Seventy-five and Wildly Alive: San Francisco Ballet Commissions Ten New Works

By Rachel Howard

January 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson could have chosen to make the company’s 75th anniversary an exercise in self-glorification and nostalgia. Instead, he’s taking a gamble on the future. The climax of SF Ballet’s 2008 season, launching late January, is April’s New Works Festival: 10 ballets by 10 international choreographers premiering rapid fire over three days.

That rush of new work recalls a logistical ambition unseen since New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, a landmark that former NYCB star Tomasson remembers fondly and took as inspiration. And in many ways, the focus on the future is not surprising. Over his 23-year tenure, Tomasson has fed SFB a steady diet of 19th century warhorses and Balanchine masterpieces to raise and then maintain his dancers’ technical refinement. But from the beginning, Tomasson has seemed to view maintaining that classicism as a way to move forward, not back. One of his earliest commissions, in 1987, was William Forsythe’s postmodern New Sleep, and one of his biggest triumphs, in 2005, was the go-for-broke power of the SF Ballet corps in Forsythe’s startlingly contemporary Artifact Suite.

There is no Forsythe in the New Works Festival, but there is an interesting mix of masters, Tomasson/SFB protégés, and one modern. The biggest names, of course, are Mark Morris (who will be working with a commissioned John Adams score), Paul Taylor, and Christopher Wheeldon; also returning to SFB are Stanton Welch and James Kudelka. Val Caniparoli, a former SFB dancer and prolific choreographer whose work has lately been seen here too seldom, gets a slot; so do fellow SFB alumni Julia Adam and Yuri Possokhov. Jorma Elo, the tremendously busy and buzzed-about Finnish choreographer, will make his first work for the company. And a final pleasant surprise is the inclusion of local modern dance legend Margaret Jenkins.

The hope in presenting such an array, of course, is to find new gems and to stretch the audience’s idea of what ballet can be. But the New Works Festival will stretch the company itself in fresh ways, too. As of this writing, the new works are mostly created. The bigger challenge will be getting all ten works back up on their feet and rehearsed simultaneously in April. Such a tremendous number of ballets mean inevitable dancer injuries, and the SF Ballet roster has been increased by five new members, including the wonderfully delicate new principal Maria Kochetkova, to cover for this.

Besides the fresh faces, viewers will have an opportunity to see familiar faces in new ways. Usually Tomasson gives his choreographers carte blanche in casting, but for the festival he instated a rule: No principal can be in more than three new works. This means choreographers used to picking old favorites are developing untapped soloists and corps members. Look for possible breakthroughs for Quinn Wharton, Jennifer Stahl, Pauli Magierek, and the charismatic new Diego Cruz.

Their chance to shine will arrive at the end of an already demanding full season. It kicks off, on Program One, with Tomasson’s single nod to the past, former company director Lew Christensen’s 1938 slice of Americana, Filling Station.

Balanchine is duly represented by Diamonds on that same program and Divertimento No. 15 on Program Two, but more uppermost in Tomasson’s mind, it seems, is Jerome Robbins. His West Side Story Suite, new to the company this year, will have its cast both moving and singing on a Program Four all-Robbins tribute that also includes the return of Fancy Free.

The full-evening classic this year is Program Three’s Giselle, while Tomasson will present his own premiere on Program Five. For Program Six, just before the New Works Festival, he gives the company a breather by inviting three guests. The National Ballet of Canada will dance a ballet by young talent Matjash Mrozewski, while Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will present a work by director Jean-Christophe Maillot, and New York City Ballet will dispatch two principals to deliver Balanchine’s Duo Concertant.

Then, at last, the New Works Festival. And after that, a national tour to Chicago, New York, Orange County, and Washington D.C. Let’s hope ten world premieres over three days yields the company plenty of winning new works to take across the nation.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.