You can see all my recent work for the San Francisco Chronicle here.
A selection of past profiles:
On Tamara Rojo, new artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Tamara Rojo has more than a few grisly stories involving extreme determination in her career portfolio.
First, there’s the tale of how, in 2002, she boarded a plane with the U.K.’s Royal Ballet for a tour to Australia, then watched her toe joint swell to the size of a tennis ball. Upon landing, the Spanish ballet dancer was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors warned her surgery might mean the end of her career. (Not only did Rojo dance again, but she invented, with her industrial engineer father, a special machine for stretching pointe shoes to accommodate bunions.)
Then, there was the time Rojo stepped onstage for “Nutcracker” and felt something wrong in her abdomen. She thought it was a stomachache, but would later find out that her appendix had ruptured. Still, in searing pain, she danced the entire ballet.
“Yeah, that was not a smart decision,” the new artistic director of San Francisco Ballet says with a laugh in her corner office with its view of the Beaux Arts opera house. “I don’t really recommend doing that.”
On this mid-December afternoon, the 5-foot-5 doe-eyed 48-year-old has made time for a conversation with The Chronicle in the midst of preparing for her first season with the company. Wearing black tennis shoes, sweats and a training jacket, she’s seated with her legs casually splayed in an unnatural second position so turned out that her left foot actually points backward. She cracks open a bottle of Coke Zero extracted from a mini-fridge behind the desk.
Beyond this basic furniture, the office is bare. Rojo officially began her new job only the previous week, though all summer she’s been flying in and out of the city to watch rehearsals for the Ballet’s massive next@90 festival, which opens Jan. 20. As recently as November, in Paris, she gave her career-capping performances in the radical new version of “Giselle” she commissioned from British choreographer Akram Khan — a major milestone for a dancer of her rare caliber. Her transition from English National Ballet, where for 10 years she was both artistic director and star performer, to becoming the first female artistic director for the San Francisco Ballet in its nine decades has allowed hardly a moment for reflection, let alone choosing decor.
On Babatunji Johnson, dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Flower,” the new short film co-produced by and starring the world-famous, trailblazing ballerina Misty Copeland, opens with an unforgettable scene: A panorama of rippling waters at the Port of Oakland pans to a dock, where a man lies writhing on a platform. As the music finds its pulse, the man seems to levitate on one knee, then rises as if pulled up by the air, snaking his arms, popping his chest, pounding the ground. Finally he slinks away like an apparition of superhuman movement.
The scene is 1 minute and 44 seconds long, shot in one take. On a recent weekday, it seems to spring into real life on the shore of Lake Merritt when Babatunji Johnson swings off his bicycle with casual grace for an interview with the Chronicle and asks, “Do you hug?”
One gets the sense that Johnson, with his clean-cut beard, shining eyes and glinting gold necklace, is always, somehow, glowing. Today he attributes his high energy to a wealth of reasons. Not only does he appear opposite Copeland in “Flower,” which was well-received at the Tribeca Film Festival and will make its West Coast premiere in Oakland on Friday, Sept. 29, and San Francisco on Sunday, Oct. 1, but also the bum knee Johnson’s been rehabbing is healing. In just a few weeks, on Oct. 12, he plans to fully return to the stage with one of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary ballet companies, Alonzo King Lines Ballet, which he first joined a decade ago.
But what really lights Johnson up is talking about how he just moved to Oakland with his wife of three years, fellow dancer Charmaine Butcher.
“Do you know the elementary school that’s up there?” he asks, pointing to his new neighborhood not far from the lake. “Just hearing everyone picking up the kids, everyone laughing — it’s so happy.”
A love of Oakland is not the only element connecting Johnson to his character, Sterling, a charming stranger who invites Copeland’s character, Rose, into the joys of the local community.
Profile of San Francisco Ballet principal Esteban Hernandez in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Watch Esteban Hernandez any night he’s onstage with San Francisco Ballet and you know you are witnessing a singular dancer, one who can spin like a weathervane through grand pirouettes, beat his feet through brisés as delicate as a bird’s fluttering wings, then launch a double tour en l’air and land so softly you’d swear he’d floated to the ground, an easy smile spreading on his face.
But you can’t really tell the story of Esteban Hernandez’s dancing without first telling the story of his father, Hector.
Picture this: Forbidden by his mother to study ballet in his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, because she says ballet is not for men, 16-year-old Hector runs away to the National Dance Academy in Mexico City. He is allowed to take night classes with the adults; he hides in the kitchen of a nearby military base to sleep. When he is 18, the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev comes to Mexico City to perform and, meeting Hector in ballet class, befriends him. Nureyev tells Hector to go to New York City, to the Harkness Ballet, to study with the legendary ballet teacher David Howard; he gives Hector a personal letter of recommendation. In New York, where Hector has arrived with little more than $20, Howard waves away the letter and asks Hector to perform a tendu — the fundamental ballet step of pointing one’s foot. He tells Hector to come back and take classes, and arranges a room to sleep in and a small stipend. Soon Hector is freelancing with companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; he is learning about ballet, obsessively, from friends like star dancers Fernando Bujones and Arthur Mitchell.
