Bolshoi Ballet's Nina Kaptsova and Mikhail Lobukhin in "Spartacus." Photo by Elena Fetisova, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you were a subscriber to a respectable repertory theater company, you would never tolerate a diet of lustful Saracen princes, troops of tots running around in blackface, upstart Roman slaves versed in Karl Marx, dark-skinned serving girls with bejeweled navels and superwomen who destroy any man passing their way.

Ballet lovers, however, are more tolerant, too much for my taste. For a few minutes of vivid, occasionally masterful choreography, the devotees of Terpsichore are willing to put up with nonsensical, dated or offensive librettos, and they lose their qualms (if they entered the theater with any) in a flood of tours jetés and grandes pirouettes à la seconde.

Face the fact: Many of the ballets that audiences cherish today have simply aged out. The reasons are both political and social, and the dances that have not adapted to espousing contemporary values somehow look like stale period pieces.

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Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

How long has the “ballet is dead" movement been plaguing us? How long have we swatted away such a preposterous conceit, much as we might swat a pesky mosquito? This obituary has been inflicting annoyance at least since the late 1950s. But the assertion has always come as a surprise to the thousands of dancers who have raised technical standards to unimagined heights a generation ago. The statement has always astonished ballet company directors around America who have watched their audiences grow over the decades. No corpse has ever seemed giddier.

Even Jennifer Homans, who famously declared ballet a doomed art in her 2010 book Apollo's Angels, is reconsidering her position. Her announcement this fall that she has founded The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University suggests that she is prepared to question ballet's viability and to restore life to the art form.

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It’s not easy to catch artistic director Helgi Tomasson for a chat mid-season at San Francisco Ballet. The company must squeeze eight programs into little more than three months a year at the War Memorial Opera House (the San Francisco Opera is the other principal tenant). Tomasson spends much of that period rushing from studio to studio.


But dealing with that constricted time frame is the only complaint you will hear from Tomasson, and he vents only because of his dancers. “We have a great roster,” he says.


“They must dance; we simply need to have more performance opportunities.”


In other respects, Tomasson, now 68, is satisfied. “If you had asked me 26 years ago if I would still be here, I’d say you were crazy,” confesses the Iceland-born former dancer in his airy office at SFB’s headquarters. “I think I have accomplished a lot by bringing in so many different choreographers to challenge the dancers.”


In his first years helming the company, Tomasson almost gleefully confounded expectations. He came to San Francisco in 1985, after retiring from a distinguished 15-year career dancing at New York City Ballet. But he had choreographed little and his management experience consisted of running a small chamber troupe. Rumors spread about the future identity of the company; Tomasson’s long relationship with Balanchine and Robbins led many to expect a pale imitation of NYCB.


But the cynics underestimated Tomasson’s passion for investigating a wide range of choreography, which was stoked in part by his early stints at the Joffrey and Harkness Ballets. So, while SFB performs Balanchine in exemplary fashion, the company devotes comparable attention to fare from Fokine to Forsythe. Tomasson has invited outstanding modernists, like Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, to make new dances. Christopher Wheeldon is an annual guest. And it was Tomasson who commissioned Alexei Ratmansky’s first American ballet.


“I have tried to show the entire spectrum of dance based on ballet technique,” he explains. When a revival of Forsythe’s blistering Artifact Suite again divided audiences this season, Tomasson was scarcely apologetic: “I loved the response,” he says. “In the second half of Artifact, the influence of Balanchine is unmistakable. Forsythe even acknowledges that debt.”


It is clear that Tomasson’s tenure in San Francisco has eradicated that ancient distinction between a national and regional American ballet company. What strikes you, even on first exposure to SFB, is the sheer stage-worthiness of the dances before you. Everything looks immaculately rehearsed. Revival here usually means rebirth.


Tomasson credits both his years with Balanchine and his SFB staff for that accomplishment: “They are very conscious of how choreographers want their ballets to be danced. We must be true to their visions, to their different characters and styles. The style is part of the meaning.”


