mark Henderson’s ultra-modern lighting scheme—striking bars of illumination that denote the changes in the calendar.

Beyond Les Saisons, The Royal’s program mined the company’s legacy for two masterworks from an earlier era—Frederick Ashton’s Scènes de ballet and Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, both in startlingly good performances. Ashton’s geometric 1948 abstraction seems a great gesture of consolidation, melding Balanchine neoclassicism with a typically English reticence. André Beaurepaire’s de Chirico-esque backdrops and his harlequinade costumes have acquired the patina of history, but the movement remains timeless. In Cojocaru and Kobborg, The Royal has found interpreters to cherish; only a male corps, occasionally missing the requisite stamina, besmirched this revival. Barry Wordsworth conducted the Stravinsky score with uncommon élan.

Most ballets set to Gustav Mahler music owe a debt to the 1965 Song of the Earth, an hour-long saga of death and renewal, set to the famous song-cycle, indifferently rendered by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby and tenor John Daszak. Carlos Acosta’s charismatic Messenger of Death, fearsome yet empathetic, compared with the finest exponents of the past. Tamara Rojo’s overt sensuality and Cope’s infinitely compassionate partnering skills generated a high level of tension. That the revival was staged by The Royal’s recently appointed director, Monica Mason (an unforgettable exponent of Song of the Earth in an earlier era) surely helped this new generation of MacMillan interpreters. Call it the good fairy’s kiss.


Norwegian National Ballet
Den Norske Opera, Oslo, Norway
October 7–22, 2005
Reviewed by Allan Ulrich


In seeking to raise the profile of his company, both within Scandinavia and abroad, artistic director Espen Giljane achieved a significant success with “4X,” a quartet of dances created by the team of Paul Lightfoot and wife, Sol León. The pair has rarely ventured far from the orbit of Nederlands Dans Theater, where English-born Lightfoot has served for many years in the shadow of Jirí Kylián. These dances, some new, others retooled, and all in their Nordic premieres, suggested that a distinctive choreographic personality, one that fuses a musically inspired movement orientation with theatrical dazzle, has developed in the duo.

In the premiere of the radically revised Softly, as I leave you (1994), Lightfoot and León united seven dancers with six composers, from Puccini to the ubiquitous Arvo Pärt. This wily, whimsical suite directs its dancers to emerge from stacks of boxes and strut their moments upon the stage. The extraordinarily supple Maiko Nishino explored the limits of her enclosure with uncommon liquidity, later joining Richard Suttie for a heavily weighted duet. Two men squirm in unison, then exit, cavorting to Offenbach; another man arises from a coffin to confront an indifferent world. Tom Bevoort’s extraordinary lighting fixes the vision. And gradually, a theme comes into focus: Is an obsession with freedom a restraint in itself?

The briefer Shutters Shut (2003) duet showcased Christine Thomassen and Andreas Heise, who built complex phrases to a recording of Gertrude Stein reading her “If I Told Him.” Not only do Lightfoot and León translate the poet’s speech rhythms into cogent movement phrases, which energize arms as much as legs; they bring out a latent musicality in Stein’s fanciful verse.

Group versus solo/duet tensions propel both Shangri-La (1997) and the more tonally assured Subject to Change (2003). In the latter, the slow movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet frames a monochromatically dressed (barely) sextet of performers and an unfurling carpet of blazing crimson. Aggressive unisons yield to a scorching pas de deux for Suttie and Victoria Herbert. Limbs entwine voluptuously and, in a mesmerizing sequence, the power games rise irresistibly to the level of metaphor. See

Muriel Maffre and Yuri Possokhov in Wheeldon's Quaternary.
Photo by Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet
Hôtels de Rohan-Soubise, Paris, France
July 5, 2005
Reviewed by Allan Ulrich


A new festival rightly demands new works. What the French succinctly call créations provided the opening-night fare for San Francisco Ballet’s 13-performance residency at Les Étés de la danse de Paris (Paris Dance Summers), staged outdoors in the courtyard of the 18th-century building that serves as the country’s National Archives. In commissioning works from Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, and Christopher Wheeldon, SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson sought to keep the accent American and the vocabulary moderately classical.

Although Taylor and Lubovitch are familiar names in France, Wheeldon’s compelling Quaternary marked the choreographer’s Paris debut and his fourth San Francisco original. A four-seasons arrangement to scores (all recorded here) by John Cage, Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Steven Mackey, the 44-minute opus tempers Wheeldon’s shape-changing neoclassic lexicon with a sculptured, summery pas de deux for Muriel Maffre and Yuri Possokhov that heated up a crowd cowering under a cool, drizzly Paris sky. The opening winter section for six couples, led by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith, abounds in the centered torsos and dramatically articulated limbs in which Wheeldon revels. Spring introduces slow développés and contemplative canons serenely dispatched by Lorena Feijoo, Joan Boada, Tina LeBlanc, and Nicolas Blanc. The volatile autumn duet for Katita Waldo and Pierre-François Vilanoba (intensified by pungent electric guitar music) proves less confident in tone. The reassembling of the entire cast in a circular pattern bestows an unstable unity. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and Jean-Marc Puissant’s costumes were tops.

Spring Rounds, Taylor’s first work for this company, found only moderate inspiration in the 17th-century pastiche of Richard Strauss’ Divertimento for Small Orchestra after Couperin. Soloists Kristin Long and Pascal Molat led a mixed corps of 12 in an engaging series of fleeting, oddly sexless courtships and liquid patterns, marked by scooping arms and bodies corkscrewing in the air. Ebullience reigned, not least in Santo Loquasto’s limeade-hued costumes. Ex-Taylor dancer Patrick Corbin set the piece on SFB.

Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck used three of the great jazz pianist’s recordings for a nostalgia wallow in American Bandstand moves. Spirited performances by the nine dancers could not conceal a threadbare plan, additionally handicapped by Ann Hould Ward’s costumes, as unflattering as gym sweats. A long life for Elemental Brubeck is not predicted.

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