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Flash Review and Interview, 5-17: Adieu, Ballerina
Berman Bows in San Francisco

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the entire San Francisco Ballet season this spring I had both been happily anticipating and dreading the Saturday, May 11, performance because it was to be the grand finale to Joanna Berman's 19-year career with the company. I primed myself back in February, savoring as deeply as possible every role Berman danced, watching from moment to moment, and trying not to create impossible expectations, based on what I saw, for her farewell performance in "Giselle." When the evening finally arrived, after taking my seat in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House I noted that the other roles had been cast as if Berman herself had decided with whom she wanted to have the last dance. I had interviewed her the week before and some of the friends and colleagues she spoke highly of were all there: Yuri Possokhov as Albrecht, Damian Smith as Hilarion, Anita Paciotti as her mother and Muriel Maffre as Myrtha in SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson's staging of the Jules Perrot/Jean Coralli original choreography.

After the customary mime sequences for Hilarion and Albrecht, setting the scene for unrequited love, and love that will end in betrayal, Berman emerged from the cottage to enthusiastic applause without once coming out of character; she remained an innocent peasant girl who loves to dance. The lightness of her solo ballon and jetes were only surpassed by the richly rewarding shared musicality when Possokhov joined her. They moved together as if they shared the same ear and responded to the music in exactly the same way, taking such obvious delight in dancing with each other. One touch that was particularly effective comes when Giselle stops dancing because her delicate heart is overtaxed. Berman did not just pause, decide she's really all right and then pick up where she left off, but spent a longer time slowly testing out her stamina before gradually resuming her previous pace. Her mad scene was also well thought out. While many approaches are valid, it is important to be consistent with whatever character the ballerina has already created. Berman's Giselle is neither merely pathetic nor totally demented and verging on hysteria. She draws simply on the feelings for Albrecht she has shown before and how his thoughtless actions are incomprehensible to her. Possoskhov was also very effective in communicating the depth of his feelings for her and his deep remorse for causing her death.

In the second act, as Myrtha, Maffre was chillingly elegant, yet commanding, all the while infusing the role with an unearthly lyricism. Traditionally, one expects to see soaring elevation from the Queen of the Wilis, but I barely noticed that Maffre's jumps were not touching the stratosphere as she so completely owns this role in every other way, dramatically and technically. Possokhov was stunning in his opening cabrioles, back arching so far it seemed his head was in danger of hitting the floor. And Berman disguised Giselle's absolute determination to save him from the Wilis under the most pure and gentle love imaginable. Here is a case of faith winning out over the darkest forces. This was not a bravura performance in the usual sense of pyrotechnics, but a brilliant one in terms of letting the characters speak for themselves, of not imposing the performers' own personalities on the characters or playing to the audience. And ultimately, for this viewer, that is what makes the most satisfying performance of all.

Once the company and soloists finished taking their curtain calls for "Giselle," the curtain rose on Berman alone on the vast stage. One by one, the principal and soloist male dancers, all partners at one time, came out and presented the ballerina with bouquet after bouquet, hugs, and kisses. Stephen Legate dropped to his knees and bowed twice. Damian Smith partnered her in some pirouettes. Helgi Tomasson gave her the last and biggest armful of flowers. The audience laughed and cheered and wouldn't stop clapping. Glittering confetti cascaded forever and balloons poured from the flyspace and lingered. Berman bowed repeatedly, as gracious and humble as ever, acknowledging the love and appreciation of her audience and thanking them, too.

In a nutshell, Berman is retiring because she wants to start a family and doesn't believe she can be both mother and ballerina and do justice to either role. I was more interested in finding out how she had arrived at the enviable position of ballerina, muse and well-loved company member. The following are excerpts from our conversation just one week before her farewell performance. We met at the SF Ballet building behind the Opera House where she had literally just finished rehearsing "Giselle" with Possokhov.

Aimee Ts'ao: What originally inspired you to dance -- or was it something you were born with?

Joanna Berman: I think it was something I was born with because I would dance around the house to music as a small child. So my parents enrolled me at the Terra Linda Recreation Center in dance classes.

AT: Tell me about your early training. Who were your teachers, and how did they influence you?

JB: At eight I went to the Marin Ballet, where I studied with Christine Walton, Grace Dody and other teachers. When Maria Vegh came to Marin Ballet I was eleven and started working with her. She was my strongest influence. She is incredible and now runs a series of teacher training courses and really knows her stuff. We had intense classes, technique clinics, pas de deux classes where we learned how to be partnered -- and we were barely into our teens. We learned how to get over our fear of difficult steps.

