James Sofranko in Taylor's Spring Rounds. © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko was born in Marion, Indiana, and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He trained at institutions such as Pacific Northwest Ballet, The Harid Conservatory, and Houston Ballet Academy, and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Juilliard School in 2000. That same year, he joined San Francisco Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet. He danced a number of prominent roles during the 2007 Repertory Season, in works such as Lar Lubovitch's Elemental Brubeck and Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free, and subsequently was promoted to the rank of soloist.
Listen to a odcast of this interview.
Backstage: Congratulations on your promotion to the rank of soloist this year. How does this change the pattern of rehearsals and performances you've grown accustomed to in the last seven years?
I like how things were the past seven years, so hopefully this year won't change too much of that. One big difference is not being in the big corps ballets with all my fellow corps dancers for the past seven years, so that's one aspect I will miss. But, on the other hand, sometimes it's nice not to have to do all of that stuff—you can focus on your featured roles instead. So that's the big difference. And just knowing that, if you're called to a rehearsal, you're going to be in a featured role, so you can't really hide in that rehearsal, you can’t slack off. So it is a little bit more pressure; you have to be a little bit more focused, but the workload may be a little bit less, so that enables the focus to be there, I think.
How did you get your start in dance?
I started dancing when I was about 5 years old. I saw a Michael Jackson video on TV—"Thriller," I think it was—and told my parents I wanted to dance like that, and they asked if I wanted to take dance lessons, and I said, "Yeah, of course!" And so, we enrolled at the local studio, and I was the only boy—there was one older teenage boy, who's actually still a friend of mine, and still dancing and choreographing on Broadway now. So the two boys from that studio have gone on to professional careers, believe it or not, so she must have been doing something right, our teacher there. So I did ballet, tap, and jazz, and I hated ballet; I loved tap and jazz, liked the music better—it was more fun to dance around to that type of stuff rather than be confined into first and fifth position. But of course as I grew older, I grew to love ballet just as much, and understand that there's so much more to ballet—it's more challenging, so maybe that's what drew me to it, too. So that's how I got my start. And then I went to a school for creative and performing arts in Cincinnati, Ohio, also, where I did choir and piano as well. And acting, and I was in all the musicals, and we did ballet there, and modern dance too, which I think was pretty unique for a public school to teach ballet and modern dance to fourth graders. I think that was a big part of my learning at school.
You had the audience rolling with laughter during your performance with Muriel Maffre of the "Alaskan Rag" from Elite Syncopations, and with your portrayal of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote. Is comic timing something that comes naturally to you, or was that part of the lessons that you took? And is it something you'd like to do more of?
Well, I don't know if anybody really taught it to me, exactly—maybe it comes from doing musical theater, or just theater in general. Or having a sense of timing—having a sense of the audience registering what you're doing and then giving them time to react, too. It's just a matter of being aware of all those things, I think. And I don't know, maybe I'm a funny guy in person too, a little bit. Maybe my personality just comes across easier onstage, I don't know; I'm a little less shy, sometimes, in front of my friends. So my first year in the Company, we were doing Fanfare, this ballet by Jerome Robbins where my friend Pablo and I were the trumpets, and we have to have a mock sword fight, and I kill him, and then I get all upset that I killed my friend, and it was all joking and it was all really kind of cheesy but you had to really make a huge facial expression, and I was new in the company and nobody had really ever seen me dance or do anything and I'm making a fool of myself in front of everybody. So kind of from that moment on I guess I made my presence known in that sense. So I guess I'm not afraid to embarrass myself, so maybe that's part of it.
Are there any roles you'd particularly love to dance in the future?
Some of my favorites that I think might be possible for me one day or within my grasp would be something like Prodigal Son, from Balanchine, or "Rubies"; I really love dancing the corps in "Rubies," and I think the lead man would be a wonderful role. I'm not saying that I'll ever get to do it, but you know it's just something that you think about—yeah, sure, one day. Dances at a Gathering, Jerome Robbins, I love that ballet, too. I didn’t get to do that. There was a work called Without Words that we did here by Nacho Duato that I'd really like to dance one day. There's ballets by Jirí Kylián that I've seen—one that's called Sinfonietta; it's kind of more a balletic piece—that I think would be a lot of fun to dance. I like anything that just, you know, (5:55) you let yourself go into the music and you kind of let yourself fly across the stage, usually running and jumping, that's kind of what I do—what I like to do, I mean I like to move slow, too. But, you know, that's the stuff that really gets me going, gets me excited.
I understand that Margaret Jenkins choreographed her piece for the New Works Festival without music, since the score was still being commissioned. What is that like from a dancer's perspective?
