(Juliet Burnett of The Australian Ballet came to visit us last month as part of her travels on the Khitercs Scholarship, and wrote about her time in San Francisco for their Behind Ballet blog. We loved her post so much we’re republishing it here!)
“As with any profession, just because you’ve “made it” doesn’t mean you should sit triumphantly, then complacently atop your podium forever. We’re all constantly learning in this great ride of life. I’ve been dancing professionally with The Australian Ballet for just over ten years now, and though I’ve lots of experience under my belt, there is always room to grow and new horizons to venture towards. In Australia, due to the tyranny of distance, the ballet world can tend to feel somewhat insular, a world away from the world, so gaining both career and life experience beyond the “bubble” is essential for growth. This is why I’ve been especially grateful for the experience afforded me by the Khitercs Scholarship, with which I have already travelled to London (The Royal Ballet), Amsterdam (Dutch National Ballet), Antwerp (Royal Ballet of Flanders) and to my other home country, Indonesia, to get in touch with the traditional Javanese dance and drama that are my family’s legacy. The final chapter of my voyage was San Francisco Ballet.
“I had heard a lot about the company. Led by its long-time director Helgi Tomasson, with its exciting dancers and repertoire, it has forged a formidable international reputation. I wanted to discover more about the company, but also the American style of ballet, now that I had delved into the English and European styles on my travels. I have been trained in the Italian Cecchetti method, the English RAD method and the Russian Vaganova method, with each informing my classical ballet technique to varying degrees, but the American technique has long eluded me. When I first joined The Australian Ballet, two of the first ballets I performed were George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, works by two of the most seminal 20th-century American choreographers. I was instantly fascinated by the movement – there was an expansive, liberal and almost fierce quality called for that was quite different from anything I had ever been taught. I’ve since danced Balanchine’s and Tetley’s ballets again, as well as works by other American choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, but finally, ten years later, I would have the opportunity to be among dancers schooled in the American style, and fully immersed in it.
“The day after I arrived, with my body clock sorted out, I took morning class onstage at the grandiose War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Ballet’s home theatre. After enjoying the taste of performance one gets when taking class onstage, I then reversed roles and took a seat out front for the matinee performance of a triple bill featuring Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour and Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Though Scotch Symphony is not my favorite Balanchine ballet, it was lovely to see his style embraced so well, with dancers displaying his trademark buoyancy, clean open lines and broad epaulement. Both Wheeldon’s and Ratmansky’s pieces demonstrated why they are two of the choreographers du jour, and the dancers were keen and confident in their expression, revealing how much a company benefits from working with a choreographer on numerous occasions, growing more fluent in their language. But perhaps what I was most taken aback by was the audience reaction. There were audible sighs for particularly beautiful moments in the pas de deux, and effusive applause after every section. Then … a standing ovation. AT A MATINEE! I’ve never seen such reception for a contemporary ballet program, and it was very refreshing. Needless to say, I joined in wholeheartedly.
“The evening show featured a different cast in the same program. Seeing a show multiple times with alternate dancers is an invaluable learning tool for a professional dancer. Differing interpretations can highlight certain details in choreography and storytelling, or conceal others in favour of playing to the dancer’s own personal strengths. Sometimes it can look like a completely different ballet. It’s not about comparing dancers; there is no “better” interpretation. Rather, it is about beholding each unique approach to expression of the same ideal. It verifies the importance of a sincere approach, for even though you can guarantee that not every single audience member is going to be enraptured by your own interpretation, a half-hearted approach holds the risk of an audience just as tentative in its reception as you’ve been in your delivery.
“The next day I watched a different triple bill, featuring Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, Mark Morris’ Beaux and resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s new Rite of Spring. Seeing six different ballets from a dazzling array of choreographers in one weekend was a true feast, and with three different sets of dancers to admire, I was gaining a sense of the company’s depth. In performance, the dancers were assured and audacious, with quicksilver fluidity and an easy grace. I couldn’t wait to get into the studio with them and perhaps uncover the secret formula for what I was thinking could be called “The American Abandon”.
