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Lighting it up: the men of SF Ballet take center stage.

THE ASTONISHMENT starts on a blustery afternoon in the biggest fourth-floor studio at San Francisco Ballet. Bart Cook is rehearsing George Balanchine's Square Dance in the amended version of the work with the serene variation added for Cook at New York City Ballet in 1976. Before making the final casting decisions, a repetiteur, like Cook, frequently tries out a couple of dancers for the potential assignment to see how they will look in context. Today there are not merely two or three aspirants assaying this exquisite adagio, but no less than five learning the role. Not all will dance the part this season, but the fact that the company boasts five men who could even be considered for this casting plum seems nothing less than extraordinary. And when Balanchine's Apollo returns to the repertoire in March after an almost fifty-year hiatus, they, and their colleagues, will be the reasons why.

Welcome to San Francisco Ballet, vintage 2004, where the male principle rules. The company's women, to be sure, comprise a splendidly diverse and accomplished team, but it's the men who inspire much of the intermission chatter these days. In his nineteenth season at the helm, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has assembled an enormously gifted and attractive male roster that elicits admiration, even wonder, here and on tour.

SOME GENERALIZATIONS: This new generation of San Francisco Ballet men, for the most part, carries foreign passports. Many arrived with already flourishing careers, and they fit no rigid stylistic profile. They came to San Francisco for the headily diverse repertoire. They don't all want to be princes. The choreographer whose work many of them want to dance more of is Jiri Kylian. The San Francisco experience many of them prize beyond all others is performing in Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering. And most declare that they are not on the way up and out to another company.

This, for the foreseeable future, is home for Gonzalo Garcia, Pascal Molat, Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, Damian Smith, Joan Boada, and David Arce--a portrait, in miniature, of a powerhouse male roster.

"I'll admit it. They're terrific," says Tomasson, unable to suppress a slight smile of satisfaction. Gone are the early, rebuilding days of his tenure when you suspected that men were sometimes hired chiefly for their height. In fact, from the beginning, Tomasson had engaged, on a seasonal basis, a group of internationally acclaimed male dancers, all of whom had been trained in different traditions of classicism, and it is those contrasting approaches to the same end that he has prized throughout his tenure. Tomasson hired the vibrant French danseur Jean-Charles Gil for the 1986-88 season, welcomed the Royal Danish Ballet's Nikolaj Hubbe for 1991, and invited The Royal Ballet's Bruce Sansom to join the troupe for 1992.

Yet it was the advent in 1994 of Bolshoi Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet principal Yuri Possokhov that propelled San Francisco Ballet to another level of expectation from its male dancers. In Possokhov, Tomasson found an artist who, notwithstanding his training, shines in all areas of the repertoire. One week the Ukrainian-born dancer moves audiences to tears as the most remorseful of Albrechts; the following week, he chills their marrow with his demonic dance teacher in Flemming Flindt's The Lesson. Possokhov's continuing presence created a buzz a decade ago. The ballet world, which may look impossibly far-flung on the map, is in fact a tightly knit network of relationships and loyalties. Building a company is a bit like chatting over a backyard fence.

THAT MAY explain why so many Spanish dancers have taken up residence by the Golden Gate. For several years, a teacher named Lola de Avila assisted Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet School. "It so happens," says Tomasson, "that Lola's mother, Maria de Avila, runs a prominent dance school in Zaragoza, Spain. That was the connection. The word of mouth spread." In the last few years, it has brought the company such ballerinos in the making as Sergio Torrado, Moises Martin, and then brother Ruben Martin, and, last year, Jaime Garcia Castilla.

Gonzalo Garcia is a special case, not merely a star in the ascendant, but a star, who, despite his early years at Maria de Avila's Estudio de Danza, came up through San Francisco Ballet School only to become the youngest dancer ever to receive a gold medal at the Prix de Lausanne. He returned to the school, where he made a strong impression in a Bouronville pas de deux during the annual student showcase performances in 1997. Tomasson promoted him to the corps fire following year and elevated him to principal in 2002. That Garcia will dance Apollo, a work saturated with historical and artistic resonances, at the tender age of 24 slightly awes him. That he was coached by Jacques d'Amboise, one of his most significant predecessors in the role, prompts a flood of words. "Apollo is like a big Christmas present. I never thought I would be cast. You think of Apollo as big and blond, with a big personality and big moves onstage. But Jacques shows you something different. He gets the personality out of your body, yet you are always in control."

IN CONVERSATION, as in performing, Garcia exudes an almost puppyish ardor; his brown eyes seem never to rest on any spot; words tumble from his mouth, in what seems like an attempt to summarize a life history in one extended sentence. He dances that way, too, as if a single performance represents the sum total of his experience.

Garcia's meteoric rise suggests another reason Europeans find San Francisco Ballet such an attractive proposition. In spite of the standard hierarchical rankings in the program, members of the corps can and do assume principal parts at the pleasure of the choreographer. European rigidity yields to American pragmatism; upward mobility is a way of artistic life.

Vilanoba learned that the hard way. A dashing, six-foot native of Lille Nord, France, gifted with a head of luxuriant black hair and a face suffused with Mediterranean warmth, he suffered a temporary career setback when he was denied a boost to principal at the Paris Opera Ballet

"Brigitte [Lefevre, director of POB] liked me very much, and even cast me as Aminta in John Neumeier's Sylvia," explains Vilanoba, "but the dancers' committee, whose vote counts for half, didn't promote anyone that year." So, a guest stint at San Francisco Ballet ("I liked the size of the company") became a permanent arrangement in 1998.

