San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Sasha De Sola Explains How the Pandemic Reframed Her Dance Career

Kristyn Burtt

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Photo credit: Karolina Kuras.

When this interview was scheduled with San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sasha De Sola, neither of us knew it would come on an unprecedented day of news. While we were conversing via Zoom, the Capitol riots were happening, so our time together was a wonderful distraction from the overwhelming events. It was also a big day in the ballet world because that morning, beloved San Francisco Ballet Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson announced his retirement after 35 years at the helm. It was a lot to take in, but it allowed for the interview to rest in a comforting place without all of the noise of the outside world.

De Sola admitted that she was "still fully processing" Tomasson's announcement when I asked about her initial thoughts regarding his retirement since he has been an integral part of her career. "Helgi is the only director I have ever worked for. I started working for the company when I was just freshly 17 and I've only worked for him," she said. "So it's a huge momentous thing, not only personally, but also for the company, because he's been the director for almost 40 years. So it's a big day."

She was already thinking about the impact he's had on her career, even though Tomasson isn't exiting San Francisco Ballet until mid-2022. While she was surprised by his announcement, she also laughed because he's always been like that. "[Every time] he promoted me, he always caught me 100-percent by surprise, just like this morning when he said he's gonna step down," she revealed.

The lessons he taught her were invaluable because he was able to pass along the wise words of ballet legends like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, who Tomasson worked with while a dancer at New York City Ballet. "I think working in the studio with him on Balanchine's ballets and Robbins' ballets," De Sola continued. "Those are memories that I'll never forget and what he has been able to pass on because he worked so closely and directly with those choreographers. I'll always remember all that he had to offer with that."

De Sola trained in her formative years at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., under the guidance of Ludmila Morkovina and Anatoli Kucheruk, but landing at San Francisco Ballet as an apprentice in 2006 was a game-changer for her. She's been there ever since working her way up through the ranks to principal dancer in 2017. The beauty of the company is its ability to fluidly shift between classical and contemporary ballet programs, it's something that has kept De Sola fully invested in staying at San Francisco Ballet because there are so many unique artistic opportunities.

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Photo credit: Erik Tomasson.

"This company is thrilling to work for because you're never bored. Sometimes within the same day, like a Saturday matinee, I might be doing a very contemporary piece and Saturday evening, I might be doing a more classical piece like "Études" that requires a ton of technique, a ton of classicism," she said excitedly. "So you have to be really versatile, willing to be flexible — literally and figuratively — and embrace all of these different styles and all of these different inputs that you're getting and almost compartmentalize them, but also allow them to influence the other one, which I think nice."

This winter and spring, San Francisco Ballet is doing a 2021 Digital Season filled with both classic and contemporary ballets, kicking off with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Jan. 21-Feb. 10. The continuous and ambitious programming goes all the way through June with "Swan Lake" wrapping up the season on June. 9. While dance on film will never replace the excitement of live theatre, De Sola believes there is artistic growth happening in their digital season because of how she has to interpret the characters for the camera.

"We are so lucky here at San Francisco Ballet because we've been able to create three new pieces during this pandemic — of course, everyone was split up into pods. The piece that I was involved in was by choreographer [and company soloist] Myles Thatcher, which is super exciting," she explained. "This piece is filmed specifically for the screen, it's a dance film. As compared to a live capture of a stage performance, this really takes into account how the camera affects the way the viewer will perceive the piece. So the choreography is different, the locations are different — it's not always on the stage."

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Photo credit: Erik Tomasson.

San Franciso Ballet has successfully pivoted to make a season happen, but the pandemic has taken a toll on many artists' mental health. De Sola addressed how she managed to weather "the ups and downs" before they finally got into a normal routine for the 2021 season.

"It's kind of scary to be living through a pandemic and knowing how to navigate that — there is no rule book. So you try to be as responsible as you can, but inevitably it's a stressor. That has led me to feeling like I'm not sure what the future holds," she revealed. "What I find helps me the most is focusing on being in the moment, it's been a really big learning lesson for me to live in the moment. I'm kind of a planner. I like to know what I'm doing. I like to control my situation and not having that is, is tough. I do feel it's made me stronger mentally because I try to focus on the positive and the beautiful things that I do have."

Even with the challenges the pandemic brought to De Sola's career, she's excited about what the future holds because the obstacles reframed the importance of what dance means to her. "It's definitely given me a moment to step back," she says. "I'm extremely grateful for the career that I've had so far, and it just reminds me how lucky I am that I had that opportunity already. It's just lit a new fire within me."

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Kristyn Burtt is a commercial dance journalist, TV host and producer. She was the West Coast correspondent and host of "To the Pointe" on Dance Network for five years. Her coverage of "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars" and "World of Dance" is popular with dance fans across the globe. Kristyn's love of dance began early in her life. She trained at the Boston Ballet School, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in "The Nutcracker" and won a dance scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She currently serves on the American Dance Movement’s Marketing & PR Committee and is a member of the Television Academy and SAG-AFTRA.

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