San Francisco Ballet

Dance
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Editorial Review

75 Years and Counting

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 21, 2008

It's not every day that an American ballet company celebrates 75 years. In fact, only one U.S. troupe has reached that milestone: the San Francisco Ballet, which returns to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday with two programs that reflect the company's illustrious past as well as its promising future.

Only in recent years, under the artistic direction of Iceland-born dancer-turned-choreographer Helgi Tomasson, has the company been acclaimed as world-class. It came into being in 1933, when San Francisco Opera General Director Gaetano Merola determined that his city and its new opera house required a ballet company to achieve international recognition. Eventually, that's what he got. By 1938, under the leadership of two dancing brothers -- Willam and Harold Christensen of Utah (and, later, third brother Lew) -- the company had embraced a new style of ballet: essentially American in its unfussy approach and its energetic, expansive and athletic attack.

"When I think of the beginnings of this company with the Christensen brothers, I think of their perseverance to make it work, to go through difficult times financially and keep it afloat," says Tomasson, 66. "At the same time San Francisco has always been truly a fantastic city supporting the arts, and it has very much played a part in the success of achieving our 75th anniversary."

Earlier this year, Tomasson unveiled 10 new works by as many world-class choreographers to celebrate his company's 75 seasons. Two of the 10, Christopher Wheeldon's "Within the Golden Hour" and Mark Morris's "Joyride," will have their Washington debuts at the Kennedy Center Tuesday and Wednesday, joined by Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments."

"Within the Golden Hour" features three couples in a series of pieces for string instruments. Tomasson says the work suggests lushness and whimsy in its interchanging couplings and groupings. The golden hour of the title suggests the first or last hour of sunlight, when lighting is diffuse, shadowy and, for choreographic purposes, hints at fleeting possibilities.

"Joyride," Tomasson says, is exactly that: dynamic, thrilling and deceptively simple. Think Olympian speed, grace and agility set to a score by contemporary composer John Adams. To top it all off, the dancers wear Isaac Mizrahi-designed metallic leotards adorned with flashing LED displays. "The costumes flash numbers -- 4, 9, 7, 5," Tomasson says. "It looks very contemporary. I've heard people wonder whether there is a certain code; I don't think there is. I think it's just random . . . but we're so much into the computer age right now, maybe that was the influence."

The company, which presented the first American "Nutcracker" in 1944, will also tackle a Romantic-era classic, "Giselle" Nov. 28-30. As a young man, Tomasson, now in his 25th season with the company, danced the role of Albrecht, the caddish nobleman who discovers true love too late.

Tomasson's version of the ballet is based on the 1841 original with an emphasis on details.

"It's a story, a beautiful story, if it's told well," he says. "Aside from the dance, 'Giselle' should be something that people will identify with. So I make sure small details in the mime and gesture come across. It's not a fairy tale. It's about human emotions. I felt that my goal was in part to make sure [the emotion] would not get lost."