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The Hard Nut 

Or, Cracking the San Francisco Ballet

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
The girl -- let's call her Clara, although some versions call her Marie -- wanted to be a ballerina. Her mother asked the people at San Francisco Ballet if Clara could audition for the school, which is prestigious, and the ballet people, who knew the girl from their Outreach Program (where Clara had a full scholarship), said no.

"It would be very awkward for her," they explained.

"Do you think she's too short?" asked the mother.

"Not just that." (Quotations derive from the mother's version of the story.)

"Do you think she doesn't have the right body for it?"

There was hesitation. The mother pressed, and the Snow Queens at the San Francisco Ballet admitted that, indeed, Clara's body type did not conform to their particular standards. The mother auditioned her anyway. Clara, after all, had four years of training, although she was only 8. "It's really important that she go in this program," the mother said later, "because she's in a ballet program right now, at her school [in addition to the Outreach Program], and I don't have time to have her be in a bunch of different programs. I'd like to just give her one program. And I felt like if she was just in the Community Outreach Program, her technique wouldn't keep up, and there was no guarantee that she'd be in anything" -- any show -- "at the end of the year."

Did the Snow Queens ask Clara to dance during the audition? They did not. Did they ask for videotapes of Clara performing? Not for a moment. Did they read her résumé? No. Instead, they asked her to walk around and skip a little. The Ballet School promises nothing more, audition-wise. Its lithe body-type standard is famous. After two months, Clara's rejection arrived in the mail.

"I had a couple of phone calls with [the Snow Queens], pushing them to look at what they were doing," said the mom, who runs two dance groups of her own. "They were saying they had every right to do exactly what they wanted. I said, "Well, you used to have that right, but I'm not sure you still have the same rights because of this Human Rights Commission,' and [I told them] I was going to file a complaint. And they said, "Well, we can't talk to you anymore,' and hung up."

Here a few salient facts must be interjected. San Francisco's Human Rights Commission oversees a recently passed ordinance that says public or publicly funded institutions should not discriminate against people on the basis of weight or height (or age, etc.). The San Francisco Ballet receives $550,000 from the city's Grants for the Arts fund every year, which means it's covered under the new law. And Clara's mother filed a complaint with the commission -- not a lawsuit, as certain writers have reported. "Everybody's calling it a lawsuit, and I don't even have a lawyer," the mother complained.

The San Francisco Ballet School did, apparently, discriminate against Clara on the basis of weight and height. That's what the Ballet School does. But Clara's mother had a wider critique -- about American culture in general. Said she: "You have the fashion industry and the ballet and Hollywood all mirroring each other as to what an attractive woman is, and an attractive woman is someone with zero body fat."

The mother pointed out that Anna Pavlova, considered one of the greatest ballerinas, was stocky and short. The current aesthetic of ethereal thinness in ballet is not only dangerous to many young women, who starve themselves or take drugs to conform, but it's also relatively recent. It began in New York, with George Balanchine. "And Helgi Tomasson [who directs the San Francisco Ballet] comes out of the Balanchine aesthetic because he danced in [the] New York City Ballet for years," said the mother.

Emblematic of this debate is the contrast between Tomasson's traditional Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet -- where a corps of nearly identical, skinny young Snowflakes and Flowers flutter weightlessly on oversweet fantasy sets -- and Mark Morris' Hard Nut -- featuring large and small women, male Snowflakes and Flowers, men en pointe, and a homoerotic pas de deux. Morris, who's chunky himself, breaks enough traditional rules in his ballet scenes to prove that excellent dance is not (narrowly) body-type specific.

But so what if the San Francisco Ballet prefers birdlike ballerinas? Why must artistic standards be a civic issue? Do Snow Queens need to be dragged off to guillotines marked égalité for the tax burden they represent through Grants for the Arts? (Did Andres Serrano need to be crucified for doing Piss Christ on an NEA grant?) The answer, of course, is yes, because that's the nature of public funding. The government will not let institutions have its money for very long without imposing certain bureaucratic standards (see this week's Bay View), partly because of pressure from activists with nut-hard heads like Clara's mom.

Krissy Keefer, aka "Clara"'s mom, means well. She would like to see the San Francisco Ballet turned into a cultural mecca, a place where girls of every viable shape train to become first-rate dancers. She wants to see an end to the dominance of the Balanchine aesthetic -- and she may be in a position to force it, at least locally. "We're in the most creative city in the world, and San Francisco Ballet is, like, in the Dark Ages, in the way they want to participate in the community," she said. "I mean, they could be doing so much, it could be so much fun, the whole community could have a relationship to San Francisco Ballet, instead of having it be this, like, ice palace down there on Franklin Street."

Á bas les reines de la neige! Down with the Snow Queens! Vive la révolution!


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