I performed at Stern Grove for the first time in August of 2007. It actually was a full-circle experience, because the first time I ever saw San Francisco Ballet perform was at Stern Grove. I was attending the School’s summer program and they took us to see the show one Sunday. It was a surprising performance to me because all the dance shows I had seen before were indoors and certainly of a lower caliber than SFB. I remember wondering what it would be like to actually see the audience five feet away, or to feel the outside air as opposed to climate-controlled theater interiors. I definitely didn’t expect to be performing with this company on that same stage just a few years later. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t tortured with curiosity for too long!
That first year, we performed Paul Taylor’s Spring Rounds. I think the piece is well-suited to open-air performances. With all the green costumes rushing around, it sometimes feels like performing in a forest regardless. There are a few huge differences between Stern Grove and performing at our usual War Memorial Opera House. For starters, we don’t hold a dress rehearsal at Stern Grove so it requires the dancers to be even more present and conscientious during the performance. Going straight into the performance without a stage rehearsal creates an added dimension of excitement, forcing you to be hyper-aware of your placement on stage alongside the other dancers, while experiencing the utter freedom of dancing outdoors. The extra focus and adrenaline that this situation brings is nice.
There is also the difference of having fresh air against your skin. As a dancer, you react to your physical surroundings strongly. We are always monitoring how hot or cold a studio is, how the sun is coming in, etc. Having the fresh air whipping around you, birds flying overhead, and the smell of a forest changes the way you dance, and not just temperature-wise (whether you’re warmed up enough or if it gets too hot). The nature around affects the essence you put into your dancing. Particularly with Spring Rounds, a piece so grounded in nature and vibrancy, you notice the difference. I felt more exuberance and joy performing this ballet outside, as though the movement was happier with sunshine around it instead of stage lights. And there’s nothing quite like wind blowing around you as you move.
Then, of course, there’s having the audience right in front of you, in broad daylight. I think this affects dancers differently. Some love to be able to make eye contact with audience members, and some would much prefer to see only darkness in front of them. Each person has their own idea of performing and how they are most comfortable doing it. Personally, I like having an audience in front of me… most of the time! It can be distracting as well; having a mother rush away a crying baby can break your concentration. Of course, these things can also happen in the Opera House, but being able to see it all so clearly is different.
As a whole, performing at Stern Grove is a great experience. Dancing outside, connecting with your audience, performing amidst our usual rehearsal months, putting on a free show for our community: it’s a good feeling to be a part of it. As a dancer and artist, it’s rewarding.