INTERVIEW: Center Stage star Amanda Schull brings west coast ballet to DC

Watching Sandpaper Ballet, a collection of delectably witty gambols, is like bursting open a box of truffles onstage. And like the sugary confections, picking the sweetest piece is next to impossible.

The San Francisco Ballet’s touring program is, without question, the best theatrical performance of the holiday season. And with tickets selling for $26 to $65, it’s also the best bargain.

Sandpaper is only part of a mixed repertoire that includes Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, choreographed to percolated Chopin pieces, and artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s intrepid Prism and Chi-Lin. The latter two are dynamic examples of how far Tomasson and SFB have tested the boundaries of conventional ballet.

One showcased performer in the exploratory Dances at a Gathering is Amanda Schull, the star of the film Center Stage. She suggests Grace Kelley in toe shoes and quickly wipes away the polish from her career achievements to reveal a refreshingly unpretentious personality.

“I was a troublemaker at first,” Schull said in a recent Hatchet interview.

Was she always so dedicated to the art?

“Hardly,” she said. “I faked illnesses, I would lie around, horsing around in the back of the room.”

Since her graduation to the company, though, Schull said she has found her muse – performing.

“On stage and in class, I like to develop a character and embody it. To grow comfortable with the technique is important, but to enjoy dancing, to give to the audience, to release yourself is too,” she said.

An actress before she graced the screen, Schull speaks with her body, conveying emotion through motion. And with her face. Vividly expressive, her eyes widen like dollops of meringue and she bares her teeth behind a glossy pout to achieve some exquisitely goofy expressions. Some of her film’s more winning moments were when she put a neurotic spin on the dialogue, and, of course, when she let loose and danced.

What about future performances? Any more movies on the horizon?

“There was a period when I could have possibly struck while the iron was hot,” Schull said. “I was offered some parts. But I had just gotten into the company, which means so much to me. I won’t be able to dance my entire life, so I’m dedicating myself to it.”

Musicals, perhaps?

“I think my voice has stunted, so it’s really not something anybody needs to hear,” Schull said. “If I were to do other kinds of performing, it would have to be in something I would be willing to pay money to see.”

Dances at a Gathering is a warm, sensual series of pairings, delicate and restrained. Romanticized lines give the dancers an uncluttered purity, allowing for feelings to come across with radiance. After just these two acts, we’ve burst into heady laughter and had our hearts melt.

The men finesse with strength and agility, infusing Robbins’ choreography with macho elan. But it’s the women who cast a staggeringly transfixing spell. Tomasson has discovered something special – angels whose feet actually kiss the ground.

For the holidays, though, nothing will lighten the mood like Sandpaper Ballet – it opens with “Sleigh Ride,” an overture designed simply to tease audience’s dimples into the giddy smiles of youth. Set to a bubbly Leroy Anderson score of familiar cartoon ditties, Mark Morris’ staging turns the entire company into one fluid body of spirited appendages.

With lithe limbs twisting and twirling, the women swoop like loopy gazelles, and the men bound across the stage exuding athletic bravado and charm. Comedic pantomime is one of the most difficult forms to present, but SFB does it irresistibly.

Tomasson knows that stars are not as vital to a company’s overall excellence as is uniform consistency. That said, as far as ensembles go, there are a few great American ballet companies. New York City Ballet sparkles atop Manhattan’s diadem and San Francisco Ballet is the crown jewel of the West.
If there’s one performance to see this season, SFB’s production featuring Amanda Schull and the finest dancers of the West Coast is most definitely it.

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