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Alexandra

Ballet in San Francisco

25 posts in this topic

I've been working on the season's preview piece for Ballet Alert! and was struck by how varied the ballet offerings are in the San Francisco area. I don't think they're trying to "counter-program" or compete, either, but there are so many companies, with such different visions.

San Francisco Ballet, of course, has a mix of full-lengths, the artistic director's ballets, and the rest a mix of new (mostly contemporary dance) works and a few standards, if not quite classics -- and they're getting "Dances at a Gathering" next season. A mainstream rep, one might say.

Then there's Ballet San Jose of Silicon Valley. I'm giving it Ballet Alert's Most Original Repertory for the season -- I don't mean this is to my taste, but just that it doesn't look like any other rep. A full-length ballet by Flemming Flindt that was a bomb in Copenhagen ("Legs of Fire"), a story ballet about one of Denmark's most interesting ballerinas. Roland Petit's "Carmen" and "Graduation Ball." !!!!!!! And "District Storyville," a modern dance from the 1930s about happy hookers and their clients (when they see the huge satin covered bed, they bounce on it.) A new ballet by the artistic director and "Apollo." Talk about something for everyone!

The Oakland Ballet, once known for its interesting revivals of older 20th century ballets is under new directorship -- Karen Brown, who danced with DTH. This rep looks heavily tilted to contemporary dance, with a token ballet or two.

I haven't gotten the reps for the Michael Smuin's company (where showmanship reigns) or the Diablo Ballet (another mostly contemporary troupe). One might say that pure classical and neoclassical ballet gets short shrift here (I don't think Tomasson's productions of the classics are top drawer, or even second drawer) but it's certainly a varied and distictive rep.

The modern dance scene is equally diverse.

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What about Alonzo King's Line Contemporary Ballet?

This is one of the reason's I love living and dancing in the SF Bay Area. Anything goes here. And I can enjoy it all. I never get bored.

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Alexandra, I completely agree with you. The repertory in companies in SF is simply amazing and so rich. To be honest, and IMO, I think they are much more "interesting" there than over here in NY. I'm especially glad to hear that they challenge themselves in many avante-garde European choreographies too. Has ABT or other dance companies here ever done Forsythe? Ek? Kirian? I hope they will soon...

[ 06-22-2001: Message edited by: Terry ]

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I'm not at all boosting ballet companies dancing the works of "contemporary European choreographers"!!!!!!!! (ABT has danced Kylian.) The whole point of this board is for the discussion of classical and neoclassical ballet, and one of the main reasons it was established was to sound an alarm of what was happening to ballet (and ballet companies) because ballet companies were drifting so far into the realm of modern and crossover dance. There have been many discussions about this topic, in the past, and there's material on the main site -- commentary, interviews.

I didn't mean to dredge that one up again, but merely thought it interesting that San Francisco had so much dance, and that it was so varied. I don't think San Francisco dance, at its best, is better than New York dance, at its best, but it's interesting to see the different way the city is developing a distinct identity.

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A very insightful post. There have been discussions here about who's "better" us or them. Having lived and danced on both coasts, I always answer that we're just different.

This is a metropolitan area that prides itself it its diversity and progressiveness and that is reflected in our ballet companies. We aren't afraid to try something new. I think audiences expect a little "edge" in every performance out here.

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LMTech, I think you've expressed the attitude of a lot of people, but I'm afraid it always makes me sigh because it reflects what I think is a general misunderstanding: people who are interested in ballet are not afraid of the new. I'd also argue that there's nothing inherently good about novelty and being constantly "on the edge." People have written that this or that choreographer has turned ballet inside out, kicked its butt, turned it on its ear, etc, etc, etc, so often since 1960 -- that is over 40 years ago!!! -- that I don't see how it's "new" or "on the edge" any more. (This is an aspect of the age-old seesaw between classicism and romanticism; one or the other is dominant in every age, and people in every age have one or the other sensibility.)

People who like to think that what they're watching is new or on the edge are more than welcome to do so, but the assumption that those who don't are "afraid" or somehow backwards is off the mark.

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Unfortunately, I think that a lot of what companies put on depends on either where the money is coming from (i.e. did someone/some organization give money to the company just to put on a particular ballet or a ballet by a particular choreographer, etc.?) vs. what will sell tickets in that particular locale. Now if a company has a good sponsor who will pay for a new, modern piece and if the people making up the program are smart, they can have their cake and eat it by scheduling the new piece with something that is bound to be wildly popular. If they are even better endowed, they can afford to put on a whole program of new, untried works - especially of the work is "cheap" to put on (i.e. no scenery and simple costumes and music that is out of copywrite and doesn't call for extra musicians or unusual instruments).

