Peering behind the curtain
Stanford prof's book reveals S.F. Ballet's 'invisible city'
While the other little girls in her dance class nurtured dreams of becoming ballerinas, Stanford associate professor Janice Ross pointed her toes toward a different path.
"I really wanted to become a dance critic, strangely enough," Ross says during an interview at Stanford, where she teaches dance history and criticism. "I loved dancing. I never had the right body to be a professional dancer, but my passion was in conveying the experience of what a performance was about."
Ross wanted to bring the kind of analysis to the field of dance that other critics brought to visual arts, theater and music. She spent decades as a newspaper and magazine dance critic before coming to Stanford in 1992. Now the Atherton resident brings that passion and analysis to her latest book, "San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five" (Chronicle Books, $60).
The magnificently photographed gift book, which includes a DVD, shows the onstage magic of such works as "Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," but also takes readers behind the scenes to glimpse the invisible side of ballet:
The 30-year employee who cleans and conditions the studio floors "with skills as nuanced as those of a piano tuner."
The costume supervisor who totes the company's own washer and dryer on tour, because the costumes are too critical to risk in unknown equipment.
The shoe administrator, a former ballerina, who makes sure each female dancer receives 12 pairs of pointe shoes a month, and orders the ribbons, glue and elastic. On tour, a dancer can easily wear out two pairs a day.
At one point while researching the book, Ross watched "Swan Lake" from the wings, witnessing a performance the audience never sees: Two dressers with bike lights on their foreheads cornered the sorcerer as he stepped offstage. They stripped off his ballroom attire and dressed him in a swamp cape and boots. Meanwhile, one makeup artist peeled off his wig and replaced it with a skullcap hairpiece while another reapplied streaks of black makeup to his neck. Then the dressers aimed their forehead lights at the dancer's ankles so he could lace up his boots before dashing onstage.
"There's an invisible city backstage," Ross says, "a whole world just out of view."
Ross had been writing about the San Francisco Ballet since 1974, first for Dance Magazine while still a graduate student at Stanford. That stint continued for two decades. Also, from 1980 to 1990, she was the Oakland Tribune's first full-time dance critic, a rarity in the newspaper world.
Ross was familiar with the San Francisco Ballet's history and politics as well as its artistry, noting it is the nation's oldest professional ballet company and is among the top two or three internationally. She had also written two other books about the dance world, including "Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance," which appeared earlier this year.
Nonetheless, writing the ballet book was a challenge. When Chronicle Books first approached her, she was told to complete the book in six months. She was astonished. The Halprin biography, about the Marin modern dance maverick, had a 15-year gestation period. It was written while she was teaching and completing her doctorate at Stanford as well as raising two children.
Given that experience, writing a book in six months seemed out of the question, so the publisher compromised — she was given eight months.
Instead of producing a scholarly work with massive endnotes, like the Halprin book, Ross "went into the mode of a journalist," writing about what she saw and heard. She'd check the rehearsal schedule online and the minute she finished teaching, she'd head off to San Francisco to watch the 2006 season unfold. She also followed the company on tour to Lincoln Center in New York.
The fact that her children were grown made it easier. Joshua Bartel, a University of Chicago graduate, is currently preparing for the LSAT, following in the footsteps of Ross' husband, attorney Keith Bartel. Their daughter, Maya, who recently graduated from Reed College, is teaching preschool at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.
"I became a roving eye, an embedded journalist," says Ross, who observed classes in the ballet's four-story headquarters near the Opera House, where 6-year-olds learn the basic positions and teens prepare for the stage.
She spent time in the company's Wellness Center, where dancers work out, soak in the Jacuzzi or receive physical therapy. She watched a performance from the orchestra pit, where she was handed somebody's sweater because "nobody told me I had to wear black."
She interviewed board members and donors who keep the ballet solvent, and observed the opening-night gala in San Francisco's City Hall Rotunda, "wearing the wrong clothes." She was in her workaday corduroy pants, sensible flats and no jewels.
The only thing she didn't get to do was sit in on hiring and firing sessions, forbidden by union rules. She also gave up on shadowing Helgi Tomasson, the ballet's Iceland-born artistic director. (At one point Tomasson, uncomfortable with the exercise, headed for the men's room, saying, "You can't follow me." They both realized it wasn't going to work.)
"San Francisco Ballet at Seventy-Five" focuses on the Tomasson era of the last 22 years, when Ross says the company was reborn. But she also traces the history of the company, launched in 1933 as an adjunct to the San Francisco Opera before becoming independent in 1942. The first half-century was under the direction of three Christensen brothers, Willam, Harold and Lew. After a stormy interlude marked by Lew Christensen's death in 1984 plus ongoing conflicts between the board and co-director Michael Smuin, Tomasson took the helm of both ballet and school in 1985. That same year, he retired as principal dancer from the New York City Ballet, where he had been George Balanchine's protege.
As an Oakland Tribune reporter, Ross "was on the ground, covering" the "ballet wars" of 1984-85. Suddenly she was writing front-page stories about the brouhaha, the boardroom politics and the ballet's transformation under Tomasson into a world-class institution.
That contentious era is barely mentioned in the book. Instead, Ross looks at Tomasson's style, as artist and human being. He "makes it possible for you to have a life offstage," she says, noting that Tomasson is a family man, married to former dancer Marlene Rizzo. Although neither of their sons is a dancer, their second son, Erik, is the ballet company's photographer and took many of the pictures in the book. A number of the dancers are also parents, and sometimes their children watch rehearsals or travel with the company.
Since dance is largely a young person's profession, the company offers a career transition program. During a performance, Ross observed a dancer backstage, in full costume, studying Plato for a college course.
Ross herself has long understood the delicate balance between career and family. One reason she left daily journalism was that the demands of parenting were not very compatible with the pressures of writing reviews after midnight for the next day's paper.
But she views the discipline she acquired as a journalist as invaluable. That's why she's bringing The New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella to Stanford in February for a half-week residence, to teach students to write reviews under deadline pressure. She and Ross will accompany a group of students to the San Francisco Ballet. "They're going to watch, and then they're going to come back and write."
These days, Ross is no longer reviewing on deadline. Moving into a more academic mode, she is currently president-elect of the Society of Dance History Scholars. Nor is she dancing. "I do Pilates, which is what dancers do when they're injured," she says, laughing.
"Dance is about the perfected body," she explains. "The more your own body gets further from the ideal, the more painful it is to put it in that frame. ... You don't want to stand in a leotard and tights in a room full of mirrors anymore.
"But I'm very much happy to continue illuminating those glorious bodies that are onstage by writing about them, and bringing students to an excitement about dance."
Janice Ross, accompanied by San Francisco Ballet dancers, is scheduled to read and sign books at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 27, at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Call 650-324-4321.