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About the Change

Sally Bailey

‘Striving for Beauty
A Memoir of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet’

Philadelphia, Xlibris, 2003, 370 pp., illus

reviewed by Renee Renouf

© Romaine, S.F.

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Sally Bailey was one of San Francisco Ballet’s formidable troupers during its second phase: the rise and ascendancy of Lew Christensen as the company’s artistic director. She was one of two principal dancers in Lew’s first hit with the company, the Amazon Queen in Con Amore, and for one of its more widely publicized ballets, Original Sin. She belonged to a crop of dancers which began to emerge in the Forties, better known models being Mary Ellen Moylan and Diana Adams: distinctive, well proportioned, lovely to look at and highly intelligent principal dancers. When I search for British equivalents I think of Anya Lyndon and Deanne Bergsma.

What Bailey lacked during her two decade career with San Francisco Ballet, 1947-1967, was the institutional stability the company enjoys today, and with it, economic recompense for the wall-to-wall commitment which accompanies any career worthy of the name in a classical ballet ensemble. Following her retirement, Bailey herself wrote about the economics of ballet companies for a local magazine, one of several manifestations bearing the name San Francisco on its cover.

Bailey starts the memoir with a prologue which outlines the route the Christensen brothers took to San Francisco: from Utah, via vaudeville, Portland and early Balanchine respectively, to teaching, directing and choreographing in San Francisco. The company and school moved four times between 1933 and 1983 when it moved into its present quarters at Franklin and Fulton Streets behind the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.

Sally Bailey as the Black Swan in Swan Lake,
taken in the mid-1950's
© Romaine, S.F.

Her first performing exposures with the company were the two seasons with San Francisco Civic Ballet, which Willam presented with the aid of imported stars like Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Tamara Toumanova and Michael Panaieff. When these brief successes floundered, in the face of touring companies like Ballet Theater and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the city’s own unpreparedness to support the fledgling ensemble, Bailey, like others, survived on the Opera season and the odd performances the company could muster. The company was regularly incubating excellent dancers and with equal regularity many of them headed east to join the ranks of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater and on to Europe, to the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas.

Bailey’s rise to principal status was sealed in 1952 when she danced the role of Odette in Willam Christensen’s version of Swan Lake, Act II. She previously had appeared as the Snow Queen in the first act of the Willam and Lew Christensen’s production of Nutcracker, the first in the United States. It was a status she shared with Nancy Johnson, later with Jocelyn Vollmar, until the arrival of younger dancers like Cynthia Gregory, recruited with the Ford Foundation scholarships. These years cover the company’s season at Jacob’s Pillow, the awarding of the first U.S. State Department touring contract, 1957, followed by a Latin American and a Middle Eastern tour. Accounts of economic stringencies are sprinkled, together with Christensen ingenuity, valiant promotion of the company by Leon Kalimos, and the versatility necessitated by the dancers on the State Department tours and later when the summer seasons led into fall touring engagements, sponsored by Columbia Artists Management.

Sally Bailey and Gordon Paxman in La Traviata,
for the University of Utah's Summer Festival
in Salt Lake City in 1953.
© Boyart, Salt Lake City

Bailey’s own personal life is treated with remarkable objectivity and includes a failed first marriage with her perspective on problems arising from a wife committed to a dancing career. What is perhaps more instructive is her account of the relationship she experienced with the late Roderick Drew, an extremely gifted young dancer who moved through the company ranks to dance Adam opposite her Eve in Original Sin. Drew later danced principal roles in the Harkness Company before returning to San Francisco, and, eventually, to suicide.

The chapter where she recounts ‘Rocky’s’ ambivalence towards her, his homosexuality, his struggles following a suicide attempt, the steadiness with which she supported his therapy, is a wonder to read. Whatever else the company may have lacked in technical polish and supple port de corps ( I remember the company appeared as drill corps in its demeanor and when Carlos Carvajal returned from Europe and started choreographing the girls suddenly appeared quite feminine), the accommodation Lew Christensen, as well as Bailey, made to support Rocky during the period was its own brand of understated heroics. Bailey’s own discussion of the toll on women who contract marriage with a homosexual is instructive and illuminating as well as extremely tactful in refraining from naming such arrangements.

Bailey’s account is sprinkled with quotations which reflect as much on her perceptions as the company’s situation and provide clues to her capacity to remain a participant observer for as long as she did. I have been privy to more than one account of intrigue, including glass in toe shoes, which existed in the company during the Sixties.

Sally Bailey as the White Swan in Swan Lake,
taken around 1952
© Romaine, S.F.

I had attended San Francisco Ballet performances consistently from the mid-Fifties; Bailey’s last five years coincided with my assumption of the role of San Francisco correspondent for Dance News. Her account rings consistently truer to me than the glossy one commissioned by Michael Smuin for the company’s fiftieth anniversary, rapidly assembled in piecemeal fashion and almost totally devoid of personal contributions by the dancers who had served the company with enormous good will and a consistent faith.

I would like to have seen an index and sharper resolution for the group pictures. The solo photographs of Sally Bailey, however, testify to the elegant and appealing dancer she definitely was. It’s a good job written by an engaging and intelligent woman.

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