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A Ballerina in San Francisco

The ‘Performer you should know series’ is about celebrating artists on stage.  The wonderful, strange, and brilliant performers that light up our theaters, auditoriums, and sidewalks.  The actors, singers, ballerinas, contortionists, dancers…the entertainers that make our city more interesting each night.

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Ballerina Sasha De Sola. Photo: Quinn Wharton

Strolling through the San Francisco Ballet training facility is a bit like a very realistic dream.   Behind each door there’s a different composition of finely tuned humans at work.  Behind door number one there are 30 young ladies in matching white tutus sauntering to Swan Lake, behind door number two there are 20, six year-olds standing in a row curtsying, walk down the hallway and there are three guys in their mid twenties doing the splits on the floor.  (they might be stretching, but for all I know that’s how ballerinos relax).  Every generation, race and creed seems accounted for.  Between the sounds of lightly clad footsteps one hears the faint patter of a grand piano, and the rhythmic calls of a senior instructor: “now ladies, now now…”

My trusty guide Kyra Jablonsky leads us to a fourth door where we peer through glass at a man holding a ballerina above his head, Kyra talks about the choreography, the composition, and the names of the prominent performers who are originally from far off, exotic sounding places…I marvel at the balance and strength.  Ballerinas move unlike any other athlete, there is calculated grace and a hidden rhythm to seemingly everything they do.  I suck in my gut, time to meet the San Francisco Ballet Company Soloist Sasha De Sola, a performer you should know.

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Ballerina Sasha De Sola. Photo: Quinn Wharton

A part of me expected Sasha to be dressed like Natalie Portman in Black Swan for our interview.  But no, this is in fact the real world and Sasha is wearing the comfortable kit a dancer wears before practice, sweatpants (with tiny gnomes on them) and little black booties I was told are full of down feathers to keep her ankles and feet warm (apparently you can get them at REI).  A black leotard on top and a bun of blond hair.  She has big bright eyes and after seeing her posture I try to straighten up in my chair.  My first question is clumsy, “So, when someone asks you what you do, what do you say?”

Sasha: “I usually say I’m a professinal ballet dancer…it’s a little easier than saying I’m a ballerina, because people tend to not believe me when I just say ‘I’m a ballerina’.”

What’s an annoying question you get about being a ballet dancer?
People will say “Oh you must be really flexible? Or you must be in great shape…and I’d prefer they didn’t…

(I interupt) So instead of just blurting out a stereotype what would you prefer people ask you?
Anything but that (laughs) How about, “you’re a ballerina, what’s that like?”

Sasha started movement class at 2 years old, and serious ballet when she was 10.  After attending high school at Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington DC, she came to San Francisco in 2006 to join the SF Ballet Company, the oldest professional ballet company in America.  A company with storied performers from all over the globe, all of whom as it turns out, are unionized.  The American Guild of Musical Artists protects ballerinas against injury, negotiates health benefits and practice restrictions.  Isn’t that wonderful? Moving on…Sasha is now a soloist, practicing or performing 6 days a week during the Ballet season running December through May.

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Sasha at 5 years old

Do your toes hurt?
Yes, (she laughs)  I wish I could say no (smiles) they don’t hurt as much as you probably think they do

What is a ballerina’s workout regiment?  Do you go to the gym?
Usually just dancing keeps us in shape, if I’ve had a long break I’ll do pilates or gyrotonic.  Honestly I don’t really have the energy for other types of exercise outside of dancing

What do Ballerinas do for fun?
On my day off I like to go hiking with my dog

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Sasha De Sola. Photo Erik Tomasson

Favorite Hike: Milagra Ridge in Pacifica
Favorite ballet to watch: La Bayadère
Favorite ballet to perform:  Jerome Robbins ballets and George Balanchine ballets, honestly the best part of working here is being part of new works, that programming is part of what is moving ballet into the future.

How much do ballerinas make?
Let’s just say we’re not doing it for the money, we’re doing it for the art

Favorite bar? La Trappe
Favorite Beer:  La Fin du Monde

Video director: Oliver Endahl, performers: Sasha De Sola & Steven Morse

Would you recommend dating a ballerina?
Sure, why not? (grin)

Well, what are ballerinas like?
We’re very driven, but we also know how to relax and have fun when we step away.   It’s impossible to generalize but for me it’s about this art that I love. We’re following our passion, dedicated and disciplined…I don’t know, it’s too hard to generalize

Why do you do what you do?
My grandma said something interesting, she said at first you chose ballet but then ballet chose you.  I started out early, and I was very shy, and I felt so much physical freedom in the expression of dance.  The athleticism of it is attractive to me and the opportunity to create a character,  it demands athleticism as well as acting.

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Sasha De Sola in Tomasson’s Nutcracker (copyright Erik Tomasson)

Of all the Ballets why is the Nutcracker the most popular?
It’s a big American tradition, it’s magical and fun to watch, lots of different characters, children and adults, in this production it literally snows on stage.

After 20 consecutive years of nutcracker, on a scale of 1-10 how sick are you of hearing the nutcracker music?  I’m kidding…but seriously…
(laughs) Believe it or not I still love listening to it when I’m dancing to it.  20 years later I still like it.

What do you play in the nutcracker this year?
I have 3 different roles, and I’ll be performing one of these 3 roles at any given time: the sugar plum fairy, the snow queen, and the ballerina that clara transforms into at the end.

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Photo: Erik Tomasson The Nutcracker

Are there any strong woman you look up to?
When I was at boarding school as a teenager I used to watch youtube videos non-stop of Larisa Lezhnina and Sofiane Sylve dancing, and now I get to work with them.

You get to work with your childhood heroes?
yes, definitely

Lucky girl
yes indeed

What Ballet do you recommend seeing this spring?
I really like Liam Scarlett, he’s a young choreographer, I think his work really appeals to a younger generations through its musicality and its subject matter.  A lot of times ballet can seem…elitist, but that perception has started to change.  In Liam’s work the dancers are very human, relatable, basic emotions really come through in the choreography.  His brand new ballet is “fearful symmetries” here in San Francisco.

That’s the hot new ish the cool kids want to see?
(smiles) ya, I think so.

For Tickets and Scheduling of the Ballet at SFBallet.org.  The Nutcracker is showing now
For more amazing photography by Erik Tomasson.com and Quinn Wharton.com

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