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Book Review: Ballet and Big Bucks

San Francisco Ballet at Seventy Five

by Janice Ross

reviewed by Leland Windreich

To commemorate the achievements of the San Francisco Ballet on its fiftieth birthday, the late Steve Cobbett Steinberg wrote the text in 1983 for a volume dedicated to the company’s history (“San Francisco Ballet: the First Fifty Years”).  That year Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin co-directed the ballet’s artistic activities, and the company had in the previous decade taken to the streets in a massive campaign to collect public money to save the organization from bankruptcy.  The anniversary tome, full of remarkable archival photographs, told of its achievements as America’s oldest ballet company and as a determined pioneer of ballet, one which survived as an endangered enterprise for half a century. Janice Ross’ visually ravishing new coffee-table sized book comes out in an era in which the company has been operating in the black for fifteen years, and its lavish, opulent format asserts its financial as well as its artistic success.

The Christensen Brothers lived to ripe old ages, and Michael Smuin died in 2007.  Helgi Tomasson succeeded them in 1985, and it is in the era of his tenure that the company has achieved its greatest glory, becoming an internationally acclaimed troupe of artists from training centers on five continents and a stable business enterprise.  Ross, who covers the company’s history in a few pages, concentrates on a paean to the Tomasson years, amply illustrated in gorgeous, in-your-face color shots of today’s SFB dancers performing in works from its great repertoire. Most of the photos are the work of Erik Tomasson, Helgi’s son, whose contribution is mentioned in tiny print in a list of credits at the end of the book. The inclusion of a 50-minute DVD indicates that no expenses were spared to make the point of the company’s accomplishments and its current secure status.

Today’s dancers receive professional wages and don’t have to spend their summers flipping hamburgers.  In the early Christensen era, dancers gave their services free, occasionally earning five dollars an evening for an endowed performance at the Opera House. There were no unions and no capital.  Costumes for Willam Christensen’s first American version of “The Nutcracker” in 1944 were created from fabrics acquired from charity stores and draperies which once adorned a demolished theatre. The story of  SFB’s existence at the poverty level is brilliantly told in a biography by Debra Hickenlooper Sowell called “The Christensen Brothers; an American Dance Epic”(Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998).  Cobbett Steinberg and Ross tactfully bypassed the nitty-gritty and concentrated on SFB’s glittering achievements.  Both had a job to do, and both gave it their best shot.

Ross discusses Helgi’s early years from his birth in a remote Icelandic village to his dance studies in Reykjavik and in Denmark.  In Copenhagen he made the contacts that would result in a career in the U.S.A. with the Joffrey Ballet, the Harkness Ballet and ultimately with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.  His mandate when chosen to direct SFB involved a determination to achieve academic ballet excellence in the company and its school, and he hired the best teachers to accomplish that end.  For the first time in the company’s history dancers were recruited from an international pool, and choreographers were brought in from the mainstream.  Ross makes it clear that the company is a world-class institution, not to be considered merely as a regional concern.

Much of the book is devoted to the training of dancers and the maintenance of excellence in the company, and there are chapters that deal with the backstage functions, the SFB orchestra, the visiting choreographers, the company’s international tours and the vast repertoire.  In each area Ross frequently looks back to report on how a current circumstance relates to the company’s vivid past.  She has watched it grow since her own youth, serving for many years as dance critic for the Oakland Tribune and moving on to academic work as a teacher of dance history at Stanford University.  She includes excellent appendices, including a list of the hundreds of ballets performed by SFB since its inception and a roster of all dancers who appeared with the company since its debut in 1933.  Board members, angels, donors, and support personnel are listed for anyone interested.

The appended DVD contains remarkable footage of conversations with the Christensen brothers and their wives.  All have passed on in recent years.  Generous footage of both past and present activities provides a splendid souvenir of SFB’s remarkable history.

Chronicle Books, 2007.  188 pp.  illus.  ISBN: 10: 0 8118  5698 4.  $60.00

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