Bay Area Ballet Makes a Comeback

By Kathryn Roszak


SAN FRANCISCO HAS ALWAYS BEEN A DANCE TOWN. The mother of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, was born here; dozens of choreographers and dancers have gotten their start here or decided to stay, making the Bay Area their artistic home. The nation’s first ballet company, founded in 1933, is San Francisco Ballet which is now the biggest game in town under the leadership of former Balanchine dancer Helgi Tomasson. With 67 dancers on a 42-week contract, SFB has a worldwide touring schedule and constantly gathers international acclaim. Some would argue that its success has put San Francisco on the dance map, but others would say that it’s the unique nature of the Bay Area, with its diversity, great natural beauty, and alternative lifestyles, that provides fertile ground for a dance community.

As the Bay Area population has grown in recent decades, the ballet scene here has exploded with new companies and witnessed half a dozen professional troupes’ sustained growth. To trace the history, SFB made great strides in the 1960s with Ford Foundation funding, emerging as one of the nation’s leading regional ballet groups in a time when the dance world was centered in New York. In SFB’s wake came several chamber companies: Carlos Carvajal’s San Francisco Dance Spectrum, Ronn Guidi’s Oakland Ballet, and John Pasqualetti’s Pacific Ballet. Of those, Oakland survives making a reputation for its excellent mounting of classics from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes era. In the 1980s former Dance Spectrum member Alonzo King formed the LINES Ballet Company to pursue his own idiosyncratic movement style. Meanwhile, internationally acclaimed ballet and Broadway choreographer Michael Smuin’s directorship of SFB went awry, and some years after his infamous fight with the board, he formed his own company. The growing East Bay dance audience became reluctant to drive through the Caldecott tunnel to get its ballet fix, and so two companies were formed: Diablo Ballet founded by former SFB dancer Lawrence Pech, and more recently Company C Contemporary Ballet under the direction of Charles Anderson, a New York choreographer trained by his dance parents Zola Dishong and Richard Cammack (former directors of the SFB School).

Two of these companies in particular are comeback stories: Smuin Ballet and Oakland Ballet.

Having tragically lost their founder in 2007, Smuin Ballet is maintaining Michael Smuin’s legacy while experiencing new growth with their first ballet by European master choreographer Jiri Kylian.

Born in Montana, Michael Smuin’s western, try-something-new attitude, and cowboy spirit carried him through the revival of the then languishing SFB, through his own struggle with heart disease, and then to the creation of his own free wheeling ballet company. After his untimely death in 2007 (a heart attack while doing what he loved best—teaching and choreographing) the company has emerged triumphant.

This year the company maintains 16 dancers on a 34-week contract. “Michael’s vision was always lean and mean,“ says current director Celia Fushille Burke who was Smuin’s dance muse. “Because we’re a chamber ballet, the audience follows individual dancer’s personalities. The dancers feel that they touch people through their dancing.”

Burke describes, “It was profound for the dancers watching Michael die in the studio. We relived that day every time we had to do something without him. That year, the board was already looking into a post-Michael scenario and had created a licensing process for Michael’s work. In March, Michael had an angioplasty but in April, during petite allegro in class, his heart gave out. But we’ve made it through a challenging transition.“

To continue the legacy of this company, Burke is looking to newer choreographic voices to enrich an impressive repertoire. She continues, “Michael’s work is the foundation, but we are not a museum.” In the 1980s Smuin brought Kylian’s ballets to SFB and so Burke pursued acquiring Kylian’s Petite Mort. Smuin Ballet had to be vetted as to their ability to dance this work by Netherlands Dance Theatre. “Our dancers need to be versatile, dancing everything from social dance to modern to ballet. We’re also bringing choreographer Ma Cong from Tulsa Ballet to mount French Twist. I hope in-house choreographer Amy Siewert creates a narrative work and we plan on choreography workshops incubating works by company members.”

Across the bay, Oakland Ballet faces another transition: it has struggled in recent years with a procession of directors and financial woes, and in 2010 will designate a new director. After founding director Ronn Guidi stepped down several years ago, former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Karen Brown was brought in to help the ailing company. But once again Oakland folded. There was a feeling that Oakland was searching for its identity. Resurrected again last fall with several former company members at the helm, Executive Director Nicole Levine says that Oakland will continue to perform historical ballets and new works, and also provide outreach performances for the Oakland community. The new Artistic Director will be announced in February. In the meantime, veteran Oakland dancer and choreographer Michael Lowe muses on Oakland’s past and future. “Oakland’s original mission included reconstructing Diaghilev ballets. I have a fond memory of all that I’ve done. When I saw the film Ballets Russes I said that’s me-I’ve worked with Massine, Freddie Franklin, and danced Train Blue and Gaîté Parisienne. I come from a theatrical, narrative background.” Lowe’s latest work Double Happiness with music by Melody of China was performed last fall as part of Oakland’s Jewels of the Bay, a program directed by Lowe and fellow Oakland dancer Jenna McClintock. But now Lowe embarks on a new venture, as the Artistic Director of The Black Diamond Ballet Theater in Eastern Contra Costa County. With a promising start including 18 dancers performing for 16 weeks they will perform Lowe’s work. Interestingly, another company that Lowe was associated with, Peninsula Ballet Theatre, has reorganized under Bruce Steivel’s direction and will now have additional offices in Antioch.

