A Student’s Perspective on Learning to Choreograph

By Pemberley Ann Olson

I started at San Francisco Ballet School when I was six years old. I remember my first day like it was yesterday. We started our class with basic ballet steps and learned some new moves that we could show to our parents. I remember vividly when our teacher, Ms. Kristi, had the pianist play music from Nutcracker and let us dance across the floor. She wanted to see how we could use our musicality, artistry, and creativity in our own dancing. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer.


Pemberley Ann Olson in Johnston's Effervescence. // © Lindsay Thomas
Pemberley Ann Olson in Johnston’s Effervescence. // © Lindsay Thomas
Pemberley Ann Olson in Level 1 at SF Ballet School
Pemberley Ann Olson in Level 1 at SF Ballet School
Pemberley Ann Olson in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
Pemberley Ann Olson in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Choreography has been an important part of my journey here at the School. Over the past 11 years, I have watched many ballets performed by the Company, from story ballets to new contemporary works. Watching these inventive and creative pieces has given me ideas and inspiration for my own choreography. What’s fascinating to me is how different choreographers have their own process. Some utilize improvisation and experimentation and others have set ideas, already knowing exactly what they want to see from the dancers. I’m still developing my own process, trying out new things.

To read more on SF Ballet School’s choreography programs: 
Developing the Next Generation of Choreographers

It’s been amazing to work with some of my closest friends, creating a piece that makes them shine in their own way. I love to see a small idea that might not have started out strong turn into a pivotal point in choreography. I’m extremely excited to present my work at the Spring Festival in May. We’ve all worked very hard to make something, and I can’t wait to show the final result.

Being a Choreographic Fellow has been an amazing experience. I’ve discovered how much I love to see my own ideas of movement come to life. Choreographing lets me release all my feelings into movement. I hadn’t realized how much I loved to create until I was given the chance to, and for that, I am so thankful. It’s always been my lifelong dream to be a professional ballet dancer, and being a choreographer is now a new ambition. San Francisco Ballet School has given me so many incredible opportunities: from that first experience when I was 6 years old, dancing Nutcracker, it’s been an incredible adventure.

Pemberley Ann Olson is a student at San Francisco Ballet School and one of the 2018–19 Choreographic Fellows. Her new work will be performed as part of the San Francisco Ballet School Spring Festival. 

Header photo: Pemberley Ann Olson and SF Ballet School students performing a demonstration in the 2018 Student Showcase // © Lindsay Thomas

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Developing the Next Generation of Dancemakers

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On a rainy Monday afternoon, a panel of San Francisco Ballet luminaries sat expectantly in a row of folding chairs in a large studio usually used for Company rehearsals. SF Ballet dancers Frances Chung and Sofiane Sylve, dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher, SF Ballet School Faculty member Pascal Molat, and former Associate Director of SF Ballet School Lola de Avila had gathered to watch choreography created by the School’s advanced students.

One by one the students approached the panel to introduce themselves and speak briefly about the short ballets they’d created on their peers. The works were as individual as the dancers—some quirky, some serious, some more classical, others more contemporary. It was the diversity of approach and the depth of talent that revealed an emerging success story: SF Ballet School has been quietly nurturing the next generation of creative as well as performing artists.

Encouraging Creativity

The School’s choreography program has blossomed from early roots as a component of the Trainee program and then a partnership with the Crowden School, an academic and music school in Berkeley. For several years, students from the two arts schools have teamed up, with Crowden students writing music and SF Ballet School students creating choreography. The resulting work was performed in an informal spring performance for fellow students, friends, and family members.

That once informal spring performance has grown into the Helgi Tomasson Choreographic Workshop, an annual spring event. Once SF Ballet students had tried choreography, they wanted more, says Faculty member Dana Genshaft, who oversees the School’s choreography program.

So School Director Patrick Armand expanded the program, giving advanced (Level 8) students the opportunity to propose and create their own choreography for the annual workshop. Were they interested? Last spring, “There were so many works that the Choreographic Workshop was more than two hours long,” says Andrea Yannone, director of education and training, with a laugh. Hence the Monday panel: three of the works by Level 8 students would be selected to be performed at this year’s Helgi Tomasson Choreographic Workshop.

SF Ballet School’s first Choreographic Fellow Blake Johnston.
// © Erik Tomasson

Mentoring Emerging Artistic Voices

The Choreographic Workshop is also where the School’s Choreographic Fellows are identified. Although choreography has always been a part of the Trainee program, Tomasson decided to formalize a Choreographic Fellowship in 2016, with the goal of encouraging and supporting a diverse range of artistic voices. He selected Blake Johnston, then a Trainee, as the first Choreographic Fellow. The program is designed to support one or more students each year. This year there are three: MJ Edwards, Pemberley Ann Olson, and Maya Wheeler. In addition to a scholarship, each Fellow receives mentorship and guidance both artistically and in the less glamorous yet eminently practical matters of budgeting, managing rehearsal time, and working with designers. Each Fellow creates a work for the Choreographic Workshop; the strongest works are selected to be part of the School’s Spring Festival. This year’s Spring Festival, held May 22–24, will include one work by each of the three Choreographic Fellows.

