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Cherishing a life in dance

An interview with Dalene Bramer, San Francisco Ballet Dancer

by Azlan Ezaddin

August, 2004 -- San Francisco

It seems that Dalene Bramer has spent her entire life at San Francisco Ballet. “I’ve worked my whole life since I was eight years old with the San Francisco Ballet. So I know it pretty much better than most people.”

Yet Bramer’s precocious talents may not have blossomed professionally had she not been bitten by the performance bug. “When I was eight, I wanted to be in 'Nutcracker’ on stage. That’s why I came to San Francisco Ballet School but I didn’t really have the intention of being a professional dancer at that point in time. But after 'Nutcracker,' they picked me for Helgi [Tomasson]’s new 'Swan Lake' -- to be one of the children in that also. And so I said, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll stay.'  I was fortunate in that my mother could commute and drive to the city from Santa Rosa, which is a pretty long haul.

“Then I did a summer program at School of American Ballet in New York and I was invited to stay for the year there also. This was when I was 12. I performed with the Royal Ballet that season in New York actually. It was a big deal because they hadn’t been back to New York in, I think, four years. Three hundred girls auditioned and four kids got the part. There was a little solo, and I was like ‘Wow! I’m talented.’ So I decided I should go for it.

“When I was 12, I wanted to be a professional dancer and San Francisco Ballet School used me very consistently. From 14 on, I was dancing for the company -- they were prepping me for the company. I knew I would get in here. I auditioned for Boston Ballet and I got in there also, so I had a fallback plan in case something didn’t happen here. I broke my foot a week before our last day of performance, so it was a little bit disappointing. I thought there was a possibility Helgi [Tomasson] wouldn’t hire me but he did. I’m very happy here. I do believe this is the best company; it would make me very sad to have to leave. But it’s hard you know. People have to leverage their careers and do things.”

Travelling through time in Russia

Besides training at SFB School and at SAB in New York, Bramer also trained with the Bolshoi Ballet both in Vail, Colorado and in Moscow, which gave her a perspective on the rich heritage of Russian ballet. “It was pretty amazing. My main influence in San Francisco Ballet School was Irina Jacobson. She was really my mentor and I had her for five years of my training. She coached me in the lead of 'Les Sylphides' and also 'Giselle.' I did the 'Peasant' pas de deux-- I did her version. So going to Russia was very familiar already, because I knew what they wanted. Just being in the building…the studios had wooden raked floors that they watered with a watering can between barre and center -- that was one girl’s job to go around watering. You really felt the historical sense of ballet and where it came from.”

Bramer likens the experience to traveling back in time. “Yeah, it was. The teachers there are very pure. And at that time it was right when it was changing over from communism. So it was in upheaval. You could feel the corruption starting to happen, but all the great teachers hadn’t left yet. So, it was a very valuable experience for me.

“The director of the Bolshoi now is Alexei Ratmansky -- who choreographed 'Le Carnaval des Animaux' -- so that’ll help them. He was amazing to work with.”

Besides dancing as the Turtle in Ratmansky's ballet, Bramer, despite being in the corps de ballet, has also caught the attention of other choreographers and ballet repetiteurs who have assigned her soloist and demi-soloist roles. She has been selected for significant parts in such works as “Rush” by Christopher Wheeldon, “Paquita” staged by Natalia Makarova, Peter Martins’ “The Waltz Project,” Kenneth MacMillan’s “The Invitation,” and George Balanchine’s “Diamonds.”

Of her demi-soloist performance in “Diamonds,” wrote a member in the CriticalDance forum, “The four soloists were also near perfect -- Catherine Baker, Sherri LeBlanc, Leslie Young and corps member Dalene Bramer as an unannounced replacement for Tiekka Schofield.” Another posted, “And as a soloist in 'Diamonds,' Dalene Bramer hit a solid balance in a textbook-perfect arabesque on one of her exits, that she held for what seemed an eternity. Perhaps no one really noticed it, because there was so much else going on onstage, but I found myself riveted.” Yet another comment had it, “… to be honest, I was distracted by the soloist partnering of Chidozie Nzerem and Dalene Bramer -- they make for such an exciting pair and, in my eyes, Bramer was in character more consistently so than any of the other dancers in soloist roles. Yet both Nzerem and Bramer are still corps members -- I hope they make soloist next season.”

