ometimes it's hard to be on this coast," Lorena Feijoo said, reflecting on her decision to dance with San Francisco Ballet instead of a company in New York. "We don't have the exposure that we should."
In 1999, after performing the Joffrey Ballet's contemporary repertoire for four years she looked both left and right and made a call to each coast. Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, expressed great interest in the Cuban-trained ballerina but he wasn't sure he had a position for her at that time. Helgi Tomasson of San Francisco Ballet was sure. He invited her to come to San Francisco to take class with the company and see a few performances.
"I was so fortunate," she recalls with a joyous expression, "because Evelyn Cisneros and Sabina Allemann were both leaving that year. No one ever leaves this company! I told Helgi I would even take a soloist contract if that was all that was available and he could promote me later. He called and said he had a principal contract for me."
She remains smitten with the idea of dancing with American Ballet Theatre and especially the opportunity to dance on the stage of the Met. But, she said, "In Cuba we have a saying: 'One bird in the hand is better than one hundred flying in the sky.'"
The international reputation of San Francisco Ballet has grown considerably and consistently since Helgi Tomasson assumed the role of Artistic Director in 1984. The Icelandic native had retired from dancing after fifteen years with New York City Ballet, thirteen of which he danced under the direction of his mentor and idol: George Balanchine.
When Tomasson took over, San Francisco Ballet had already been presenting subscription seasons for over fifty years and it had just built a state-of-the-art facility across Franklin Street from the Beaux-Arts beauty, the San Francisco Opera House. Its reputation, however, was decidedly regional.
Feijoo has learned that American art, whether dance, theatre, music or visual, suffers a perpetual geographic bias. If it's happening in New York it is automatically taken more seriously. Even work outside the great city but on the East Coast benefits from this bias compared to work created or produced in the hinterlands reaching to the West Coast. Perhaps without specifically setting out to do so, in his twenty years at San Francisco Ballet, Tomasson has challenged this myth. San Francisco Ballet has developed into a company of at least equal stature and reputation to those in New York due to the quality and diversity of the dancers and the repertoire, its international touring reputation, and the size of its operating budget.
Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's Don Quixote Photo-Andrea Flores
Lorena Feijoo has also played a part in this ascension. Dazzling audiences with her passionate interpretations of roles such as Giselle and Kitri in Don Quixote, she brings rare qualities to the San Francisco stage. Her Havana upbringing and training in a Russian-influenced style under the tutelage of Alicia Alonso encouraged one of Feijoo's greatest gifts, her musicality.
When she came to San Francisco for her audition, she saw the well-loved Evelyn Cisneros dance a piece Val Caniporoli created for her entitled 'Lambarena' Feijoo remembers, "I felt like I was in a rock concert! I just got up and started shouting and clapping. Then I realized, oh, my god, I'm at the ballet! But I couldn't stop myself."
Set to well-known Bach and traditional African music from Gabon arranged by P. Akendengué and H. de Courson, Caniporoli's choreography asks the near-impossible of ballet dancers: to mix African movement with the classical ballet vocabulary and dance it all en pointe. For Feijoo, this combination is her birthright. "The music! I forget about everything. It just brings me back to my ancestors. In Cuba we have a lot of African in our blood because first we were colonized by the Spanish and then the Spanish brought the slaves. And we study the folklore in school. So I've studied a lot of these steps and the understanding of the torso and all of that since I was little. For me, it is like going back to my country. My mom came to the opening night and said, 'If they bring this ballet to the International Festival in Cuba there will be no less than nine curtains -- no less than ten curtains!'"
Lorena Feijoo in Caniparoli's Lambarena. (Erik Tomasson)
Audience enthusiasm is measured by different standards in Havana and San Francisco. Admission prices are low and attendance is high at the Garcia Lorca Theatre in Central Havana where the Nacional Ballet de Cuba performs. The house fills with an audience that is at once knowledgeable about the repertoire and the dancers as well as unafraid of public displays of great emotion. Although San Francisco audiences are acculturated differently, their enthusiasm for Feijoo's performances of 'Lambarena' in 2005 were electric and unabashedly appreciative.
The piece is a layered series of small group segments interspersed with solos that emphasize the weight and full-bodied rhythmic gestures of the African movements contrasted by the weightless upward flow of the classical technique. Feijoo's command of both vocabularies sets her apart. From the opening segment, when the lighting catches the African rhythms pulsing across her expressively arched back, she transports the audience with her into an ecstatic trance.
Yet her command of the strictly classical repertoire is no less impressive. Because of Helgi Tomasson's long affiliation with New York City Ballet and his great admiration of George Balanchine's entire oeuvre, San Francisco presents an array of the master's work each year. For the 2005 season, Tomasson chose one of the most challenging of Balanchine's works, 'Theme and Variation.'
Her performance of the 1947 work with music by Tchaikovsky was thrilling to watch because of her command of the difficult technique and her stamina in what can only be considered a difficult test of a dancer's endurance. It opens with a long adagio danced by the principal female soloist and a group of eight corps de ballet dancers. This is followed by alternating solos between the principal male and female, a long pas de deux, and finally it culminates in a full-group polonaise or court-like dance. Feijoo and her partner Vadim Solomakha appeared confident and well-rehearsed, barely betraying the effort needed to perform this feat of athleticism and grace.
