San Francisco Ballet passes the baton: Tamara Rojo (English National Ballet) will start the 2022-23 season as Artistic Director, following Helgi Tómasson.
If the world-famous company is well known, here we wanted to focus on its nursery, the San Francisco Ballet School. We met with its director, Patrick Armand, as well as Pascal Molat, deputy director of the SFB trainee program, both ex-principal dancers, who trained in France. We were curious to learn more about their journey to San Francisco and to understand how they approach cultural differences in their teaching.
Why ballet? (and not soccer for Pascal…)
P.A. I was born into the world of dance. My mother ran a ballet school. It was natural and I never imagined doing anything else. I already knew, after my career as a dancer, I would become a ballet master. You have to pass on your passions.
P.M. I loved soccer, indeed, but my friends were all taller than me, and I also liked Michael Jackson and his choreographies. My mother suggested I try ballet, then I passed the audition for the Paris Opera (without any pressure because I knew almost nothing about it). I needed an outlet for my overflowing energy and I liked it.
After Ballet des Flandres, Monte Carlo, London, Boston, La Scala, then for the two of you San Francisco Ballet, is there a cultural difference?
P.A. Yes, what we endeavor to do here is train dancers in a less formal way. We give them a solid mind, and a vivid imagination to develop. Everyone brings their own culture and this allows for a certain diversity, and freedom of interpretation. On the other hand, the world is evolving towards an increasingly technical society, where performance and image take precedence. When it comes to dancing, it is the movement that matters. And the style of the dancer. They must be a kind of blank canvas, malleable, that incarnates choreography and energy.
P.M. Highlighting their style rather than making them a group of similar bodies is key. Even the corps de ballet works in singularity.
How do you create a character, for example, Pascal, your version of Dr Coppelius (In Coppelia), both sullen and also worried about his declining seduction?
P.M. The choreography already sets the tone: it is precise and theatrical. The artistic director also has a specific vision of what he wants to see. But there is space for the dancers where they can express their composition of the character. Their personality in this particular piece.
The inspiration, where to find it?
P.M. Everywhere. Dance is a school of life. It is first and foremost a mental exercise. Performance is actually only a small part of the movement. Preparation and transitions are much more important because this is the space for the dancer’s uniqueness. It is in these interstices that the real talent is unearthed and where we see an accomplished dancer.
Going from principal dancer to teacher, is it hard to stop dancing, not being on stage anymore? Is it a well-deserved and long-awaited rest?
P.A. It’s complicated but we know it has to stop at some point. For the body, indeed, it is a little liberating. You have to learn how to transition from a status where you are given everything to that of a teacher, where it is yourself who gives away. We step out of the light but it is rewarding, in a whole different way.
What about your recent promotion to Associate Director?
P.M. I was very honored that Patrick appointed me deputy director of our SFB trainees program. It is a responsibility to train tomorrow’s dancers and to try and give them the means to face the professional world. We work in synergy and I really appreciate collaborating with someone who has the same mindset. We share the same vision of dance.
Is the “trainee” program a special or essential program? How do you instill the SFB “spirit”?
P.A. The trainees are handpicked for their potential. Almost all of them have taken SFB courses beforehand to incorporate the technique. Half of them will join the company. The others, without exception, will be hired by other companies.
Your favorite role?
P.A. I danced with Nureyev in Maurice Bejart’s Songs of a Wayfarer. He was very innovative, especially regarding men’s dance. The male dancer was not only the one showcasing the ballerina anymore but he had his own part to play.
P.M. I like composition roles. Character constructions.
Can dance still evolve given the extreme athletic performance it has become?
P.A. It’s complicated to still prioritize art over technique. Today’s society is extremely technical. The focus is on the image, the snapshot, and the frozen performance. However, it is the movement that matters in dance. Transitions are important, sometimes even more than jumps or pirouettes. One has to know how to use music, rhythm, and pauses… in order to combine technique and art.
When running a school, what is the most important influx?
P.A. The evolution of our dancers. Giving them the necessary mental strength to make them strong. Unconditional trust is required on both sides. They need to know that we are focused only on them, and that trust allows us to be honest. Being technically gifted is good, nonetheless, the mind is even more important.
Also, the dancers never really perceive themselves. They need other sets of eyes to get a fair opinion of their work. And the ensemble’s task is very important too: a principal dancer will never be as good as the surrounding corps de ballet. It is a balancing act.
P.M. Sometimes, a slightly less technically gifted dancer is in the favorite’s position because they have to find other resources from within, which ultimately establishes their technique in a more personal and reliable way.
How do you two divide the work?
P.A. I often travel for auditions, competitions… Pascal is my counterpart. We are both always happier in the studio though.
What advice would you give to a young dancer, more specifically on how to prepare for their second career?
P.M. One has to think about it from the start. We all know this type of career is short. The program allows for one to obtain a Bachelor of Arts while studying dance. But dancers still need to have the intelligence to prepare.
P.A. To enter this profession, it is best to plan for auditions. To this end, a major part of our job is to prepare them, especially mentally, for everything that ensues: not being chosen, managing disappointments, but also being ready for suddenly having to deal with a lot of work or success.
P.M. It’s almost a parent’s job. The trust is total and reciprocal, and what we receive in return is a huge reward.
Following this interview, we attended two of their classes with the trainees. The level of requirements was, as it should be, very high, but the mindfulness was constant, with a touch of French humor.
We also had the pleasure to be invited to their end-of-year show, mixing ballet and contemporary dance. A real joy!
Merci Patrick! Merci Pascal!
And Happy Holidays