Well, it was a different way of approaching the work, because we didn't have the music, a CD or anything to keep going back to, and we didn't have anything to keep our dance in a framework. We could just make up a phrase and it could be as long as we wanted, it could be as short as we wanted, it could be percussive or soft or whatever, because there was no music to balance it out. It was difficult at first because we're used to having that as a backdrop, and our movement became more front and center, and it became about the movement itself and not how it fit into the music, say, so it was just about making the movement look good and making the movement feel right. So it was difficult at first, because we weren't used to it and we're hearing ourselves breathe and our shoes squeak and we're like, "We need some music to distract us or something!" But it turned out that I actually enjoyed doing it because of what I was saying before, it puts the dance front and center. We take a lot of our cues from each other, so we hear each other breathe, or we hear each other move, even—there's times when I'm facing away from the rest of the group and I have to hear them move, or sense them move, and in a way, having the silence makes that more possible and easier to do that. So it brings the group together more, and we're all focused more when there's no music.
Are there any ballets or programs from the 2008 Repertory Season that you're especially excited for?
Well, we're learning Filling Station; that's kind of fun, because it's an old ballet along the lines of Fancy Free. Lew Christensen choreographed it. I'm doing Mack, the filling-station attendant—he's kind of the main character that interacts with these people who come to his filling station one day. And of course, crazy things happen. So that's a lot of fun; it's just kind of lighthearted and a lot of good dancing, so I'm excited about that. I'm excited about all the new works, about working with Mark Morris again, and hopefully Paul Taylor, and we're doing Firebird again, which is Yuri Possokhov's. I do Kashchei, the evil guy, so that's fun—a little bit of a departure for me, too, to be evil, so that's nice, I like that.
What have been some of your favorite roles that you've done at San Francisco Ballet?
Well there's Elite Syncopations with Muriel, and of course on her retirement eve, that was a highlight for me, definitely. And I think that's a piece that people kind of noticed me in, too, for the first time, so that was nice—that's a memorable one for me. Grosse Fuge by Hans van Manen—a wonderful ballet. I actually learned part of that while I was still in school at Juilliard, so I feel like that ballet has followed me here. And I love it, doing the whole ballet this time, here at San Francisco Ballet—it's wonderful. One from my first year, a long time ago—Celts, by Lila York. We haven't done any pieces by her recently, but that was my first big corps experience here at San Francisco Ballet and that was a lot of fun, to dance to that music.
Who do you look to as a role model in the dance world or within the Company?
Role models in the dance world—there's lots of those. There was my friend that I'd mentioned before from a young age, where I was at the ballet studio, and he went on to a career on Broadway. I just always looked up to him because he was one of the only other male figures I had at a young age to look up to, and we did a duet together when I was 6 and he was probably 15 or something. And we didn't even work that much together, but just the fact that he was there, and he made it then as a dancer, really gave me belief that I could do it myself, too. So that was great. His name is Andy Blankenbuehler. Another one in the dance world I'd say would be Gregory Hines, a tap dancer who passed away recently, unfortunately—he was a great guy. He actually was filming a movie in Cincinnati and my dad somehow just called him up or sent him a letter or something, and got him to meet me. And I went down to his trailer, and I met him and he brought me in and he signed a poster, and talked about dancing and about tap dancing. And I was into tap then a lot, too, and he was just a great guy, and I think a month later he came and performed at a local ballet studio, at their Dolly Dinkle Dance Recital—he came and was at the show, and then at the end of the show he came up onstage and had everybody tapping and he was doing stuff himself—he just loved to dance, and he loved to spread dance. And I thought he was a great guy for that. So I admire him, and I was really sad when he passed away. And then in the Company, there's so many people to look up to, and great artists here. There's Tina LeBlanc, my favorite ballerina—I mean one of my favorites; I can't say that I have a favorite really, because there's so many. But I love watching her dance, her expressivity, and her musicality, and her precise, articulate footwork. And Muriel was a wonder to watch; she was beautiful in everything she did. There's Damian Smith, who's gorgeous and a wonderful mover, and not just in ballet but in contemporary movement, which I admire a lot, too. And then in terms of ballet, we have Gennadi [Nedvigin] and Joan Boada; there's people that have impeccable ballet technique and I look up to them and I try to imitate what they do and learn from them, every day, in class.
What choreographer have you most enjoyed working with?
