An exceptional feature in the history of the country’s oldest professional ballet company has been the successful production of international festivals with dozens of premieres and the participation of great artists from around the world.
Fond memories include the “UNited We Dance” international festival, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco as 12 ballet companies joined San Francisco Ballet to present world premieres.
Marking the company’s 75th anniversary, the “New Works Festival” in 2008 presented 12 new ballets by choreographers chosen from the U.S. and Europe.
And now, as a highlight of SF Ballet’s 90th-anniversary season, another great festival is about the open. It’s “next@90,” featuring nine world premieres by innovative international choreographers, “centering the innovation of the dance world right here in San Francisco for our 90th anniversary,” the company proclaims.
As with previous festivals, this too was organized by Helgi Tomasson, the company’s artistic director from 1995 to 2022. The company’s new artistic director, Tamara Rojo, will begin programming and choreography with the 2024 season.
Of the new festival, Kate Share — SF Ballet’s manager of wardrobe, wig, makeup, and costume construction — says, “One of the most exciting things about ‘next@90’ is seeing how different one ballet looks from the next, like Bridget Breiner’s The Queen’s Daughter, which is stark and minimalistic, and Dani Rowe’s Madcap, which looks like it’s drawn from a deranged circus. Each ballet is its own ecosystem of creation.”
Davide Occhipinti, a dancer in the company’s corps de ballet, says working with Rowe “has been such an inspiring and enriching experience. Both the choreography and the process itself have been such a blast to be part of.
“Nicolas Blanc’s choreography also has a very organic movement quality. I’m looking forward to performing Gateway to the Sun onstage.”
Yuka Oishi, debuting choreographer of Bolero, told SF Classical Voice, “Being able to work with brilliant dancers for my U.S. debut has been a fantastic opportunity, but that’s not most important about this project. ... I believe that there is value in creating something together from nothing and sharing it with everyone, and not only with this work. The creators who live in the present give shape to their imagination in order to pass it on to the future.”
A quick detour into history: It was the forerunner of SF Ballet — San Francisco Opera Ballet — that Adolph Rudolphovich Bolm formed in 1933 as an SF Opera department to provide dancers for opera productions.
Bolm graduated from the Russian Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg in 1904, and in the same year, he became a dancer with the Mariinsky Ballet. In 1908–1909, he ran a European tour with Anna Pavlova and later collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris along with several other dancers from the Mariinsky.
In 1917, during an American tour by the Ballets Russes, Bolm suffered a serious injury in the ballet Thamar, spending weeks in the hospital, which ended his dancing career. After being active in New York, he came to San Francisco and begot SF Opera Ballet.
It was in 1942 that the Ballet became a separate entity from the Opera and was renamed San Francisco Ballet. Willam Christensen was appointed artistic director, and his brother Harold became director of the SF Ballet School, a position he retained for 33 years. Willam Christensen staged the first full-length American productions of Coppélia (1938), Swan Lake (1940), and Nutcracker (1944).
So it’s fitting that “next@90” features a rich variety of choreographers from various companies, veterans and debuting artists alike. Two works are created by dancer-choreographers long associated with SF Ballet: Val Caniparoli with Emergence and Yuri Possokhov with a bold reimagining of Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, also the score for one of George Balanchine’s beloved masterpieces, which has a frequent production in the War Memorial.
Caniparoli joined SF Ballet in 1973 and is now celebrating a unique 50th anniversary with the company. In addition to dancing as a principal character dancer since 1985, he has created more than 20 works for SF Ballet, including Ibsen’s House, which premiered during the 2008 “New Works Festival.” Caniparoli’s ballets have also been performed by more than 60 dance companies around the world.
Principal character dancers are those rare creatures in ballet, combining excellence with longevity in a profession that sometimes chews people up in months, not years. Besides Caniparoli, notable dancers in this category included Ricardo Bustamante (who joined the company in 1980), Jorge Esquivel (who started his career with National Ballet of Cuba in 1968 and joined SF Ballet in 1993), and Anita Paciotti (1968).
Caniparoli’s “next@90” ballet, Emergence, is set to British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello and Strings and includes costumes by Susan Roemer and lighting design by Jim French.
“We’ve been so secluded by the pandemic, and now we are emerging,” Caniparoli says of his new work. “We don’t really know what to do with that and facing new variants, a new war. ... I put everything in the ballet, the isolation, what happens to relationships, the uncertainties facing all of us.
“In my work, I’ve been inspired by music and literature; here I was captured by the music of Tabakova, its dynamics. In the slow section, there is something so heartfelt in the music; finding that was a revelation.”
Possokhov’s illustrious career as a choreographer followed significant dancing positions: After training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, he danced for 10 years with the Bolshoi Ballet and two years with the Royal Danish Ballet before joining SF Ballet as a principal dancer in 1994.
His works for SF Ballet have had the widest possible range in music and concept, from comic to tragic — Magrittomania, Swimmer, RaKu, Optimistic Tragedy, and Francesca da Rimini, among them.
“Stravinsky’s music from 1951 sounds so contemporary ... and so Russian,” Possokhov says. “I danced this [the Balanchine choreography] so many times, it’s my favorite ballet, but there is no connection between that and my work. I needed to do this now. My memory of Balanchine comes back, of course, but this impulse gives me the chance to express myself.”
This is the complete lineup for “next@90”:
Friday, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 22 at 2 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 11 at 2:00 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 21 at 8 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m.
Sunday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 27 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 28 at 8 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 4 at 2 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 5 at 2 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets for SF Ballet’s 2023 season start at $29 and may be purchased online or by calling (415) 865-2000.