We were thinking dancers; we were taught to understand how our bodies and how steps work. It was quite a gift to give to us because we will always have it. She was really instrumental in my training, but in a very different way, both Margaret Swarthout and Jocelyn Vollmar were key. Margaret is gorgeous example and also a spiritual one. She would talk about what a privilege it is to dance, that we owe it to ourselves to take the time while we're dancing to do it for ourselves and not worry about anyone else, and make something of it. I learned how important the example you give to your students is. The way you move creeps into their bodies whether they know it or not.

Jocelyn is the most positive role model. There is not a hint of sarcasm in her teaching or being, which for someone who has stayed in the ballet world, dancing and teaching, for so many years it is remarkable that she is still so respectful of her students and the art form. And encouraging, always. I so admire her. I had a great system, all different kinds of approaches, but all very positive, and from everybody -- real respect. I was, in many ways, prepared for my career because of that. It gave me a foundation that allowed me to move forward. There were some technical things I had to address because in going from being big fish in the small pond to the big pond I realized there were things I couldn't get away with any more.

AT: After you left Marin Ballet School and came to San Francisco Ballet, who were the most influential people in your career?

JB: There are so many people, but one person supported me from the beginning was Anita Paciotti. We have the same values. When I first joined the company she was still dancing. I just looked up to her so much and I loved her dancing. Beautiful, musical, natural, theatrical, everything. We worked together on so many ballets where I was dancing and she was the ballet mistress that we really bonded. We had so many great discussions over the years about such"bunhead" things. We could talk for hours about an approach to a role, what the choreographer was trying to do. We were always on the same wavelength; she has always been so supportive. I am so happy that she has remained here -- she is an important part of the history of this company. It makes me feel like I am now a part of the history of this company and there is this continuity. A continuity I hope to be a part of as I move to the other side and I hope I can be as encouraging to the next dancers that are coming up as she was to me. There are so many great dancers who have come through here that I've learned from.

AT: Could you name a few of them?

JB: Muriel Maffre is an amazing artist. So creative, such integrity. We couldn't be more different, so I don't ever try to imitate her -- it wouldn't suit me -- but she makes choices that are brilliant, ones I never would have thought of it that way. There is so much to learn from her. Evelyn [Cisneros], of course. Just the way she has always conducted herself. She's a real mensch, was a wonderful example, a leader in this company and a great human being. Yuri Possokhov; of course his dancing is so magnificent, but also his eye and his knowledge and instincts have helped me in ballets over the years. He's really widened my view of how things can be done. He's made me step outside my box. Then with"Damned," it was the most satisfying meaty role that anyone has ever done for me. He's made me pull stuff out of myself.

AT: In other fields which artists do you admire?

JB: I wished you'd asked me this months ago when I wasn't too tired to think. I haven't had a chance to read in four months. But...[pause]... I love Brahms; deep down I'm schmaltzy. And string chamber music.

AT: What is your internal process when you're creating a role?

JB: I guess it depends on the role and if it's new or something classic like Giselle. My confidence level tends to be so much higher in a new role. I have this insecurity about doing the classical ballets. While my training was so valuable, it was not in one particular style. That has served me much more than it hasn't. 90 percent of the time that's a great thing because I feel I can adapt to most anything. But there are times I wish I knew: Oh, that's Sleeping Beauty so the arms never do this. Rules. I've had discussions about this with other dancers and make them crazy that I freak out when I have to do this kind of role. I am told to approach them the same. I feel that there are things that make them different. While I don't want them to be museum pieces that are stuffed, you have to pay homage to them at least. Giselle is in the Romantic style and we've had less than a week of rehearsal to get the feeling back. It's hard. If we were going from Giselle to"Damned" it would be not so difficult. It's doing, doing, doing, reminding yourself what it feels like when it's right. I have a feeling if I'm lucky I'll have it by my first show. It's very important to me that every role is different; I don't see the point otherwise. I'm whittling away to get those feelings back. Even today (Saturday) I was feeling self-conscious and I'm doing it on Tuesday.

One thing I've noticed that's interesting -- I don't know if it applies to every ballet, but it certainly applies to Giselle: When I get out on stage, I'm able to shed some of that craziness. Getting involved in the story takes of a certain degree of self-consciousness. And that's why I love Giselle so much because the story carries me. In this ballet there is only one time you leave the stage long enough to fix your shoes and get out of character. Otherwise, every entrance is about furthering the story and that helps so much to get me out of my critical brain.

AT: You didn't dance Giselle with Yuri before, so how is that going?

