The following is an article from our special
section, San Francisco Ballet in
"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
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
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
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
Joanna Berman is a true lady. I remember that being my
grandmother's expression for any woman whom she greatly admired.
Please visit our special
section, San Francisco
Ballet in London, for previews,
reviews and more interviews related to San Francisco's Summer 2001 tour
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please visit our SFB in London forum.
Edited by Basheva.