One of the problems with companies that depend heavily on ticket sales to meet their budget is that the need for popular draw is going to limit what they can afford to put on, and a strict catering to local taste limits the company from fulfilling its need to educate the public. Ergo, lots of companies live for the year on the profits of their production of "The Nutcracker". Other classical, full-length ballets are also likely draws, and the costs can (and ususally are) kept down by renting or sharing productions. On the other hand, a public fed only a steady diet of "Nutcrackers", "Beautys" and "Swan Lakes" isn't being given the opportunity to broaden its taste and find out what more contemporary choreography can do. Unless people are exposed to contemporary works, they can't learn to appreciate them, and the dancers don't get the opportunity to stretch their wings. :eek:

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The 19th century classics are scarce as hens teeth in the regions now, felursus. (Really. There are only two productions of "Swan Lake" this season that I've found so far, none of "Beauty." I just finished the season's preview issue of Ballet Alert!) They've been replaced by what I call the faux classics -- Dracula, Mme. Butterfly -- full-length ballets with not much choreographic content. Very popular. What I wrote in the preview piece was that we've developed a bipolar audience -- a huge chunk want the faux classics and a huge chunk want contemporary dance, and this doesn't leave much room for ballet. (One of the most important driving forces for contemporary dance replacing ballet is economics: often no toe shoes, small casts, easier to rehearse, and a lot less complicated than trying to mount a "Swan Lake." Not that I think the repertories should only be doing "Swan Lake" either, but I think the barre needs to be raised.

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This is slightly off the subject but: Are performances in San Fransisco generally sold out? ie since i'm going this summer do I need to book in advance or am i likely to get tickets on the night?

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Practical questions always welcome, Guy :)

I can't answer this one, but I hope some of our Bay Area posters will.

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Guy--I hope it doesn't disappoint you, but SFB only gives one Bay Area performance in the summer, at the Stern Grove Festival, which is free. As for everybody else, whether or not a performance sells out over here depends on a number of factors:

1. Who's dancing--It is my understanding that all of the POB's Bayadere performances were sold out weeks in advance; while the wonderful Miami City Ballet did not sell out, since its name is not as recognized among non-conoisseurs. Likewise, certain dancers at SFB [who shall remain nameless ;)] seem to sell more tickets than others; also, SFB seems to sell out much more often than the smaller companies here-- Oakland Ballet, Ballet San Jose, Lines, Smuin Ballets/SF, or the Diablo Ballet, among others.

2. When--Opening nights usually are fuller than other evenings, and evenings in general are fuller than matinees.

3. The program--Full lengths, not surprisingly, sell much more quickly than mixed bills, and mixed bills with famous choreographers [balanchine, Robbins, Tudor] seem to go faster than those without.

In any case, POB notwithstaning, it shouldn't be too hard to get tickets if you get them about a week ahead of time.

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Thanks! Now where can I find out what is on offer during the month of August?

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The two venues that present the most dance are Yerba Buena Center in SF and Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley ( called CalPerformances). I think they both have website listings.

The Cowell theater also presents dance but that is mostly locally produced modern dance.

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Alexandra...

I get the feeling you don't like modern or contemporary dance of any kind. Why?

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LMCTech, I think you'll find that most people here, including Alexandra, do not dislike modern dance. Alexandra began publication with Washington Dance View (now just Dance View) which concentrated on the local modern dance scene in the capital. However, one of the reasons Alexandra started this site was be a site that was not anti-modern, but was pro-classical and neoclassical ballet in an unadulterated form. It's not modern dance that usually comes under fire here. It's choreography that is a bad blending of the two, or choreography that assumes that in order for ballet to be any good, it has to "turn classicism on its ear". The assumption that classical ballet is outmoded, irrelevant or somehow just a waystation on the road towards the enlightened state of contemporary ballet or modern dance is one that I think will be questioned here every time it's mentioned.

I didn't want to leave your statement hanging unanswered but I'm sure Alexandra can answer better for herself.

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I'd also like to to point out that even though contemporary pieces are far more danced in what some people may call the so-called "regions," it is an inevitable phenomenon as new choreographers and new dancers are continuously coming out. The training, the schooling, their environment, their location, etc, etc, etc, plays a role but moreover, what most CERTAINLY plays a role is the era. Why do with have such articles like SF Chronicle's Allan Ulrich writing about the neglect of the Ashton repertory in the newspaper? Because young dancers and young choreographers not living the "cultural centers" are getting less exposed to the "great choreographers" but also because dance is becoming more and more globalized. How could a professional dancer who has gotten most of his training in China and becomes a principal with RB, for eg, ever possess that authentic style of "Ashton" or "Macmillan" that audiences demand? It's an age of globalization. We have to maintain the heritages of the past, but at the same time, ballet and dance will keep moving and adjusting to the demands and styles of dancers who come from all over the world, as like any other field of art, technology, politics, etc, etc, etc. And sometimes, for a number of these kinds of dancers, contemorary ballet might be more suitable than classical ballet and vice versa. I think the question of "contemporary dance" also has to do with what kinds of dancers are in the company.