“Taking class with a different group of dancers is, I feel, an important undertaking for any professional dancer. There is the obvious benefit of stepping out of your comfort zone; it’s also useful to step back and observe the dancers around you, and learn from varying approaches and work methods. As well, it affords you a window on their technique, up close and personal. Most days, company class was with ballet master Felipe Diaz. His class is thoughtfully constructed and infused with his own distinct energy and enthusiasm, and he demonstrates his exercises with remarkable articulation and aplomb. I loved that he spent a lot of time directing the pianist, moderating the tempi to allow full articulation of muscles in movement, and tactility with the floor. His Colombian origin seemed to sit well culturally too, as a number of the SFB dancers hail from South America; there were times when, had I closed my eyes, I might have felt that I was in a café somewhere like Havana!
“The dancers are, in fact, quite the United Nations. A slim majority trained at San Francisco Ballet School, but despite the diverse backgrounds, there are commonalities that distinguish San Francisco Ballet’s style. There’s a sort of spikiness about their dancing – while The Royal Ballet dancers tend to be distinguished by movement in velvety and rounded patterns, the Americans seem to move in a more sweeping and angular manner. Their bodies are pliant, with high leg extensions complemented by ever higher, more reaching spines and arms stretched right to their extremities. The SFB dancers, and indeed many American dancers I’ve seen, possess a lucidity, vibrancy and fresh fearlessness. But what I enjoyed most in America was that each movement had a very clear beginning, middle and end. One cue Felipe gave a lot in class was “accomplish it, accomplish the movement”: finish the movement, don’t spend too long getting to the point! Yes, the journey of the movement is beautiful and important, but it needs to be articulated within the parameters of movement dynamics and music. The dancers here seem to master the end point really well, giving their dancing definition and punctuation. Watching them dance is like reading a novel written clearly and succinctly, and in large print.
“The company’s performance in John Cranko’s Onegin, surely one of the greatest dramatic ballets, was good evidence of this. I watched each of the four casts in their stage and dress rehearsals, and admired each individual interpretation, but here I’ll use the performances of Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz as an example of the power of physical lucidity in storytelling. Maria is tiny in stature – standing next to her made me feel like a giant – but I was amazed by how, in the way she filled out the movement and ate up the space around her onstage with her every last cell, she magnified her body and expression and thus the story of Tatiana’s rapture and pain. Vitor, too, understood how to sculpt his lean physique, with almost feline technique and detailed character nuances, to absolutely be Eugene Onegin. It’s this understanding of one’s own physicality that opens up the greatest potential for physical expression. I think of Margot Fonteyn as the prime example of a dancer who succeeded in this. It is a beautiful and humbling thing, the reminder that all dancers have human bodies, with all their glorious peculiarities, and are constantly striving to create art with that one tool and gift that was bestowed upon them. Sure, dancers are probably in the upper percentile of a widely accepted idea of physical “perfection”, but we are still grappling with human errors. Years of training, and then intellectual and artistic maturity, result in that gracious acknowledgement of humanness, which is what you see in dancers who have truly mastered their art.
“I’d set out to San Francisco to learn more about the American ballet style, but unwittingly I had discovered a more precious pearl: no matter where you hail from, what method you trained in, or where in the world you perform, dance is a universal language, where diversity and individuality should be celebrated and communicated freely, without inhibition. The “bubble” is a mere imagining – dare to venture beyond its perceived boundaries and you realise that it doesn’t exist after all. To think it is there is detrimental to the creation of genuine and relevant art. If only every ballet company in the world could afford the energy and expenditure of constantly exchanging dancers, cross-pollinating, if you like, imagine the advancement of the art form.
“I am so indebted to all who have contributed to this experience, and long may it continue in the ballet world at large.”