When San Francisco Ballet performed at Sadler's Wells two summers ago, in 1999, London fans and critics alike responded with such emotional enthusiasm that it surprised ballet fans worldwide.
Night after night, the audience went into wild applause, even giving one performance seven curtain calls, which until then was unheard of. The London Times wrote, " the extraordinary array of talent on display was enough to show that San Francisco deserves to be the envy of the ballet world." One London-based correspondent even boldly proposed, in the criticaldance.com forum, a gambit to keep the company in London. They're still talking about it in London, and they're still talking about it at San Francisco Ballet.
What happened to the traditional English restraint? San Francisco Ballet is what happened to it. Londoners got to see what San Franciscans have been enjoying, and hopefully never take for granted, an exciting, vibrant, confident, and incredibly high-caliber company, and they will get to enjoy them again this summer, this time at the Royal Opera House.
The fact that San Francisco Ballet (SFB) is returning so soon to London is an indication not only of the impact of the London reception on the company but perhaps also of the affinity that the company has for the City. Indeed, according to Kyra Jablonsky, the company's Public Relations Manager, "The  tour was a ten on all fronts, not just because of the reception we got but also the way the dancers felt being there they felt very welcomed in London. It's a very exciting time for us."
"[The dancers] have a very good feeling about London. That's one of the reasons they really felt a warm reception. It made them really eager to go back. When we talk about the places we're going, it's like 'Spain will be fun,' but when we talk about London, 'That was great!'"
Sarah Vardigans, the company's Tour Manager, echoes the sentiments, "We have been in London just one time. We had some difficult contract negotiations during the early planning phases, but once we arrived we had nothing but positive experiences. Everyone worked really hard to make us feel at home, and we had no complaints."
London it seems is also excited about the company's return. Ticket sales thus far have exceeded the 1999 tour, which is remarkable, considering the company is bringing several new works and no full-length classics. Jablonsky acknowledged the risk the company took with the programming: "This tour will be more challenging because it's the second time around. We're bringing some works that people haven't seen. Night and Magrittomania are new. It's a bit of an experiment on that part but it's still exciting to go."
It is the risk taken by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson on new works that many SFB followers believe has contributed to the company's vivacity. Besides inviting established choreographers, such as Mark Morris, Stanton Welch, Lila York and Lar Lubovitch, to create new works, he has also supported choreographic talent from within. The two new ballets mentioned by Jablonsky, Night and Magrittomania, were created by company members still in their prime: Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov. All this fresh creativity has sparked the dancers' imaginations.
Adam concurs with the analysis: "It's not only the works that he [Helgi Tomasson] brings in. He is very much interested in maintaining the classicism but also creating new works. I think it's very important that people come in and make dancers for his dancers. I think that keeps it alive. He has a knack of hiring people who are excited and passionate about their work. The art form is alive in this company. So, you don't go watch someone dance Swan Lake a million times."
This vitality isn't just limited to the dancers. It permeates through every floor in the San Francisco Ballet Association Building, a modern multi-story structure located on the corner of Franklin and Fulton just behind the War Memorial Opera House. It isn't just about the dancers. The musicians, the artistic staff, the administrative staff, and the technical and production staff are all excited to be part of the family as well, some of whom will fly with the company to London. By Vardigans' latest count, in addition to the 73 dancers, the company will be " travelling to London with three conductors, three pianists, 15 technical staff members, ten artistic staff members, and seven administrative staff personnel."
Vardigans' expert handling of tours is essential in ensuring everything goes smoothly on tours, in lowering stress levels, and in keeping dancers' bodies primed past the jetlag. All the exciting and vibrant energy would be lost otherwise by the time the dancers get on-stage. Part of her strategy to keep the staff happy consists of creating " tour books which includes schedule, medical information, local restaurants, supermarkets, laundry services, gyms, post offices, banks, consulates, etc. etc. We try to make it fun whenever possible! We give information about the country we are visiting to dancers and staff, and sometimes arrange sightseeing tours on a free day. And as many parties as possible!"
It also helps that Vardigans is herself English, and can translate between English English and American English. Being English however didn't offer any advantages when it came to the paperwork. In reference to international tours, " there's not a lot of difference in the logistics we still have to get to the airport, get on a plane, get off and get into a hotel! In other countries there can be more significant language and cultural differences. For the UK the main differences are more paperwork ahead of time. UK Inland Revenue needs a lot of paperwork!"
There are other challenges as well. Besides the personnel, "... two shipping containers worth, including costumes..." have to be taken on tour for the ten works to be performed in London, according to Lighting Supervisor Kevin Connaughton, a member of the Production Staff led by the highly experienced Peter Butt. The costumes alone number about 500 by Connaughton's estimate. Some of these must be packed and shipped in advance with the proper carnets or permits to ship across international boundaries: "Shipping has to take place six weeks before we leave via boat. We actually do multiple carnets for each venue and different shipping times. The Carnet usually travels with the goods so it has to be ready before the goods ship. Nothing is built on site we transport everything we need. Even if we need something, we will build it in SF and ship it."
To complicate matters, there are further tours to Santander and Barcelona in Spain that must also be planned for, and some of the costumes were needed for a performance at the Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco a week prior to the company's departure for London. So, "... the Swan Lake costumes will have to go on a plane." Then there's the matter of measurement and electrical conversions: "We do it in the computer and it does the conversions for us. Before we print it out we, change it over to metrics. We ... make sure to bring transformers probably 20 to 30."
Nothing however is being scaled down. What the London audiences will see in the Royal Opera House is what San Franciscans see at the War Memorial Opera House. San Francisco Ballet isn't a company to skimp. They don't hold back and they give it everything they have, in every department. Perhaps that is another reason why the company has been warmly appreciated wherever they tour. Adam describes the adulation the company receives: "It's so good, this company, I tell you. I've been with them a long time and everywhere we go, this [the enthusiastic reception] happens. There's an energy I can't explain it there is just a vibrancy."
Londoners will get to experience this vibrancy again but,
no, you can't keep this company. We will want them back when
you're done with them.
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