Most dancers begin their training near home, then travel large distances as their career path takes them from company to company. This was not the case for former San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Joanna Berman (SFB 1984–2002). A California native, Berman began her training with Marin Ballet, just north of San Francisco, and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when she was seventeen to dance with the larger company, where she became one of the most beloved dancers in the company’s history. She retired from SF Ballet in 2002 to start a family (she has nine-year-old twin boys) and to take her dance career into new territory as a teacher and regisseur.
Equally at home in classical and contemporary works, whether abstract or dramatic, and with a unique gift for comedy, she was the obvious choice for many visiting choreographers. In addition to the Auroras, Juliets, and Giselles, Berman created roles in works by Val Caniparoli, Mark Morris, David Bintley, and Christopher Wheeldon, among others.
Today, because of her experience in such an extensive repertory, Berman is in demand as a regisseur, assisting choreographers in bringing their existing ballets to new audiences. This past month, she has been working with Walnut Creek’s Diablo Ballet, setting Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Manoeuvres, which is part of the Inside the Dancer’s Studio program to be presented Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3.
California Literary Review recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Berman about this exciting new phase of her dancing career.
California Literary Review: You set Mercurial Manoeuvres on the Australian Ballet a while back. How were you initially selected for the project?
Joanna Berman: In my final season with San Francisco Ballet, I performed in Christopher Wheeldon’s Sea Pictures — that’s how I met him. We really connected, and he asked if I would be interested in setting another on of his ballets (Mercurial Manoeuvres) on the Australian Ballet. He knew I was retiring and thought it would be a good transition project for me.
He sent me videos of the ballet; I learned the piece from them. As part of the process, I went to New York and watched the New York City Ballet rehearsals to become more familiar with the work. It went so well in Australia that it started my career as a regisseur (Note: a person whose responsibilities include rehearsing and staging a company’s ballets).
Mercurial Manoeuvres uses the same music as David Bintley’s Dance House — a ballet I performed when I was with San Francisco Ballet — so I know the music well. It was strange to work with the music in this different context, though, as I instinctively responded to the music in the other ballet. On the other hand, it was comfortable at the same time. It did make it easier to remember the choreography. What also helps is that Wheeldon’s ballets are so musical that the steps fit like a glove.
What do you see as the differences/challenges working with larger vs. smaller companies?
When we are in the studio working on a ballet, it really makes no difference. I love being in the studio, and teaching a pas de deux is the same wherever you are. Just different dancers. Talented dancers exist in both large and small dance groups.
How do you structure your rehearsals with a company? And how much time are you given for an undertaking like this?
I consult with the company where I’m going and with others who have set the work previously to see about how much time is needed at each stage of the process. As I become more and more experienced as a regisseur (especially in setting a piece on various companies), I will have more of an idea.
In the past, you have said you were not interested in choreographing. Has this changed since you have experienced setting ballets for other choreographers?
My answer today is the same as before: I’m still not interested in it. Sometimes, though, I hear a piece of music I love and maybe I want to do something, but it is not my passion.
Being a regisseur resonates almost as much as dancing for me. I love it. And it doesn’t have the same pressures as being a performer. I still get to interact with dancers and using my body. And to get the choreographer’s point across.
Besides Christopher Wheeldon, do you set ballets for other choreographers? For which companies? And what is coming up for you?
In addition to Christopher Wheeldon, I have worked with Mark Morris on setting his A Garden at Pacific Northwest Ballet, which was a wonderful experience. I have also worked with Val Caniparoli, helping to polish Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux for Ballet West. (Berman originated the role of Ophelia at the world premiere in 1985.)
I really try to limit myself to one major project a year that requires intense preparation, and where I have to be gone from home for a couple of weeks. As my sons get older, though, I hope to be able to do more.
Are you teaching these days? Where and at what levels?
Yes. For four different studios; I also have some private students. I do this mostly while the boys are in school. I teach a class at Marin Dance theatre. At Dominican, I teach the sophomores in their dance program. In addition, I teach two “open classes” in San Francisco — one at ODC, and one at City Ballet. Every class has a different clientele, which keeps it interesting.
Do you have time for any performing? Or are you too busy with other assignments?
I have no plans for performing right now. I’m not saying I won’t, but there is nothing in the works. If the right thing came about, maybe.
Don’t miss Diablo Ballet in this weekend’s Inside the Dancer’s Studio.
7:30 p.m. March 2 and 3; 2:00 p.m. March 3
Shadelands Arts Center Auditorium, 111 N. Wiget Lane, Walnut Creek
For tickets: 925.943.1775, www.diablo ballet.org.