In fact, the lion’s share of ballet companies is in the East Bay: in addition to Oakland Ballet, Walnut Creek is home to both Diablo Ballet and Company C Contemporary Ballet.

Diablo Ballet was formed from the idea that audiences prefer not to travel to see first-class ballet. Currently Lauren Jonas serves as Artistic Director of the 8-member company with a 20-week contract. Like Smuin Ballet, Diablo wants “the audience to feel the connection and know the dancers through our up-close programming, sponsored by the city of Walnut Creek in the intimate Shadowlands.” Jonas values mature dancers: “Our dancers are international artists from ages 29-40. They stay with us for a long time.” Diablo’s repertory includes rare Balanchine works (they preceded SFB with their production of Apollo), new works, and condensed versions of classics. They also have a special education program, PEEK (Performing Arts, Education and Enrichment Program for Kids) that mentors to the underserved Contra Costa schools. Jonas takes pride in this program and says, “I’d love to collaborate with other art forms and organizations. We did a program with ODC with the rest of the cast from Diablo Ballet and the synergy was phenomenal.”

More recently Charles Anderson’s Company C Contemporary Ballet, based in Walnut Creek, has followed in Diablo’s footsteps with 12 dancers on a 35-week contract. Anderson danced in New York and his repertory emphasizes works by Tharp, Taylor, Tudor, and Lubovitch. “We’re a repertory company. It’s not just based on my work,” says Anderson. “My parents were in ABT and the days of three trucks and dozens of stagehands are over. I invest in a handful of dancers and bring repertory affordably to audiences. The repertory is the star and the building of this company is my greatest creation.” This spring Anderson adds the mid-’90s Tharp work Surfer at the River Styx to the program. As with the other smaller Bay Area companies Anderson says, “Every one must hold the stage on their own. I need great artists with great technique, not necessarily body types. The dancers need to really move if they are going to make a Lubovitch work authentic.”

All of the Bay Area ballet companies are repertory companies performing works by an array of choreographers. By contrast, Alonzo King is the sole choreographic force behind LINES Contemporary Ballet, still going strong after 20 years with 10 dancers on an enviable 40-week contract. King, a popular teacher, evolved his own signature contemporary ballet style with a devoted troupe of dancers. Now his works are performed by the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, and the Ballets de Monte Carlo. LINES performs two seasons in San Francisco and they are regularly seen in New York and France. While touring this past January, LINES dancer Brett Conway told me of the rewards of working with LINES. “Alonzo puts dancers in uncomfortable situations and the dancer finds the answers. Like a good parent, he keeps an eye on us but allows us our own journey. It’s challenging as we’re on every night, there are no understudies. With injuries there’s pain and Alonzo allows us to work through that, still making the choreography work for you. A LINES dancer has to have a strong sense of self. We’re asked to participate in the process and Alonzo sparks creativity in the dancers. We’re not just there to do what the choreographer says.”

After a good 15 year-run, the partnership collapsed in 2000, but Ballet San Jose continues with 44 dancers on a 32-week contract and a flourishing school, all under the directorship of choreographer Dennis Nahat. Nahat’s ballets are featured alongside contemporary ballets and full-length classics by choreographers not often seen in the Bay Area such as Flemming Flindt, Martha Graham, Louis Falco, Donald McKayle and Murray Louis. Last year the company produced Hidden Talents, new choreography by company members and the company visited China in a 5-week tour. “We are a community oriented organization,” emphasizes Nahat, “The artists of the company reflect our community, with diverse dancers from Vietnam, China, Cuba. We check the temperature of what’s going on in the world. We’re doing Romeo and Juliet because after thousands of years we’re still not understanding, we’re still not getting it together.”

The Bay Area terrain is clearly rich with many ballet companies. Even though SFB has been around the longest and has the most prominent national appeal, each company offers an array of talented performers showcasing choreography not always seen at the Opera House. These companies have come to be neighborhood favorites, with dancers who grace the stage more often and repertoires that please their intimate and repeatedly adoring patrons. They all have their own style, but Ballet San Jose’s Dennis Nahat sums it up best: “We want to reach a wider audience so they can understand what ballet can be: that it’s totally human; nothing artificial; it’s rare, exquisite moments. A live performance is a once in a lifetime experience-the images are never forgotten. If everyone could see ballets, there would be very few wars going on.”

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.

Kathryn Roszak, Artistic Director of Danse Lumiere, also directs the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California.