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City Ballet Toes the Line on Technique

October 11, 2012

City BalletThe two major ballet schools in San Francisco are run by the San Francisco Ballet and City Ballet. The former includes some 500 students; the latter, 142. Both are intensive programs designed to find and encourage young dancers with the potential to become professionals.

City Ballet School, whose graduates have gone on to dance with San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, Semper-Oper Ballett (Dresden, Germany), and Ballet San Jose, have their Fall Classic coming up later this month. This is a 75-minute showcase of dancers between 8 and 18, doing excerpts from Swan Lake and beginning with a “class concert,” musical portrayals of ballet class — as it was explained to us — etudes, riffs on interludes, and “romance” in dance class. You might also think of these as memoirs of Galina Alexandrova, the school’s artistic director. She was herself with the Bolshoi for many years. Her mother was studied with the great actor and theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski.

Tuition at City Ballet ascends from $1200 a year to $6600 a year. Auditions are serious business. “We don’t take all kids,” says the school’s administrator, Ken Patsel, euphemistically. “We’re looking for physicality, musicality, and a general understanding of what’s required to study ballet. I would say about 50 percent get in.” Last year the school accepted 15 new students; 20 didn’t make it. Some of those that didn’t make it were let go by San Francisco Ballet.

“Our task is to determine what it would take to make a dancer work in our system,” adds Patsel, the husband of Alexandrova. “The question is, does she see them as a professional? Are they capable of reaching that level? That’s the real question and, of course, as these children get older the answer gets more subjective. We tell kids at the top levels that if you cannot keep up with the curriculum we may steer you off to more contemporary forms of dance. But the point is that ballet is the epicenter. If you have strong technique you can go anywhere, to contemporary or jazz or modern; it all comes back to good technique.”

One student that the school is especially proud of is J.P. Viernes, a dancer from Half Moon Bay who had tried out for a Broadway show, was told he needed stronger ballet technique, came to City Ballet for more training and is now on the national tour of Billy Elliot The Musical playing Billy Elliot.

City Ballet also takes children as young as six, and entry is not nearly so restrictive. “We don’t put kids that age at the bar,” Patsel told us. “We do like in Moscow: a lot of rhythmic gymnastic training, strengthening. And then at 9 they might work at the bar. At these early ages, we’re looking for physicality and focus, and for those that can do the exercises. We had a young girl who tried out and was a little overweight, but her mother is a former dancer and we had the sense that this little girl’s body was going to change, and she could move. So we felt she was a keeper.”

For a look at City Ballet dancers, go to YouTube to see the selections.

City Ballet School Fall Classic, Oct. 20, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Cowell Theater.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is