On The Rise: Elizabeth Miner

July 19, 2007

Elizabeth Miner looks like a born soubrette, pixyish and fleet. As Cupid in San Francisco Ballet’s
Don Quixote
, she darted around the stage with the fluttering precision of a butterfly. Her elegant line, graceful carriage, and glamorous face always stood out in the corps. Still it came as a surprise when Mark Morris handpicked her for the lead role in his latest work, Sylvia. Did she have the interpretive ability to carry an evening-length ballet?

Morris thought she did. “She’s fabulous,” he says. “The culture of the ballet industry is very conservative, and one of the messages is that female dancers should remain girlish. It’s misogynist and insulting, and it’s something I can’t bear. But Liz isn’t like that. She’s a woman. You’d think she might be girlish because she’s pretty and she’s tiny. But she’s smart.” Indeed, Miner’s debut in the role last May showed a womanly depth. Her huntress was in full command, capable of mischief in the cave scene but also the solemn joy of true love in the climactic pas de deux.

This end-of-season breakthrough followed a promotion to soloist. “We were at a restaurant celebrating [the premiere of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s
7 for Eight
], and Helgi came and sat down at our table, chit-chatting,” Miner recounts one afternoon between rehearsals. “I couldn’t really hear him and then everyone started clapping and I thought: ‘Either he said we did a really good job or we just got promoted.’ ”

Miner spent seven years in the SFB corps waiting for that moment. Now, having proven herself in
, her horizons are expanding. For the coming spring season she’s cast in Ashton’s pristinely classical Symphonic Variations, Morris’s Maelstrom, Val Caniparoli’s African tinged Lambarena, and she’ll learn Hans van Manen’s provocative Grosse Fuge. Symphonic Variations, though extremely challenging, seems her most natural match.

Miner, who grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast, started dance classes at age 3, but committed herself fully to dancing at 13, when she began private lessons with former Royal Ballet dancer Barbara Remington. At 15, she entered the School of American Ballet, taking summer sessions at SFB.

In New York, the 5′ 3” Miner realized her petite stature would pose a challenge. “At SAB, the girls are so tall,” she says. She auditioned for Miami City Ballet after graduating because she thought a dancer her size would have more opportunities there. And she was right. By her second year she was dancing soloist roles in the Balanchine repertory.

Still, she wanted to come to SFB. “I knew there were smaller principals here like Tina LeBlanc,” she says. “And I liked the balance: the full-length classics, the Balanchine, and the new, commissioned works.” Miner came to SFB in 1997 and found moving into the corps at a larger company (SFB’s roster stands at around 70) an adjustment. “You have to build more confidence in a bigger company to make yourself stand out,” she says.

The starring role in Morris’ three-act work took Miner entirely by surprise. “His assistant called and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ ” she says. “But knowing the ballet now, it makes sense to me: He wanted young dancers that were fresh. Sometimes with experience you might add your own flourishes, and he wanted the choreography to be original and come across without affectation.”

Now that Miner’s a soloist, she won’t have to dance grueling corps parts in
Swan Lake
while rehearsing featured roles. But Miner says she would have stayed in the corps without disgruntlement had a promotion passed her over this year. And she has advice for dancers trying to stand out in the crowd.

“Being in the corps, you have to work hard for yourself,” she says. “You have to respect your own dancing. Even if you’re not promoted, there are always opportunities to dance and be seen. It’s too hard of a career on your body not to love it.”

Rachel Howard writes dance reviews for the
San Francisco Chronicle.