Thursday, October 17, 2019
San Francisco Ballet Sun Valley Connection Gaining Eyes of the World
San Francisco Ballet dancers Jennifer Stahl and Carlo di Lanno perform Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke” as part of the company’s 2018 Unbound Festival of New Works that will be shown at Ballet Sun Valley July 5 and 7. PHOTO: Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet and Erik Tomasson
Sunday, June 30, 2019


The Ballet Sun Valley Festival Friday through Sunday is getting more than the usual amount of attention.

The scale of the performances has attracted the attention of artistic directors around the world—some of whom are talking about bringing their own companies to perform in Sun Valley in the future, said the festival’s founder Bob Smelick.

“They’ve called me and said, ‘This is very interesting that you’re putting on something of this scale,’ ” he said. “Because the San Francisco Ballet is bringing its entire company, it will be able to perform dances in the Sun Valley Pavilion that you don’t typically get a chance to see at festivals. What we will see over these two nights is what one would see during an entire professional ballet season.

“And the fact that we’re attracting the interest of others gives us the potential option of staging something different every year.”

The San Francisco Ballet will bring all 38 of its dancers to perform at the Sun Valley Pavilion on Friday and Sunday, July 5 and 7. In addition, it is staging a free three-day educational workshop for 120 dancers from 20 states, as well as a three-day workshop teaching those who use dance and movement as therapy for youth and adults with Down Syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

The vision for this festival started in Paris in July 2005.

That’s when Smelick and his wife Gail attended a two-week ballet festival that attracted the prime minister of France.

“Seeing ballet in the open-air venue was impactful to both of us. It was so beautiful surrounded by nature,” he recounted.

Three years later they felt the same feeling as they watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing on the Pavilion’s 3,000-square-foot stage made of Massaranduba Brazilian iron wood ringed by Brazilian mahogany.

As they sat under the 70-foot high proscenium arch with its curved copper-shingled roof, Smelick turned to his wife.

“The San Francisco Ballet has to come to Sun Valley,” he said.

It seemed like a win-win. The ballet’s artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, an Icelandic native who had danced under George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, had told Smelick and other San Francisco Ballet board members that the company needed to find opportunities for dancers to dance in the off-season. Sun Valley Resort was looking for events to fill the newly opened Pavilion. And, Smelick surmised, Sun Valley’s sophisticated audiences would happily watch the San Francisco Ballet outdoors as he’d seen them in Paris.

Three months later, he told Tomasson that he had discovered a venue the ballet had to consider. “It’s beautiful,” Tomasson agreed.

But there was no room in the schedule at the time and Sun Valley’s General Manager Wally Huffman said ballet would never work because the Pavilion had no curtains, no wings and no way of guaranteeing a maximum revenue.

“But I had seen ballet in Paris where there was no curtains and no wings. And I knew the audiences would show up,” Smelick said.

Finally, in 2011, Tomasson grabbed him. “Bob I’ve never been to Sun Valley, but I’ve got an opening. We can play Moscow, then Hamburg, then the Kennedy Center, then Sun Valley.”

 Arts enthusiast Dan Drackett agreed to raise sponsorship money, and attorney Jim Laski put together the legal documents. And 20 dancers from the San Francisco Ballet performed to a sold-out audience in 2012.

“Watching ballet in a natural setting was so beautiful, just riveting,” Smelick said. “We got so many calls asking us to bring it back.”

Tomasson, too, praised the Pavilion as one of the most beautiful venues he had ever performed in and told Smelick to plan on an encore performance the following summer. But the next summer the San Francisco Ballet was in Asia and the summer after that the company was at a festival in Europe.

The summer of 2017 looked like a go until Tomasson called again. He had 12 international choreographers coming to San Francisco that summer to choreograph 12 world premieres for the ballet’s upcoming Unbound Festival and he couldn’t let the dancers leave town because the choreographers would want to see them.

That’s when Sun Valley native Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer with American Festival Ballet in New York, called.

“I’d like to bring a group of dancers to perform in the Pavilion,” she said.

“Who’s going to do the production?” Smelick asked

“thought you could do it,” she replied.

“I didn’t want to disappoint the resort so I told Isabella we should meet,” Smelick said. “She seemed to have good commercial instincts, which a lot of ballet dancers don’t. And her artistic director said she was very entrepreneurial.”

Boylston invited colleagues like Misty Copeland and friends from the Royal Danish Ballet and other international ballet companies to perform two shows each in 2017 and 2018. This year she was unable to return but, finally, the San Francisco Ballet was ready and willing.

This year’s festival will include a three-day dance education program Friday through Sunday that’s free to 120 dancers from 20 states.

Three dancers from the San Francisco Ballet and two from the renowned San Francisco Ballet School will teach ballet, contemporary dance, choreography and a three-day master class. Each student will receive a ticket to each of the Ballet Sun Valley performances—one evening in a Pavilion seat and one evening in a lawn seat.

Danielle Rowe, an Australian dancer who followed her husband to the Houston Ballet, then the Nederlands Dance Theater and most recently the San Francisco Ballet will teach the choreography class.

Rowe, who goes by the name Dani, had her work “For Pixie” named for her grandmother back home in Adelaide performed at the festival in 2018 . A 20-minute piece of hers was recently performed by Ballet Idaho at the Argyros. And her work “UnSaid” will be performed on July 5.

 In addition, Mikko Nissinen, the artistic director for Boston Ballet, the largest ballet school in the United States with 5,000 students, has provided curriculum to teach adaptive dance to teachers from San Francisco Ballet and Idaho-based programs.

They will start by talking about the characteristics of various disabilities and how to manage behavior, starting off with very soft music. Fifty youth picked by Higher Ground Sun Valley will join in on the third day so teachers can see how a real class is taught.

“It’s going to be a busy three days,” said Smelick.





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