James Sofranko, San Francisco Ballet soloist, will introduce his new company, SFDanceworks, to Bay Area audiences, June 23—25, at ODC Theater. The company will present Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two,” Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Lickety Split,” as well as three world premieres, “Z” made on Anne Zivolich by Sofranko, “Portrait,” with a Georges Sand travestie-inspired theme, by Dana Genshaft, and “Joe and Ida,” a relationship study, by Penny Saunders.
What prompted Sofranko to open up a new flank in San Francisco’s territorial balletscape? “It was me wishing that there was a company like this to see,” he told me over tea, recently. “A couple of companies, like Chicago’s Hubbard Street, would come on tour. Coming from Juilliard, where I was exposed to a broad lexicon of dance, it seemed to me that we needed a repertory company here that could take on everything from contemporary to American masterworks, and still push the envelope to bring forward new works. I’m not looking for this to be a flash-in-the-pan, post-modern company, but one that embraces past, present and future, built around a spine of seminal works with lasting impact that should be preserved.”
Sofranko sees beyond that tempting sampler. “It’s good for dancers to learn those pieces, know how a great piece of work is made. They should experience the evolution of an art form in the dancing of it.” He admires the broad spectrum of San Francisco Ballet’s repertoire that has given him many moments to “shine on stage.” By successive approximation, he hopes to capture its jewel box version one season at a time, and that vision is reflected in the composition of SFDanceworks. He has hired former SFB colleagues, Dana Genshaft and Garrett Anderson. Joining them will be veteran ODC dancer Anne Zivolich, Ben Needham-Wood, Amber Neumann, Kendall Teague, and Tobin Del Cuore, best known for dancing the works of the ubiquitous choreographer, Azure Barton.
Of the dancers, Sofranko says, “They’re friends whom I really admire. Some are from Juilliard, being versatile in that way that they can do a Paul Taylor contraction, roll, and get up going right to arabesque. I want to showcase technical skill and training, not post modern pedestrian. The audience should see the extraordinary. I want us to blow them away with physicality and what we say with choreography. That’s the real power of dance.”
What was it like to put together this cast of dancers? “Finding dancers has been the easiest part,” says Sofranko. “I got lots of emails from dancers asking to be in my company. I was flattered, but the flood of email speaks volumes about what dancers are hungry to do: seminal works side by side with new ones in a rep company. Some are tired of doing the same thing year in and year out, and are eager to work with many different types of artists. They want the challenge of how to adapt, become a better collaborator. Dana’s piece is based on Georges Sand, and the feminist idea of wearing men’s clothes. Seeing Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two” was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my life! I’m so pleased that he has entrusted it to us. These are the pieces dancers will take with them and reference throughout their lives.”
Sofranko says that he is preparing for bumps in the road by consulting others who have traveled this route, including Lawrence Pech and Wendy Van Dyke, of the former Lawrence Pech Dance Company. He says he has extended conversations with his wife, Cynthia Sheppard, who danced for many years with what originated more than two decades ago as Ballet Cleveland-San Jose, and eventually became Ballet Silicon Valley before it closed earlier this season, a closure he sees as “tragic” for the city of San Jose. He wants to do all that he can to avoid his company getting caught in the maws of board diktats that undermine artistic oversight and growth, job security for dancers, and financial stability. “I am moving into this slowly, with one project a year, but hopefully that will evolve into more. I want to keep space open for other projects. I have set work on the dancers in the San Francisco Ballet Trainee program, as well as on Marin Dance Theater, Long Beach Ballet, and Contra Costa Ballet,” says Sofranko. “I staged Yuri Possokhov’s “Classical Symphony” on Cincinnati Ballet and look forward to working with Colorado Ballet in the future.”
How did his experience at Juilliard influence him? “It opened my eyes. I was on the ballet company track at Harid Conservatory, and went to Juilliard reluctantly, treating it as a backup if I didn’t get hired by a company.” Sofranko’s parents had wanted him to apply to Juilliard to get a college education. “I saw it as my ‘safe school,’” Sofranko tells me, half jokingly, “thinking I’d go there if a company didn’t hire me. Well, I didn’t have any offers except for an apprenticeship, and so I thought, ‘Let me take Juilliard as a way to look around.’ Benjamin Harkarvy (Juilliard’s then-director) called me, concerned that I wasn’t really into it. It made me rethink it.”
Sofranko said that thanks to the conversation with Harkarvy, he entered Juilliard with an open mind. “I had taken Graham classes at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, and worked with Christine Dakin, former Co-Director of the Martha Graham Company, then teaching at Juilliard. “It ended up being one of the best things for me, because my body is not ideal, and the Graham classes made me a better ballet dancer. I was a fast twitch guy, and wanted to be more legato. At Juilliard, I had private Alexander Technique lessons with Jane Kosminsky, studied Catch and Release, Breath, and I learned to use the pelvis to initiate movement. Hector Zaraspe was my ballet teacher. I would sneak over to the David Rose building at SAB, and watch Stanley Williams’ classes. I got to see all the companies. I got a great education in New York, and made lasting relationships—danced with Lar. Then Helgi [Tomasson, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director] very kindly gave me a leave of absence to tour with Twyla Tharp’s ‘Movin’ Out,’” Sofranko recounts, finessing his story into a present that holds within it an ambitious commitment to the future of his chosen art form.
Performances at ODC take place from Jun. 23—25 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$45. Contact sfdanceworks.org.