There are those few experiences in life that become glowing beacons of the highest artistic expressions that resonate with life itself. Such a time was had during a ballet performance in San Francisco on an evening in February. Walking to the War Memorial Opera House through the Civic Center with my dear wife, the wind blew in great cold gusts that had more the effect of vitalizing and pushing us to laugh rather than to huddle defensively against it. The lights of the great hall flooded out to the streets and the steady promenade of the audience was drawn in as we ascended the broad central stairs of white granite to the main entrance.
We were welcomed by friendly, gentle people and shown to our seats twelve rows back near the center of the auditorium for the opening night of the new program. With an internal hum of anticipation, opera glasses in hand, I was elevated by the slowly building tones of the orchestra tuning up. The demands of excellence versus the challenges of the physical world would fill this night, everything from the temperature and humidity in the breath in the wind instruments affecting pitch to the pull of gravity on the seemingly weightless bodies that would soon animate the stage.
I was awakened again to the richness of the sensations of live symphonic music, having grown so accustomed to electronic sound squeezed through wires and projected from magnetic cones. The breadth of the tones of the live instruments and the incomprehensibly flawless acoustics of the performance hall hit not just the ears, but the throat, the chest, and the solar plexus. I felt as though everyone waiting for the curtain became part of an enormous tuning fork brought into sympathetic vibration with the musicians and the hour.
And with that, the lights dimmed, the maestro emerged under a white spotlight to the front of the orchestra pit, and the performance began. I am not unaware of the distinguished reputation of the San Francisco Ballet, but I was unprepared for the exhibit of perception-stretching beauty that was to unfold.
The first of three performances was Theme and Variations set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra. It is a mid-twentieth century neoclassical bit of choreography executed in full-on classical form — tights, tutus, and tiaras — and all the rigorous and exacting technique consequent to that style.
The supporting dancers skillfully flowered in unison to the choreography, then parted at center stage for the emergence of the lead dancer, Frances Chung. As impressive as the surrounding cast truly are, Frances Chung is on a clearly distinct plateau. Her movements were brilliantly refined, almost unearthly in their smoothness. She also has a particular talent extending each movement out to the height of their completion. So fluid and expressive was the entire dance that my aesthetic sense was pulled to a new range of perception. In a new way, I could see each hand gesture, torso bend, leap, and twirl for the emotional metaphor that it was intended to convey. It was indeed a moment when movement crystalized into a clear language before me.
I raised the opera glasses to find that each subtle facial expression was yet another resonant recursive expression of the larger metaphors of the story. That depth of human understanding and empathizing with the character role can only open outward from genuine insight into the human condition itself.
The second and third performances were equally engaging as I sat transfixed not only by the complexity of the movement, but also by the entertainment of the spectacle itself. The final piece, Winter Dreams, had never been performed before. Carried throughout the modernism of the movements was an intensely sensitive intertwining of balance and transference of weight as the dancers deftly streamed among each other.
The performances were obviously so physically demanding as to seem beyond all reasonable expectation, especially the classical quickness and precision of Theme and Variations. Yet these were handled so expertly as to never reveal the slightest taxing of effort, only elegance and grace creating a height of beauty unsuspected.
And it is that apex of beauty itself that compels us to attend from the outset. That is the core reason that permeates all the performances and the attention of the audience, and yet so elusive is this beauty that there are countless dancers, musicians, painters, and poets that dedicate their whole lives to reaching for this unattainable ideal.
It could be argued that ballet dancers are the epitome of the embodiment of artistic aesthetic. Long have I written about figurative art, and even longer have I made it the center of my own art, my drawings and paintings. For if art is the reflection of what it is to be human, then the body itself is the primary symbol of that exercise. No matter how the figure is presented on canvas or in marble, how much more vitalized are those representations in motion and with sound in living form — not with pixels or electronics smashed onto a flattened screen in 8-bit color, but in the breathing richness of the present moment.
I quickly felt a deep appreciation for all the subtle details of the performance. I loved the sound of feet and the hard tips of the pointe shoes on the wooden floor, even the sound of the flowing fabric of the costumes as the men lifted their partners and set them down, because these are the details of the physical world transforming into the ungraspable flame of idealization.
