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School's Out

Grace Maduell Holmes has only been the new director of the San Francisco Ballet School five months, but she’s wasted no time getting ambitious. For this year’s Spring Festival, she asked the Balanchine Trust if the students could dance the fourth movement and finale of George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” Putting aside the strange fact that San Francisco Ballet itself has not programmed a single Balanchine work for next year, this was an exciting night.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet School Spring Festival

Place

YBCA Blue Shield of California Theater, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

San Francisco Ballet School students perform a demonstration for Spring Festival 2024. Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

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What a thrill to start the program with tiny first-graders demonstrating their ports de bras and to end with the can-do professionals of tomorrow—48 of them!—whizzing through choreography as musical as it is breakneck. If the SFB School’s students have danced such a challenging assignment at some point over the past 91 years (the school was founded in 1933, alongside the company), I’m not aware of it. The audience seemed aglow with much more than parental pride. “That was just an evening of fabulous dancing,” one woman said to her companion as they walked out of the YBCA theater and towards San Francisco’s grey monolithic tech centers.

In the opening demonstration, the beginning level kids were gracious, the adolescents were impressively bold, and the Level 7 and 8 dancers tossed off technical feats—Elena Martinez Santa Maria even delivered at least eight consecutive double fouetté turns. Then a few pre-professionals from the trainee program led by former SF Ballet principal Pascal Molat got to command even more spotlight time in excerpts from the bravura warhorses “Paquita” and “Flames of Paris.”

Mia Schlosser was delightful: compact, with a quick, high jump, and buoyantly musical. As the tempo ramped up for the finale, you could see even on her face that she was in it. Patrice Bertrand had a crisp entrechat, a high cabriole, and an unflappable dignity even with his costume’s cravat occasionally flying up to his face. Anna Chaziroglou had also reached an impressive level of musicality—with her gift for dynamic contrast and rubato, she reminds me a bit of SF Ballet soloist Julia Rowe. In the “Flames of Paris” selections, Nicholas Yurkevich and Justin-Cooper Meeks left an impression of Erik Bruhn-like elegance.

San Francisco Ballet School students in Pemberly Ann Olson's “With Love, From K. Haring.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

The program included three works choreographed by students, and one by San Francisco Ballet corps member Pemberly Ann Olson. The influence of Justin Peck was hard to miss. In Schlosser’s “Becoming a Mountain,” to music by Dan Deacon (an indie rock artist whose music Peck has also used), wide-eyed dancers in primary colors chased after one another in a cavorting, self-actualizing fashion. Ditto for Olson’s “With Love, from K. Haring,” but here the fun synthesizer music was by Olson’s fellow corps dancer Davide Occipinti. In a meta-artistic tribute to the famous San Francisco painter Keith Haring, the puppyish ensemble held up a picture frame and then, inside it, one of Haring’s famous cartoon-like hearts. A narrative emerged as a shift to somber piano music by Steve Reich brought a grey backdrop, and two lyrical duets (the movement here became more interesting). Then came an abrupt ending as the ensemble held out the heart for a lovelorn dancer.

I’d have to see the work again to be more precise about why it didn’t quite gel for me, but what remains in mind vividly is the spectacle of Level 7 student Raul Noyola, in a red bodysuit, moving with fluidity, charisma, and a million dollar smile. He remained suave even when the choreography forced him to stand center stage, clapping his hands and gesturing “ta-da!” Noyola’s natural star power shone again, particularly in his liquid floor work, in student Kenzie Andrews’ slinky, serious “Wake of Thunder.”

San Francisco Ballet School trainees in Dana Genshaft's “Danse sacrée et Danse profane.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Amidst all the student works, faculty member Dana Genshaft’s “Danse sacrée et Danse profane” brought a welcome ascension to the highest level of choreographic sophistication. This quartet to the music of Debussy with its dreamlike harps and strings brought together compositional rigor and subtle surprise in a way that reminded me of certain gems by Frederick Ashton. Maya Chandrashekeran, Juliana Wilder, Emmit Friedman, and Meeks wore velvet tunics with a lightly Renaissance touch above bare legs, moving sometimes hieroglyphically, sometimes swayingly, with cascades of partnering and a motif of bringing hands to one hip, like nobility pausing to pose with a sword. Heads up to smaller companies out there looking for fresh rep to acquire—this ballet is a vision. No wonder Molat chose it for the trainees’ performances at the Palais Garnier a month ago.

San Francisco Ballet School students in George Balanchine's “Symphony in C.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

As for “Symphony in C,” the young stars-to-be not only looked sharp—they appeared to be having fun. The precise footwork and whipping supported turns to Bizet’s galloping music hardly allows room for breath, but the mood on stage was one of connection, shared achievement, and celebration.

Speaking of achievement, six trainees have been named apprentices for SF Ballet’s 2024-2025 season: Maya Chandrashekaran, Carlota Cruz, Emmitt Friedman, Justin-Cooper Meeks, Ben Taber, and Juliana Wilder. Meanwhile, Bertrand and Schlosser are joining Cincinnati Ballet, and Tenley Connors has signed with the Joffrey. Congratulations to them, and to Holmes for launching her directorship here brightly.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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