Critical Dance

The following is an article from our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London.


"I didn't have a revelation at any one point;
I just knew I always wanted to dance."


An Interview with Joanna Berman
San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer
August 15, 2001

By Emma Pegler

Ballerina Joanna Berman joined San Francisco Ballet in 1984. She has been a principal dancer for over 13 years and dances the full repertory of the Company – both classical and modern roles. In London she is dancing in Christopher Wheeldon's Sea Pictures, Mark Morris' A Garden and Sandpaper Ballet, and Helgi Tomasson's Chaconne for Piano and Two Dancers. I interviewed her after rehearsal on Wednesday.

Ms. Berman was on the career path as a professional dancer without ever making a conscious decision to do so. She says, “I didn't have a revelation at any one point; I just knew I always wanted to dance. I really fell in love with it right away, very young – just before my fourth birthday. It was the most wonderful thing in my life.” So at the time when ballet schools begin to look at their pupils with a critical eye to determine who is “professional” material, it was always the assumption in Berman's case that she would progress to ballerina. She trained at the Marin Ballet School, joining San Francisco Ballet School aged 17, just one year before joining the main company. At the SFB School she needed to make some adaptations to her style. “The [SFB] School was very strict; much more technical and much more detail oriented. It was 'hard core.' I was used to a much more nurturing atmosphere. But then, when actually getting into the Company itself, it wasn't so hard for me to adjust.”

Helgi Tomasson wasn't yet Artistic Director of SFB. Berman believes that when he came to the Company he brought a certain quality which he instils in his dancers which is a 'cleanness of style.' Otherwise, she believes that the Company is not an homogenous group of dancers. One of the things that she loves about the Company is that it is comprised of so many different nationalities and training backgrounds, whether it be Bolshoi, Paris Opera Ballet or Marin, to name only a few. “He [Helgi Tomasson] demonstrates so beautifully. He is so pure – it's that [cleanness of style] that holds the Company together.”

Berman masters equally classical and modern/contemporary roles, and in my judgement she does not lean more to one than the other. She has a great stage presence in whatever she dances and yet is very understated in private. She told me, “I get uptight when I do the classical [roles]. But when you perform a classical role well, you've really truly accomplished something and you know you're at your best.” So she loves classical roles but the moment someone says, “put on this tutu,” she is apprehensive. “I wish there was some way I could feel the confidence that I feel in more contemporary things.” This is not because she is in awe of getting into the mind of, for example, Giselle – in fact she finds that being 'in character' helps her tremendously. “It takes my focus away from being terribly 'nit-picky' about the technique.” But what , I asked her, if she had to choose? “I would say then, that my favourite things to do are more contemporary. But I like working in pointe shoes. I like what that affords you – I like using my feet in an articulate way.” However, Berman is a wonderful diplomat and wouldn't want anyone to think that her statement is tantamount to a rejection of the classical character roles. Put her “somewhere in between the two.”

In Chrisptoher Wheeldon's Sea Pictures, performed as part of the London programme, Berman's man is lost at sea during a fishing trip. I think many Britons are curious about Wheeldon's progression from Royal Ballet junior to resident choreographer at New York City Ballet, with many commissions from US companies, including SFB, along the way. I asked her how working with a youngster (Wheeldon is 28) compares with the experienced Tomasson. “The thing about Chris is that he doesn't seem inexperienced. He knows what he wants – he's so musical, he's so smart, that I didn't think I was working with someone who was a novice in any way.” The ballet ends abruptly when Berman throws herself from the rocks into the sea. Of course, in the theatre, people commit suicide on mattresses with stage-hands standing around peering at them. The death scene is not protracted by several attempts at suicide or near misses in the way certain operas end. “I get unbelievably tired in Sea Pictures. The last movement in particular is a lot of jumping. Also Chris is very clear about wanting a lot of upper body and arm movement... and a real feeling of abandon, which requires a lot of energy. It's a full body experience. And it's so emotional – that it starts weighing on you. Then you've got to run up that rock at the end and it's just everything I have... I'm so happy when I'm down there [on the mattress] that I made it.”

The ballerina has never felt the need to move on to another company because of the breadth and diversity of the choreographers that Tomasson has brought in to work with the dancers. “Every summer into the fall, we work with choreographers on brand new pieces made just for us. He [Tomasson] never skimps on that.” She enjoys building relationships with the choreographers – they always come back. Berman is such a diplomat and has so many inspirations that again she is reluctant to commit to naming the choreographers with whom she enjoys working in case she fails to mention one. “I've been there so long, there have to be several.” But she loved working with David Bintley of the Birmingham Royal Ballet on four ballets. And then, Mark Morris – working with him was a “really stimulating, intellectual experience.”

