It’s a Season of Renewal at SF Ballet School
By Lou Fancher
Could someone please invent at least 13 — if not more — new ways to say “new”? San Francisco Ballet could happily use them as it announces the expansion of the company’s roster with seven SF Ballet School student dancers promoted to the company and six SF Ballet School alumni elevated to the corps de ballet after serving as company apprentices. Adding to the superlatives, 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of School Director Patrick Armand’s appointment in 2012 to lead SF Ballet’s renowned academy and a return after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic of the live, in-person, annual SF Ballet School Spring Festival.
The Spring Festival, May 25–27, presents three different programs over three evenings at the California Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Immediately following the Thursday, May 26 performance, SF Ballet Auxiliary hosts the 2022 Spring Festival Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco. Scholarships and financial aid resulting from the event award more than $1.5 million to students each year.
Building upon the new faces and dancer energy onstage at YBCA is the promise of a new, second decade for the school under Armand’s astute direction — not to mention the company’s appointment upon Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s retirement after 37 seasons of Tamara Rojo as its new artistic director and the first woman to hold the position in its history, plus the selection of Danielle St. Germain-Gordon as SF Ballet’s new executive director. Importantly, new initiatives and programs throughout the organization are being sought or enacted in an era that insists the classical ballet world address and take action concerning longstanding, harmful traditions related to ballet’s systemic racism, gender inequities, body shape and size bias, and other matters of accountability, inclusion, diversity, and access.
Oh, and then there’s the spiffy new company season, its 90th, presented in the city’s newly renovated War Memorial Opera House. A definite highlight of the season includes next@90 — the first new works festival since Unbound in 2018 — which will feature world premieres by choreographers Nicolas Blanc (Joffrey Ballet), Bridget Breiner (Badisches Staatsballett Karlsruhe), Robert Garland (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Benjamin Millepied (LA Dance Project), Yuka Oishi, Yuri Possokhov (SF Ballet), Jamar Roberts (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), Danielle Rowe, and Claudia Schreier (Atlanta Ballet).
Inarguably, new is a thing at SF Ballet. As is indisputable talent as opposed to novelty as the promotion of students and apprentices within the company projects a clear message and acknowledges not only the dancers’ artistic achievements but that of school faculty. Most of the 13 new dancers have been finalists in the Prix de Lausanne in the past few years, and the promotions mean 75 percent of SFB’s company members have received training at the school.
Armand in an interview said, “We’re relieved and heartened to present the return of the live Spring Festival after a three-year absence. The students are encouraged by the news that so many of their peers will join the company next year, and we’re all proud to know that such a large percentage of the company has trained within our walls. This event is a chance to celebrate the resiliency and hard work of the students and look ahead to their bright futures.”
Among the rising stars joining the company in 2023 as apprentices are two “homegrown” Bay Area-based dancers: Angela Watson from Oakland and Jasper True Stanford from San Ramon. Audiences will have seen Watson appear among the sylphs in La Sylphide and Stanford in the Russian divertissement of The Nutcracker. The other four students promoted to apprentices and their places of origin are Jihyun Choi (South Korea), Seojeong Yun (South Korea), Benjamin Davidoff (Belgium), and Parker Garrison (North Carolina).
The seven dancers promoted to the corps de ballet and the ballets/roles in which they appeared in the last season are trainee João Da Silva (Nutcracker: Mirliton) and apprentices Juliana Bellissimo (Nutcracker: Mirliton), Andris Kundzins (The Seasons: Autumn Faun), Nicole Moyer (Swan Lake: Russian Princess), Pemberley Ann Olson (The Promised Land: corps), Jamie Adele Stephens (Swan Lake: Russian Princess), and Alexis Valdes (Prism: Solo Man).
The repertory on the Spring Festival’s three programs includes by-now expected newness: a new ballet by SF Ballet dancer Davide Occhipinti, two student pieces created as part of the Helgi Tomasson Choreographic Workshop, and The Most Peaceful, a world premiere by Jason Ambrose. Other ballets are Tomasson’s Haffner Symphony, Dana Genshaft’s Future Paper, Marius Petipa’s Diana and Acteon Pas de Deux, Viktor Plotnikov’s Graces, and Olson’s Her Gambit. Each performance opens with a demonstration of the dancers in levels two through eight choreographed by faculty member Karen Gabay.