Newly appointed principal WanTing Zhao in Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Meet San Francisco Ballet's Newly Promoted Principals and Soloists

San Francisco Ballet has announced its 2019 company promotions, and artistic director Helgi Tomasson has elevated five talented young artists who all started in the company's corps de ballet. With several world premieres along with Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the full-scale Jewels planned for the 2020 season, there will be ample opportunities for these dancers to shine on the SFB stage. Read on to learn more about them, and congratulations to all!


Esteban Hernández - Principal

Esteban Hernández as the Bluebird in Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Esteban Hernández has been an audience favorite since he began his career in SFB's corps in 2013, and was cast early in soloist roles. He brings lively allégro and abundant charisma to works like Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, and this season imbued gravity into his principal role in Liam Scarlett's Die Toteninsel. The Guadalajara native co-produces the annual Despertares gala in Mexico City with his brother Isaac Hernández, a lead principal at English National Ballet, and in 2016 was named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Mexico.

WanTing Zhao - Principal

Zhao in Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

WanTing Zhao trained at Beijing Dance Academy, the Rock School and SFB School before joining the corps in 2011. Her clean, clear technique shone in works like Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc—including the "Cigarette" variation—and she was named soloist in 2016. Zhao created roles in Benjamin Millepied's The Chairman Dances—Quartet for Two and in Dwight Rhoden's Let's Begin at the End, and her 2019 season included Mercedes and the Queen of the Driads in Don Quixote, Carabosse and Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, and principal roles in world premieres by Yuri Possokhov and Liam Scarlett.

Benjamin Freemantle - Principal

Benjamin Freemantle in Trey McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

A breakout star of last year's Unbound Festival, particularly for his impassioned lead role in Trey McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Benjamin Freemantle was promoted to soloist at the end of the 2018 season. Trained in his native Canada and the SFB School, he joined SFB's corps in 2015 and danced Lensky in Onegin early on. His repertoire includes featured roles in works by Millepied, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, Mark Morris and Justin Peck.

Madison Keesler - Soloist

Madison Keesler and Angelo Greco in Helgi Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

After training under Marcia Dale Weary at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and at the SFB School, Madison Keesler joined Hamburg Ballet and then SFB's corps, then became a first artist with English National Ballet, where she danced the title role in Akram Khan's innovative Giselle. Keesler's well-earned promotion comes after a strong season that included Mercedes in Don Quixote, Sapphire Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty and the Princess in John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid.

Cavan Conley - Soloist

Cavan Conley in Liam Scarlett's Die Toteninsel. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

A former soloist at Tulsa Ballet and 2011 YAGP national finalist, Cavan Conley joined SFB's corps in 2018. His Tulsa repertoire included works by Balanchine, Wheeldon, John Cranko, Edwaard Liang and Val Caniparoli, making him a seamless fit for SFB's programming. This season, Conley made a splash dancing Bluebird alongside Julia Rowe's Enchanted Princess in Tomasson's The Sleeping Beauty.

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Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

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Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

Carla Fracci in Romeo and Juliet, 1968. Erio Piccagliani, Courtesy La Scala Ballet

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