San Francisco Ballet makes the leap to a global stage

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Dancers of the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) usually have only the short walk from the modern building they call home to the War Memorial Opera House where they perform, but this year they have much farther to travel.

After the season in San Francisco ends this month, the company will tour Britain, France, and Spain. It's booked into theaters like London's famed Covent Garden and the Paris Opera House.

The jump in prestige and recognition is an unexpected prize for an American dance company based outside of New York, but the SFB is now firmly fixed on the international dance map.

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Founded in 1933 as a company and school attached to the San Francisco Opera, the SFB is the oldest continuing ballet troupe in the US. In 1938, the ballet separated from the opera and established a separate identity as a haven for classical ballets and a place where American choreographers would be nurtured.

Lew Christensen, who had studied with George Balanchine, became director of the SFB in 1955. Balanchine's dedication to classical technique, combined with American cheekiness and experimentation, also became one of Christensen's trademarks.

Fast forward 30 years to 1985 when another Balanchine dancer, Helgi Tomasson, was appointed artistic director of the SFB. In his 15 years on the West Coast, Tomasson has elevated SFB's reputation from that of a well-regarded regional company to a world-class ensemble.

After coming to the US from Iceland to study at New York's School of American Ballet, Tomasson began his professional career as a member of the Joffrey and Harkness ballet companies. Balanchine then invited him to join the New York City Ballet in 1970 as a principal dancer. He stayed there for the rest of his dancing life, winning critical praise for his elegance and graciousness as a partner.

As he approached retirement from the stage, he received a call from Christensen, who asked him to become the artistic director for the SFB. "I came here because I saw talent. I was very much aware of the community support for dance," Tomasson says, making time before a Saturday matinee to talk about his company.

Tomasson was hired with a mandate to take the company to a national and perhaps international level of excellence. When he arrived, the troupe of 44 dancers had received little attention beyond the region. Today the company numbers 69 dancers, who have garnered rave reviews on tours to New York, Britain, and France.

The company's $26 million annual budget includes more than a half-million-dollar contribution last year from the city's hotel tax fund. Private donors contribute nearly 43 percent of it. The SFB has the third-largest operating budget of any ballet company in the United States, behind the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

A superb classical artist as a performer, Tomasson has stressed the excellence of the company's technique, along with choosing repertory that mixes traditional ballets with trendy works from young choreographers. When he can make the time, he also returns to the studio as a choreographer: He has 30 ballets for the company to his credit.

Tomasson has restaged 19th-century ballets like "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," and "Giselle" and made new pieces like "Prism." His ballet "Tuning Game," an abstract work for 12 dancers with music by contemporary composer John Corigliano, was presented as part of a late-February program.

Tomasson has performed on the European stages where his company will appear this summer. He stresses the importance of finding new audiences. "In this city there's no more ballet performances from May to December," he says. "I have some wonderful dancers. I have to put them on a stage and keep them dancing."

He's enthusiastic about his dancers' abilities, but mindful of the need to keep them challenged. He has encouraged them to try choreography, notably Julia Adams and Yuri Possokhov, whose works will be presented on the tour.

The SFB's late-February and early March programs showed off the dancers in the many styles in which they shine. "Tuning Game" shared a program with the San Francisco premiere of the sexy, explosive ballet "Without Words," by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato (music by Franz Shubert).

The other program of the series featured the world premiere of a ballet by modern dance choreographer Mark Morris, "A Garden" (music by Richard Strauss after Francois Couperin). It turned the Opera House stage into the scene of a court ball as the dancers flourished their wrists and moved in phrases suggesting a refracted image of the minuet. Balanchine's 1929 ballet "The Prodigal Son," and the 19th-century work "Raymonda, Act III," allowed the dancers to display their dramatic skills.

Although Tomasson says he's a "hands-on director," teaching classes, conducting rehearsals, and generally preferring the studio to his office, he has much more to do as artistic director.

Last fall, he had to keep an eye on the controversy that erupted when 8-year-old Fredrika Keefer was denied entrance to the SFB school. The child's mother, Krissy Keefer, filed a complaint, claiming that the company discriminated against her daughter's weight, height, and gender.

Problems like this aside, Tomasson smiles when asked about his wish list. "I hope the dancers stay healthy all the time and that the funding keeps coming in.... The dancers have been performing beautifully; we're selling tickets. So it's like, 'Wow! How greedy can you get?' "he says.

The SFB is appearing in repertory programs at War Memorial Opera House through April 8 and April 17-22. The company will sponsor the Paris Opera Ballet at the opera house April 30-May 5. Tour dates include Paris, May 12-19; Bilbao, Spain, May 23-26; London, Aug. 13-18; Santander, Spain, Aug. 26-29; and Barcelona, Sept. 4-16.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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