To make up for the short season in San Francisco, Tomasson has pushed constantly for an extensive touring schedule, both here and abroad. “It has made us visible and highly respected,” he says. Those tours, which have included several visits to Europe and Asia, have generated interest among dancers worldwide and, no doubt, are partially responsible for SFB’s remarkable international roster. (Ask Tomasson why there are so few American principals at the moment, and he will query you: “Where are they?”)


Hailing from all over, there is no physical prototype for SFB dancers. They flourish in all shapes, heights and sensibilities. What they share, however, is an exceptional speed of articulation. British choreographer Wayne McGregor, who set his Chroma on SFB this season, says that, “after the Paris Opéra Ballet, San Francisco is the fastest ballet company in the world.”


Tomasson receives hundreds of DVDs every year from hopeful dancers. “You can tell a lot about a dancer’s talent from a DVD,” says Tomasson. “What you can’t tell is how a dancer will fit in with everybody else. We have a very high standard here. How do new dancers look in class? Can they keep up with the others?”


Tomasson prefers to see hopefuls try out in company class. “I need to think about whom I can pair them with. Sometimes, in choosing new dancers, I must go with what I need. I may have a lot of short guys in the company at some point, so I would not require too many tall women that season.”
Budget limits play a major role in determining who gets hired. But that situation changes annually and Tomasson’s advice is: “Persevere.”


He does not deny that students at the SFB School have an advantage in the hiring process. “There’s always a need for corps dancers, and there are some very talented people coming out of the program,” says Tomasson. “If we can’t hire them, we try to help them find jobs in other places. The school is very good about opening doors. I have often picked up the phone and asked directors of other companies if they need a dancer with particular qualifications.”


Ask Tomasson if he ever had to audition for Mr. B and he laughs. He had been a student at School of American Ballet for six months, but never made the cut to get into NYCB. A few years later, while dancing with Harkness, he received a telegram from Mr. B’s assistant, Barbara Horgan, urging him to come to New York and take classes with the company for a week.   


“One day a dancer congratulated me. ‘Oh,’ I was told, ‘everybody knows you’ve been hired.’


“Was that an audition? You tell me.”


At A Glance
San Francisco Ballet
Founded: 1933
Number of Dancers: 69 company members and 4 apprentices
Contract Length: 42 weeks
Minimum Weekly Starting Salary: Corps: $1,064.78; soloist: $1,478.71; principal: $1,913.47, plus overtime, vacation pay and other benefits.

It took eight years for Frances Chung to rise from corps to principal at San Francisco Ballet. The Canadian dancer’s ascent was accompanied by admiration for her sunny disposition and utterly committed performing style. Still, until last month, in  traditional story ballets, Chung, 27, had always been the bridesmaid (or ghostly version thereof), rather than the bride. That changed when artistic director Helgi Tomasson cast her as Swanilda in SFB’s premiere of Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia, first staged in 1974. Chung spoke with Pointe about learning the Act III pas de deux and other aspects of the role.


Frances Chung: “Balanchine is difficult; the hardest part is that it doesn’t look difficult. There are those backwards pas de bourrée on the diagonal. In the Act III solo, you must control your upper body, the port de bras must be fluid, but your lower legs must make it seem like you’re having fun. Meanwhile, your leg is cramping and you’re dying. But, then, it’s six pirouettes to the right, six pirouettes to the left, repeated three times, followed by a manège. However, you’re Swanilda and you’re meant to be playful. It’s not impossible, but you need to have your technique down pat.


I have a wonderful partner in Vitor Luiz—it’s important that you connect with your Franz. And Judith Fugate, who is staging Coppélia for the Balanchine Trust, has been incredible. She danced Swanilda many times and knows the whole ballet really well—the steps, the musicality and what Mr. Balanchine’s intentions were. She’s very helpful in stressing the specifics of character, while being careful not to neglect balance and technique.


