As America's first professional ballet company, founded in 1933, San Francisco Ballet has a rich artistic tradition. In a new book, dance critic and historian Janice Ross explores the company's growth, from a training ground for dancers for lavish opera productions, to its current status as an internationally acclaimed arts institution. Faiza Elmasry has details.
As a dance critic, Janice Ross has reviewed San Francisco Ballet performances for nearly 20 years. But as a dance historian, writing a book, she looked at the company from a very different perspective.
"I refer to myself as being embedded at the ballet," Ross says.
For almost 8 months, she watched the company from the inside.
"I found myself free to go anywhere the public is normally forbidden to go in a ballet company," she says. "That meant rehearsals; morning classes when people drag in aching and sore and looking anything but glamorous. It meant watching a performance from backstage where the dancers come out huffing and puffing and gasping for air before they go back on stage and look completely relaxed."
Ross says she was searching for the ingredients that made the magic on stage.
"I discovered a host of things. Number one is that this is a world that's in many ways the inverse of the rest of life," she says. "And that is, it's middle-aged folks in service to the very young. The ballet dancers' age generally is from the late teens into their early 30s. The artistic staff — the costumers, the make up artists, the tech crew — are folks in their late 40s and upwards. They are the ones who are constantly at the beck and call of these exquisite artists."
Behind the scenes, Ross says, she also found that dancers enjoy high levels of vigor, physical energy, discipline and fun.
"I was surprised by the fun they have," she says. "It looks like an incredibly hard work, and it is, but at many points I was surprised to see them [acting] like college students having a lark. They come off stage after a grueling solo debut, as I saw one young dancer do in the Agnes De Mille ballet, Rodeo, and he jumped up and down in the wings and said, 'That's the most fun I've ever had.' So that's pretty remarkable when you can do a demanding job, and call it the most fun you have ever had."
In her new book, San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five, Ross follows the company's artistic development and growing prestige through the decades.
"They were good but they certainly were not in the top one or two companies in the world, which is pretty much where their ranking puts them today," she says. "There were a number of years in the 1970s when the company almost went bankrupt. In the last 10 years, the company has ascended to the very world-class level of ballet. [The] dancers are impeccable. I think it presents the global face of classical ballet in the 21st century."
The company's international makeup boosts its global reputation. General manager Lesley Koenig says dancers from up to 20 countries belong to the company.
"We get people who were trained in the French style," she explains. "We get ones who were trained in the Russian style. We have a number of dancers from Thailand, Estonia, Armenia and Spain. Each of them brings a completely different point of view to the company. That's one of the things that makes the company so alive on stage and why people love to see us."
More lively performances are part of the company's celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2008. Koenig says the celebration also includes an American tour, guest performances by international companies, special exhibitions and new ballets.
"The real jewel in the crown of the 75th anniversary is a program of new works that will be 10 world premiers by world-famous choreographers," she says.
San Francisco Ballet's next 75 years, predicts historian Janice Ross, will be equally exciting.
"I think the future of technical excellence really is very bright," Ross says. "The body in dance, just as in athletics, is constantly pushed to new limits, new levels of excellence. So, dancers today, and I think this will be true for the future, can do things — in terms of speed, number of repetition, of difficult turns — that their teachers could never dream of doing. I think that will continue to grow and develop."
On the other hand, she says, all ballet companies face a huge challenge.
"What kind of ballets will be made for them to dance, to showcase, this virtuosity?" she asks. "In some ways, it's like the hardware and the software of the art world. At this point, we really don't have enough brilliant choreographers coming up. There are one or two who are making very important works for the ballet stages internationally, but we need more."
Janice Ross says she hopes the San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary and yearlong celebration will attract new audiences and ensure ballet's place in the 21st century.