San Francisco's Standouts

Helgi Tomasson has his eye on six up-and-coming San Francisco Ballet dancers.
Published in the October/November 2006 issue.

Rachel Viselli in costume for Yuri Possokhov’s Reflections

Courtesy of Eduardo Patino

San Francisco Ballet’s gala opening night at the Lincoln Center Festival in July showcased a company in peak form. The current company is headed by an impressive roster of principals, but standing in the wings are the soloists primed to define the company’s future.

Every member of SFB has been handpicked by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, but when asked whom he sees as the company’s next stars, he offered six names: Jaime Garcia Castilla, Frances Chung, Rory Hohenstein, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, Sarah Van Patten and Rachel Viselli.

“They all have potential and each is unique,” says Tomasson. “I like to challenge them and give them opportunities to grow and build their strengths, [but] there is no question in my mind that these are dancers that you should be looking out for.”

Pressed to explain why he’s chosen these six, Tomasson mentions Castilla’s suppleness, Chung’s “technique to burn,” the musicality of Pipit-Suksun’s phrasing, Hohenstein’s “all-American boy” quality that nonetheless does not get in the way of his ability to do it all, Viselli’s lyrical qualities and Van Patten’s “big moves.” One suspects that along with these admirable attributes, each possesses a sense of his or her uniqueness and is ready to go the extra mile to fulfill it.

SFB is America’s oldest ballet company and is ranked with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. The cachet of dancing with a prestigious company might be enough for some, but when asked what they like about dancing with the company, the excitement and reverence in each voice indicates an awareness that, under Tomasson, they are in a dream situation: a company where their distinctive talents are recognized and can be developed to the fullest. 

“I noticed when I first joined this company that everyone is so different—so many body types, so many different levels of technique—and I was confused by that,” says Washington, DC–born Hohenstein, 24, who joined in 2000 and was promoted this year. “I thought that [everyone] would [match] a certain aesthetic, the ‘cookie cutter’ idea. But when you look at the company onstage, it’s beautiful how everybody has individuality in their bodies and their technique, and yet, when we dance together, something happens that you don’t really see in other companies.”

Hohenstein himself started off in jazz and tap before ending up almost by chance at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. The six years he spent there gave him classical polish, but Tomasson didn’t hire him the first time he auditioned for SFB at age 16. Perhaps it was seeing the maturity Hohenstein had gained living on his own in Paris, where he worked with contemporary choreographers as a member of Robert Berthier’s Jeune Ballet de France, that changed Tomasson’s mind about the young dancer, because after seeing Hohenstein dance with the French company, Tomasson offered Hohenstein a job.

And while Van Patten, 22, may also have started out dancing jazz and tap, that’s where any similarity ends. One of those dancers who stands out even on a crowded stage, Van Patten is from the Boston area and joined SFB as a soloist in 2002 after two years at the Royal Danish Ballet. She has no doubt that the decision to come back to America to dance with SFB was the right one.

“Last season, I got to do Juliet [here],” says Van Patten. “In Denmark, John Neumeier had cast me as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet when I was 16, and Helgi saw me do it. When we did Romeo and Juliet last season, I did Helgi’s version. That is probably one of the greatest things I’ve done in this company—along with a lot of Balanchine, Seranade, Terpsichore in Apollo, and also the lead in Robbins’s Dybbuk.”

Van Patten’s list of ballets she enjoyed dancing last season highlights only a tiny fraction of the company’s repertoire. Perhaps the only thing these six are unanimous about is how gratifyingly challenging the rep is. 

“The repertoire is very diverse,” says Chung, 23, whose easy technique makes her dancing dynamic and fun to watch. From Vancouver, Chung joined the company in 2001 and was made a soloist in 2005. “I grew up with mainly classical ballet, but we would do a little bit of Balanchine, and some more contemporary things,” she says. “We definitely have all of that here and more, so it stretches me in terms of my artistry and how far I can go with different types of ballet, aside from the pure classical ballets and full-lengths.”

The fact that Tomasson choreographs a great deal on the company also impacts the way his dancers develop. When making dances, he highlights his dancers’ strengths and challenges them to work on problems. 

Just promoted to soloist this year, Spanish-born Jaime Garcia Castilla, 23, who joined the company in 2002, is a good example. Early on in Castilla’s SFB career, Tomasson, who had noted Castilla’s high extensions, put the dancer’s flexibility to work. “In my second year Helgi picked me to be in Concerto Grosso out of all the guys in the corps,” says Castilla. “He choreographed an adagio solo for me.”

And the elegantly mysterious Pipit-Suksun, 20, a graduate of The Royal Ballet School in London, recalls that one of her first roles after joining SFB as a soloist in 2004 was in Bagatelles, choreographed by Tomasson.

“It was fun, actually, because he was trying to take the stuff that I’m struggling with and put it into a dance,” she says.

These soloists also appreciate that Tomasson has made it a practice to cast roles outside of rank. It’s not so unusual for corps dancers occasionally to get the chance to understudy and perform soloist and principal roles, and with SFB’s average of 100 performances a year, there are many such opportunities for dancers to learn what they are made of. The lissome Viselli, 28, who joined the company in 1999 after five years with Ballet West and was promoted to SFB soloist in 2004, counts her first Myrta in Giselle when she was still in the corps as one of her favorite performances.

“There were probably six or seven Myrtas ahead of me,” says the Utah-born Viselli. “Helgi came to me a week before the last show and said, ‘I want you to perform.’ I got one rehearsal onstage with the costume, and then I just went out there and had the time of my life.”

Only time will tell if Tomasson is right about these six, but for now, each of them is looking forward to what next season will bring—and the season after that. It takes time to gather and coordinate all of the skills that go into being a principal, but for these dancers, San Francisco Ballet is the place to do it.

By Virginia Johnson
Additional reporting by Caitlin Sims