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Flash View, 12-13: Keefer's Crazy Crusade
A Wounded Ballet Mom Strikes Out Blindly

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Krissy Keefer, a fixture in the Bay Area dance scene, has filed a complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission after the San Francisco Ballet School declined to admit the choreographer's 8-year-old daughter to the school. The complaint was the first filed under a new local law which bans discrimination based on height or weight by organizations receiving city funds. While the school itself does not receive city monies, the company, San Francisco Ballet, receives $550,000 from the municipal Grants for the Arts program. This in an annual budget that hovers somewhere around $20 million -- most of which comes from the box office and private funds.

Before addressing why Keefer's case is flawed, and the damage Ms. Keefer might do, let's dispose of an issue raised in this case which, while taken on its own has merit, is in the Keefer case, I believe, a red herring.

Granted, ballet directors' and school directors' general -- and we are definitely generalizing here -- preference for rail thin, preferably tall women is a fair target. It's also a topic about which the SFB School might be said to be particularly mindful, caring, and sensitive; Heidi Gunther, a Boston Ballet dancer who died in 1997, possibly because of an eating disorder, had also studied at the SFB School. My personal opinion of ballet's body problem is that the bottom line should be the dancer's performance quality. Let's take two of my own favorites, the New York City Ballet principals Wendy Whelan and Monique Meunier: Others have commented that Ms. Whelan "looks unhealthy," and so they can't even look at her. I look at Ms. Whelan and she makes me see the music, as she's seeing it, feeling it, and expressing it. Ms. Meunier is not svelte -- okay, she has curves -- but what I notice most about her is her unrivalled brio and spirit. I haven't seen SFB recently, but my recollection is that its principal women come in all shapes and sizes, from the compact Tina LeBlanc to the towering Muriel Maffre to the curvaceous Joanna Berman -- three of my personal favorites.

The second red herring would be that Ms. Keefer is not trying to interfere with the SFB School's right to discriminate -- only saying that it should not receive public funds if it's going to have such policies, as the city has declared such discrimination not in the public interest. Diane Kounalakis, the ballet's spokeswoman, says, "This is a school that trains professional dancers. We are not a recreation department." In fact, as pointed out above, the city money goes to the company, not the school. The access, therefore, that one would assume this money is meant to augment is that of the public to the art, not of all the public's children, indiscriminately, to attendance at the school and the professional ballet careers that may follow.

It gets worse. According to a press release issued on Ms. Keefer's behalf late last night by one Todd Edelman, she would also have us substitute an 8-year-old's judgment for that of the seasoned ballet dancers who examined her daughter Fredrika at her audition. "They didn't look at me," the press release quotes the youngster, now 9, as saying. "They had us do things that wouldn't prove that we're good."

If Ms. Keefer really had her daughter's interests in mind, she would explain to her that it is not up to the audtionee to determine audition standards -- it's actually the other way around. When I was a youngster growing up in San Francisco, I was determined to be an actor. If it was up to me to determine what auditioners should see as "proving I was good," I wouldn't be sitting here right now but would be performing on Broadway, my thespian career unimpeded by pesky directors who would substitute their own judgment as to whether I was talented for my own and my mother's.

But no, Ms. Keefer would have her daughter believe that she herself can determine audition standards. And that artistic standards can be subject to political vetting. She would inject affirmative action, an objective standard, into a subjective field, the arts. In effect, Ms. Keefer would substitute a socio-political judgment for an artistic one. The SFB, she says in her press release, "should have a program that reflects the real needs of S.F.'s citizens, and the SFB school should foster a program of physical, emotional and mental well-being of its female participants as it pursues artistic excellence."

In fact, Ms. Keefer, it is not the job of the SFB School -- which itself receives no public funds -- to assure the mental and emotional well-being of the city's citizens. What the SFB company does receive some public money for -- tho not the heavy portion of its budget that Ms. Keefer would have us believe -- is to contribute to the artistic life of the city. To do that, it must have the right to set its own artistic standards, for both its company and its school.

Ms. Keefer, I hear, is herself a choreographer. I wonder: Would she allow Tom Ammiano, the San Francisco city supervisor who authored the new law, veto power on all her casting decisions? I think not. Indeed, I suspect what we have here is a ballet mother whose vanity is vicariously wounded, and who is shamelessly, in the guise of public-spirited concern, trying to hurt San Francisco Ballet because it, in her view, hurt her daughter Fredrika.

What's ironic is that Ms. Keefer is not a typical ballet mother unaware of the inner workings of the dance community. She is herself a longtime leader of that community. As such, she is no doubt also aware that these are tough times for dance in San Francisco, with major studios losing their homes as landlords see the gold mine in renting to dot.coms.

In fact, Ms. Keefer, in a bizarre twist of logic, has cited that lack of studio space as another reason the SFB School should have admitted her daughter. As her press release would have us believe, "The issue is compounded due to the lack of dance space in the City. This means that there are fewer alternatives to institutions like the S.F. Ballet. Fredrika's current school, Pacific Dance Theatre, lost their (sic) space and has moved to Antioch. They have to rent space in the city if they want to rehearse here." The press release goes on to quote Ms. Keefer: "If there were other places to train, it would be a little less of a problem. But dance in S.F. is becoming rare, so the exclusionary actions of the S.F. Ballet are even more damaging."

What Ms. Keefer conveniently fails to mention is that it is SFB itself which is providing a program, Dance in the Schools, from which her daughter has already benefited!

Octavio Roca, a dance critic for the Chronicle with whom I do not always agree, framed the overall issue here well in a December 9 commentary:

"We are in a world where artistic canons are devalued, and every opinion, no matter how biased or uninformed, is worth the same as every other. Perverse educational trends neglect art education but preach the lie that everyone can be an artist while teaching no one how to be part of an educated audience. In the name of democracy, with the laudable goal of nondiscrimination, we end up bypassing excellence while propping up the mediocre and the bland."

Lastly, I want to return to the caveats with which I began: Ballet does have a body image problem. It's a problem that is, if you'll pardon the pun, short-sighted. I, for one, will continue to rail against that prejudice. However, it is my very concern for this real issue that makes me all the more angry that Ms. Keefer would exploit it when all she really cares about is her own wounded vanity.

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