The following is an article from our special
section, San Francisco Ballet in
"I am dancing much more than in Paris. Since I arrived in San
Francisco, I have been dancing so much."
An Interview with Pierre-François Vilanoba
San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer
August 15, 2001
By Emma Pegler
Pierre-François Vilanoba joined San Francisco Ballet in 1998
from the Paris Opera Ballet. He was promoted to principal in 1999 and
dances SFB's full repertoire of classical and modern roles. During SFB's
week in London he danced in Jerome Robbins' Glass Pieces, Balanchine's
Symphony in Three Movements and Helgi Tomasson's Prism.
Emma Pegler interviewed the dancer at the Royal Opera House halfway
through the week.
Despite his Spanish name, Pierre-François Vilanoba is French;
the family came from Spain four generations ago. He decided at the age
of eight that he wanted to take dance classes and went straight away
to the Lille Conservatory. Part of the inspiration to attend classes
came from watching Rudolf Nureyev perform on television. By the age
of twelve he was considered suitable material to progress to the Paris
Opera Ballet School. From there he joined the main Paris Opera Ballet
Company where he danced for eight years. Vilanoba never made a conscious
decision to be a professional dancer he just kept dancing. Seeking
a career change, he auditioned with SFB, a company he admired for its
wide repertoire, and one in which he would be certain to learn English.
He claims that he hardly spoke English when he joined, but in my experience
most continental Europeans modestly believe that not speaking a language
perfectly is tantamount to not speaking it at all.
I am curious about
the cultural differences between a Parisian and an American company
is the US the land of opportunity as far as Europeans are concerned?
He believes that the differences largely emanate from the fact that
SFB is a private company. On a practical level, the dancer benefits
from better conditions two free massages a week whether you need
them or not, for example. However, he has to share a dressing room in
San Francisco with more than one person.
His schedule is very different since joining SFB. In Paris,
POB repeats a cycle of rehearsing one ballet and then performing it
before moving on to the next one. SFB has a five month intensive rehearsal
period whilst touring at the same time. December is Nutcracker
season, and then the main season commences late January and runs through
May, comprising all the previously rehearsed works. Vilanoba believes
there are more performances in total in Paris than in San Francisco,
but the Paris Opera Ballet is essentially divided into two groups. This
means, I am dancing much more than in Paris. Since I arrived in
San Francisco, I have been dancing so much. There are generally eight
programmes in San Francisco in a season, with only two full-length ballets.
This means that mostly there will be three ballets a night. What
does that make his average week look like? Well, of course, it depends,
Last season I did fourteen different ballets in two weeks but
here [in London] I will only be dancing three performances. Of course
you dance a little less here because everybody has to dance. I
had seen that Helgi Tomasson had brought the whole Company over and
that there was often an entirely new cast list for the same ballet performed
the next day.
This dancer has worked with some illustrious choreographers.
In Paris he worked with Jerome Robbins on the staging of Glass Pieces.
Vilanoba says of Robbins, He knows what he wants, and of course,
when you know what you want, you are demanding. It wasn't always easy,
but this is normal. Every single choreographer has his moods. It's normal
you have to accept that. Even as a dancer you will have your
moods. I had expected to hear tales of tyranny and victimising
behaviour, but maybe I shouldn't always believe what I read.
Like most of the SFB dancers,
he has performed pieces by a great number of different choreographers.
He doesn't gravitate towards any particular one, and enjoys the challenge
of working with a new person, moderating his style, and learning how
to move for the choreographer. I think I have a very strong base of
classical ballet but I think I am able to change from the classical
[mood] to be able to dance the contemporary style. The ultimate
proof of this is surely his success as Albrecht in Giselle which,
according to the critics in San Francisco, he masters. He is also able
to adapt himself to portray Albrecht's friend in Mats Ek's controversial
version of the classic. It was amazing I loved it.
Before setting the ballet, Ek spent a week in Paris demonstrating his
work to the Company and teaching one small part intensively, closely
correcting the dancers, initiating them into his original style. I
thought it was so powerful the way he changed the story.
When celebrating Vilanoba's dancing ability, many San
Franciscan critics have identified one of his secrets to be his distinguished
Paris Opera Ballet training. Vilanoba believes that every country known
as a ballet country has its own distinctive school style. In Paris
we focus very much on the cleanness of the dancing and do not perform
so many pirouettes. In San Francisco we are more keen to put on a good
show than concentrate on purity and cleanness of style. Vilanoba
reads reviews a little bit it is good to know what
the audience thinks of him, but he is not upset by poor reviews, rather
he absorbs the criticism and uses it constructively. I comment that
I'm not sure he has had any poor reviews on the contrary, American
critics have been effusive in their praise. Parisian critics are less
enthusiastic, Vilanoba believes, even when they enjoy something. He
danced very well would be a good review in Paris. So no wow?
No, he laughs. I remind him that he has been called devastatingly
handsome with sensuous chemistry and poetic
sensibility in San Francisco. Not in Paris, evidently. However,
some of his Japanese fans pursue him devotedly from Paris, coming to
San Francisco, sending him flowers for each performance, waiting for
him at the stage door.
So what of the future? At SFB the dancer is never bored
such a range of high quality partners keeps him absorbed. For
now he aims to perfect the roles in his repertoire. He would like to
work with Jirí Kylián, whose work he thinks is beautiful,
and work more with Mats Ek. Will he ever choreograph? Definitely
not. And, has he ever thought about life after ballet? No.
I'm not sure if I would even stay in the dance world.
To relax, Vilanoba plays chess and golf, and is learning
to play the saxophone. His chess games are normally against unknown
opponents on a French language web site he is a little too shy
to play in a café against strangers. This man dances on stage
in front of a huge audience but is too shy to play chess with someone
face to face? Vilanoba used to suffer terribly with stage fright but
has built confidence in San Francisco through the intense seasons with
the large number of performances. Having said that, his performances
in London are the first since Paris in May, and he is feeling apprehensive.
But he is building up confidence again he will be dancing a great
deal in Santander and Barcelona.
Please visit our special
Francisco Ballet in London,
for previews, reviews and more interviews related to San Francisco's
Summer 2001 tour to London.
For the latest news, reviews and gossip,
please visit our SFB in London
Edited by Basheva.