So, throughout the night I mused, even fixated, on wondering how the individual dancers continue to be inspired by that ideal to sustain themselves through hours of daily training year after year. What is their view of that starlight? I hoped to know.
Then, during the second intermission, in a strange twist of chance, the lead dancer from the first performance, Frances Chung, sat in the seat next to me, her friend in the next seat over. Loudly she cheered for her associate dancers — team members they were, bandmates. Her bearing and vivacious exuberance were enlivening. Here was a member of the dance royalty, in a sense, sitting in the middle of her court, without the slightest need or desire for the attention that now rightfully belonged to those now on stage. She emanated a spirit of being completely in the moment without a shred of pretense.
As I felt compelled to find the answers to the big questions as to what ideals motivate the dancers and what are some of the practical routines that go into that pursuit, the pathway seemed obvious — interview a dancer. And so, Frances Chung graciously took time from her demanding schedule to answer some of these questions, arranged by the kind efforts of Kyra Jablonsky of the San Francisco Ballet.
Including an Interview with Frances Chung Principal Dancer, San Francisco Ballet
Ballet and the Aesthetic of Ideals, Including an Interview with Frances Chung, Principal Dancer,
San Francisco Ballet, 2011 Vhcle Magazine Issue 6, Art
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2011: Ballet and the Aesthetic of Ideals
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TIM SUNDERMAN: Hello Frances. Thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedule to speak today.
FRANCES CHUNG: Oh, you’re welcome. No problem.
TS: The questions today have more to do with the aesthetics and ideals of ballet and are not so much biographical.
FC: OK, great.
TS: So let’s get right to the questions. What were your earliest motivations to continue with ballet?
FC: Not being able to sit still! [laughs] Once I got a little bit older, the artistic side became, not really motivation, more like inspiration to develop that side of me.
TS: What are your thoughts of the ideals you work so hard to attain as a dancer?
FC: The ideals... I think everyone in the ballet strives for perfection. There’s something about ballet that kind of pushes you to reach for the ideals. It’s kind of a far off world. Once you step on stage, as a dancer, you are constantly trying to be the best athlete. Or, if you’re playing a comedic role you are trying to be the best at that. If I am doing a tragedy ballet, you’re trying to be the most tragic person [laughs]. We are in the middle of Coppélia right now, which is a comedic ballet. It’s actually my first full-length ballet, and I just performed it yesterday for the first time. That was a big night for me. In Coppélia, my character is Swanhilda, a flirtatious teenager. There’s a lot of character development and I spent a lot of time with that. First, for me, I work on the technical aspect. From there you spend a lot of time developing your character. There are general aspects, but then you put your own personality into it.
TS: Speaking of character development, the refinements of your movements and even your facial expressions seem to convey a depth of human understanding of your roles. Do you take time to study the character role itself, or do you find that it naturally flows from the music and the setting?
FC: You are constantly preparing yourself. For Winter Dreams, I read the play by Chekhov “The Three Sisters” and for Coppélia I went online and researched. That’s a start, and from there you go into the rehearsal studio and you practice the physical technical aspect. Even from there you are trying to portray your character in your movement. On top of that, I try to build little intonations — little personal traits that I want to add. Then we have a great artistic staff and they tell you what works and what doesn’t work. You are trying to tell a story without any words. Some things read better than others. The staff and the other dancers, we help each other. A few people I really trust to be honest with me, they’ll be like, “That was terrible, change it,” [laughing], or what not.
TS: In the time before the performance, do you focus on getting into character, or is everything such a flurry that you just trust your rehearsal and jump in there?
FC: We start off the day with class. Then we are rehearsing for next week’s programs, so we are doing completely different ballets in the evening. But before the show, I will get to the theatre a good two and a half hours before the show and I’ll take my time putting on my make-up and doing my hair and performing those rituals that get me into performing mode. Then I’ll warm up for an hour.
