Building a Vision

Whether they’re making microchips or running ballet companies, they think innovatively in Silicon Valley. Consider Ballet San Jose, the primary dance organization in Northern California’s largest city. Founding artistic director Dennis Nahat has defied the fundraising odds this season. Despite the recession, he is expanding programs, extending runs and hiring more dancers. They will take modest weekly pay cuts, but their contracts will include more weeks of work. Everyone wins.

 

“Sure, the economy sends a chill down my spine,” says Nahat, “but if we don’t use our training in order to perform, who are we?”

 

 Nahat has posed that question to the community since the company arrived in 1985, the West Coast component of a co-venture with Cleveland Ballet (which Nahat co-founded with the late Ian Horvath in 1972) called San Jose Cleveland Ballet. Plagued by civic indifference, the Cleveland wing closed down in 2000. Yet Nahat has flourished in California. That has not been easy in a town not known for its ballet culture, but Nahat, a former Joffrey Ballet member and principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, has brought a career’s worth of experience to the task. The international character of Ballet San Jose’s roster (all three of the company’s principal men hail from Latin America) attests to the troupe’s increasingly global profile.

 

For Nahat, the task of directing a company begins with the audition process. He spends weeks on the road every year seeking recruits, and his standards are high. “I look for talent. I don’t care about their size or their shape,” he says. “They need to be real dancers, to possess musicality, to understand épaulement, so that when I say, ‘Croisé,’ they know what I mean. If a dancer knows vocabulary, it saves time in rehearsal.”

 

Technique, however, isn’t everything. In auditions, Nahat also scrutinizes what he calls a dancer’s “ethics,” by which he means professionalism. “What do they look like when they walk into the studio? Are they in leotards and tights? Or are they arriving in cut-offs and sloppy shirts? They must have respect for what they are doing. I like to see people coming to work ready to work.

 

“Dancing,” Nahat adds, “is not like anything else. It’s human contact every single day. We are a visual artform. We practice how to look fantastic. The mirror in the studio isn’t there because we adore ourselves. It’s there to correct us.”

 

At Ballet San Jose, company class is mandatory. Nahat believes his policy is instrumental in preventing major injuries, of which Ballet San Jose has been relatively free. He maintains firm ideas on what class should be—and not be. “Nothing should feel good. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you are probably doing it wrong. I have nothing against massages, but they should happen before class. Take it from me; I’ve been through it.”

 

Where production is concerned, Nahat refuses to compromise in using live music. He feels the effect on the dancer can be electrifying. “You’re on a cliff, your nostrils are flaring, your eyes are open,” is how he describes the sensation. “It makes you a more responsive artist, and it keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.” Ballet San Jose’s repertoire balances Nahat’s plotless dances and the full-length classics (Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Romeo and Juliet) with one-acts by Balanchine, Tudor, de Mille, and this season, Tharp.

 

As Nahat prepares Ballet San Jose’s season opener this month, he ponders his wish list for the coming years: “A stable financial era in which the community rallies around the arts, and a theater, school and city known for dance. This may not all happen in my lifetime, but at least I can lay the foundation.”

Allan Ulrich writes on the arts for a variety of publications here and abroad.

 

At a Glance


Ballet San Jose
Number of Dancers: 44
Contract Length: 32 weeks
Starting Salary: (2009–10 season): $876.88 per week under AGMA?contract
Performances per Year: 45

Latest Posts


Complexions Contemporary Ballet's Tatiana Melendez Proves There's No One Way to Have a Ballet Career

This is Pointe's Fall 2020 cover story. Click here to purchase this issue.

Talk to anyone about rising contemporary ballerina Tatiana Melendez, and one word is bound to come up repeatedly: "Fierce." And fair enough, that's a perfectly apt way to describe the 20-year-old's stage presence, her technical prowess and her determination to succeed. But don't make the mistake of assuming that fierceness is Melendez's only (or even her most noteworthy) quality. At the core of her dancing is a beautiful versatility. She's just as much at ease when etching pure classical lines as she is when boldly throwing herself off-balance.

"Selfish choreographer that I am, I want Tatiana to stay with Complexions for all time," says her boss Dwight Rhoden, Complexions Contemporary Ballet's co-artistic director and resident choreographer. "She has a theatricality about her: When the music comes on, she gets swept away." Not too shabby for someone who thought just a few years ago that maybe ballet wasn't for her.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

The Anatomy of Arabesque: Why Placement and Turnout Are Key to Achieving This Crucial Position

Audition for any school or company, and they'll likely ask for a photo in arabesque. The position not only reveals a great deal about a dancer's ability, but it is also a fundamental building block for more advanced movements, like penché or arabesque turn. Beyond technique, it can be the epitome of grace and elegance onstage, creating unforgettable images—just try to imagine Swan Lake or Balanchine's Serenade without an arabesque.

Yet many dancers are unsatisfied with their arabesque lines, and students frequently ask how to improve their extensions. (Social media posts of dancers with extreme flexibility don't help!) In an attempt to lift the back leg higher, dancers may sacrifice placement and unknowingly distort their position in the process. How can you improve the height of your back leg while maintaining proper placement and turnout? We talked to a few experts to better understand the science behind this step.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov in "Coppélia" (1976)

Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov share the unique experience of having danced at both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet during their careers. The two overlapped at ABT in the mid-'70s, where they developed one of the best-known partnerships in ballet. They were both celebrated for their dynamism onstage; however, in this 1976 clip of the pas de deux from Coppélia, Kirkland and Baryshnikov prove they are also masters of control.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks