It is almost two years since San Francisco Ballet was in town. During its week of performances at Sadler's Wells in 1999, the company received rave reviews and was cheered by an enthusiastic audience. For those for whom SFB is an unknown quantity, I thought it would be of interest to highlight the history of the company and to preview the ambitious programming it is bringing to London for its return visit.
San Francisco Opera Ballet and its affiliated school was founded in 1933.With Adolph Bolm as ballet master, its few ballets appeared mostly in opera productions. Bolm had trained at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. Like many of the Russian dancers who had trained at the Imperial School, danced at the Mariinsky Theatre and then toured with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, he was able to found his own school of classical ballet, first in Chicago and then San Francisco, places that were opened up by touring with Diaghilev. In that same year, a young Balanchine was coming to the United States to start a similar venture in New York, at the behest of Lincoln Kirstein.
By 1938, the company was presenting full-length classical ballet productions under the direction of Willam Christensen. The company produced the United States' first complete Swan Lake in 1940. Willam's brother, Harold, joined as a dancer and the director of the school, and in 1942, the brothers bought the company and school from the opera board, renaming the two entities San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Ballet School, respectively. The third brother, Lewellyn, joined them in 1951. Harold and Lew had trained with and performed for Balanchine from the very beginning of the latter's presence in New York, joining the School of American Ballet in February, 1934, just two months after its opening. Having known Balanchine professionally and personally since 1934, Lew was perfectly placed to acquire Balanchine works for the SFB repertory.
By 1957, the company had acquired sufficient gravitas to begin touring. Its debut in the UK was at Edinburgh in 1981. However the Balanchine connection led to the company hemorrhaging dancers to New York in the sixties. Michael Smuin, the only product of the SFB School to direct the company, joined as a co-Director in 1973.
Helgi Tomasson became Artistic Director in 1985. He fleshed out the company by adding more dancers (there are currently over seventy) and since that time has been building the SFB into the internationally renowned company that it is today. Icelandic Tomasson was a member of the Royal Danish Ballet before joining New York City Ballet in the sixties where he worked with Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Their work is well represented in the SFB repertory and in the programme for London. On Balanchine, Tomasson says, "I loved working with Balanchine, and I believe he was a genius as a choreographer, and I found him very easy to work with."
Tomasson staged new full-length productions of Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet early on during his tenure at SFB. However, for London he is bringing an eclectic programme of one-act works, featuring new works as well as 'solid' works by Balanchine (Symphony in Three Movements and Bugaku) and Robbins (Fanfare and Glass Pieces). The new works comprise of A Garden and Sandpaper Ballet by modern dance master Mark Morris, Sea Pictures by Christopher Wheeldon (a British product of the Royal Ballet School and a former dancer with the Royal Ballet), Magrittomania by Yuri Possokhov, and Night by Julia Adam (the latter two SFB principal dancers). Modestly, Tomasson brings only one of his own works, Prism. Night, Magrittomania and Sea Pictures, all created in 2000, will have their London premieres. I admire the fact that Tomasson brings his dancers' creations to the Royal Opera House in place of safe classics; the three programmes to be performed this week appear to be well balanced in integrating the past greats with the present and future of choreography.
Night and Magrittomania were critically acclaimed in San Francisco last year but Sea Pictures was not universally well received. Wheeldon, recently in conversation with Gia Kourlas for the quarterly publication, Dance Now, believes, "it will come under equal criticism in the UK." This is in part due to the unfavorable comparisons that have been made with Anthony Tudor's Dark Elegies. Tomasson however believes Wheeldon a major talent. Peter Martins, Ballet Master-in-Chief at NYCB obviously thinks the same by recently appointing Wheeldon resident choreographer at NYCB. Let us reserve judgement. The British can be very scathing about their own when they triumph abroad.
SFB is now an internationally respected company, receiving excellent reviews all over the world. Anna Kisselgoff, dance critic for The New York Times, wrote in 1991, "Mr Tomasson has accomplished the unprecedented: he has pulled a so-called regional company into the national ranks and he has done so by honing the dancers into a classical style of astonishing verve and purity. The San Francisco Ballet under Helgi Tomasson's leadership is one of the spectacular success stories of the arts in America." Quite a recommendation; the company has gone from strength to strength even since then.
And life after London? The company will visit Santander and Barcelona in Spain. World premieres as well as SFB premieres, including a full production of Balanchine's ubiquitous Jewels, are scheduled for the 2002 season.
Good luck to SFB in the coming week.
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