American ballet dancer Susan Jaffe, famous for her exemplary 21-year career as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, swore she would never do one thing when she retired.
“I said I would never choreograph,” laughs Jaffe, whose piece “Weather One” gets its world premiere on Company C Contemporary Ballet’s winter program, which opens Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Set to music by American composer Michael Gordon, the piece is a “rainstorm, with thunder and lightning,” adds Jaffe, who first stepped up to bat when her Princeton-based dance troupe needed “Nutcracker” choreography. Dance making is also part of her life as dean of dance at North Carolina School of the Arts.
“I asked myself how choreographers who began in classical companies, like Jirí Kylián, got into it,” Jaffe says. “What was the first step they needed? It was courage.”
Jaffe clearly has courage. At 19, plucked from an audition of more than 100 dancers by Mikhail Baryshnikov, she first performed with American Ballet Theatre as a replacement for celebrity dancer Gelsey Kirkland.
She went on to principal parts, including the title role of “Giselle” and Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.”
Known for her impeccable line, Jaffe credits Irina Kolpakova, a mentor to many ballerinas, for ingraining in her an attention to head and arm alignment. It’s a detail she passes on to students and colleagues.
“I’m a stickler for alignment. I like it when dancers work from the inside out. When you’re working correctly with alignment, you have a pure, clean instrument. Then you can become an artist, it’s not the other way around,” she says.
Preferring quality to showiness, she adds, “I like purity. I don’t like it when there’s mannerism. You get lots of flourishy fingers and that drives me nuts. I tell my students, ‘You could do your whole port de bra with your thumbs in and it will look better.’”
Jaffe, who was involved in dance education in New York, enjoys working in academia, an opportunity that many dancers of her generation didn’t have.
“If you’re 18 and go right into a company without higher education, it is much easier to be infantilized by a director. You have less ability for critical thinking and to talk about your career as an artist,” she says.
The dancer-choreographer has been impressed with Company C troupe members’ creativity, discipline and individuality. Their winter program also includes works by Company C founder Charles Anderson, Yuri Zhukov, Charles Moulton, Carl Fink and John Bohannon.
IF YOU GO
Company C Contemporary Ballet
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25 to $48
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org, www.companycballet.org
Note: At 6 p.m. Saturday, the troupe presents a different program, which is followed by cocktails and dinner; tickets to the gala benefit are $185.