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San Francisco Ballet, Cinderella of dance, sheds rags for riches

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''Four other girls and I crammed into my two-seater MG and went to the big downtown office buildings. We pushed the elevator button to the top floor, and demanded to see the company president. We didn't know who we were talking to, but figured the richest companies must be on the top floor.

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''The five of us worked as a team. One girl always cried on cue. When we went back for a second visit, we traded clothes to look different,'' adds Dickson. She has danced with the SFB since she was eight years old and performed in the 1964 ''Nutcracker'' as a buffoon hiding beneath Mother Goose's skirt.

The company's antics may have seemed a bit hokey. But the hard work paid off. Word of their fight for survival got around. Rudolf Nureyev, Leontyne Price, Gene Kelly, and Ronald Reagan (then governor of California) all cabled their support. Membership in the SFB Association soared from 300 to 2,000. Before the 11-day deadline arrived, the company raised $350,000, stalling bankruptcy for two weeks while they drummed up the remaining $150,000. Dance magazine dubbed SFB ''The Company that wouldn't die.''

At the same time, the SFB was also undergoing an artistic renaissance. Fifteen new dancers were hired away from such distinguished companies as the Netherlands Dance Theatre and American Ballet Theatre. Smuin, an ABT dancer and choreographer, was lured to San Francisco. He was soon followed by Richard LeBlond Jr., a savvy fund-raiser and arts administrator who left the Pennsylvania Ballet to overhaul the SFB organization. Since 1975, the year Mr. LeBlond came on board, the company has operated in the black for nine consecutive seasons, a fiscal achievement unparalleled in American ballet history.

During those lean years, the SFB's admistrative ''offices'' were located on 8 th Avenue in three rented efficiency apartments embellished with 1950s dentist-office decor: flagstone fronts, gold-flocked wallpaper, and plastic roses.

LeBlond was shoehorned into a front bedroom. His company manager was wedged in a kitchen between the dishwasher and refrigerator. He would plug his typewriter into the electric stove, which doubled as a filing cabinet until his five-year-old son cranked the oven up to 450 degrees F. recently and nearly torched the company's balance sheets.

The dog-days are over now, and LeBlond, like a proud father, offers tours of the new edifice. ''We are the first ballet plant built from scratch in this country,'' he pronounces, strutting through the building which, observed its architect Beverly Willis, has the ''lean and tall'' lines of a dancer.

''We started with a blank piece of ground,'' says LeBlonde, ''and actually sent the architects around with their notebooks asking the dancers exactly what they wanted if they had their druthers.''

Built more like a fullback than a dancer, LeBlonde saunters into one of the new upstairs studios and notes that ''here dancers have plenty of room to practice lifts and leaps and those extensive swordfighting scenes in Romeo and Juliet.'' As he speaks, he parries an imaginary Capulet with his duck-handled umbrella. ''And the floors,'' he continues, ''are specially sprung. We had 12 floor prototypes mocked up and the dancers like the bounce of this one.''

He also notes the ''canting'' of the mirrors. ''Now a woman can be hoisted and never get out of mirror range,'' he says. ''In addition, we have special lighting, which prevents something from normal fluorescent lights called 'strobophobic effect,' or something like that. You'll see the ballet barresm are a little bigger, too. That's for better grip, so dancers don't hurt the backs of their ankles.'' Taking a deep breath, he kicks his right leg up to the barrem. ''Didn't think I could do that, did you?'' he grins.

For years, in fact, no one thought LeBlond and the SFB could do it. ''We're now raising $2 million a year on top of the earned income, and still came up with $13 million for the new building,'' he says. ''If any had said in 1975 we would be in this kind of financial shape now, they would have been called certifiably insane.''