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Charmed and Charming

An Interview with Nutnaree Pipithsuksunt, Soloist with San Francisco Ballet

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September, 2004 -- San Francisco, CA

When San Francisco Ballet lands in London, probably one of the first questions some dance aficionados will ask is when a young dancer named Nutnaree Pipithsuksunt is cast to dance.

The Bangkok-born dancer graduated only last May from London's Royal Ballet School, and though her name might seem a mouthful, she is something of a hometown favourite among close observers of the Royal Ballet School's young up-and-comers. London critics -- including the Telegraph's Ismene Brown and the Observer's Jann Parry -- have made note of her dancing in reviews of the school's performances practically from the moment she arrived at White Lodge. There was even a hint of sighing upon realization that England had let Pipithsuksunt slip away to the American company.

Pipithsuksunt first came to the attention of the international dance press at the Royal Academy of Dance's prestigious Adeline Genee competition in 2001, dancing the notoriously difficult slow variation from the Kingdom of the Shades in "La Bayadere." Although she was only 15 years old and among the most junior of the competitors, she won the gold medal that year, and was offered a full scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School in England.

"I wasn't expecting gold," she recalls, "I was in shock, dreaming. I was the youngest one -- so I just hoped I'd get into the final. And when I got into the final I told my mom, oh I might get a chance to get a medal, but I thought bronze -- the maximum was silver."

Since then though, Pipithsuksunt's career has progressed apace. While she studied at the school, she had opportunities to perform abroad as well, including at the Teatro alla Scala's gala for the 190th anniversary of their school, as well as in Hamburg. It was there that she was first spotted by Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet.

"Our artistic director introduced me to him and I think they were talking about me, though I didn't know that," she says frankly. "I told him that I was going to visit Houston -- I was offered a contract there and also at ABT Studio Company. So I went to Houston to see the company and then I went to New York. I just wanted to be in America.

"While I was in America, I got a call, 'San Francisco wants you to come. Do you want to go?' And I was like 'How?'" she says with a laugh, "I'd already booked my flight to come back to London to come back to school. And she said, 'No, they're going to arrange everything for you.' So I finally came here and I was in awe."

She was in for another surprise when Tomasson offered her a coveted soloist contract. This unusual move means she bypasses the corps de ballet level, but it also means there's extra pressure to live up to expectations.

In an afternoon rehearsal of Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight," Pipithsuksunt is dancing the lead pas de deux with Pierre-François Vilanoba. Originally essayed by one of the resident ballerinas of the company, Yuan Yuan Tan, with Yuri Possokhov, the two central pas de deux are set to expressively slow movements by J.S.Bach and it's a measure of how highly Tomasson regards Pipithsuksunt that he's given her the role to tackle.

Most of the dancers plop down next to each other during rehearsal, chatting, some of the women sewing pointe shoes. Pascal Molat and Joan Boada are good-naturedly running through their paces in a series of fast beats and wildly difficult looking coupe jetes, but Pipithsuksunt is still shyly hanging about the edges of the studio, perhaps not yet settled into the company. Still, when Tan dances with Possokhov, she is right there, watching carefully and one imagines, absorbing everything

But Pipithsuksunt's interpretation of the duet with Vilanoba turns out to be wholly different in tone. Perhaps its most surprising aspect is the maturity she suddenly displays. All the usual superficial requisites for today's would-be ballerina -- high développés and arches that seem to extend toward the audience like proffered wrists-- are in place, but there is a more serene authority that also marks her dancing.

With all that poise, it's easy to forget that Pipithsuksunt is eighteen -- she'll turn nineteen this November.

"Half of me feels like a student. And half of me feels like, 'No, I'm in a company now. I have to act a different way,'" she admits, "I feel like I have to prove myself, because people will look at me like, 'Oh, she went straight from school and now she's a soloist.' And they will look at me like, 'Oh well, show me what you've got.'"

Still, she notes that she's gotten to talk to some of the dancers in the company who encouraged her not to worry, to "just go out there and dance." It's advice she seems to have taken to heart.

Audiences at Sadler's Wells can see her dancing in the third theme of George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments" with Moises Martin, and also in the lead pas de deux in Helgi Tomasson's "7 for Eight" with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba. Check the San Francisco Ballet's website for casting updates later this month.

San Francisco Ballet at Sadler's Wells, 20-25 September, or +44 (0)20 7863 8000.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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