75 alive

Pub date January 23, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

With its 75th season, which starts Jan. 29, the San Francisco Ballet — the oldest ballet company in the country — intends to show that the dance form is a thoroughly contemporary, international art.

With the exception of the lovely Giselle (created by Adolphe Adam in 1841), the entire season has been choreographed within the company’s lifetime. When it was created in 1938, Lew Christensen’s Filling Station was considered the first American ballet. Other season highlights will no doubt include the New Works Festival (April 22–May 6), with premieres by 10 choreographers in three different programs. On this anniversary, it’s worth recalling that there may be a historic reason why San Francisco ballet audiences have often embraced the new.

Carlos Carvajal, now co–artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, danced with the SFB from 1950 to ’55 and, after a stint in Europe, worked from 1964 to ’70 as its ballet master and associate choreographer. He remembers the period as one of crowded quarters on 18th Avenue in the Richmond District — there was a hunt for theaters in which to perform because the Opera House shared space with the San Francisco Symphony at the time, and the SFB often lost out. But it was also a period of dazzling vitality.

"It was a crazy, wonderful time, with such creative energy. Not just for the dancers, but musicians and designers as well," Carvajal recently recalled. Dancers regularly choreographed for the main season. His Totentanz, for instance, premiered at the SFB in 1967 and stayed in the rep until 1972. When Carvajal left the SFB, he brought the piece to his San Francisco Dance Spectrum, where it proved to be one of the company’s most popular works. The SFB functioned almost like a modern dance company whose members were simply expected to take up choreography sooner or later.

While the company was unemployed after its annual spring season, its summer workshops, called the "Ballet ’60s" series, offered creative outlets and some touring opportunities. "We used to take the wall down between two studios and converted one of them into a place for the audience. The other was the theater," Carvajal remembered. "Somebody suggested choreographing the Kama Sutra, so I took a look and figured I could do [it]." The same year, he choreographed Voyage Interdit: A Noh Play, for which he created a tape collage. The work’s second incarnation had a live rock band and a light show. "Remember," he said, chuckling, "those were the crazy ’60s, when anything went. We didn’t care about money; we only cared about dancing." And audiences, particularly younger ones, both in towns and on the road, flocked to see what was new — and what was this thing called ballet.