Once you are in the theatre on the day of the show, you don’t want to still be trying to remember your character or going over the choreography. I think at that point, you just have to let everything go and let your muscle memory take over and the musicality that is already in your body — for the most part, just trying to be calm, even though that is impossible, which I guess is a good thing. Adrenaline is a great thing for performance.
TS: From the audience, you don’t show any appearance of being anything less than confident. But I’m sure that energy must be flying. So, preparing for the season and during the performance season, how many hours a day revolve around ballet?
FC: I leave for work soon after eight o’clock and I’m lucky if I leave the theatre and it’s still light out. It’s an amazing day if I get to walk out and there’s still sunlight. For the most part, I am rehearsing for the day, and if I have a few minutes I’ll take a little nap before I start getting ready for the show. But, I live in the theatre for the season [laughs].
TS: Do you set yourself up differently for the aesthetics of modern dance compared to classical, and do you have a favorite?
FC: The great thing about San Francisco Ballet is that we have such a diverse repertoire that sometimes it’s hard. Like right now, I just had a rehearsal for Chroma by Wayne McGregor [music by Joby Talbot and Jack White from the White Stripes] and it’s probably the furthest thing from classical ballet. We are not on pointe [shoes], there are no tights, we wear very minimal costumes, you’re undulating every part of your body, your ribs are supposed to protrude out, there’s no classical position in this sort of dance. Then in the evening, you are performing straight classical. I mean, it can get difficult. I can’t say I have a favorite, really I love being able to explore dance in new ways. It is stimulating for my body and my mind as an artist. On some days I like one more than another.
TS: Do you have other favorite art outside of ballet that you find to be equally inspiring?
FC: I get inspiration from things that would make sense like going to MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art] or checking out other performances in the city which there are plenty of, which I am grateful for. And then things like going for a walk, and you see, this sounds kind of cliché and cheesy, like going to Yosemite and you see nature and you see things move. I mean there’s movement everywhere around you that randomly I’ll get inspired by — any sort of movement that I see, really. You can compare dance to anything whether it’s art, architecture, all these worlds intertwine too, right?
TS: Do you have other creative outlets, or is dance so consuming that that’s it for now?
FC: During the season, I really don’t have time for anything else [laughs]. But when we’re off, I actually end up just dancing more. I have great opportunities to travel. Last Summer, I was in Germany for a few weeks and I was working with a friend and we did a whole project in Cologne. After that, I came home for a few days and then I went to Australia to do some more dancing. So, I figured, your dancing career doesn’t last for too long, so if these opportunities arise, I go for it. I have other dreams and aspirations outside of dance. I feel like I will never stop being creative whether it’s in dance or not. So, I figure I will have time for that after my dance career, but I want to make the most of it while I still can.
TS: That sounds like a well-considered plan. As a final question, what would your ideal performance be?
FC: When I really think about it as a person, I just want to be able to express my humanness on stage. That’s what I really appreciate when I am watching a dancer. It’s being able to see just that raw expression. It’s just being yourself in the character. For me, when I watch dance, there’s that thing that... I don’t think that you can describe it. But it’s something that I strive for, being able to be myself.
When I’m watching dance, I actually prefer to watch it backstage or the rehearsal. My favorite thing is to watch dance from close up and you get to see people sweat and you get to hear them grunt. But when you are watching a performance, our goal is to make it look as easy as possible, when in reality, when you are watching close up, when you are next to them, you know — it’s hard! And I like to watch the process of it all. The process is important.
By the end of the interview, I was as impressed with how intelligent, articulate, and insightful Frances was in person as on stage. Her genuineness and humor are further reflections of the humanness that she aspires to professionally, which even made the interview seem as easy as possible! There are few artists or art organizations as forwardly creative as San Francisco Ballet and I would openly encourage anyone interested in seeing human creativity for a new millennium to go there.
Tim Sunderman is a Graphic Designer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose first love is drawing and painting, tries to avoid computers until there is no other recourse, and because there is no other recourse, yearns for the open spaces. Tim is a graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and majored in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a college art and design instructor and freelance artist.
Read other articles by Tim Sunderman as well as see his photography work.
This article can be found on p16 in Issue 6 of Vhcle Magazine.