San Francisco Ballet, Cinderella of dance, sheds rags for riches
For nearly three decades, America's oldest ballet company has rehearsed here at a ramshackle parking garage in a neighborhood of donut shops, wig parlors, cheap Chinese restaurants, and art deco cinemas showing James Bond reruns.Skip to next paragraph
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The roof of the converted car park leaked into the costume shop. Low oak beams made dancers' leaps and pas de deux impossible to perform gracefully, let alone safely. Shoulder bruises and splinters were occupational hazards; they came with the territory.
The San Francisco Ballet (SFB), one of the nation's most successful and innovative companies, has operated until recently on a toe-shoestring. It has been the Cinderella of the dance world. Artistically, it deserved glass slippers and horse-drawn carriages. Instead, it was relegated to a pumpkin of a building , one intended for Buicks rather than ballerinas.
The garage had two corroded shower stalls to serve the 51-member company, 650 ballet-school students, and the faculty. The toilets flooded, the shower curtains hadn't been changed in 20 years, and dancers complained it took a half-hour just to get into the dressing room. They shivered in the hallways and were late to rehearsals.
Fortunately the SFB saga, like the classic fairy tale, has a happy ending. With the wave of local patrons' philanthropic wand, the company is moving this month from its 18th Avenue garage to an elegant new $12.3 million rehearsal hall and headquarters behind the San Francisco Opera House, where it performs. The new facility is also making dance history: It is the first building in the United States ever designed and constructed exclusively for a ballet company.
''There's nothing like this building in the world,'' says Michael Smuin, SFB's innovative artistic director. ''Not the Paris Opera, not Theatre Street in Leningrad, not the National Ballet Theater in Toronto, not Julliard in New York. In terms of the space, the floors, barresm, mirrors, and lights, this is the best.''
In addition to its $1.5 million endowment for maintenance, the four-story building has eight rehearsal halls with 15-foot ceilings; a library; storage rooms for props and shoes (a pair of $40 toe shoes lasts one performance); umpteen offices, conference rooms, and lounges; and - to the great relief of the dancers - 33 showers that work!
The rehearsal hall is not only an architectural triumph; it is testimony to the San Francisco Ballet's will to survive in the face of shrinking private and government funding for the arts. Ten years ago, the SFB was crippled by the worst financial crisis in its 40-year history. In September 1974, the board told the company it would declare bankruptcy unless it could raise $500,000 in the next 11 days.
But the dancers refused to accept this verdict. They first volunteered to whittle their 42-week contracts to 32 weeks and, for additional revenue, offered to dance without pay five additional performances of ''Nutcracker,'' the Christmastide favorite. Next they mounted a ''Save Our Ballet'' campaign through telethons, door-to-door solicitation, and fund-raising block parties in the neighborhoods.
''We owed everybody money. It was a real 'do or die.' We took to the streets with our tin cups and pencils,'' recalls Mr. Smuin, who, for publicity, entered a tricycle race against a chimpanzee - and won.
The company performed during half time at a San Francisco 49er football game and danced at Marine World-Africa USA the finale of Lew Christensen's ''Beauty and the Beast'' - rechoreographed to include live monkeys, tigers, and elephants. The performance closed circus-style with a ballerina exiting reclined in an elephant's trunk.
In that Marine World production, Nancy Dickson walked a llama. Recently, dressed in a red sweatshirt and pink tights, she reminisced between rehearsals for her leading Sugar Plum Fairy role in this year's ''Nutcracker.''
''Back then, we did anything to raise a buck,'' she recalls. ''I chased people down the street and up escalators trying to get a donation. We danced in department store windows that were hot as saunas. We called the press and demanded to see the governor.