Host Andi Yannone interviews Ballet Master Betsy Erickson and discusses how Cinderella is rehearsed and put together. In particular, they discuss the challenges of a trans-continental co-production during the initial creative process.
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Gong, chimes, woodblocks…. typewriter? In this special edition of To The Pointe, David Rosenthal, SF Ballet Orchestra’s Principal Percussionist, discusses his role in “The Typewriter,” composer Leroy Anderson’s most famous novelty number and one of eleven pieces in Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet, onstage February 11–22.
At the end of the podcast, David performs a snippet of the piece with help from PR & Communications Manager Kate McKinney, who “chimes” in with the carriage return.
Join Associate Director of Audience Development, Jennie Scholick, PhD for an exploration of the ballets on Program 2: Classical (Re)Vision. Hear from choreographer Stanton Welch and find out what to look for in his Bespoke, the rotating Director’s Choice ballets, and Mark Morris’s Sandpaper Ballet.
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Members of the Production Staff discuss the demands of their positions as they “create the magic” of a fairy tale on stage. Jane Green, Production Stage Manager, describes the complexity of running this show; Kate Share, Manager of Wardrobe, Wig, Make-up, and Costume Construction, talks about the elaborate costumes and some of the difficulties the dancers encounter in accommodating them; Ken Ryan, Master of Properties, reveals the “secrets” behind the golden slipper so important to this story.
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Basil Twist, a puppeteer, defines that term broadly—as bringing inanimate objects to life. His genius (and he has the receipts, earning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015) is noticing the way objects and materials move and flow, and drawing upon these characteristics to transform them. It takes a creative eye to realize, for example, that a swath of silk could billow into a carriage or that projections could animate a tree, making it wave and sway and seemingly “dance.”
Twist grew up in San Francisco, the child and grandchild of puppeteers. His mother founded a group of puppeteers who performed at hospitals and schools, and his maternal grandfather, Griff Williams, was a big band leader who included puppets that resembled Cab Calloway and Harry James in his shows. Twist made puppets as a kid, grew out of it in high school, returned to puppetry as a college student in New York City, and was admitted to the three-year program at France’s national school for puppeteers in Charleville-Mézières. He’s the only American to have graduated from the program.
Back in New York, his breakout work, Symphonie Fantastique, originated when he found a discarded fish tank. After repairing it, Twist experimented with the different ways fabric and other materials like feathers and bubbles moved in water. For the show, he upgraded to a 500-gallon tank and, similar to a choreographer, set abstract movement to music, in this case Berlioz’ symphony.
Twist’s career has since exploded, and extends from Broadway shows to the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, on which he consulted for the underwater puppetry. On Broadway, Twist has contributed to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory;Oh, Hello; The Addams Family, for which he won a Drama Desk Award; and the Pee-wee Herman Show. Additional work includes The Araneidae Show, Dogugaeshi, Petrushka, Behind the Lid, Arias with a Twist, and Sister’s Follies, among others.
Symphonie Fantastique caught the eye of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the two collaborated on Cinderella for San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, The Winter’s Tale for the The Royal Ballet, and The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet. In dance, Twist has also contributed to Darkness and Light with Pilobolus; Wonderboy with The Joe Goode Dance Company, Underground River with Jane Comfort & Company and Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, a Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet collaboration. His maverick Rite of Spring, a ballet without dancers, premiered in 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill and went on in 2014 at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.
“This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he continues. “And the tree growing onstage … it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” Twist is thrilled, he says, to have “my own tree on the same stage.”
In addition to the fairytale characters, Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is filled with magical creatures, from Spirits of the Seasons who teach Cinderella to dance, to Tree Gnomes and Fates. Photographer Erik Tomasson captured many of the characters backstage, warming up, rehearsing, or just waiting for their cue—offering a close-up, behind-the-scenes at the quirky beauty of this production of Cinderella.
Every morning, Esteban commutes from Laurel Heights on his green Vespa, which he purchased right after Nutcracker season in 2014. He feels it’s the best way to get around San Francisco since the city is fairly small. Before a busy performance day, he tries not to think too much about dancing until he gets to the theater.
Company class usually takes place in the Harold Christensen Studio in the ballet building, but during Nutcracker it is often held onstage in the War Memorial Opera House. Miranda stays calm and warms up her entire body in preparation for the day ahead. She thinks about how her body feels and mentally picks out a pair of pointe shoes to wear for the day’s performances. Esteban places himself at his regular spot—at the last bar in the back of the theater—and makes sure he activates every part of his body as best as he can. He says, “Company class is the best preparation for any role, any performance.”
Miranda carefully pulls her hair into a bun as she prepares for her transformation into a Snowflake. She has also been cast as a Spanish dancer, a French Mirliton, Flower, and Gertrude, the “mean” maid in Nutcracker. She says, “As you know, I’m from Spain so I really enjoy performing the Spanish dance. I’ve taken Flamenco since a young age, and it’s fun to show that side of me.”
