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A summer of Forsythe, Kylian, and Naharin.


On a July afternoon, 22-yearold Victoria Canelos rested in the dancers' lounge at the downtown Regency Center, a building that serves as the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance's main late summer headquarters. In a studio behind one door, Netherlands Dance Theater ballet mistress Elke Schepers was teaching 14-to 16-year-olds excerpts from Jiri Kylian's Falling Angels. Behind another door, modern dance choreographer Robert Moses was leading a high-energy technique class.

Students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance have the opportunity to learn choreography by such international superstars as William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin, and Kylian--big names, to be sure. But an equal draw for many of the school's 170 summer session participants is the chance to study under the conservatory's founder and director Summer Lee Rhatigan.

Eating a hasty lunch, Canelos--who had quit dancing for two years after beginning her professional career with Miami City Ballet--recalled first meeting Rhatigan when she served as a guest teacher at the University of Arizona. "I said I need to be where this woman is," Canelos remembers. "I hadn't been inspired in the studio for quite some time."

A former member of the London Festival Ballet, Oakland Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and LINES Ballet, Rhatigan struck out on her own with the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance in 2004 after spending two years launching the competing LINES Ballet School. The conservatory does not yet have a permanent home, dividing its three summer sessions between two rented facilities in San Francisco. But it does have a distinctive atmosphere: intellectually as well as physically challenging, encouraging personal discovery and risk-taking.

Many students credit that environment to Rhatigan's regal yet encouraging presence. The conservatory attracts dancers on summer break from programs like Ailey/Fordham and Juilliard. Some students stay to study with Rhatigan year-round. Those who opt for summer study choose among three sessions: The first is six weeks long and designed for dancers 18 to 23; the second and third sessions are each a month long and welcome dancers as young as 14. Many students take all three sessions back to back, committing themselves to six days of dancing a week. Some stay in student dorms at the University of San Francisco, but most opt for private accommodations.

Each day begins with ballet technique taught by Rhatigan, who describes her classes as "rooted in the Royal Ballet School," where she trained and even served as a student demonstrator for Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois.

But rather than reinforcing a single idea of "correct" technique, Rhatigan's classes stress scientific and anatomical principles and push dancers to make artistic choices. In a typical class, she calls out things like, "The spine is not just a T-junction, it's a spring," "In chaine, you're gathering energy, as opposed to shedding energy," and "Put care into the change of direction. Your understanding of that change is where you can be nuanced."

Morning technique class is followed by sessions in which students are assigned to separate "companies," each learning existing repertory and new work with conservatory faculty--which along with Moses includes Bay Area artists Manuelito Biag, Eric Kupers, Stephen Pelton, and others--and studying excerpts of repertory by Forsythe, Naharin, and Kylian. All of the works are performed in student showcases at the Regency Center at the end of each session. The challenging workload means participants must be mentally as well as athletically resilient.

"They have to be physically strong because this program is intense," Rhatigan says of what she looks for. "But also curiosity is a big deal. You can see it in their bodies."

Creativity is reinforced by the improvisation-based process of many of the conservatory's faculty choreographers. A choreographic apprentice residency track is also offered, providing up to 10 hours of studio time weekly for students to practice their craft and create their own works.

Constant creative engagement is expected of all students. In a workshop with former Ballett Frankfurt dancer Thomas McManus, students collaborated on their own staging of Forsythe's Hypothetical Stream, a work that requires performers to come up with their own solos and tableaux based on paintings by 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. After taking a field trip to see Tiepolo paintings at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, the students set to work intently in groups of twos and threes or alone, occasionally coming to the front of the room to consult a book of Tiepolo works, then entwining themselves in novel interpretations. "They're not afraid to be creative," says McManus, "to put themselves forward and have their own voice."

Erin Craig, a 21-year-old student, says Rhatigan provides "a safe haven." Rhatigan knows every student's name, and even studies their files to acquaint herself with their dance backgrounds before they arrive. Her door is always open to young dancers who need moral support or career advice. Her personal concern for the students allows her to be candid in her feedback. "I can say 'That was horrible, and let me tell you why,' and they'll laugh," Rhatigan says. "They've gotten used to hearing the truth. And they can start to see when something's not the truth--they learn to see lies in movement."

Her honesty and high expectations have clearly proved motivating. "This is one of the few places I've found that is set up to facilitate our personal growth," says Craig.

As she finished her lunch, Canelos added, "I've been more inspired than I ever have in all my years of dancing."

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Title Annotation:2009 SUMMER STUDY GUIDE; William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin and Jiri Kylian
Author:Howard, Rachel
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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