Formalizing the School’s choreographic program has provided structure and encouragement, while including what most students still need—sense of fun and exploration. “What’s really great is that there’s now this really wonderful creative, supportive, curious energy around choreography,” says Genshaft. “Beyond the time we give them for rehearsals, I’ll often see them in the studio just trying movement and playing, which is exactly what you want a creative atmosphere to be.”

A SF Ballet School Success Story

Myles Thatcher rehearsing his Otherness // © Erik Tomasson

SF Ballet dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher choreographed his first work, Timepiece, on his peers while a Trainee at SF Ballet School. It was so successful that it was performed at a festival at Canada’s National Ballet School. While starting his dancing career with SF Ballet, Thatcher returned to the School to choreograph for the students, gaining experience. His first work for SF Ballet, In the Passerine’s Clutch, premiered at SF Ballet’s 2013 Repertory Season Gala, followed by Manifesto (2015), Ghost in the Machine (2017), and Otherness (2018). While still dancing with SF Ballet, Thatcher has also created ballets for The Joffrey Ballet, New York City Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, and more.

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School Students in Johnston’s Effervescence // © Lindsay Thomas

SF Ballet School Spring Festival Highlights

San Francisco Ballet School launches its first annual Spring Festival, May 22–24, 2019. Formerly known as Student Showcase, the SF Ballet School Spring Festival will include three nights of performances, an opening night dinner, and new interactive activities with opportunities to learn about ballet.

Each of the three performances will feature different programming. All will include a short demonstration by students in Levels 2–8, choreographed by SF Ballet School Faculty member Karen Gabay. This demonstration will be followed by upper-level students and Trainees performing SF Ballet School Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s Ballet d’Isoline, a new work choreographed by AXIS Dance Company Artistic Director Marc Brew, excerpts from Jiří Kylián’s Sarabande and Falling Angels, and premieres by SF Ballet School student choreographers. 

Highlights from last year’s Student Showcase, including works by George Balanchine, Karen Gabay, Blake Johnston, and Helgi Tomasson

Proceeds from the May 22 Spring Festival Dinner, to be held at the Four Seasons San Francisco, will support the more than $1 million in scholarships and financial aid the School distributes each year so that talented students, regardless of family circumstances, can have a chance to study dance.

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School Students performing a demonstration in the 2018 Student Showcase // © Lindsay Thomas

Marc Brew Creates quicksilver on SF Ballet School Trainees

By Hannah Young

The premiere of Marc Brew’s quicksilver introduced more than just new choreography to SF Ballet School students. Drawing from his personal experiences and professional ballet training, Brew—the artistic director of AXIS Dance Company and an acclaimed choreographer who uses a wheelchair—spent several weeks with SF Ballet School Trainees, introducing new ways to think about choreography. First shown on March 13 at SF Ballet’s free Student Matinee and returning for the School’s Spring Festival May 22–24, the six-person ballet resulted from an unconventional movement exploration.

Brew’s unique method for creating choreography pushed the Trainees both technically and creatively. “I wanted to share my process with the students, being aware that this is probably the first time that they’ve worked with a disabled choreographer,” he explained, “I bring some material, an upper body arm phrase, and then ask them to see how they could move the rest of their body.” Prescribing movement for the upper body and asking the dancers to create accompanying movement for the lower body was a new choreographic prompt for the students.

During the creation process, Brew guided the students to consider different physical perspectives. “When I went through ballet school, I was never exposed to anyone with a disability,” Brew said. “The fact that I’m in the studio with them, and working with them, hopefully will change those perceptions around what a dancer is and what it means to be a dancer.” He also challenged the common narrative of an injury ending a dancer’s relationship with dance: “If one day they got injured, maybe that doesn’t mean you just have to sit on the side—maybe there are other ways you can explore.”

SF Ballet School Trainees rehearsing Marc Brew’s quicksilver // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

Brew spent three weeks with the Trainees, helping them find new ways to create movement. By asking a diverse range of artists to engage with the students, SF Ballet School commits to providing an education that not only develops technical prowess but also prioritizes personal innovation. Experiences like these are how students learn a skill imperative to creative success—how to cultivate their own aesthetic and voice.

Experiences like these are only possible with community engagement. We invite you to join us in supporting diverse artistic voices by donating today. Your gift, no matter the size, is critical to bringing in dancers of all backgrounds to nourish the artistic growth of our students.

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Header photo: San Francisco Ballet School student rehearsal with Marc Brew // © Alexander Reneff-Olson

San Francisco Ballet School’s New Spring Festival

The much-anticipated annual spring performance of students at SF Ballet School has a new format. SF Ballet School Spring Festival (formerly known as SF Ballet School Student Showcase) will include three nights of performances, a dinner on opening night, and new interactive activities. 

Performances will be held May 22–24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. Following the May 22 performance, SF Ballet Auxiliary hosts the SF Ballet School Spring Festival Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco to benefit the School’s scholarship fund, which gives more than $1 million annually in need- and merit-based grants to students.

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Header image: San Francisco Ballet School Students in Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes // Choreography by George Balanchine © The Balanchine Trust; Photo © Lindsay Thomas