Critical Dance

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

A Diary: Wednesday, Day 3 of San Francisco Ballet's Season in London, Summer 2001
by Emma Pegler

SFB, in town for a week, has now performed Programmes 1 and 2, is due to perform Programme 2 for the second time this evening, and will perform Programme 3 tomorrow. I went to the Royal Opera House this morning to meet the company PR manager, Kyra Jablonsky, to find out a little more about the daily schedule of the dancers and to interview two of the principals, Joanna Berman and Pierre-François Vilanoba.

The company's headquarters for the week is a fairly small room hidden away in the maze of corridors backstage at the Royal Opera House. As Kyra and I wait, I see the dancers coming out of the lift which brings them to their dressing rooms after they have completed their morning's class. It is humid in London today and they are not quite acclimatised to the constant weather changes we suffer during our summers. There is an aura of exhaustion about them as they drag their heavy limbs back to the dressing rooms, sipping from square bottles of Volvic water. I am waiting for Joanna Berman. Joanna is one of the longest serving dancers with the company. She joined in 1984 and has been a principal for 13 years. Tiekka Schofield, who has just joined as soloist, passes us and Kyra tells me that she is injured and so not dancing much this week. It must be difficult for a dancer just starting with a company, wanting to make a good impression, to be out of action. Muriel Maffre returns to the lift. I am pleased to observe her close up having been totally impressed with her performance in Robbins' "Glass Pieces" last night. I had also singled her out for attention during the opening piece in London, as the 'harp' in Robbins' "Fanfare." She is very tall and willowy and moves with a slow grace as she manoeuvres her long limbs into the lift. She turns and leans up against the back of the lift, her arms outstretched to support her. She looks stern and deep in thought. Although she appears tall to me for a French woman, she looks typical of her nationality. Whilst the other dancers are quite layered and improvised in their ordinary garb for class, Muriel is the essence of Parisian chic in an elegant black halter-neck with red trim, and with her long legs encased in slinky black tights.

Joanna arrives. She is the first to look energetic and perky. With her direct gaze and big smile, she is, for me, the "all-American girl." We wander up to the canteen to conduct the interview (which will appear on criticaldance soon). Joanna is most gracious and totally easy to engage in animated discussion about her life. I talk with her for a half-hour and then she leaves to join in the rehearsal for tomorrow's "Sandpaper," choreographed by Mark Morris and brought to London by SFB for the second time. Company rehearsal normally takes place between 12 and 2pm. After that, certain dancers will be rehearsed in individual parts whilst the others rest and prepare for the evening's performance. Kyra estimates that dancers will have between two-and-a-half to five hours before the performance starts in the evening. Tomorrow afternoon the company will have the dress rehearsal for Programme 3. Today they are totally in character of themselves showing their individuality in their own practice clothes.

In trying to join the dancers on stage, I first find myself on the wrong side of the safety curtain. This gives me time to sit for a moment in the empty, ghost-like auditorium which, devoid of an audience, is a sea of red velvet. Neal Stulberg, one of the American conductors, is rehearsing the orchestra. Eventually Kyra figures out how to get us through the safety curtain and we arrive in the middle of a semi-dance, semi-walkthrough of "Sandpaper" led by ballet mistress, Betsy Erickson. Betsy is dressed in a crisp white shirt tucked into well-pressed trousers, which makes her look more business executive than ballet mistress (I always think of ballet mistresses in long loose skirts with a cardigan featured somewhere in the ensemble). Ashley Wheater, the one ballet 'master' of the company, is watching from the wings.

Joanna notices me sitting in the wings and smiles. She shares a fun moment with the stern-looking Muriel who breaks into a smile when they crash into each other. This confirms what I have observed about the company so far: the dancers work well together and appear to be good friends. There is lots of laughter on stage. Gonzalo Garcia performs all the steps properly whereas many of the others are just marking. He pushes some of the soloists out of the wings to get them on stage on cue and chases them off the other side showing the boyish energy of an enthusiastic school sports captain. Julia Adam's variation has the rest of the gang clapping the rhythm for her in the wings, making her laugh so much that she loses her steps. Clearly an 'in-joke' that is lost on me, but I enjoy being part of it, observing the dancers in their natural habitat, so to speak.

Lorena Feijoo, looking very exotically Cuban in her big gold hoop earrings, dances in soft shoes. Julia wears bright green pointe shoes. Muriel keeps to her chic look with pink satin shoes. A less superficial diversity between the dancers is body type. During the debate on about the Keefer case and the question as to whether the SFB School picks future ballerinas on the basis of an excessively thin body type, I had given the school the benefit of the doubt. I did this though I had no first hand knowledge of the company and the school. Therefore, I was apprehensive that I would meet a bunch of emaciated waifs draped over the furniture without the energy to hold themselves upright. Would I be under some duty to express concern or alarm in the forum? Not at all. These dancers are healthy and diverse in their figures. Yes, you can see the vertebrae at the top of Muriel's spine, but this dancer is clearly naturally very slim. The others are healthy slim, but not thin, and the majority of women have, well dare I say it, breasts? They have women's figures, not androgynous bodies produced from starving themselves.

And, I might add, a good diversity of heights. I had noticed that the company repeated well Balanchine's choreographed line of tall to small women in "Symphony in Three Movements." Kyra confirmed that the members range from five-foot-one to over six-foot-two. I understand that the costumes for Sandpaper Ballet will also play on this diversity by having green bottom halves and white top halves, with the dividing line varying for each dancer to ensure that a continuous line across the dancers' bodies links them, whilst the proportions of green and white varies according to their height.

Rehearsal over, I am introduced to a handsome Pierre-François who escorts me up to the canteen, somewhat nervously awaiting his interview. We sit outside on the terrace overlooking the old Covent Garden market with the sun streaming down on us and chat about his penchant for playing chess against strangers in cyberspace. Find out more soon.

Go to the previous day's diary.

Go to the next day's diary.

Please visit our special section, San Francisco Ballet in London, for reviews, interviews and more previews related to San Francisco's Summer 2001 tour to London.

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Edited by Basheva and Azlan Ezaddin.

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