Critical Dance

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

"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.


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Edited by Basheva.

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