Bramer is delighted by the attention she’s receiving, “Oh, thank you! Somebody notices!" she laughs, "I need that. There’s so much self-motivation involved, you don’t get as much positive feedback as you really need. It’s part of the internal struggle; keep pushing and pushing no matter what. So, it’s valuable.”

She also hopes others in the company notices her as well. “I work very hard every day and I try to continue to grow artistically and technically. The only way you can is by getting soloist parts and by having them push you a little, too. So, that’s what I want. I want to be a soloist and hopefully my momentum will pick up, keep going and I’ll continue getting more and more parts because it’s so much more rewarding artistically. I mean some ballets have wonderful corps parts. ‘Square Dance’ is a wonderful corps ballet that’s challenging and technically very difficult and very rewarding to dance. It depends on the work. There are many corps ballets that I love dancing in. But to continue to grow and to mature, you need more soloist parts. I’m excited and hopefully will continue getting more.”

Camaraderie and spirit are in the work ethic

Having been through the system at San Francisco Ballet, Bramer is well-qualified to comment on the growth of the company. “The quality of dancing has improved, technical aspects of it. People are pushing for more, and harder. And also there is a nice balance of camaraderie and competition between the dancers. Of course everyone wants the same parts but at the same time people are really supportive of each other. We tell each other that they did a good job and it’s not like that cutthroat, really mean type of atmosphere that you can get and I’ve heard of. Luckily, the people are nice but also work really hard, I think Helgi infused that work ethic into the company when he first came and it’s stuck. It’s propelling itself at this point.

“I think we have the best repertoire, the most diverse rep here as far as doing lots of classical works and a good amount of Balanchine. And also we get amazing new choreographers that come in to do great pieces for us and who like to work with us. The fact that Mark Morris did a full length ballet on our company and really likes working only with our company tells you something about us; I think the dancers are pretty humble and open to people’s ideas and they want to do what the choreographer’s vision is. So I think people like working with us and will continue to come back. We have a pretty long season. We have a 42-week contract and we have great benefits. There are many things that are great.”

Bramer has noticed that the high-level of camaraderie and spirit isn’t limited to dancers but has spread throughout the staff, including those in the box office. “Yeah, they’re fans. They’re not just working to make ends meet. They really love it. My sense is that it is unique, the dedication. This is a great group of people as far as everyone is really kind and supportive of one another. The whole organization is. They have a true passion and love for the art form more so than ‘it’s just a job and I go because I need to make a paycheck.’ People really don’t have that attitude. The dancers don’t have that attitude and in some companies they do. At a certain point they become jaded or whatever. People really aren’t here. And I bet overall people aren’t jaded. Their artistic interest remains high, even down to the lowest levels in the organization, wherever you look. People are really excited about what they’re doing and wanting to keep making a better thing. I think Helgi is responsible in part, but he has good people around him. Somehow good people seem to be drawn to this organization.”

Bramer is looking forward to returning with the company to London in September, especially since an injury to her ankle prevented her from joining the company at Covent Garden in 2001. However, she remembers vividly the audience’s overwhelming applause during the company’s performances at Sadler’s Wells in 1999. “Yeah, I was surprised, especially since I hadn’t been in the company that long at that point. And the appreciation we feel from European audiences is much different. I think the audience in San Francisco is conservative in showing their appreciation for us. When we go on tour to Europe and the East Coast sometimes, people are screaming and giving standing ovations. In Paris also, the crowd was very excited. It was really wonderful.

“I liked Sadler’s Wells Theater which was very cozy and intimate. I think we performed ‘Sandpaper Ballet’ [by Mark Morris] there. They loved that. That was really an entire company effort. Mark Morris doesn’t discriminate. I have memories of them really liking ‘Sandpaper’ and responding well.  Just in general it’s very exciting when we tour internationally to prove ourselves and for the audience to be surprised and excited by what we’re doing.”

There is ample opportunity for Bramer to shine in London given the repertoire for the tour, but this California girl doesn’t forget her roots and doesn’t take things for granted. “I feel very privileged to be a member of the company and to be able to dance as my livelihood. I cherish that. I don’t forget how lucky I am.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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