Words on Dance; The Lives Behind the Footlights

By Mary Ellen Hunt


Few dancers of this generation so clearly embody the all-American ballerina as Tina LeBlanc, who steps onto stage for Words on Dance on April 30– not to dance, but to talk about a career which began in 1984 at the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet.

LeBlanc, who will be interviewed by fellow Joffrey alum Leslie Carothers at the Cowell Theater, danced under Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino for eight years before joining San Francisco Ballet as a principal in 1992. Described as one of the finest ballerinas of her generation, she has danced roles from the classical to the contemporary, and has been widely acclaimed for her technical wizardry and the elegance of her lines. LeBlanc is, nonetheless, down-to-earth and unassuming about her accomplishments, which include juggling a career as one of SFB’s leading ballerinas with her role as mom to two young sons, 4 and 9 years old. But hearing about this sort of balancing act, along with the inspirations that drive artists like LeBlanc to new heights, is just a part of what makes the Words on Dance events so appealing to the balletomanes in the audience.

Founded in 1994, Words on Dance is unusual in the arena of dance lecture-interviews in that the format centers on dancers being interviewed by other dancers. It establishes what Words on Dance founder and producer Deborah DuBowy thinks of as more of an oral history than a lecture, where you’re likely to hear less of the dry facts and more of the kind of fascinating details that bring the dance world to life. The combination of interview, along with rare, archival film clips– many of which come from the private collections of the artists themselves and often have never been seen before in public– lends a uniquely personal voice to the recollections of these artists, who often speak frankly about their struggles and personal challenges on the way to success.

Among the luminaries who have conversed onstage for Words on Dance are both internationally and locally renowned guests such as Violette Verdy, Edward Villella, Mark Morris, Peter Martins, Maria Tallchief, Frederic Franklin, Martine van Hamel, Cynthia Gregory, Helgi Tomasson, Michael Smuin, Joe Goode, Alonzo King, as well as San Francisco Ballet principals like Evelyn Cisneros, Joanna Berman, Yuri Possokhov, Lorena Feijoo and Muriel Maffre. In 2006, Words on Dance celebrated the Balanchine Centennial with an ambitious program that brought together a cross-generational group of Balanchine dancers, including Merrill Ashley, Allegra Kent and Tomasson interviewed by Boston Ballet’s artistic director–and an early Words on Dance participant–Mikko Nissinen. In 2008 she plans a similar tribute, this time with a focus on one of the 20th century’s great choreographers, Jerome Robbins, under the auspices of a grant from the Jerome Robbins Trust.

Given all the history that is recounted onstage, archiving has become perhaps the most important component of what DuBowy considers a larger documentation project. This year, DuBowy has announced that the main portion of the Words on Dance archives will go to San Francisco Ballet’s Center for Dance Education, who will also benefit from part of the proceeds of the April 30 event.

LeBlanc’s acquaintance with DuBowy stretches back to 1995, when LeBlanc attended one of the earliest Words on Dance events, Violette Verdy in conversation with Mikko Nissinen who was at the time, a principal with San Francisco Ballet. Over the years, she says, she and DuBowy talked often about offering a WOD event centered on her career, particularly because it would give audiences the chance to hear more about the enduring legacy of the Joffrey Ballet.

From its first tour across America, with the dancers packed into a station wagon and a U-Haul toting their theater cases behind, the Joffrey Ballet has been thought of as the quintessentially American company. With a dizzyingly diverse repertoire and a coterie of highly individual dancers, she laughingly describes it as a company of misfits, but in a good way.

“Mr. Joffrey would bring things into the company repertoire for certain people, he would search out pieces that would show them off,” she recalls, noting that her first breakout role with the company was the full-length La fille mal gardée, in which she attracted the attention of the New York critics with her lyricism, as well as her “assurance and emotional range.”

It’s those qualities which endear her to San Francisco Ballet audiences now, in roles from Kitri in Don Quixote to the dreamer in Julia Adam’s Night. But there is lurking question as to whether the Words on Dance retrospective means that she’s considering herself at the end of her distinguished career? Fear not, at least for this year.

“Retirement is definitely on my mind, it’s looming,” says the 40-year-old LeBlanc with a wry tone. “I feel like I’m constantly pulling myself together to get through the daily grind, but I’m committed through the 2008 season, which will be SFB’s 75th anniversary.”

This season, she’s hosting the Community Matinees sponsored by the Center for Dance Education, which she says has been enjoyable. But she’s really hankering to work in the studio with kids, so she sees teaching in her future almost certainly. “I think I have a gift for working with children,” she says, “I love to work with people who are hungry to learn. I love to be in the studio, teaching them and working with them.”

Already she’s taught for the SFB School’s audition tour, an experience that she describes as depressing and exhilarating and exciting. “It was eye-opening, but it was also hard to see so many kids come to audition, when the reality was we could only take a few,” she says with a sigh, “There are just so many kids out there who study and have these hopes and dreams and it’s difficult to know that they may never make it.”

Words on Dance presents San Francisco Ballet Principal Ballerina Tina LeBlanc onstage in conversation with former Joffrey Ballerina Leslie Carothers, Monday, April 30th at 7:30 pm. For reservations, call 415-345-7575 or visit www.fortmason.org/boxoffice.

This article appeared in the April 2007 issue of In Dance.

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.