The Beauty of Inflections

July 24, 2007

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.