"Almost nobody thinks of leaving the Paris Opera Ballet, because it is the Paris Opera Ballet" says Vilanoba. "I must say that I was a bit scared when I left Paris, but I felt it would take more time there to achieve what I am achieving here. I didn't want to start principal roles when I was 32." A series of injuries to his calf and foot sidelined Vilanoba for extended periods, but with another Sylvia [by Mark Morris], a new Possokhov ballet, and Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto and The Four Temperaments, his dance card is full this year. Vilanoba's moment of triumph: wowing them back in Paris in San Francisco Ballet's touring Othello, by Lar Lubovitch.

IN ADDITION to opportunity, Tomasson's diverse, almost encyclopedic repertoire has proved a major lure. Pascal Molar became a household name overnight in San Francisco last year when Tomasson introduced him on the opening gala in an incendiary male quintet innocently rifled Concerto Grosso. Molat, 30, trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced with the Royal Ballet of Flanders before settling in at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. It was a secure job.

"But I wanted to more fully use my classical technique in a neoclassic repertoire," says the keenly self-analytic Molat, a compact dancer with a volatile technique, mobile visage, and intense manner only partially masked by his charm, candor, and wit. "With the experience gained in Monte Carlo, I want to transport the quality of that movement into classical dance. Perhaps it is the last challenge of my career. I have some technique, yet I don't consider myself a great technician. I may do only six pirouettes a la seconde, where some dancers will do ten. But," he says, without seeming arrogant, "those six will be beautiful."

Working with Mark Morris on Sylvia has been revelatory. "You cannot hide behind technique," notes Molat. "Mark asks for simple things, but he asks you to give your heart, soul, and spirit. You must inhabit the character. I like it much better this way."

Expanded horizons also drew loan Boada to San Francisco. Trained at the Ballet National de Cuba, the 28-year-old Havana native defected while the company was on tour in Mexico, joined the now-defunct Jeune Ballet de France, and freelanced around Europe before signing up with SFB. Despite chronic knee injuries, Boada pulled out all file stops last year for a dazzling Basil in the Tomasson/Possokhov Don Quixote. The dancer's warmth, feral quality, and (not least) sensational eyebrows brought down the house. Nevertheless, Boada yearns for more than pyrotechnical showpieces.

"The training we get in Cuba is so heavy that once we start to get Balanchine it's out of our mind. I went to the School of American Ballet to study and it was hell, all that counting, it's great to do galas all the time," says Boada, "yet, I needed a home. For three years, I was looking for a company. My manager kept saying San Francisco is not for you. You won't be a big star there. But I wanted to be a part of this group.

"The atmosphere in San Francisco is wonderful. If there is rivalry or stress here, it comes from trying to learn from your colleagues. There's nothing like that 'I wish you would fall, so I can take your place' philosophy I found at ABT. Yes, with Balanchine, you have to learn counts, and Ashton demands a different kind of port de bras from what I was taught, but it brings something out of me."

AUSTRALIAN DAMIAN SMITH, who came from France's Ballet du Nord in 1996 and was made principal in 2001, echoes Boada's sentiments about the artistic freedom in San Francisco. "Being a foreigner, the diversity of nationalities was a big factor for me," Smith says. "What I respect is that, despite different backgrounds, people work very hard in this company; it's so refreshing. It's important, too, that we produce new work every year."

Smith, who claims participation in an unequal share of premieres, is one of the company's most empathetic partners. (While you're partnering the ballerina, you must experience what she experiences, so that when you lift her, you should both melt in air.") No surprise then that he will tackle the demanding Michael Somes role in Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations this year. "It is very difficult, but it brought me to a new level of trust in ,myself," Smith notes.

And for a guy with saturnine good looks, Smith has emerged logically as San Francisco Ballet's most charismatic villain in parts ranging from an Iago who oozed pure evil in Othello to the seducer husband in Kenneth MacMillan's The Invitation. He has a way of making malice look downright alluring "A prince is always a prince," he says. "Those boundaries don't exist with villains. I love these dramatic roles."

Among Smith's most fervent admirers within the company is San Diego-born David Arce. "Damian is the closest I have to a mentor here," says Arce. "No one else has his sensibility."

ARCE JOINED San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice in 1998 and graduated to the corps in 1999. He received a major career boost two years ago when Christopher Wheeldon created a part on him in Continuum. "Chris said I had the makings of a very good partner," says Arce. "I was blown away."

Tall and outgoing, Arce, al 24, comes with curly hair, a fondness for motorcycles, and a no-frills, all-American manner, a quality you see in his dancing. He occasionally chafes at his company status, but he sees his fellow corps members handed leading assignments, and the prognosis is favorable. "I find I'm different from most people my age," he says. "They're trick- oriented and competition-driven. They're thinking about how to do it alone; they're not thinking about how to make the girl look better."

If these men share one quality, it is the desire to mature into a role, to grow into a style, to transcend technique in the search for expressivity. And no one sums it up better than Garcia. Ask him where he will be when he is 30 and he replies: "Maybe, by then, I will really understand Apollo. At the end of the day, that's all there is."

Allan Ulrich covered dance at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for twenty-two years. He is a senior editor at DANCE MAGAZINE.
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Author:Ulrich, Allan
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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