The Space Between: From School To Company

By Heather Desaulniers


Morning technique class, mid-day rehearsal, additional afternoon class, community outreach engagement, extra fine arts workshop, possible time with the company and perchance, an evening performance. Sounds like the schedule for an entire week. But, for the dancers lucky enough to be part of the San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program, many of these commitments tally up a typical day–certainly a full plate for a group of sixteen to nineteen year-old pre-professionals.

The brainchild of Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director and San Francisco Ballet School’s Director, the Trainee Program was developed as a bridge for the serious dancer, guiding their transition from student to company member. Each year since 2004, a select group is invited to join the new class of trainees and their course of study may last either one or two years. As they pursue their professional careers, the Trainee Program is providing these young artists with three intertwined principles for success: preparation, balance and motivation.

First and foremost, the Trainee Program gives its students necessary and integrated preparation. Daily class cultivates and challenges each dancer so that they will be ready for the technical demands required of them in a professional company. Trainee Program Principal Patrick Armand notes that the trainees’ morning class is intensely focused on each dancer’s working process and dedicated to polishing their technique. In a regular company class, a new dancer can get a little lost in the crowd. But with a class of their own, these students can receive the extra attention they need at this stage in their career.

Preparation for the stage is achieved through a variety of performances during the school year, including the San Francisco Ballet School Student Showcase in May and this April, the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco’s City Hall. With being a small group of students, everyone gets the chance to perform and can use these engagements to hone important stage skills.

Though technical preparation is the foundation for every professional dancer, the Trainee Program is clear that it is only one part of a much bigger puzzle. The curriculum is broad and varied, preparing the trainees in numerous topics; the current group receiving instruction in choreography, teaching and stagecraft. Even if choreography or teaching isn’t their calling, insight into how these processes work is crucial for any professional artist. Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, currently a soloist with SF Ballet and part of the first Trainee class in 2004, recalls that in addition to the rigorous ballet syllabus, the Trainee Program has a goal of comprehensive arts education, which in his year, included acting classes, musical study and visits to the opera and symphony.

The Trainee Program works hard to ensure that its dancers are well-rounded, informed, enthused and prepared–by a) assembling a stellar faculty of teachers/advisors to guide them and b) giving them opportunities to spend time working with the company. Introduction to the company environment is a huge adjustment but even more so if the experience is entirely new–juggling expectations, unfamiliar surroundings and new people alongside the detailed logistics of schedules and casting. Deivison-Oliveira shares that one must be wholly prepared for this shift, “dancers need to take that time between school and professional life to understand how things work in a company. Joining a company is an exciting yet intense time, so preparation must be complete–technically, physically and emotionally.” By focusing on total preparation and inviting the students to spend time with the professional company, the San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program affords the space and time to explore the rewards and reality of ballet.

Artistic balance and motivation are definitely linked with preparation, though the Trainee Program’s approach to both deserves special mention and emphasis. Armand explains that for today’s professional dancer, adaptability and versatility are crucial. They must be well-versed in classical, contemporary and neo-classical technique and be able to adjust to various types of movement. Established dancemakers and emerging choreographers are brought in to work with them so they can experience the variety in ballet. Their upcoming appearance in the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall speaks to this breadth and balance with two works that cross traditional technique with modern sensibility: the pas de deux from Dunas by Francisco Mungamba and Spinae by Myles Thatcher. Armand describes both pieces as working from a classical foundation (the women wear pointe shoes in each), with Mungamba’s pas de deux adding lyricism to the mix and Thatcher’s Spinae injecting a contemporary physicality. These two ballets represent the artistic scope found in today’s dance scene and showcase the trainees’ ability across the entire ballet oeuvre.

Deivison-Oliveira asserts that “motivation is key for this profession.” And, the San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program inspires, encourages and advocates for its dancers. Of course, this guidance occurs during class and before/after performance, but corrections at the barre, comments in center and notes after curtain are again only part of the picture. Deivison-Oliveira speaks fondly of the teachers/faculty during his time as a trainee, noting that, “they were always checking in with us, talking with us and building us up.” Jorge Esquivel and Yuri Zhukov made a specific impact on him–going above and beyond to selflessly share their wisdom and knowledge. Students desperately need this kind of support and as new company dancers, they will remember and lean on this positive reinforcement during their entire career.

The San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program works. A combination of preparation, balance and motivation results in students who are ready–ready to be professionals; ready to join a company; and ready to contribute to the artistic landscape.

Bay Area audiences will have the chance to see the San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program in action as part of Rotunda Dance Series 2012 season. On April 6, these talented dancers will give a free performance in San Francisco City Hall at 12 noon, presented by Dancer’s Group and World Arts West in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall. When choosing the repertory for the Rotunda performance, Armand and the artistic staff had to keep in mind what pieces would translate best in the space. Unlike a traditional proscenium arch stage, viewers at this show will be watching from all angles, so the material must also work and be visible from any vantage point. This is a unique opportunity to highlight ballets with dynamic physical architecture, eclectic facings and a three-dimensional sense of movement. Both Spinae and the pas de deux from Dunas are up to the challenge.

For Armand, the Rotunda performance also reveals an evolving legacy within the San Francisco Ballet School Trainee Program. The two choreographers for this event–Francisco Mungamba and Myles Thatcher–were both former trainees, are now part of San Francisco Ballet’s corps, have begun creating their own work and have returned to set those compositions on the current trainee class. He sees that the San Francisco Ballet School Trainee Program is “coming full circle.”

For further information on the San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program, please visit:

To view the “Rotunda Dance Series” 2012 season, please visit:

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance writer, critic and dance historian based in Oakland. She is the SF/Bay Area columnist for and formerly the Associate Editor of Dance for Bourgeon online. Ms. Desaulniers is currently working on a book chronicling the work of American modern dance choreographer, Sophie Maslow.

This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.