I don't know, it's hard to say. I've enjoyed working with many choreographers. Mark Morris is definitely the most entertaining. He is a riot in rehearsal. But you have to be on your guard and you have to know what you're doing, otherwise he'll call you on it, and he'll make a joke at your expense. And nobody likes that; from Mark Morris, especially, it's very biting. But it's funny if you're not that person. So you kind of wait for that—somebody else to mess up first, and then you enjoy yourself. He's a genius, he knows what he wants, he knows what he's doing, and it's a fun time in the process. I like working with him a lot, like when he created Eros on me and Jaime [Garcia Castilla] and Garrett [Anderson]—that'd be another one of my favorite roles there, for Sylvia. That was really nice to be in the studio with him just having him make up steps. He made our little solo in, you know, an hour. It was great; it just kind of poured out of him. It was really nice. Working with Yuri is a lot of fun—Yuri Possokhov—because he's like, "Feed me, guys, give me stuff," and he'll show something and then we'll do it, and he'll be like, "Okay, now make it like this," and we kind of collaborate. In a sense, that's what we did with Margie Jenkins, too—we collaborated a lot. So that's always fun, when you get to add your own element, and you get to aid the choreographer. And of course they veto most of the things you do, and maybe they'll like one of them. And then you've got your step in there.
You always appear to be having a lot of fun onstage and in rehearsals. How do you keep your energy and enthusiasm at such a high level?
I don't know. Sometimes, you know, in the middle of the season, by your eighth program, and a Sunday matinee at the end of a week, it is really hard, and it's, it's kind of like, it's show business, like, put on the happy face. If it's a ballet that requires a lot of energy or something, you just kind of gotta go do it. Elemental Brubeck was like that, it was really hard. I mean it was a great ballet, and I love doing it, and it was really fun music to dance to—that's another one of my favorite roles, I'd say. But by your second show of the day, you're like, "Oh my gosh, am I really about to do this again?" Not only because it's so tiring, just because it takes so much mental stamina, too, to focus like that. You have to eat right, you have to rest well, you have to know your choreography so you don't stress out about that. You have to be really prepared, you have to be warmed up, so that all those things don't bother you when you're onstage, and when you're onstage you can just let the presence and the joy of the dance come through you, and you're not worried, you're not like focused on your ankle, or—I mean that happens also, but, you know, you have to minimize those other distractions as much as you can, I think.
You've trained at Juilliard, and performed in the touring production of Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out. Does that mean you'll be tapped for a singing role in West Side Story Suite?
Well I don't know about that. That's up to the powers that be. But yes, we did have a singing audition, for which we were videotaped, and everybody had to do it, so, yeah, we'll see. I would love to be in West Side Story—that's one of the movies my mom made me watch when I was little, and I loved it, you know, have loved it since. So yeah, I'd hope to be in West Side Story Suite. There was no singing in Movin' Out, it was just dancing. So, I did not have to sing there, so I am not a Broadway singer, per se. But maybe I will be.
You'd mentioned that you had some singing lessons when you were in school.
Yeah, I'd had singing lessons in school, but, you know, dance did take over in high school, so it's been a long time since I've been really trained or anything. But, you know, I like to sing at the piano at home.
I read that you played the piano in the wedding of a couple of your fellow dancers. Do you play regularly, and do you have other musical aspirations?
I try to play piano regularly, and I don't always have the time. Especially during the season, it's like, oh, the piano's collecting dust over there in the corner of my apartment. But I try to play. I like to play to give myself something to do rather than watch TV all the time, just a way to relax, or another type of artistic outlet. Another friend of mine in the Company, Matt Stewart, is an avid musician as well, a guitarist and songwriter, and so he's always playing his guitar, and he inspired me to buy a guitar, too, so I've been trying to learn guitar. And he's inspired me to try to compose more and write songs, too, so I've been trying to do that a little bit. I actually sang a song at that wedding that you referred to, as well; I sang a song that I wrote. And then I played in their procession, too. So, yeah, it comes in handy sometimes, at parties, every once in a while.
What kind of music do you like to play?
Oh, I like to play pop music usually. You know, well, Billy Joel, from Movin' Out. But you know, anything, like Norah Jones-type of stuff, jazz or standards, you know, Gershwin, all that kind of stuff. I have a small repertoire of classical music, sheet music that I retained from my lessons that I still play, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven and stuff.
But not at parties.
No, that's more like salon evenings. But don't get me wrong, I'm not like a professional-caliber musician. People say, oh you went to Juilliard, did you do piano there too? And I'm like, definitely not, I was not good enough. Those musicians there were amazing.
And I also heard you were in some commercials when you were younger. How did that come about, and what were they?
Oh I don't know, I did a Cracker Jack commercial once—I was an all-American-looking kid. And I was in a commercial for an amusement park and toothpaste, stuff like that. This was all before I really reached adolescence—I didn't do much after that. Although maybe it gave me the confidence to act in musicals or whatever when I grew older.