The new San Francisco Ballet season, kicking off with a gala January 21st, is nearly upon us. I profiled retiring ballerina Tina LeBlanc for this Sunday’s Chronicle:
“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.”
“Nothing seems impossible for her,” says fellow Ballet principal Kristin Long, who first admired LeBlanc’s fearless freedom when both trained as children at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “She has this incredible daring quality when she’s onstage.” ”
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I also describe the season’s offerings. And I interview the designer of the new “Swan Lake,” Jonathan Fensom:
” After San Francisco Ballet’s forward-looking 75th anniversary in 2008, with its 10 commissioned world premieres, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson is returning to a classic. He raised the caliber of San Francisco Ballet’s dancing, and its national esteem, when he choreographed his first “Swan Lake” for the company 21 years ago. Now, for his new production premiering Feb. 21, Tomasson has teamed with Tony-nominated Broadway designer Jonathan Fensom (“Pygmalion,” “Journey’s End”), making his first foray into ballet.
We talked with Fensom about the new “Swan Lake” as he was in New York, putting finishing touches on the Manhattan Theatre Club’s “The American Plan.”
Q: This is a fairly traditional, not a postmodern or revisionist, “Swan Lake,” and yet you’re doing some forward-looking things with it. What was the driving intention behind this production?
A: Right away when I was asked to do this, I wanted to make the narrative clearer. In ballet and in opera, a lot is expected of the audience, as if they have to do their homework before seeing the show. With San Francisco Ballet’s new slogan about “a new way of seeing ballet,” I thought, let’s try to design with a very strong narrative in mind and make the story clear for people who have never seen this ballet.
For one thing, we’ve made it Odette’s story, more than Prince Siegfried’s story. And there’s a prologue that lays out the backstory. The audience will be aware that something strange has happened.
Q: In a lot of “Swan Lake” productions, the look is heavy and Germanic, Disneyfied medieval. What kind of style did you work for?
A: It’s early 19th century, Regency period, with high collars, large sleeves that taper. We haven’t gone Gothic. I wanted to keep a lightness of touch. In each scene, an object becomes a motif. In the first scene, for instance, we’re outside the palace, and the motif is the palace wall. Siegfried is trapped. He’s living the bachelor lifestyle, but he’s oppressed by it.
At the lakeside, the emotion evoked is wild, and in the ballroom everything is contained and orderly. I’m taking advantage of that wonderfully wide Opera House stage to use a lot of objects. I’ve designed sculptural forms to move about the stage. I figure dancers are sculptural forms, I wanted the scenery to work that way, too. We’ve pulled away from the usual painted drops. The effect is more magical – or that’s the plan.”
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