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Thanks very much, Leigh. I was on a deadline tonight and didn't check the board until now.

LMTech, I certainly agree with everything Leigh said. I've been watching, and liking, modern dance for the same amount of time I've been watching, and liking, ballet -- nearly 30 years. This question has been raised before, and I must say I'm puzzled by it. If this site were Tennis Alert!, would someone assume I didn't like badminton, or golf?

We never intended this to be a general dance site, and have addressed this issue, and the reason for it, frequently. There's also a lot of material on the main site about why the site was founded, etc.

I'd like to especially underline one thing that Leigh wrote -- The assumption that classical ballet is outmoded, irrelevant or somehow just a waystation on the road towards the enlightened state of contemporary ballet or modern dance is one that I think will be questioned here every time it's mentioned.

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Terry, I don't mean to sound like a harridan, but your sense of inevitability about the state of ballet is exactly the thing that we are trying to question. Change is inevitable, yes, but there is a difference between acknowledging change and instigating it, about the same as refurbishing a building and remodeling it with no sense as to the original building.

I think hiring dancers unversed in the native style of a company is about the best argument possible insisting that any dancer you hire be able to assimilate into a company style. Do you really think the fact that dancers were not trained into a style is an acceptable reason to lose the style? Then for heavens sake, TRAIN them in the style when you hire them!

I agree with you that suitability of dancers is a good reason for a company to choose repertory. I'd argue then, however, that most contemporary companies should avoid classical work entirely. They don't have the budget to do it, nor usually the money to afford the shoes for the women to do consistent pointework. The point is, in the tension between a classical and a contemporary style, someone is almost always the loser, it's usually classical dance and I for one don't want to see that. Make a choice, do what you do well, but don't put a woman dressed as Odile on the front of your season brochure and don't claim to be a classical ballet company if that's not what you are and not what interests you. And I'd have to admit, I think the situation is most dire when people know longer know if they are doing one or the other and that is happening as well.

[ 06-26-2001: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

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I'd only add that I think the misunderstanding comes from an assumption on the part of some that there's no difference among ballet, contemporary and modern except as a question of taste. But this isn't true. There are huge differences -- vocabulary and aesthetic being the most important.

I'd also comment that the notion that all dancers want to do only contemporary ballet is also not true. There are some -- and there are some companies, especially in Europe, that are proudly contemporary dance. (Rambert Dance Company changed its name from Ballet Rambert, one of the rare examples of truth in advertising.) But there are also dancers who are fighting for classical ballet. Nearly every interview we've published in DanceView or Ballet Alert! with a dancer in the last few years has touched on this subject, and the dancers are worried. (Another reason why I started Ballet Alert!)

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Veering back to the practical for a moment -- will Lines or Smuin have any performances in July or early August in SF? I'd very much like kiddo to take a break from going gaga over watching SFB rehearsals after her own summer classes to see something that will expand her brain a little. I enjoy both ballet and modern and prefer to see them thrive as distinct forms rather than blenderized blather.

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Don't know, Samba, but Lines is awfully "blenderized" (nice term.) Try www.baydance.com I think they still do a calendar. (Guy, this is for you, too.)

[ 06-26-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Thanks for the baydance link. I found the calendar and there's a lot of great stuff -- alas all in August when we're gone.Oh well.

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Now that I've read your posts I understand where you all are coming from. I agree with what you say about bad contemporary ballet. And there is a lot out there. I wonder though if the regional companies aren't doing story ballets and Balanchine/Ashton/ Macmillan because of the copyright/ expense issue. It is after all cheaper to make bad ballet than to stage good ballet.

But I digress...how does all this affect SF?

Do you think it's good or bad that we have all this contemporary ballet here. I think it offers more dancers a chance to make a living. Dancers who don't fit the classical ballet mold.

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SuumerFest will be happening at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center during the months of June and July. You could check to see if they have a website. SummerFest is a modern dance festival. It can be hit or miss, but will definitely be different than SFB.

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Thank you, LMTech. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings about our site -- that it is anti-something rather than attempting to examine something else. I very much understand that it's often assumed that anything a ballet company does is ballet, and ballet companies regularly program modern dance or crossover dance works (you could see, for example, a Mark Morris creation for the company, "The Moor's Pavane," a modern dance, and, say, "Theme and Variations" on the same program. No reason why people would not assume that this is all ballet). If I go to Annie's French Kitchen and am served pizza, veal cordon bleu and hot dogs, I may assume it's all French cuisine. One of the reasons I started the site is to encourage people who were interested in this kind of thing to look behind the surface at what went on inside a ballet company, at what was going on in ballet.

Your question is such a good one, I'm going to pull it out and start a new thread, and then start a discussion on it.

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