“My father has always believed in the power of dance and art to transform people’s lives,” Esteban Hernandez says during a day off from dancing, a day he uses to walk his two rescue dogs in the Marina, stretch and get a much-needed massage.
A1 Sunday Profile of postmodern dance revolutionary Anna Halprin in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Fifteen years ago, choreographer Anna Halprin opened the door to her mountainside home in Kentfield, buck naked. “Just a moment!” she said impishly to a startled reporter, and slipped on a kimono.
This time around, on a recent weekday, the 94-year-old Halprin is fully dressed in a turquoise tunic and silver necklace, but her uninhibited way of being is still obvious. Relaxed from a morning regimen of lap-swimming and hula hoops, she takes a seat overlooking the famous “dance deck” at her Marin County home, where in the ’50s and ’60s she essentially invented postmodern dance.
“Martha Graham used to say it takes 10 years to make a dancer,” Halprin says and then giggles. “I said, ‘No, I think it takes more like 10 seconds.’”
Of course, she quickly qualifies, a lot happens in that 10 seconds, a transformation of awareness that had profound implications for 20th century art. Before Halprin, American dance was cast in Graham’s regal mold, presented formally onstage, and performed by highly trained bodies that acted out the choreographer’s vision in a rarefied movement language. Halprin’s rebellion was to declare that any movement, performed with presence and intention, could be a dance, and anybody could be a dancer.
“She really was the genesis of so much postmodern dance,” says her biographer, Stanford Professor Janice Ross — though for many decades, the dance establishment in New York, a powerful world that tends to cast developments outside its sphere as “provincial,” discounted her place in dance history.
That has changed. This summer, to mark Halprin’s 95th birthday, fans and followers will host hundreds of events in 15 countries. Documentaries on Halprin will screen in Colombia and South Korea, and her works will be restaged in France and Israel. People in 46 nations, and in the Bay Area on Mount Tamalpais, will participate in her Planetary Dance on June 7. Tamalpa Institute, the training program based in Halprin’s home studio, will hold a benefit tribute to its founder on July 12, the day before her birthday.
Even the New York establishment that has so long ignored Halprin is paying its respects. Last fall, avant-garde choreographer Stephen Petronio announced that his “Bloodlines” project, which traces the lineage of 20th century experimental dance, will include works by textbook luminaries Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham — and Anna Halprin.
It’s a remarkable resurgence for an artist who, raised by Russian immigrant Jews in the Chicago suburbs of Wilmette and Winnetka, made a life of art secluded in the woods with her husband, the influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.
A1 Sunday Profile of choreographer Robert Moses in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Choreographer Robert Moses paces like a boxer preparing for the ring, breaking into spurts of movement that twitch and flow and transform a stocky 52-year-old body into an instrument of anxious grace.
“Get your rhythms in your weight,” he calls sternly to his two dozen students after he demonstrates the phrase, a whirlwind of rippling torso and whiplash legs. “Questions? Going once, going twice? Fine, sold.” A mordant smile cracks above his silver whiskers.
The dancers look relieved. Moses is a firm but reliable father figure to his troupe, Robert Moses’ Kin, which will present its 20th anniversary season Thursday through next Sunday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. He’s also a pillar of Bay Area dance who’s beginning to break out on the national scene with his work, a hybrid of ballet, modern and street-jive that vacillates between tension and tenderness.
His work reflects a richly observant and conflicted mind, forged in a North Philadelphia ghetto and impervious to compromise. Moses rarely discusses his life story. But when a visitor to his small office in the Flood Building asks, like his dances, it all comes pouring out.
“Do you want long or short?” he asks, laughing in his warm but nervous way. “We had a mom-and-pop store, but my father was dead. Heart attack, but really he drank himself to death. Store was across the street from the projects. We had chicken wire up so people wouldn’t just snatch stuff and go out. Let’s see, what else can I tell you about that?”
A whole tale of unexpected survival through dance, as it happens.
Moses worked at the store with his youngest sister (he had three) every day after school until late at night. Then when he was 16, his mother died. Stroke. “Really, she worked herself to death.”
Profile on choreographer and Post: Ballet founder Robert Dekkers for the San Francisco Chronicle:
On a recent Friday, ballet dancer Robert Dekkers sipped a cappuccino in the Hayes Valley sunshine, his left foot propped up on a bench, a metal crutch leaning against the table. He knew he was supposed to talk about the reason for the crutch, but he laughed shyly. “So many people have gone through so much worse,” he said.