JB: Yes, this is my first time with Yuri. While Giselle has less interaction with Albrecht than I might with my partner in many evening-length ballets, and a lot is dancing by yourself, there is enough that you really have to know the intentions of the other person. Yuri's approach is very different from that of Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, who I did it with the most. That a process in itself, not only finding out, for example, He does these arms here, but, Oh, he's much more aloof here, or he's going to sit down and join me when I pluck the petals from the daisy. I totally trust Yuri so I'm kind of going along for the ride. It's very special that we will to out there together for my last show because he's meant so much to me.

AT: I saw you two do Romeo and Juliet together.

JB: That was really wonderful. That was one of those rare times when everything went away. I can still picture being up on the balcony and looking down at him during the pas de deux and thinking this is awesome!! Listening to the music and there's Yuri and I get to be totally free and dance with abandon with this guy. He allows that.

AT: You've worked with him as a dancer and now as a choreographer. How was that different?

JB: The thing that is so great about Yuri is that he doesn't change who he is, ever. He doesn't pussyfoot around; "Joanna, what are you doing?" or "this doesn't work'" or "why are you doing that with your arms?" It's not that different (between working with him as dancer or choreographer) because I trust him a hundred per cent. When he partners me he is so consistent and so There. I trust him when he expresses his opinion and when he's behind me partnering.

AT: Did you ever study music? Because you are so musical.

JB: Well, I did. As a youngster, I studied the violin for two and a half years. I have a musical family. It's my priority. I feel like I could have been a musician instead of a dancer. The music is my priority and doing what the choreographer my other priority. I don't mean to sound haughty in any way, but for some people, that isn't a priority.

AT: Of the roles that were made for you, which ones do you like the best?

JB:"Damned" (choreographed by Yuri Possokhov) is one of them for sure. And I'm so glad that it was now. Part of me wishes it was earlier or I could experience it for two seasons -- not part of me, all of me wishes I could experience many more performances of "Damned." I feel a certain sense of freedom knowing this is my last season.

AT: You got to dance an awful lot of roles. You even had two roles in "Dances at a Gathering." You've been having an amazing season.

JB: Look at these ballets."Dances at a Gathering,""Emeralds," and all so different. I know it had mixed reviews, but I loved"Angelo" and I loved dancing in it. I loved the process as much as anything else. I think Julia (Adam) is so talented and partnering with Damian (Smith) is a heavenly experience. Just being in a studio with Julia and Damian, my great friends, both very serious about their work. It was a great time, so special and intimate. We, as a whole cast, felt so close after that experience. We'd watch each other from the wings and we felt such support from each other. One of my first ones is Val Caniparoli's "Hamlet and Ophelia," because he showed faith in me so early. I got to do beautiful steps to beautiful music and have drama. I was only 19 and I got to be dramatic. I did it last year for a memorial service. It doesn't feel dated or old, it still feels special. I love doing these ballets on stage, but it's always the process, too, that I enjoy just as much. I loved working on"Later" with Mark [Morris] That was an unbelievable experience. I felt like a princess. I got to go to New York and work with Mark so intimately every day for a week. . I learned so much from him.

AT: I didn't see"Later" at the gala, but it got a lot of flak. But when I saw it later, it must have gotten better, it was beautiful. What happened?

JB: I'll tell you what happened. Mark wasn't able to be here for the gala, so he didn't get to see what it all looked like. For the gala my hair was down; he put it up. I had a shawl I wore for the first movement; no shawl. I had dark legs, dark shoes -- that were changed to light legs, light shoes. Warmer lighting. It changed the mood completely. There was a 180-degree flip in its reception. I always thought it was special, so it was hard to hear all these things. I couldn't believe the uproar. I didn't understand because in the end, it's just a dance, no matter what it means to me. How it could cause this stir was bizarre to me. But people seemed to embrace it the second time around, so I am happy because I want people to enjoy it.

AT: It was a very touching piece. I felt it was you being able to speak as you, not dancing a role.

JB: There was no role and every time I tried to make it a role, at first, I learned very quickly that wasn't what he wanted. Any time I did any "thing" that was coming from the outside, he'd say,"Nope, nope, less, less. You are thinking. You are responding to music. You are not playing anything. There is nobody, you are by yourself." He made me work that way until that became natural. Then I was able to start again with how I might play with it, express myself through it in a much simpler, purer, honest fashion. We had to strip away before I could add again. It was such an interesting process. I've never had to do that before.

AT: At least you got to do it once in your career.

JB: What a ride!

AT: This season in particular has been extraordinary for you.

JB: Wouldn't you retire at the end of this season?

AT: Yes, but because you made the decision, something flipped. If you hadn't made the announcement then none of this, well, not all of this would have happened.

JB: I wish I could have applied what it feels like to be in your last season when it isn't your last season. But you can't. The reverse is true too. I wish I could do an opening night as if it weren't an opening night.

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