As one of the Snowflakes, Miranda dances during a blizzard of theatrical snow at the end of Act I. She notes that it can be difficult to perform during all that snow, but she always looks forward to the climax when the music picks up and the snow flurries become a blizzard. After the Snow scene, she’ll quickly change into her French Mirliton costume for the Act II divertissements. “Twirling the ribbons while dancing is a challenge, but this role is another one of my favorites!”
Between the two shows, Esteban runs over to a local restaurant for a meal. He also takes a 45-minute nap at the Ballet building so he’s well rested before another round of Russian dances.
In the women’s dressing rooms, Miranda eats a bowl of pasta: “I find that it gives me the right kind of energy before a performance.”
The center role in the Russian variation is one of Esteban’s favorites. At intermission, he rehearses all of the major steps one time through and moves on to stretching to ensure his knees and ankles are warm. Esteban also enjoys performing the Chinese divertissement. “I have fun with it!” he says.
Meanwhile, Miranda prepares for the Flower scene by executing a complete barre warm-up using a chair as her barre.
After a full day, Miranda and Esteban are both happy to go home and relax. Miranda enjoys the biggest meal of her day—usually a meat dish—and readies her pointe shoes if she has the time. Although she usually sews on her ribbons between rehearsals, Nutcracker season is such a busy time that she tries to prepare her shoes in bulk. Esteban also fixes a meal for himself and focuses on getting enough sleep, before waking up and hopping on his Vespa for another busy day of Nutcracker.
Esteban hails from Guadalajara, Mexico and trained at The Royal Ballet School and The Rock School in Philadelphia before joining SF Ballet in 2013. He was promoted to soloist in 2017 and to principal dancer in 2019. He has performed many parts in Nutcracker, including featured roles in the Spanish, Chinese, and Russian divertissements.
Miranda spent most of her childhood in Spain before joining SF Ballet School’s Trainee Program. In 2014, she was named a SF Ballet corps de ballet member after a year as an apprentice. She has performed many roles in Nutcracker, including a snowflake, a flower, and featured roles in the Spanish and French divertissements.
Congratulations to Ballet Masters Betsy Erickson and Anita Paciotti! Both were recognized as Christensen Society Honorees at SF Ballet’s annual Chairman’s Council Dinner in November. Named in memory of the three brothers (Willam, Lew, and Harold Christensen) whose artistic vision pioneered SF Ballet, the Christensen Society selects one or two honorees each year, recognizing individuals who have made a significant contribution (artistic or otherwise) to San Francisco Ballet.
Betsy Erickson began her formal dance training on a Ford Foundation Scholarship at San Francisco Ballet School, where she studied with Lew and Harold Christensen and Anatole Vilzak. In addition, she studied for many years with Valentina Pereyslavic and Hector Zaraspe in New York.
Erickson spent 20 years dancing professionally with San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Her repertory with SF Ballet included principal roles in works by George Balanchine, Lew Christensen, Jerome Robbins, and Michael Smuin. The central pas de deux in Lew Christensen’s Vivaldi Concerto Grosso was created expressly for her.
In recognition of her choreography for SF Ballet and Oakland Ballet, Erickson has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a California Arts Council Fellowship, six National Endowment for the Arts choreographer fellowships, and a National Dance Residency Program Grant.
Erickson was appointed ballet master in January 1992. She is responsible for staging and rehearsing multiple ballets in SF Ballet’s repertory, including works by Val Caniparoli, Lew Christensen, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins, and Helgi Tomasson.
Anita Paciotti, a native of Oakland, California, majored in drama at UC Berkeley. She studied at San Francisco Ballet School and joined the Company in 1968, performing leading roles in works by Sir Frederick Ashton and Lew Christensen. In addition, she performed soloist roles in several George Balanchine ballets, including Serenade, Stars and Stripes, Symphony in C, and the Choleric variation in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.
Paciotti was appointed principal character dancer in 1987 and created the role of Carabosse in Tomasson’s The Sleeping Beauty. In 1993, she created the role of Nurse in Tomasson’s production of Romeo & Juliet. That year also marked the 30th anniversary of Paciotti’s participation in San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, and 2018 was Paciotti’s 50th year with San Francisco Ballet.
Paciotti was appointed rehearsal assistant in 1982 and was promoted to ballet master in 1991. As ballet master, she is responsible for staging and rehearsing ballets by multiple choreographers, including Cathy Marston, Yuri Possokhov, Jerome Robbins, Helgi Tomasson, and Christopher Wheeldon.
Header images: (left) Anita Paciotti in Sir Frederick Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée, circa 1978; (right) Betsy Erickson as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Gary Wahl as her Cavalier in a performance of Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, 1978.
This week, San Francisco Ballet School Trainees take three world premieres to Idaho’s heartland: Dana Genshaft’s Heliotrope, Karen Gabay’s Amour et Printemps, and Alexandre Cagnat’s In Memory of Forgetting.