In our conversation shortly after her performances of the piece, she spoke candidly about the challenges she found in her role and her mixed feelings about the piece in general. "I loved it but it is such a hard ballet. It's the only ballet that I have thought I don't know if I want to do again if it comes back. It doesn't even show how hard it is. It has a lot of pirouettes from fifth position and that is the most naked, hardest step to do on stage. In a piece like that I just let the music drive me through. The music of the adagio is beautiful and the polonaise at the end is so grand, you have no choice."
She lit up with a conspiratorial smile and continued with a bit of ballet gossip: "And you know what? I heard this story about how it was created after I danced it and it all made sense. My friend, a Cuban dancer, told me the story once. Balanchine went to American Ballet Theatre just to set this ballet. He was so used to working with these tall, long-legged dancers [of New York City Ballet], and they gave him Alicia [Alonso] who was a pretty much average woman without these long legs. He created the piece almost as a dare. It was like he was saying: 'They say you are so good. Let's see if you're that good.' And good Lord! When she told me the story, my friend, about how it happened, I said, now it makes sense!"
Lorena Feijoo in Possokhov's Reflections Photo-Chris Hardy)
The San Francisco Ballet repertoire boasts several new works each year from well-known and up-and-coming choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Stanley Welch. Additionally, Tomasson has consistently supported the creation of works by Ukrainian-born principal dancer Yuri Possokhov. In celebration of the 2005 season, San Francisco's streets were lined with posters of Feijoo's sensual fourth-position balance from Possokhov's 2004 work, 'Study in Motion'. This work was performed in 2005 along with a world premiere entitled 'Reflections,' a large-group piece for 29 dancers to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. In a science-fiction inspired bright red tutu designed by Sandra Woodhall, Feijoo sliced through space, torquing her torso until her back was almost parallel to the angle of the jutting tutu. She excels in his work and admires him as a choreographer, friend and partner.
Possokhov, a former Bolshoi dancer, is the ideal partner. He partnered Feijoo this year in the incendiary third duet of Jerome Robbins 'In the Night' and left audiences gasping for air. "It's wonderful when you have that kind of partnership. There is this chemistry that is so great. I love dancing with him. The connection is always there. We don't even have to practice that much." 'In the Night' shows three distinctly different couples working out their intimate relationships. The first is a gentle portrayal of young love, the second a stirring tribute to mature love, and the third, danced by Feijoo and Possokhov, a passionate struggle of domination and submission.
Lorena Feijoo and Yuri Possokhov (Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)
The challenges presented to her in San Francisco are not limited to the difficulty of the repertoire. There has been another ongoing challenge that has plagued the company since her arrival in 1999: the lack of a Music Director. Since the death of Denis de Coteau, San Francisco Ballet's dedicated permanent Music Director for nearly thirty years, the company has run through conductor after conductor. Brilliant ballet conductors are rare and de Coteau was loved not only for his outstanding musical abilities but for his meticulous attention to the needs of the dancers and the importance of engaging the audience. He attended rehearsals and marked the scores where the tempos needed to be adjusted and he treated each performance as if it was the only chance he had to convert audience members into devoted followers of the ballet.
After a long and arduous audition process that required the dancers to perform with a series of rotating conductors, Tomasson named British conductor Andrew Mogrelia to the post of Music Director in 2003. At the end of the 2005 season, Mogrelia abruptly resigned. Martin West has just been named to replace him and will begin rehearsing with the company in September.
Feijoo spoke at length about her frustration with the lack of coordination between the dancers and the conductor. Speaking about her performances of 'Paquita', which she had carefully and meticulously rehearsed with Natalia Makarova, she said: "When I performed it last, I was thinking she wanted me to do this here but I can't. I have no time! The music was being played too fast. The music for me is eighty percent of the performance. The phrasing, the breath, either helps you or throws you off completely."
Her frustrations were also noted by Octavio Roca, dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle when he wrote in 2003: "It is certainly not the principals' fault when, as happened to Feijoo in the opening-night of 'Paquita,' the conductor curtails a ballerina's phrasing and musicality with tempos that would suit only a robot: Hearts sank at the missed rubatos, balances and other pleasures that might have emerged had there been more sensitive coordination between pit and stage."
Feijoo elaborated, "Once a performance is done, it's done. And you can't explain to the audience, 'Oh, I was really rushing. I was trying to catch up with the music the whole time. I've had no rehearsal time and no time with the conductor. I never saw him before today.' You can't. The curtain goes up and it's all on you. All of the responsibility. The lack of rehearsal. Everything is on you. It's very important to have a conductor who understands what we need."
Newly named Music Director Martin West performed several times as a guest during the 2005 seasons and often conducted for Feijoo's performances. Whether he will bring the greatly desired consistency and sensitivity that enables her to realize her visions for the 2006 season is an open question.
What else might the future hold?
The soon-to-be released film The Lost City, directed by Andy Garcia, features Feijoo performing on the stage of Havana's famed nightclub, Tropicana. Garcia tapped both Feijoo's brilliant dancing and her acting talents for the role in this film that also stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. At thirty-four years old, Feijoo feels that she is at the height of her career as a ballerina. Yet she also has an eye on her next move and hopes that her acting will keep her in front of audiences.
For now she is a ballerina of the highest order. What does she love most about being a ballerina? "I love to stretch. I love it when it costs me even more. Give me the opportunity to show that I can be as lyrical as I am strong and passionate. That's the part I enjoy the most. The metamorphosis."