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A trip to the War Memorial Opera House will open your mind to the pinnacle of classical dance technique in the West—ballet. The opera house is abuzz with activity in preparation for the San Francisco Ballet’s opening night of Nutcracker on Dec. 2.

Rico Chiarelli, the technical director of the SF Ballet says, “After the opera leaves, we bring in a stage, which is specially designed to prevent injuries to dancers. Most cities in the United States have performance halls that are shared by the local opera and ballet companies.”

Ballet originated around the year 1500 as part of the Italian Renaissance. The word ballet comes from the Italian word “ballare,” which means “to dance.” This dance style moved to the French courts, where it was presented with the performer wearing several layers of clothing, masks, headdresses, and ornaments, and the steps consisted of small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns.

The dance vocabulary of ballet was gradually codified in France over the next 100 years, and during the reign of Louis XIV the king himself performed many of the popular dances of the time. The court dances grew in size, and performances were gradually shifted to dance platforms.

From its early roots, ballet developed its own character in Russia, which, by 1850, was the cultural center of the dance world. Dancing en pointe (on toe) became very popular in the first half of the 19th century. Soon, ballerinas dressed in white and dancing en pointe became the norm, inspiring transformations of stories to dance presentations, often featuring the waif-like heroine whose purity eventually triumphs over evil.

The 1930s marked the time when a dance company from Russia, Ballet Russes, headed by Serge Diaghilev took U.S. cities by storm. Many dancers from this company stayed back to work in the United States, inspiring the rise of ballet in this country.

It was at this point in its evolution that ballet was established in San Francisco by William Christensen in 1933. Today, Helgi Tomasson heads the San Francisco Ballet Company, and has infused it with a dose of innovative choreography and excellent management.

There are startling similarities between the way that the toes and knees are held in the basic plie’ position in ballet and the araimandi in bharatanatyam. However, the comparison ends there. The stamping of the feet to keep rhythm in bharatanatyam differs from the flowing quality of ballet steps.

Pascal Molat, a principal dancer in SF Ballet, says the learning of the classical ballet technique is the first way to free your self. Behind the seeming lack of effort lies rigorous practice. “Of course, this is where the hardest work comes in,” Molat says. “As a professional dancer in this company, we have rehearsals for six hours daily. On days when we have performances, we still rehearse for three hours. I do not do anything else to keep fit. Six hours of dancing a day is enough to keep me fit,” he adds with a laugh.

For first-time audiences, he strongly recommends the ballet that marks a Christmas holiday tradition—Nutcracker. Nutcracker is a story that involves a little girl Clara and her Christmas wish. There are many talented children who dance along with adult dancers in this ballet. This is an opportunity to see simple to very complex ballet technique demonstrated by dancers who have varying levels of expertise.

As locals, we can be proud that the holiday tradition of staging Nutcracker originated in the Bay Area in 1944, when Christensen presented it with a total budget of $1,000. In less than 50 years after its premiere here, the annual number of Nutcracker productions has risen to 150 all over the United States.

“This ballet has something for everyone,” says Molat. “It includes magical moments and the fulfillment of a little girl’s Christmas wish.”

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is an Indian classicaal dancer, choreographer, and teacher, who writes about the arts.

Upcoming productions of the SF Ballet:

• Dec. 2-29, 2005: Nutcracker

• Jan. 28-Feb. 5, 2006: Swan Lake

• Feb. 14-March 12, 2006: Mixed
repertory featuring sections from different ballets and choreographers.

More info:

Nirupama V.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is a writer, dancer and choreographer. She was the former editor of India Currents magazine.