I was curious whether Morris had ever tried to bring his dancers together with SFB dancers in the way Wayne MacGregor had with the Royal Ballet. Berman tells me, “No.” But she was recently in New York while Morris was choreographing a solo on her and she took class with his company every day. It was hard for her to walk into this new environment having spent her career at SFB but Morris' small company of dancers was very supportive and she enjoyed the novelty of it. Well, up to a point – “they have lovely dressing rooms... but they're 'co-ed.' The showers are all together and the dancers are not self-conscious about sharing.” She said to herself on the first day, “Be mature, Joanna.”

Clearly music is important to Berman. It is routinely her first question she asks of a choreographer upon entering the studio: “What music are you working with?” Her preference is for “rhythmical” music marked by the choreography, but she is open to suggestion. She has never felt the need to choreograph. She loves working with Julia Adam and is inspired by the results but doesn't want to take on that role herself. She believes, “Julia is in her element when she's choreographing. She feels the most 'her.' I don't have that desire.”

This is probably Berman's last year of dancing. After retiring she would like to teach and set ballets. Wheeldon has asked her to set one of his pieces on the Australian Ballet next August. Val Caniparoli, who choreographed a dance for her and Kirk Peterson just a year after she joined the Company which she believes was her first break, is also keen for her to stage some of his pieces. This is clearly the direction in which she is moving. She also sees herself as a teacher. Although she believes she is close to retiring, she still doesn't feel confident and mature in her dancing. “Having confidence is a big issue. It affects one's dancing so much. It would be silly to say I have no confidence, but I have to convince myself that I have confidence.” Her career has been “one long journey” during which at no point has she felt that she has finally “figured it out.“ “You experiment throughout your career.” Berman has changed, adapted and even returned in some respects to technique she had at the beginning of her career. “We could talk for hours about how to stand on your supporting leg at the barre. There are so many schools of thought.” She also thinks that injuries make a dancer re-evaluate. “You think you have something figured out one day and then your body says something else the next.” On balance, in terms of confidence, she doesn't think she feels much different from when she first joined SFB.

Do dancers ever relax, I wonder? She says ,“Yes,” but then can't seem to think how, which suggests that she probably doesn't relax a great deal at all. She is certain that she doesn't relax if involved in a big project but believes that balance is the key to a successful career. Balance is easier for Berman to find because she is married to a violinist rather than a dancer or Company member.

Although she has never guested with other companies, Berman tells me, “I have not been bored for a second in this Company.” In her early years at SFB she had many problems with injuries and thought that staying healthy in a constant environment was more important than seeking variety. Yet she recognises that even with a full and varied repertory, some people are born to travel. She also believes that guesting is important for some people who want to make a name for themselves in the world of dance. “There is a certain mentality to being a guest artist.” And she doesn't believe she has it. Again she returns to the theme of confidence – she likes to be in a community she knows well. She enjoys the fact that she goes to work and meets up with friends. Plus all those wonderful male principals – she has danced with them all. I would say that is enough variety for any woman.

At the Marin Ballet School, the ballet mistress used to show her pupils videos of the great dancers. “Gelsey Kirkland - I just thought she was 'it'. She was so extreme – that had its downsides. But her dancing itself – when I was growing up, I really looked at her.” Berman also feels a strong affinity with the Royal Ballet. One of her teachers, Maggie Lyons, had danced with the Royal Ballet for several years in her twenties and brought a great deal by way of Royal Ballet tradition to her training. She discovered that Margaret Porter had been at the reception in the Royal Opera House after the first night. She wishes that she had spoken to her, remembering being taken, aged 13, with other Marin pupils to see Porter perform Swan Lake in Berkeley. That was Berman's first time backstage. “I thought she was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen.” Monica Mason has been supportive of SFB in London and that means a lot to Berman. She watched and admired these dancers when growing up and then “there they are.” In her truly gracious and diplomatic style, Berman remembers that it's not only the Britons supporting the Company in London. “We have an unbelievably supportive Board of Directors and they follow us around.”

Joanna Berman is a true lady. I remember that being my grandmother's expression for any woman whom she greatly admired.


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Edited by Basheva.

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