SF Ballet's 'next @ 90' festival: former Principal Dancer Nicolas Blanc returns as choreographer

  • by Philip Mayard
  • Tuesday January 10, 2023
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Nicolas Blanc in William Forsythe's 'The Vertiginous Thrill Of Exactitude' <br>(photo: Erik Tomasson); Choreographer Nicolas Blanc (photo: Cheryl Mann)
Nicolas Blanc in William Forsythe's 'The Vertiginous Thrill Of Exactitude'
(photo: Erik Tomasson); Choreographer Nicolas Blanc (photo: Cheryl Mann)

In celebration of San Francisco Ballet's 90th anniversary, the company kicks off its spring season this month with the "next @ 90 festival," featuring nine world premiere ballets by nine choreographers from around the world.

Although this will be the third new works festival the company has presented over the past 15 years, "next @ 90" looks to be the most diverse and forward thinking, showcasing the choreographic work of four women (including one person of color and one Japanese), two Black men, and two gay men: longtime SF Ballet Principal Character artist and prolific choreographer Val Caniparoli, as well as former SF Ballet Principal Dancer Nicolas Blanc, who returns to create his first work for the company.

Entitled "Gateway to the Sun," Blanc's ballet is an abstract reflection on five lines of a poem by 13th century poet Rumi:

"Dance, when you're broken open.

Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance, when you're perfectly free."

As an SF Ballet soloist in 2003 and 2004 and a principal dancer from 2005 to 2009, Blanc's return to the company in a creative role has indeed felt like a freeing experience. In a recent Zoom interview from his office at Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, where he has served as rehearsal director and principal coach since 2011, Blanc said, "Coming back to SF Ballet has been a wonderful reconnection. It's hard to believe how many years have passed, but it also just felt like yesterday. I was so welcomed and energized by the dancers and company leadership. It felt like I was in a place where I could freely create and let my inspiration fly."

Blanc believes the artists at SF Ballet have a unique energy and work ethic that is unsurpassed, saying, "The dancers at SF Ballet push themselves so hard. I remember that feeling as a dancer with the company and it still feels exactly the same. My first two days with the dancers in the studio were so inspiring, positive, and dynamic, it was a set-up for the rest of the two weeks. It was like fireworks."

Born and raised in a small town in southern France, Blanc began his training at age nine. He competed at only one competition: the world-renowned Prix du Lausanne, won the silver medal at age 17 and received a scholarship to the Princess Grace Academy in Monte Carlo. He completed his training at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Although he was disappointed to not receive a contract with that company upon his graduation, Blanc believes it opened up many more possibilities, saying, "I got to experience so many different types of companies, including Nice Opera Ballet, Dusseldorf Ballet, and Zurich Ballet, before making the big move to the U.S."

Jasper True Stanford and Nicolas Blanc rehearsing Blanc's new work, 'Gateway to the Sun.' (photo: Lindsay Thomas)  

Living and dancing in SF
Blanc has many fond memories of his life in San Francisco.

"SF Ballet was the first American company I auditioned for, it was my dream job and I was so thrilled to get it," he said. "I loved the variety of the company's repertoire, especially the Balanchine works, because of [recently retired SF Ballet Artistic Director] Helgi Thomasson's direct lineage to Balanchine. And I loved living in San Francisco, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, going to the ocean and having such easy access to so much natural beauty. Being immersed in nature is a huge inspiration for me as an artist. You just don't get that anywhere else."

As an openly gay man since his early 20s, Blanc initially struggled with his identity, but explains, "As I've gotten get older, I have more confidence and I'm proud of who I am. Now, when I teach and choreograph, I try to be inclusive of everyone, especially nonbinary dancers. I want everyone to feel included and accepted. At Joffrey, we do lots of men-men and women-women partnering, and we recently presented a program by all LGBTQ choreographers. It's important to maximize representation on stage, because when we do that, people in the audience can relate it to their own lives."

For his ballet "next @ 90" work, "Gateway to the Sun," Blanc researched the life of 13th- century poet Rumi and his relationship with a nomad man named Shams. They traveled together extensively and Blanc said, "Many writings say he had a spiritual relationship with Shams, some researchers say it was more than that. I wanted to bring that element into the work, so in the first movement there are two duets for men to represent that relationship."

Likewise, he found opportunities to explore and speak the power of women in contemporary society.

"I was choreographing last July and the movement was going to be danced by all men," he said. "But when the Roe v Wade decision went down with the Supreme Court, I changed it to all women. As an artist, I want to reflect on societal subjects that are important."

LGBTQ Nite Out
It's fitting that SF Ballet will relaunch its popular Nite Out series during the "next @ 90" festival, on Friday, January 27. The evening will include celebratory lighting of the Opera House, a pre-performance talk with an LGBTQ-identifying dancer, a performance of three works including Blanc's ballet "Gateway to the Sun," and a post-performance party with company artists at The Madrigal in nearby Hayes Valley. Nite Out's community partner is LGBTQ youth organization Lyric.

San Francisco Ballet "next @ 90," $29-$448, Jan. 20-Feb.11, San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. www.sfballet.org

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