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