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San Francisco Ballet men: pushing past the comfort zone.

When Helgi Tomasson began as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet in 1985, dance lovers in the Bay Area were naturally curious to see what he would do with the company. What most people meant by this statement was: What he would do with the women? Since he had come from New York City Ballet, where that over-quoted remark of George Balanchine, "Ballet is woman," was said to be law, Tomasson was naturally expected to focus on redefining the look of the women in the company. To a certain extent he did. The first few years of his tenure saw the development of Ludmilla Lopukhova, Sabina Allemann, Muriel Maffre, and Evelyn Cisneros as the company's leading ballerinas. More recently Elizabeth Loscavio, Joanna Berman, Tina LeBlanc, Katita Waldo, and Kristin Long, tiny women with dazzling technique, are being featured as well, with Loscavio emerging as Tomasson's favorite muse.

The biggest surprise, however, and possibly the subtlest yet most profound change Tomasson has made in the company, has been in the male ranks. Within the last few years the men of SFB have joined the ranks of the elite among American male dancers.

The demanding routine of daily company class and nightly performance at the War Memorial Opera House (the company's theater for its five-month annual home season) has become the cracible in which the SFB men have been formed as artists, as individuals, and as icons of masculinity in dance. If, as the British dance writer Ramsay Burt contends, women in ballet are traditionally "a mystery to be investigated and exposed" while the male onstage is someone to be "tested," then the SFB men fly in the face of that tradition. They are repeatedly investigated, exposed, and tested--both emotionally and physically--by the demands of the choreography.

Such qualities are not unique to SFB men, but the clarity with which the company demonstrates this late-twentieth-century shift in male dancing is. Perhaps because this oldest American ballet company has virtually been remade from within since the arrival of Tomasson as artistic director, it has registered the consolidated growth in male dancing so acutely. Today only four of ifs sixty-three dancers and none of its active repertoire date from before Tomasson's reign. It is effectively a new company, changed from within. "I had to change my technique when Helgi and Bonnie [Borne] came," said former company member Jim Sohm, one of those who worked under previous SFB directors. "It was like changing companies but you didn't have to leave!" he said of the technical and repertoire demands transformed under Tomasson.

SFB repertoire before Tomasson was created predominantly in-house, with works from Robbins, Ashton, and Balanchine added occasionally. Today the company performs an almost even mix of contemporary (mostly commissioned), classical, and neoclassical works. Popular soloist Eric Hoisington sees in this combination a reflection of gender equity as well: "In classical work the woman is the ethereal, and the male stands behind. So the company's repertoire is a balance; the new choreography is for the men and the classic for the women." Known for his modern dance--trained fluency and beautiful line, Hoisington has a soft lyricism that shows up well in David Bintley's Job and Sons of Horus, pieces that test the dramatic mettle of the men. "Bintley and Kudelka are very interested in making works for the male dancers," Hoisington says. "They create marvelous roles for the men. Bintley in particular has such a broad vocabulary for men's movement." The most recent Bintley addition to the repertoire, the 1995 Dance House, presents Anthony Randazzo, known for his princely roles, as a blue-painted androgynous death figure who intimidates by his presence and the tacit power over women this implies.

Indeed, SFB is now known as much for its several commissioned pieces by Bintley, James Kudelka, and Mark Morris as it is for Tomasson's scrupulous stagings of such full-length classics as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. The contemporary works are cited frequently by the company men as having significantly formed the image of strong male dancing the company now projects. Paradoxically, this broadening in the range of male dancing has also made it more diffuse and deeper at the same time.

Finnish-born principal Mikko Nissinen, one of the few company members who ever saw Tomasson perform before his retirement in 1985, says the company's male style may perhaps be an unconscious amplification of their artistic director's personal qualities as a dancer. "Helgi brings a European tradition, a higher standard, to the men's arms in the company," says Nissinen. "The stress is on doing everything with good taste and not overdoing it, which can be a fine line. Every man has to find the feminine in the masculine in his dancing. Helgi's masculinity as a dancer had a feminine side--he was very sensitive and vulnerable onstage. There are moments in our Swan Lake when he wants the man to go out on a poetic and vulnerable limb and forget masculinity and just be open. This takes commitment because today, socially, men are still not that emotionally expressive."

Richard McLeod, who had been dancing principal roles with Atlanta Ballet when he signed on as a corps member with SFB last year, observes, "The men here are much more versatile. I think it's because Helgi lets people shape themselves. The male dancers here run the spectrum from little guys who do tricks to partners, actors, and character dancers. Even though I'm in the corps, I get to do great stuff. I really like the class of this company; people respect us."

Stephen Legate, a boyishly handsome principal from National Ballet of Canada, agrees: "A male dancer today, especially a principal, has to be able to do anything, a prince in Swan Lake one night and Le Pavane Rouge"--a techno burlesque by French choreographer Redha--"the next. In class we benefit from doing the more female-type steps." Legate refers to the fact that at SFB the men and women always take company class together rather than having a separate pointe class for the women and a male-focused technique class for the men. Several of the male dancers grumbled about not having a class of their own where they could push big jumps, deeper plies, and slower tempi at the barre. Others, however, agree that taking class with the women had certain stylistic benefits, such as a versatility that crosses gender lines.

