San Francisco Ballet School's Virtual Festival Triumphs
A Year of Distanced Training Is No Barrier to Their Success
San Francisco Ballet School again demonstrates the high calibre of their students in this year's Virtual Festival. Known in previous years as the Student Showcase, the distancing requirements of the pandemic forced this year's performance to be presented online. Although virtual in this case also means previously recorded, this event did not disappoint. The organizers have gone to elaborate lengths to make the entire event entertaining and engaging.
The program begins with an optional home-delivered dinner at a "virtual table" where audiences can socialize, virtually of course. Intermission includes a "meet-and-greet" by students, faculty, and alumni, including School Director Patrick Armand and teachers Jason Ambrose, Kristi DeCaminada, Karen Gabay, Viktor Plotnikov, and Lisa Pomonorenko. Due to the pandemic, students had to train at home via online group calls for over a year. According to Decaminada, despite this detachment from face-to-face instruction, students still applied themselves diligently in showing up to class on time and following directions religiously. Some students' family members joined the at-home classes to lend their support.
Students from Levels 1 to 8 are shown in video clips training in studios after distancing was lifted. It is charming to see skinny little kids learning to plie, but impressive to see their development from level to level, culminating in muscled and polished men and women dancers. Along the way, we see studio scenes of students performing classics such as Gaîté Parisienne.
Hosted by San Francisco Ballet School and the San Francisco Ballet Auxiliary, the event is presented "in celebration of the next generation of ballet professionals." This is not an overstatement, given that about 70% of the SFB Company are former students of the SFB School. This high figure may come as a surprise, considering the farflung states and countries that the Company's dancers hail from. But it shows, says Company Principal dancer Tiit Helimets, the high calibre of global talent that the School's teaching attracts. The talent is more than evident in the performances by the Trainees.
All three performances are danced by Trainees. Featured works include two world premieres: Future Paper, a contemporary ballet choreographed by faculty member Dana Genschaft, and Graces, also a contemporary work, by Viktor Plotnikov. The music for Future Paper is composed by Kamran Adib and features excerpts from Jonathan Mayer's composition "Future Paper." In the video introduction, Genschaft describes this piece as inspired by the transformation of returning to the theater, "embracing the transformation that we all went through from being at home to being around other people socially and, in our case, dancing together. So this piece is really just the simplicity of moving together and not really knowing what's ahead, but celebrating the moment. It's a beautiful moment we're in right now."
Filmed at ODC studios, Future Paper begins with a backstage scene, then opens with Adib's quiet but vibrant tones. The lighting, by Jim French, is dark and introspective. Six dancers, three men and three women, dance independently in strong, graceful movements. They are joined by another woman, and begin swooping around her in supporting gestures. They break off independently again, then in pairs, as solos, and eventually returning again as a group. It is a graceful and moving piece that belies the simplicity of its theme. The filmmakers have used the advantages of a recorded performance, including closeups: an intense face, clasped hands, a solo dancer.
Viktor Plotnikov's Graces is accompanied by Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Plotnikov choreographed Graces for Trainees. In his words, "I wanted to reflect on the inner beauty of us. It's like a breath without the mask." Graces begins with Jim French's dark lighting, three men reclining with feet in the air, each pair of feet supporting a woman. The women gracefully writhe their arms, descending to partner. This is an elegant, serious piece danced to Mahler's somber yet triumphant score. If Plotnikov wanted to express the triumph of the students over the pandemic, he's done his job. From their synchronized unity to subtle movements of the head and hands, their skill is on display.
Completing the Trainees' performances is the classic Pas de Quatre from Swan Lake, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, a joyous departure from the somber Graces and Future Paper.
San Francisco Ballet School works at placing their graduates in ballet companies, with considerable success. Their Trainees are skilled and polished. They look ready to go, and go they will. Indeed, this is the next generation of ballet professionals.
San Francisco Ballet School's Virtual Festival streams for free (with a suggested donation of $29) to the general public from June 18 to 24.