For Tamara Rojo, December was a very busy month — holidays notwithstanding. Indeed, just as the former artistic director of the English National Ballet stepped into her new role at San Francisco Ballet, taking over from longtime artistic director Helgi Tomasson and becoming the first woman to hold that position, she was also moving from London into her new home in San Francisco, along with her husband, English National Ballet lead principal Isaac Hernández. (His debut as a San Francisco Ballet principal came in its traditional December presentation of Nutcracker.)
This month, San Francisco Ballet, the nation’s oldest professional ballet company, begins its 90th anniversary season with Rojo and executive director Danielle St.Germain at the helm. Together, the company’s first-ever female leadership team will strive to innovate in ways that keep it at the vanguard of forward-thinking arts organizations while maintaining a passion for ballet that’s as lively as the art form itself.
“My relationship with ballet has taken many different shapes over the years — from student, to ballerina, to director, and I’ve also worked as scholar, teacher, advocate and activist,” Rojo explains. “Ballet is a living art form that requires so much from dancers: passion, intelligence and musicality. It’s an incredibly dynamic art form with such a strong history, lineage and tradition, and with so much potential for continuous evolvement.”
And Rojo feels that her long-standing impressions of San Francisco Ballet have been validated since she developed a relationship with the company. “In the ‘industry,’ you hear of companies with a strong camaraderie, where dancers are friendly, if not friends, with each other,” Rojo says. “SF Ballet has had that reputation for many years, and I found it to be true in my first few weeks of visiting. There’s an openness about the dancers, a willingness to try new things, and a support of each other in both professional and personal ways. It’s very refreshing. I’ve also long admired SF Ballet as one of the most creative companies in North America.”
St.Germain is effusive about the artistic possibilities emanating from San Francisco Ballet’s new leadership team. “There’s a lot of history behind us at SF Ballet, and I don’t think either of us take our positions lightly,” she says. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be at the fore with Tamara, who’s an excellent director, dancer and thinker. I am excited to nourish a new partnership and friendship. I embrace change and believe she does, too — and that must be the root of any innovation.”
St.Germain, who was raised in Boston in an arts-centric family and worked primarily in theaters, joined the company in 2018 and focused on development before being named interim executive director in June 2021, and then appointed to her current position the following March. Her impressions of ballet, and in particular San Francisco Ballet, are reminiscent of her experience in the theater.
“Much like in theater, there’s an incredible ecosystem of people who work in ballet and contribute to this art form,” St.Germain says. “I’m incredibly inspired and energized by the drive, commitment, perseverance, creativity and artistry of my colleagues — the dancers, production artists, orchestra, administrators, as well as by the donors and the patrons — there is never a dull moment at SF Ballet. And, frankly, to be near such creativity day in, day out, I am so very fortunate.”
Rojo and St.Germain preside over a repertory season that unfurls with a high-profile example of innovation: next@90, an array of nine world premieres running January 20 through February 11 — marking the first time since 2018 that the company will present a new works festival. “Seeing the creation of new works behind the scenes invigorates me,” St.Germain emphasizes. “And having the opportunity to get to know the makers and learn of their life experiences that inform their work. Wow! What happens when you bring together so many wonderful artists and minds to create something new? It’s an explosion of creativity in these halls, studios and offices.”
Selections from the festival, which Tomasson curated in collaboration with Rojo, will be staged January 19 during the Opening Night Gala at the War Memorial Opera House and San Francisco City Hall. Among the nine choreographers whose works premiere at the festival are five who will fashion their first opus for San Francisco Ballet — Robert Garland, Jamar Roberts, Bridget Breiner, Yuka Oishi and Claudia Schreier — and four — Danielle Rowe, Val Caniparoli, Nicolas Blanc and Yuri Possokhov — who have previously choreographed oeuvres for the company.
Oishi, who will be making her United States as well as San Francisco Ballet debut — thus becoming the first Japanese choreographer in the company’s history — will unveil her Bolero, with its iconic steady-beat rhythm and melody by Maurice Ravel and additional new music by composer Shinya Kiyokawa. But Oishi’s energy-driven Bolero, as well as her other productions, including notable ones for Hamburg Ballet and Béjart Ballet Lausanne, are not necessarily influenced by her culture.
“I do not create my works with Japanese culture in mind,” Oishi says. “I want my works to be seen not only with the eyes but also with the heart, so they inevitably reflect my inner self. The work I choreographed for the Béjart Ballet was not an expression of Japanese culture, which is an external factor, but rather an expression of my inner thoughts. So if I had lived in a different culture and had the same realization in my life, there would be no difference in the style of my work. However, I think that color tones and sensory judgments are often influenced by the environment I have experienced and seen.”
Caniparoli stands on the other end of the experience scale with San Francisco Ballet, as he is celebrating his 50th year working with the company in various roles, including character dancer, ballet master and choreographer. He has been with the company under the reign of its last five artistic directors — Willam Christensen, Lew Christensen, Michael Smuin, Tomasson and now Rojo.
Caniparoli’s experience proved consequential and invaluable when Benjamin Millepied, who was originally designated one of next@90’s choreographers, dropped out in late August due to a scheduling conflict. The company then called upon Caniparoli to choreograph a piece, ultimately Emergence, which is set to Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for Cello and Strings, with only a few months to go before its debut.
“The preparation time was next to nothing, but I had the thorough backing of Tamara,” Caniparoli recalls. “She said, ‘I know you can do it because of your experience and the fact that you know the company so well.’ So in this case my experience really is a plus for me because of the lack of preparation time and the fact that I really didn’t have the year and a half to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Caniparoli, who has originated more than 200 works for ballet, theater, opera, symphony, film and television, as well as choreography for several ballet companies, cited a lesson learned from the theater and recent feelings and news as key motivators, inspirations and resources behind the successful completion of Emergence.
“I’ve worked with Carey Perloff, the former artistic director at American Conservatory Theater, a lot, and her thing to me has been, ‘What do you have for free?’” he shares. “And what I have for free is the music, an amazing company of dancers, a support system within the company, and my feeling at the time, my experience of what’s going on with COVID, and everything going on in the world and how it’s affected me and that I know is affecting the dancers. So I’m using all that.”
For her part, Rojo points to the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev and impresario and Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev as the most important artistic influences in her life, and she admires dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, with whom she worked on his production of Giselle for the English National Ballet. But she also cites key artistic inspirations aside from specific individuals.
“I find inspiration in day-to-day moments, and by other art forms,” Rojo says. “I love theater, literature and architecture. For example, seeing Sir Francis Bacon’s studies of the Velázquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X at the National Gallery in London moved me greatly. I thought, ‘This is how you can admire and respect an original work, and then build from it, create something different and more daring.’ This inspiration served me well when working with Khan on Giselle, his modern adaptation of this classic and traditional story.”
After next@90, Rojo is looking forward to other highlights, including Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, which is a San Francisco Ballet commission coproduced with Dutch National Ballet, as well as Tomasson’s timely Giselle and Romeo & Juliet. And she’s very upbeat over the forward-looking tone the repertory season will set and her developing relationship with San Francisco.
“For this 90th anniversary season and beyond, Danielle and I have similar goals: We seek to reflect the innovative, progressive and accepting spirit of SF Ballet’s hometown, San Francisco, which is a deeply international and multicultural city at its core,” Rojo says. “Ballet is a living and breathing art form, and we feel inspired by our community to strive towards what’s next. It’s exciting to lead with another woman, and we both have our areas of expertise. We are in a period of transition here at SF Ballet, and it is very exciting to be at the fore!”