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.

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.

''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.

''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.''

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