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On the Road Again

Christopher Stoll
Marty Sohl

Road Warrior: Dancer Christopher Stoll logs thousands of miles a year touring with the San Francisco Ballet.

Local dance companies find touring difficult but rewarding

By Katherine Roszak

It's the day before opening night for Smuin Ballets/SF in Miami, and the group's stage set sits outside the theater, exposed to the South Florida elements, with a hurricane projected to sweep through the region.

  • In Washington, D.C., a dancer is hurt before the San Francisco Ballet Dance prepares to perform at the Kennedy Center, and another troupe member must save the day and take over the injured dancer's roles.

  • LINES Contemporary Ballet performs in the gritty Slovakian city of Bratislava, and a rock & roll DJ spins records during intermission.

  • ODC/SF performs in the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union for an audience of 5,000 people who show up after having been told by local promoters to expect erotic/exotic dancing girls from sunny California.

These are a few of the strange, often surreal situations that occur when our most popular local companies pack up their dancing shoes and tour the world. Though touring is often a money-losing proposition for many companies, the exposure gained is vital and will often enhance the group's reputation and earning power further down the line.

At the deluxe end of the touring spectrum is the 63-year-old San Francisco Ballet, which takes approximately 100 people on the road, including 65 dancers. Their touring ranges from the practical--performing at other sites around the bay while the War Memorial Opera House is closed for earthquake repairs--to the adventuresome, such as bringing the full company to Paris. "Touring is very expensive," says Executive Director Arthur Jacobus, stating the somewhat obvious. "Earned income can be $500,000 and the cost can be $1 million."

To make up the difference, the company must constantly seek corporate, foundation and individual sponsors for its tours. "San Francisco Ballet should be seen by other audiences," Jacobus asserts. "It's good for the dancers to dance for these audiences and perform in other theaters. It gives the ballet exposure to national and international press."

San Francisco Ballet has a 40-week contract and typically tours two to three weeks per year. "Funding is the issue," Jacobus says. "We are discussing 'chamber' touring as an additional feature to our activities. This way we could go to smaller towns and universities."

On a slightly smaller scale, the 15-year-old LINES Contemporary Ballet does everything from getting in the car and driving to Eureka to touring internationally. "We have a strong following in both New York and Los Angeles" says Pam Hagen, general manager for the 12-dancer company. "But the surprise for us has been was how well-received we are even in rural communities, where people have no predetermined ideas."

The ten-member ODC/SF, which recently marked its 25th anniversary, has toured Indonesia and New York--where, director Brenda Way says, "we were sold out before we opened"--but has received its warmest welcome in states many other companies would merely fly over on their way between New York and S.F., such as Colorado, Kentucky, Arkansas and Nebraska.

In Nebraska, the company crossed the state in two vans. "The whole state of Nebraska showed up for performances and lined up to meet the dancers afterwards," dancer Brian Fisher recalls, a little incredulously.

Smuin Ballets/SF has only been in existence for three years, and their touring has so far spanned carpooling to Vacaville and flying into J.F.K. Airport to play Carnegie Hall. Former Beach Blanket Babylon musical director Dan Levenstein wears several hats as the young company's marketing director, business manager and musical director. He says the dozen-dancer group is "at home in Las Vegas, where they went crazy for 'Dances with Songs' at the University of Nevada."

Do the companies tailor their repertoires to various tour locations? Smuin Ballets/SF definitely does. "In Warrensburg, Missouri, the pop stuff didn't work," Levenstein recalls. "They were shocked. But they loved the ballets."

In a renovated art-deco movie theatre in Miami the company performs "Frankie and Johnny," billed as the "world's first mambo ballet." The company will try something daring, Levenstein says: "Rather than doing two nights, we're doing two weeks. Word of mouth is very strong for Smuin."

The company is self-presenting in Miami and so has created innovative marketing strategies with ads in Spanish and a four-color brochure proclaiming that Smuin Ballets/SF is the only company in history run by a Tony Award­winning choreographer.

ODC/SF brought director Way's "Western Women," a piece about pioneer women, with them on their Midwestern tour--to an enthusiastic reception. "It's good to see what strikes a chord," Way says. "I also bring things that are completely different (on an international tour), like 'Laundry Cycle,' which is a very American, comic piece."

Way is intensely interested in the response to her work abroad. "In the Soviet Union they were shocked that women choreographed, totally shocked that you could invent your own movement language," she recalls. "And in Indonesia they were very interested in the physicality, the musculature, which they found so much a part of the American spirit."

Performers can have special needs while on tour. San Francisco Ballet has a physical therapist and masseur on tour to tend to the dancers' physical needs. On LINES' more modest budget, general manager Hagen says, "We try to get hotel rooms with bathtubs so the dancers can soak. But this creates problems, as most places just have showers."

In the early days LINES' dancers have been accommodated in hotels and on couches and in Bratislava even at a dormitory for workers at a chemical plant. Now some of their finer digs have included a converted mansion in Palm Springs.

ODC/SF has stayed in an equally broad range of places. In Nebraska, dancer Mitchell says, "We stayed at a farming school at the University of Nebraska that did cow research, and when we looked in one of the refrigerators we found frozen dung."

By contrast, Mitchell says: "We've stayed at a presenter's home in Mendocino, and the 1940s vintage cabins at Jacob's Pillow [in Massachusetts] had a special appeal."

Common difficulties on tour include adjusting to having a lack of routine and performing in unfamiliar surroundings. San Francisco Ballet dancer Christopher Stowell, reporting home while performing at Kennedy Center, clearly misses his home theater. "The Opera House is an incredible theater," he says. "Of all the theaters everywhere, it's my favorite. While it has an 'old' atmosphere, it's up-to-date and perfectly fashioned for dance. The floors are nicely sprung. The audience is very close for such a large theater. I often step out front just to remember the atmosphere."

Some locations posed much more serious problems than inconvenience and homesickness. "We danced in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, once," Mitchell recalls, "and there had been a lynching about a hundred miles away. They were not used to seeing a racially integrated group."

Still, despite the daily hardships and hassles and the occasional whiff of danger, most dance companies find that touring offers rewards as well. "It's a chance to perform a lot and often for people who really love you," says Fisher of touring's appeal.

"It's a revelation," adds Way, simply.

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From the November 1996 issue of SF Live

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