The Bay Area’s Billy Elliots

A new generation of ballet talent leaps into the Student Showcase.

By Carey Dunne

Weekday mornings, riding the MUNI down Sacramento Street wearing jeans and a green backpack, 17-year-old Jacob Seltzer resembles a typical high school student on his reluctant way to algebra class. But after arriving at Civic Center and entering the Chris Hellman Center for Dance, he makes a superhero-like costume change into gray leggings and a tight white V-neck, then boards an elevator crowded with teenaged girls in black pancake tutus. While most kids his age are prepping for the SATs, Seltzer spends his days practicing pirouettes, grands jetés and pas de deux at the San Francisco Ballet School, nestled among the Beaux Arts architectural wonders of Hayes Valley.

For the past four months, 159 students have been relentlessly rehearsing for the upcoming Student Showcase, an annual event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. They will perform George Balanchine’s famous “Serenade,” as well as “Panorama,” a piece by SF Ballet Corps de Ballet up-and-comer Myles Thatcher, choreographed specifically for SF Ballet School trainees. Following the showcase, a dinner at the Four Seasons raises funds for student scholarships.

Seltzer remembers the moment he received a scholarship to the SF Ballet School as “one of the happiest of [his] life.” He says “it was a dream come true.” Like most of his fellow advanced students, Seltzer has been obsessively studying ballet since he was tiny: After watching Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” at age three, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. By age six, he was playing a Chinese fisherman in the Washington Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” in his hometown of Washington, D.C. “Ever since seeing the San Francisco Ballet perform ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at age eight, I’ve wanted to be in this company,” he says. More than half of the Company’s dancers are graduates of the SF Ballet School. Two weeks after his acceptance, Seltzer and his mother, a professional salsa dancer, moved across the country.

Many students journey from farther-flung lands for a chance to study at the oldest professional ballet academy in the United States. Balthazar Senat, 16, left his family of winemakers in the village of Trausse Minervois, in the south of France. Fifteen-year-old Adrian Zeisel’s family of ballet dancers in Vienna, Austria, saw him off to San Francisco last year. Zeisel and Senat’s new home is Jackson Manor, a communal residence in Pacific Heights, where they live with other members of the program. “We don’t have time to go out and make friends outside of ballet, but we’re a really great community,” Zeisel says. When he’s not busy preparing for the two-and-a-half-minute solo he’ll perform at the upcoming showcase, Zeisel enjoys solitary hikes to Lands End.

As an American teenage boy, Seltzer finds plenty of people eager to remind him that his ballet obsession makes him an anomaly in a demographic stereotypically characterized by a passion for violent video games. “Most people find it an oddity, like, ‘Oh, that’s nice for you,’” Seltzer says. Others are more explicitly critical: “As a guy, I’ve found there are always people who think being a ballet artist isn’t manly enough. People look down on it a lot.” His response to the haters brings “Billy Elliot” to mind: “I use it as motivation to just working harder at dancing,” he says. “While I’m dancing, I’m completely confident in myself. The more people think you can’t do something, the more fun it becomes when you actually do it.”

At a demo rehearsal for the Student Showcase, this passion is palpable. In a mirrored studio hung with black-and-white photographs of the company’s founders, the famed Christensen brothers, Seltzer checks a notebook he’s filled with his teachers’ suggestions. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony begins to play as Seltzer, Senat and Zeisel pair up with girls in braided buns, then sashay across the stage, lifting them into grands jetés. Abruptly, the teacher cuts off the music: “You’ve got to know your counts!” she implores. “You’re doubling up.” They start the routine again, then again. To ensure that the running dancers don’t cross an invisible line, students form a human wall across the stage.

Most of the young dancers haven’t yet achieved the illusion of effortlessness mastered by more seasoned ballet artists—one boy fails to stick a landing and crumples his partner’s pancake tutu, grimacing and glancing in slight panic toward the teacher—but what they lack in polish, they make up for in energy and emotion. As he spins like a top in the air, Seltzer’s face lights up. “Even if I’m not technically the cleanest dancer,” he says, “I’m still the happiest.”

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