This is a comic ballet, which plays to my strengths. I like the emphasis on pointework and the speed. Swanilda’s a charmer with lots of friends, but she has curiosity, shrewdness and mischievousness. When the girls get into trouble, you can’t be too mad at them; they mean no harm. She’s really very young; I try to play up her youth.”

You have been at San Francisco Ballet for 15 years. How do you feel your dancing has changed or improved?

I feel I am more myself these days. There was something bottled up in me that needed to come out emotionally. It wasn’t just the steps. Surprisingly, the process is still happening.


What qualities in your dancing do you feel you still must work on?

The articulation of the foot.


If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?

My knees. They’re too big in proportion to the rest of my body.


What is the least glamorous aspect of being a ballet dancer?

Repeating things over and over again in the studio. There’s nothing glamorous about it. We just try to be better, to prepare and repair ourselves.


What skill would you like to have that you don’t possess now?

I want to be freer on stage. I try not to worry about technique or that the music is too fast or too slow.


Do you suffer from stage fright?

I do. I deal with it by practicing before the performance and meditating a bit.


If you were not a dancer, what would you like to be?

A fashion designer.


What is your favorite food?

Chocolate. Dark chocolate.


What is your greatest indulgence?

Basically, it’s what I can’t do as long as I am dancing. I want to go skydiving and to drive very fast.


Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

I pray.


How would you like to be remembered?

If an audience thinks my dancing was beautiful, that is enough.

Isaac Hernández found himself onstage at San Francisco Ballet’s opening gala last January partnering Tina LeBlanc in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Although Hernández was merely a member of the corps, LeBlanc had requested him as a partner. The partnering was serviceable, but Hernández’s aerial trajectory was astonishing. Critics left talking about him.

Hernández, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, is pursuing his career at warp speed. He joined SFB only last summer. True, he spent his share of evenings in the corps this past season, but he also performed major roles. You couldn’t miss his neo-Bolshoi male duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, or his man in violet twisting exuberantly in the air in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. Hernández musters an impressive jump, high-velocity turns, a tapered line and a kind of self-deprecating confidence. For a debut season with a professional company, no dancer could ask for more.

And he has already made a favorable impression on the company’s artistic staff. “Isaac is a product of good training, and he comes across in class as poised and dedicated,” says Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamante. “He’s a good fit for SFB’s diverse repertoire.”

Hernández’s gifts had already gained attention in the ballet world. It was his  father, Hector (a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem), who introduced him to ballet at age 9 via lessons in the family’s backyard. Three years later, Isaac enrolled at Philadelphia’s The Rock School and attracted global attention in 2006 when he won both the gold medal (junior division) and the Ballet International Award at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.

Life on the competition circuit treated Hernández well. He thrived in the environment. “I was at that point when I needed the challenge, the pressure to become better,” he says. “The recognition of my work kept me going. Of course, some dancers are not made for this.”

The experience generated nibbles from major companies, and a personal crisis, too. “I had a big breakdown at 16,” Hernández recalls. “I asked myself, What would be the right move? I was technically ready for a professional contract, but could I handle the company work? My whole life had always been about personal training, and I wanted to take advantage of that as long as possible. I thought that once you get into a company, it’s never the same. There are so many things you need to worry about.”

ABT II offered a compromise. Hernández praises the company and its director. “Wes Chapman had a lot to teach me and he didn’t hold back in his criticism.” Yet Hernández knew he needed to take the next step. He flew out to San Francisco, took one class with SFB and came away deeply impressed. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson was also impressed: He hired Hernández then and there.

 And at the moment, SFB presents Hernández with the ideal career situation. “Ricardo’s class has a great atmosphere,” he says. And there’s the repertoire, of course. Hernández’s wish list for 2010 includes Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and new ballets by Wheeldon and Yuri Possokhov.

Ambitious? Maybe. But given the events of the past year, realistic, too. “Helgi gives me opportunities,” says Hernández. “He puts me out there.”

Allan Ulrich is a San Francisco dance critic.


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