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A Unique Energy

An Interview with Kristin Long, San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer

by Azlan Ezaddin

August, 2004 -- San Francisco, CA

When asked if there was any tradition of ballet in her family when growing up, Kristin Long says with a laugh, “Do we? No. Nothing!"

“[My mom] was a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t even have much history with music within the family, except that I love to move and I love to dance to music. I started with gymnastics. I wasn’t as daring at the uneven bars and balance beam, but the floor exercise... I would go and compete at the age of six. I was really athletic and I would always get a perfect 10. You could see right from the beginning the performing aspect was there. I was taking ballet the same time and that’s what made me realize that I couldn’t go any further with the gymnastics. I didn’t have that sort of daredevil type personality for the trips to the bars.

“Pretty much at the age of around nine I said this was what I wanted to do. I just knew and you couldn’t take my mind off of it.

"I trained in Pennsylvania, in my hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania. I started when I was around 8 and then I went to Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet every summer from the age of, let’s say 10. And then stayed at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet for a year, when I was 14 going on 15, the year before I came out to San Francisco. And that’s an incredible school. It was sort of tied into my home school.

“I moved out here when I was 15 without family. That was a big step and my parents aren’t from the type of family that would do that easily. But they could see that I was totally into it. I stayed for the year and Helgi [Tomasson] took a liking to me. I was an apprentice in ‘89 for just a month and then he gave me a corps contract. Maybe he was leery about giving me a corps contract while I was still in school because I hadn’t graduated by January. But I think he realized, ‘I’m going to take her, so I’ll just give her a corps contract.’”

A fast rising star

But within a short time, the gymnastic-like prowess and the daredevil attitude she professes not to possess made her one of San Francisco Ballet’s most exciting dancers. War Memorial Opera House audiences were thrilled consistently by her pyrotechnics as the Snow Queen in “The Nutcracker,” Kitri in “Don Quixote,” the lead principal in George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” and “Giselle” among many others. Within two years of joining the corps de ballet, Tomasson, SFB's Artistic Director, promoted her to soloist and now she is a principal dancer.

“Yeah, it was pretty quick. I remember as a soloist, feeling like maybe it was quick enough into principal. But it was a position in the company when there were a lot of dancers and lots of principal dancers. Timing was everything too. I was doing a lot of principal work but there just wasn’t a spot.”

It’s not like Long is complaining. Even as a corps dancer and a soloist, she was selected for lead roles and principal parts. At SFB, dancers aren’t always cast on their rank. “No, definitely," she declares, "Helgi does; he gives people opportunities quite a bit. I see that happening a lot now, in the last couple of years. It’s really nice for the morale of the company; it keeps the younger dancers motivated and to wanting to move ahead.”

Having risen through the ranks, starting at the school and being selected as an apprentice, she has the perfect perspective of the changes and growth at San Francisco Ballet, a company that now holds its own and is recognized by critics in New York and London as one of the top companies of the world. “When I joined, Helgi had already taken over and he had been there for almost five years. It’s changed a lot over the years but even then it was a company full of just as many great dancers as it is now. I think what Helgi has done is given us a repertoire that’s very diverse.  He uses his dancers very well. I was there when it was first making its steps. Everybody was talking about it but some people were like, ‘What? San Francisco Ballet?’

“You want to think it was those dancers who made it what it is, but Helgi keeps that going. He keeps that standard there and, yeah, it’s different from year to year but now we are at a place where we have to hold that position. Now it’s out there that it’s a great company and it's even more of a challenge for the company and its dancers, to live up to that.

“I’ve been here for a long time. I come from the generation of Evelyn Cisneros and Joanna Berman. It’s different now because there are definitely a lot more people who are from another country. That adds a nice dynamic in a lot of ways because it’s a different world that they grew up in as far as training. It’s a little bit more like pop stars now. I think there is a good part to that having that recognition and there is a bad part to that, too because it’s nice to work as a family; it’s nice to work as a group. But-- BUT, all in all, San Francisco Ballet still holds that family-type atmosphere working as a group.

“It’s the energy of this company. It’s unique. It’s unique and I think it comes from Helgi giving the rep diversity, because it certainly inspires the dancers. There are lots of interesting things to work on all the time. And not all companies in Europe get that diverse of a rep. That and the individual work ethic established here. You really love it, you really want to do it, and you work hard at it. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded. Helgi set that base too. I worked up that way. That keeps young dancers inspired and you definitely feel that energy in their performances. I’ve been to see companies where it looks like dancers are really over it.. It’s not as important what feet look like, or how thin you are. What’s more important is the energy coming from the dancers.

“There are high demands now on the technical side of things; your body, the way you look. Yes, we all have to achieve that; we have to look a certain way in this profession. But it can’t take over. The minute it takes over, it becomes the most important thing, and you lose the other.”

London Special

Long has fond memories of SFB's highly successful tours to London, at Sadler’s Wells in 1999 and Covent Garden in 2001. She looks forward to the company’s return to Sadler’s Wells in September. “The last time we went we took three programs. The Royal Opera House is exciting in a different way. It’s a whole different feeling. [New York's] City Center is more like Sadler’s Wells -- it’s very intimate. I always like dancing there. It’s just more personal. I think the audience definitely gets to see the individual a little bit more, who they are, what they’re about rather than just the dance itself.”

Long's,who also guested as Odile/Odette in the English National Ballet’s 2003 production of “Swan Lake” says,“London’s special. London’s great for me. The chance I had to perform at Royal Albert Hall with ENB in Swan Lake was really special for me.”

The chance to perform for a London-based company also gave her an appreciation of the cultural differences between American and English ballet companies. “We don’t have nearly the amount of preparation time here actually as they do there. But then again, at ENB, their rep is streamlined. They spend a lot more time working on fewer ballets. When I did “Swan Lake,” I was doing it for the first time and I had a new partner. I had five weeks of just rehearsing that. It was a luxury and it was really, really great. We don’t get that here. It doesn’t mean it’s worse -- it keeps you on your toes and allows you to figure out how to switch back and forth on your own. They don’t get to see there as much as we do here. They want to keep it in the classical style. The Kirov for example take pride in keeping that tradition up. There’s a fine line. Sometimes I’d like more rehearsal, but I somehow figure on my own how to get it. Everyone definitely helps everyone else out in this company, where there’s time for it. Getting that experience with English National helped me when I came back here -- having that amount of coaching for five weeks helped me to grow in a different way. Every experience you have in your life definitely adds to who you are as a dancer. Being a mother for example is a huge experience.”

Yes, this dancer with a reputation for her athleticism and for never shying from a technical challenge is also the mother of a boy, Kai, with her husband Michael. A few seasons ago, she performed in the so-called “mommy cast” of William Forsythe’s furiously-paced “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” along with fellow dancing mothers Tina LeBlanc and Katita Waldo. “I don’t think we think about it. We are so driven as dancers and artists to stay in shape, that it was easy to get back after our pregnancy. That was not a problem. And just being a mother feels pretty special, which adds to you as a dancer and makes you better.”

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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