From Merola to S.F. Ballet School Showcase

Janos Gereben on May 21, 2013
Ballet School students perform Balanchine's <em>Western Symphony</em> Photo by Erik Tomasson
Ballet School students perform Balanchine's Western Symphony
Photo by Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola (1881–1953) should also have credit for creating both the San Francisco Ballet and the company's renowned school. Here is the story on the eve of the 80-year-old S.F. Ballet School's Showcase series at Yerba Buena.

First, about the Showcase: It will take place May 29-31 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, and will feature class demonstrations and repertory works, for the benefit of the school’s scholarship and financial aid programs.

The advanced-level students will perform Stone and Steel, a work by S.F. Ballet Corps de Ballet member and former school student Myles Thatcher; highlights from Marius Petipa’s Paquita; Christopher Wheeldon’s Danses Bohémiennes; and Light Line, an all-new work by school faculty member Parrish Maynard.

“Student Showcase is a culmination of each student’s training and dedication to learning the art form,” said Ballet School Associate Director Patrick Armand.

Gaetano Merola, founder of all
Gaetano Merola, founder of all

Following the May 30 performance, a cocktail reception and dinner at the St. Regis San Francisco, is expected to raise additional funds. The variety of luxury packages available among live-auction items includes a VIP trip to New York for S.F. Ballet’s opening night of Cinderella there (see item above).

And now, the history of the school, with thanks to Lauren White for the research:

San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet School were both established in 1933 as a single institution by Gaetano Merola, to answer the need for an academy that would train dancers to appear in opera productions.

San Francisco became the only city in the country, other than New York, to claim a ballet school as an auxiliary to an established opera company. Adolph Bolm was appointed director and ballet master for the company, which occasionally presented all-dance programs. But San Francisco Ballet truly began to take shape as an independent entity when Willam Christensen became company ballet master. Two years later he appointed his brother Harold, director of the school.

In 1942, Willam and Harold Christensen bought the school from San Francisco Opera, which could no longer provide financial support to the ballet operation. As a result, the San Francisco Ballet Guild was formed in order to maintain the company. Willam Christensen was named artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, and Harold continued on as director of the school.

Harold, like his brothers Willam and Lew, the three men most responsible for guiding the company and the school for some 45 years, was American trained. He was the preeminent educator among the brothers who directed the development of ballet in the Western United States for an entire generation. Under Harold's guidance, the school evolved into one of the country's finest classical academies.

Scholarship programs were initiated and the faculty grew to include numerous prominent classical ballet teachers. Harold directed the school for 35 years, developing many dancers who went on to careers with San Francisco Ballet and other prestigious companies. When Harold retired in 1975, Richard Cammack became the new director of the school. Cammack oversaw the school's move into its current state-of-the-art facility in 1983.

Helgi Tomasson assumed leadership of the school after becoming artistic director of San Francisco Ballet in 1985. In 1986, Tomasson invited former San Francisco Ballet ballerina Nancy Johnson to head the School, a role she held until 1993, when he appointed Lola de Avila to the School's newly established position of associate director. De Avila left the position in 1999 at which time Gloria Govrin was appointed the School's associate director. De Avila returned to the position of associate director from 2006 to 2012.

Today, the school boasts a distinguished international staff, headed Armand, a trainee program for advanced-level students, a dedicated student residence, and an extensive scholarship program. Of the current company, over 50 percent of the dancers received all or part of their training at the School, and many San Francisco Ballet School students have gone on to dance with professional companies nationally and internationally.

Now, 80 years after its founding, San Francisco Ballet has indeed achieved Gaetano Merola's original goal of elevating San Francisco to a "high position in the realm of dance."