Dressed in a motorcycle jacket and boots, Dekkers had just taught one dance class and was about to hobble off to another before returning to the studio to work on “Do Be: Double Happiness,” premiering this weekend at Diablo Ballet.
“Double Happiness” is part of an ambitious five-part suite created in collaboration with guitar-percussion duo the Living Earth Show, a yearlong project that has commissioned five composers, including recent Pulitzer nominee Christopher Cerrone, who wrote the music for this latest section. The full “Do Be” will premiere at Z Space in November, danced by the experimental company Dekkers founded, Post: Ballet. The dance meditates on Western civilization’s frenzy for “doing” rather than “being”— a tension that Dekkers feels acutely right now.
In March, after three days of pain that he assumed was caused by a pulled muscle, Dekkers was rushed to the emergency room at California Pacific Medical Center and admitted to the intensive care unit. He had massive internal bleeding in his abdomen, and required a blood transfusion. The trigger for the bleeding remained mysterious, but the reason for its seriousness did not. Dekkers, now 30, was born with aortic stenosis; his mechanical aortic valve, implanted in 2004, requires him to take blood thinners.
Tina LeBlanc to Leave SF Ballet, a profile of the retiring ballerina, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/11/09
Tina LeBlanc is getting teary, but not because of her impending farewell to the ballet stage.
“I was totally crushed,” LeBlanc says in a quiet room at the San Francisco Ballet Building, remembering the day she auditioned for the summer training program at American Ballet Theatre in New York. She had made it into the school the summer before; even though she was just 15, she knew her dancing was strong.
“One of the judges saw my confusion when my number wasn’t called. She called me over and said, ‘You’re just too short. You haven’t grown.’”
LeBlanc, 5 feet 1 – “I have been measured lately at 5 foot 1 1/2!” – raises a hand to a watery eye and laughs. “It was all I could do to walk out of that audition without bursting into tears. It was a blow. Not that I regret anything that has happened in my career.”
It is hard to imagine what in LeBlanc’s 27 years of professional dancing – 17 with San Francisco Ballet – she could have to regret. At 42, faint traces of gray framing her no-nonsense face, she has entered the growing pantheon of mold-breaking Ballet ballerinas who prove that skill, artistry and passion trump body-type strictures. With her pliant feet and diminutive-but-strong-as-nails legs, she is a supreme technician, lending sparkling clarity to ballets by George Balanchine and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson. But her gala goodbye performance May 9 will surely also show what has made her a total dancer, valuing nuance, precision and musicality over gymnastics and flash, whether weeping as “Swan Lake’s” Odette or hoofing it up as the cowgirl in Agnes DeMille’s “Rodeo.”
The “Sensible” Way, a profile of ODC/Dance founder Brenda Way, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/25/07
Brenda Way is not the kind of woman you’d think of as flitting, but that’s what she’s doing this gray morning in the kitchen of her Oakland home. She twirls to put on the teakettle and reaches for sugar on a high shelf with an agility that belies a recent hip operation. She takes a seat at the table almost giddily, eager to share her reactions to Trisha Brown’s latest dance at Cal Performances. But when the conversation turns to her own work, her blue eyes become serious and her makeup-free face assumes its usual expression of formidable thoughtfulness.
“I feel so compelled by what’s going on around me,” she says, cradling her mug in both hands. “The political situation has just been dire. And what you’re doing when you make new work is saying, ‘Consider this.’ ”
Way, 64, who founded the company now known as ODC/Dance 36 years ago, has been uncannily prescient in what she’s asked her audiences to consider. In 2000, her “Crash” evoked the irrational exuberance that preceded 1929′s Black Tuesday — and the dot-com stock market faltered soon after. But Way’s most arresting moment of topicality came in 2004, when her “On a Train Heading South” adorned the stage with hanging blocks of slowly melting ice — two years before Al Gore made us all acknowledge a certain inconvenient truth.
Normally, after such a socially charged piece, Way would retreat to pure movement invention, but last year she pressed onward with “Time Remaining,” an allegory about religious extremism. Now she’s unveiling what she conceives as the final installation of a trilogy. “A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes,” premiering during ODC’s annual home season this week, uses video by the Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa. In the early frames, a toy plane flies around a house. Soon more join it to form a horde.
“I thought that was how I felt about the use of terror in our lives,” Way says. “It’s invaded our homes. And this fear debilitates us.”
The title comes from a New York Times story on Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“It’s the phrase they used to describe Samuel Alito’s wife,” Way says. “And it’s such a slam of every woman that I thought, ‘Well, excuse me!’ And I think it’s that kind of person who’s terrified by what’s going on, an ordinary housewife.”
If Way takes the Times’ phrase so personally, that might be because it evokes aspects of her. Way, who had two children before age 20, has always been domestic. And like a good wife and mother, she has often stood quietly in the background of great accomplishments — not only her children’s but also her dance company’s.