Photography by Christian Peacock
Summer is always a lively time at San Francisco Ballet, as the dancers return from vacation and launch into rehearsals for the upcoming season. But last July through September felt absolutely electric with creativity as the company created 12 world premieres for Unbound: A Festival of New Works, a cutting-edge program that will run April 20–May 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.
Artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited a wish list of international choreographers to participate: David Dawson, Alonzo King, Edwaard Liang, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Cathy Marston, Trey McIntyre, Justin Peck, Arthur Pita, Dwight Rhoden, Myles Thatcher, Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. Each got about 12 dancers, three weeks' studio time and, aside from a few general guidelines, total artistic freedom.
"All I want to do is dance," says Kimberly Thompson, 24. But because of her muscular physique, Thompson says, she struggled to find a company job. American National Ballet seemed like a dream come true: Founded in Charleston, South Carolina, in early 2017, the ambitious startup proclaimed itself as a home for dancers of diverse body types and ethnicities.
Thompson landed a corps contract with ANB and relocated from Maryland to Charleston. "September 18, 2017, was our first day," she recalls. On October 23, Thompson was one of 23 dancers (out of nearly 50) let go. And while the reasons for ANB's dramatic rise and fall have not been made fully public, the fallout for those artists is very real.
ANB, which officially dissolved a few months later, is only the most recent example of a company that's come and gone, leaving dancers in the lurch. Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet shuttered in 2015, Silicon Valley Ballet closed mid-season in 2016, and Ballet Pacifica folded in 2007—after 42 years.
With ballet jobs scarce, getting an offer—any offer—can feel like the chance of a lifetime. But whether you're joining a startup like ANB or an established company, there is a lot to consider before you sign your contract and red flags to watch out for after you start work. Read on for advice from artists and executives with hard-won experience.
Blake Johnston couldn't have planned a better year to join San Francisco Ballet. Not only has she dreamt of dancing for SFB since entering the company school in 2013, but the first-year corps member is also an aspiring choreographer. For Johnston, rehearsals for SFB's Unbound: A Festival of New Works means diving into a deep pool of creativity.
"I get to see all these new people, the whole process," Johnston, 21, says between rehearsals. "If I have a five-minute break, I'll run into the hallway to see if anything is happening."
Max Cauthorn was an on-the-rise corps member when he stepped into the title role of Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein last February; when the curtain came down, he was San Francisco Ballet's newest leading man. In his first full-length starring role, he carried the physically and emotionally demanding three-hour ballet with fluent technique and a natural charisma. But he didn't do it alone: In her own lead-role debut with SFB, soloist Lauren Strongin brought tenderness and steely integrity to Frankenstein's true love, Elizabeth.
Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
The Joffrey Ballet and University of California—Berkeley's Cal Performances have joined forces on a five-year residency series that offers the public in-depth, behind-the-scenes access to the art of ballet. The first installment runs Nov. 13–19 with repertory classes taught by Joffrey dancers, a panel discussion and open rehearsals as well as performances in Zellerbach Hall November 17–19.
"There is so much interesting work happening, and we want to share it," says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, whose Bay Area ties go back to his days as a San Francisco Ballet principal dancer and ballet master. He has slated Justin Peck's In Creases, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Mammatus, the West Coast premiere of Alexander Ekman's Joy and Joffrey ballet master Nicolas Blanc's Encounter for this year's bill.
Joffrey Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Alexsander Eckman's "Joy." Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Cal Performances.
For some of us, every day feels like World Ballet Day LIVE. But the official event takes place on Thursday, October 5, with a free 22-hour live-stream relay showcasing The Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, The Royal Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet. Each will welcome the world into company classes, rehearsals and behind-the-scenes extras.
Wearing leggings and a puffy vest as she works in one of The Royal Ballet's light-filled studios, Charlotte Edmonds could pass for a corps de ballet member. Instead, she is choreographing on them, creating dynamic, ballet-based contemporary dance in her role as the company's first-ever Young Choreographer.
"At the Opera House you have dancers who have 20 years more experience," she says. "I bow to their experience, but I also try to hold the room. It is sometimes quite nerve-racking! But it is always exciting."
Edmonds' uncanny instincts for choreography and leadership were already apparent at age 11, when she was a first-year student in the Royal Ballet School's Lower School—and a finalist in its competition for the Ninette de Valois Junior Choreographic Award. She got her first professional commission at age 16, and was barely 19 when Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare named her the inaugural recipient of the company's Young Choreographer Programme. The paid position provides her with studio space, access
to dancers and the mentorship of renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor.
Photo by Alice Pennefeather, Courtesy ROH
Natasha Sheehan was already creating buzz when she debuted as a San Francisco Ballet corps member in December 2016. Then just 17 years old, the 5' 1" phenom had been promoted directly from her trainee class—and had just won the 2016 Erik Bruhn Prize, besting a cadre of international professionals.
At the Bruhn competition, Sheehan and SFB principal dancer Angelo Greco mesmerized in Foragers, a contemporary work created by Myles Thatcher, and danced a transcendent Giselle Act II pas de deux. "You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium," says SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson, who has kept an eye on her since she entered the SFB School at age 11. "Her work is very articulate, very beautiful. But she is also mature beyond her years."