Creating new ballets is an important part of the Trainees’ pre-professional training. But what does it take? We spoke to three choreographers to find out.
A Legacy of Contribution: Dana Genshaft’s Heliotrope
“This is is your opportunity to contribute as a dancer. We’re making this ballet together,” says Dana Genshaft. She’s addressing Jasper Stanford, a seventeen-year-old Bay Area native and the subject of the first-act solo in Heliotrope, her new ballet heading to Sun Valley this week.
As an SF Ballet School Trainee, Stanford has fine-tuned his technique; his turns are crisp, and his jumps are high. But to Genshaft, the next step in Stanford’s pre-professional training—and arguably the most challenging one—is to empower him to bring his ideas to the table: “It’s typical for a choreographer to prefer to work with professional dancers, because professional dancers will finish your sentences for you,” Genshaft says. “But a student’s mentality is different. In their effort to please you, to do exactly what you’ve asked of them, they lose the essence of in-the-moment creation.” Simply put? It takes experience to master the art of “half and half” contribution in the creation of a world premiere, and to know whether or not the contribution is welcome in the first place, she says.
The music of Heliotrope also offers teaching moments for Genshaft. Mason Bates’ “intimidatingly difficult” score, called Sea Blue Circuitry, includes counts of 1s, 5s, and 7s, imparting lessons of musical phrasing atop mixed meters. Genshaft credits her ability to navigate the Trainees through Heliotrope’s challenges to her longevity with the Company (she spent 15 years as an SF Ballet dancer) and four years as faculty in the School. “I have the luxury of knowing these dancers well, and knowing what they’re capable of,” she says. “It’s a hard ballet, with complex music. They’re students, but I’m not creating a ballet for young people. I want them to rise to the occasion, and I know exactly how far I can push to get them there.”
Motive in the Movement:
Karen Gabay’s Amour et Printemps
There’s a kaleidoscopic quality to Karen Gabay’s choreography, revealed each spring in the full-school demonstration she creates for SF Ballet School’s Spring Festival, and in Amour et Printemps, her resplendent display of classical dance that has its world premiere at Ballet Sun Valley on Saturday night. Set to the music of Chabrier, Johann Strauss, and Waldteufel, Amour et Printemps transport the Trainees to the late 19th century, where tutus are stiff, but movement—and romance—flows.
“It’s that ‘young love’ thing,” Gabay says. “There’s the girl who wants the boy, the boy who wants the girl. And then there’s a little bromance, too, in the trio.” Gabay calls this light-narrative approach to her five-movement classical ballet “good training ground” for the Trainees, to prepare them for the story ballets—the Giselles, Swan Lakes and Don Quixotes—on their horizon. “I model my teaching after what a real, professional career is going to be like. Yes, there’s the big finale [in Amour et Printemps] where they can show off their technique and their tricks,” she says. “But wherever they are in the piece, the motivation of movement counts. It’s not about ‘lifting’ the arm, but about directing that arm towards somebody. That simple change affects how you think about the placement of your head and the line of your body.” Coupled with good eye contact, Gabay says, moving with motivation is key to keeping an audience engaged.
Ultimately, it’s the sparkling athleticism of Amour et Printemps that exposes what comes most naturally to the Trainees: energy and drive. “When you’re that age, that hunger is there,” says Gabay, whose 35-year career as a dancer began when she, too, was a teenager. “The Trainees just want to dance. And that’s what makes it so much fun to work with them.”
Learning in Tandem: Alexandre Cagnat’s
In Memory of Forgetting
When memories make you who you are, what happens when you lose them? The question is at the center of Alexandre Cagnat’s new ballet, In Memory of Forgetting, set to all-Baroque music by Vivaldi and master-mentor pair Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais.
Cagnat is a member of SF Ballet’s corps de ballet, which he joined shortly after his own year as a Trainee in 2015—a year he calls a “rich and fulfilling experience . . . a source of growth and maturity.” Now, as he guides the Trainees through In Memory of Forgetting, his second-ever ballet, Cagnat finds he fits the roles of both student and teacher.
When he launched into the first rehearsals of his new piece, Cagnat built out phrases, teaching the Trainees their movements in isolation. But after setting the first two movements, he discovered he had missed a vital step in the creative process: “It was my mistake. When I began, I showed them aesthetically what I wanted, but didn’t talk through the purpose of the piece,” he says. “So we took a break. We sat down together, and I told them exactly what I wanted us to give back to the audience—the moving pictures, the souvenirs of life, the significance of memory. From there, they really understood. They got it.” And thus, rehearsal was back on track.
Once the Trainees mastered the “moving pictures” of the ballet (imagine depictions of works of art, like the shape of hands in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam), another fear cropped up for Cagnat: “You know when you see a movie, and there’s so much potential, like the actors and music are great, but the dynamic is flat? That scared me at first,” he says. His fears, he learned, were unfounded: “The Trainees create this dynamic naturally. They’ve been really receptive to these ideas. It’s been a long and hard process, but it’s been worth it.”