Last season Kudelka's Terra Firma displayed the company's manpower in a two-movement ballet for ten men and ten women that opens with a militaristic prowl for nine men, who advance toward one another with an odd lurching. Kudelka's ballets often test endurance as much as strength, and Terra Firma, set to Michael Torke's minimalist Color Music, reduces the men's dancing to the bracing raw energy of regimental sorties across the stage.

It's no coincidence that Kudelka's ballets have given shape to the company's identity. It is customary for guest choreographers at SFB to be given their choice of dancers in the creation and staging of a ballet. "I've heard choreographers--and Kudelka, in particular--comment that this situation is just like being a kid in a toy store," principal David Palmer says. "I think it's very true ... We are a company with a lot of strong men. When choreographers come to create works, their own minds are expanded. As a result a lot of the works here are physically and technically very difficult, yet most of the men are very open. We try it a hundred percent. The attitude is incredibly professional!"

Indeed in Caniparoli's Lambarena, an audience favorite of the 1994-95 season, Legate, shirtless in breeches and an eighteenth-century ponytail, performs a solo of startled leaps and directional changes. As the lights rise, his torso contracts to the polyrhythms of a score that combines Bach and crescendoes of African drumming.

For many of the men, challenges lie in the classical works as well. Nissinen, an especially thoughtful dancer, notes that the relationship between repertoire and dancers is a two-way street, and that while the repertoire has helped shape the dancers, the dancers also make an impact on the repertoire. "What is special about this company is the commitment of the dancers. Everybody comes here not just to do the steps but to challenge themselves to do it to the fullest. We are not overprepared in this company, almost the opposite; the dancer is left to do the final polishing, and so there is a freshness." Christopher Stowell, a principal trained at School of American Ballet, epitomizes this new technical purity, particularly in Tomasson's Haffner Symphony; there he echoes Loscavio's variation by whipping off crisp fouettes that unwind with a switch-bladelike flick of his leg and finish with a purr.

These stylistic choices are passed along internally in the company as well. Older principals such as Stowell, Randazzo, and Nissinen often offer suggestions and impromptu coaching to new members. Jose Martin and Alex Ketley, both promising new members of the corps last year, found seasoned veterans invaluable for passing on tricks of the trade.

"When we rehearse, Chris, Tony, or Mikko have come over and told me to try this," Martin says appreciatively. "They offer me extra help, and that support is really nice." Reflecting a climate remarkably free of malice and competition, Randazzo returns Martin's compliment. "Jose is really curious," Randazzo says about coaching Martin for Randazzo's lead in Balanchine's Ballo della Regina. "He kept asking me what this step was like in Ballo and what Merrill Ashley said at this part when she coached me."

Nissinen, enumerating distinctive technical qualities of his fellow dancers, adds, "Our men are special for the speed of their petit and medium allegro and their precision and musicality. We have such a rich depth of male dancers in the company. We can be secure with who we are and lead instead of follow."

Indeed, at the end of the twentieth century, SFB's male dancers embody a fresh balance between the masculine and feminine, between Nissinen's "poetic vulnerability" and what Randazzo calls the "more labored, thicker, macho Russian style." Randazzo adds, "What I know about us comes from a certain aesthetic, a certain standard [in male dancing] that Helgi has imposed on the company. That standard includes clarity, purity of die classical form, the ability to move quickly, to move with precision, and to impart a dynamic quality to the movement.

"Helgi likes the beauty of the transition, die seamlessness. He doesn't want you to telegraph, 'I'm going to jump high now!'" These are the qualities that the twenty-eight men of the company train for daily, what the company's 50,000 season subscribers have come to expect.

Early in this century, Vaslav Nijinsky redefined the image of the male dancer with his startling portrayals in such Ballets Russes classics as Spectre de la Rose, Petrouchka, and L'Apres-midi d'un Faune. Here transformation, sexual ambiguity, and the spirit rather than the flesh became the focal points of male dancing. It is this image--absorbed, amplified, and in some respects refuted--that stands ready to lead into the next millennium. In our present fin-de-siecle era, the dancing of the men of SFB suggests that these early and radical twentieth-century images of the male have become, if not institutionalized, a part of the composite image that we know as the classical male dancer today.

When pushed to define the SFB company style for men, Randazzo says, "It moves lightly; it's clean. It just seems to me that's what is accepted as good dancing. It's what we value as an unlabored approach, one that is free, dynamic, clear, musical, and with smooth transitions ... The way men at SFB dance is fresher, more exciting, more now!" After a pause he adds, "It's a proliferation of values, of what Balanchine has given us, and how all that looks at the end of this century."

Janice Ross, a Dance Magazine correspondent in San Francisco, teaches dance history at Stanford University.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:male ballet dancers
Author:Ross, Janice
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Words:1986
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