Remembering Damara Bennett, City Ballet School Founder Who Once Saved San Francisco Ballet
January 8, 2021

Damara Bennett, former San Francisco Ballet dancer, founder of City Ballet School and former director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre School, passed away on November 15 at the age of 67 after a years-long battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her husband, Michael Wallace, and her daughter, Eleanor Wallace, artistic associate at Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City.

Bennett was born on May 6, 1953, in Munich, Germany, where her father, a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot, was stationed. The family returned to the U.S. a few years later; Bennett and her mother, a school teacher and elementary school principal, eventually settled in Laguna Beach, California. Bennett’s initiation into classical ballet began there when she was 9; around age 12, she started training at Ballet Pacifica, the school founded by former American Ballet Theatre and Ballets Russes dancer Lila Zali, who was renowned for her rigorous Vaganova training. Having come to ballet at the relatively ripe age of 9, Bennett hurled herself into an arduous regimen to make up for lost time, taking every class she could.

The hard work soon paid off: As a teenager, she was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet for a summer program. In 1970, while still in high school, she performed in San Francisco Ballet’s annual Nutcracker at age 17. At 18, she was hired and became the youngest member of the company.

Onstage, Bennett distinguished herself as a natural actress. She could do funny (the Duck in Michael Smuin’s Peter and the Wolf was one of her favorite roles); she could do terrifying (the stepmother in Cinderella was another); she could do tragic (Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet). She had a passion for corps-driven Balanchine ballets, especially Symphony in C, SerenadeConcerto Barocco and Allegro Brillante.

“She loved the energy of working together, collectively carrying the ballet,” says former SFB dancer and longtime friend Nancy Dickson.

“Collectively carrying the ballet” might also apply to a little-known piece of company history: a campaign spearheaded by Bennett, Dickson and three other corps members to rescue SFB from being shuttered.

The year was 1974, and SFB was $800,000 in debt. A meeting was called, where dancers learned that the board would decide in the next two weeks whether to fold the company altogether or turn it into a small touring company—the latter option, of course, spelling the end of the careers of most corps members. “Damara and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is not happening,'” says Dickson.

Dickson and Bennett gathered with three other corps members and hatched a plan to raise the funds themselves. They sent telegrams and cold-called everyone they could think of who cared about the arts: Gene Kelly, Roy Bolger, Betty Ford—who was a dancer before she was First Lady—and dozens of others. Very quickly, and much to their surprise, the donations started pouring in (and a telegram from Kelly himself). Within two weeks, they’d raised $3,000. It wasn’t enough to pay off the debt, but they brought it to the next board meeting to prove that getting the rest was possible. The board was furious and patronizing, according to Dickson, but artistic director Lew Christensen was pleased. “I don’t care what you think,” he proclaimed, “I’m proud of these girls!”

“From there,” Dickson says, “we went crazy.” They began to scour the Financial District, riding elevators to the top floors of big buildings and demanding unsolicited meetings with the president of whichever bank or investment firm’s office they found themselves in. They borrowed tutus from the costume department and danced on street corners, demanding $10 for 10 échappés. Soon the press caught wind—Walter Cronkite even sent a crew to do a story on them. Eventually swayed by their efforts, SFB management stepped in to take over, recruiting several other company members to join in and dubbing the campaign “S.O.B.,” Save Our Ballet. Within weeks of that first company meeting, San Francisco Ballet had raised enough funds to become solvent.

Bennett showed a similar fearlessness when it came to cutting her teeth as a teacher. While in the corps, she began subbing in for SFB school classes, and before long her talent had caught the attention of her peers. While company class was being taught on the stage of the Opera House, Bennett would sometimes give clandestine classes in the basement to friends who preferred her combinations. “She was an innate teacher,” Dickson says. “She always had that calling.”

Bennett retired from SFB in 1982, and began working as a guest teacher at several San Francisco dance studios. Her daughter, Eleanor, was born a year later, and grew up tagging along with her mother around the city as she taught. “I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t in the studio,” says Eleanor. There, Eleanor—who studied piano and composition—witnessed the scrupulous attention her mother paid to what her accompanists were playing. “She had such a dynamic relationship with her pianists,” she says. “She wasn’t afraid to challenge them: ‘I want a polonaise, not a waltz’!”

In 1987, Bennett and another former SFB dancer founded City Ballet School, staking out the third floor of the now defunct California Culinary Academy on Polk Street in the Tenderloin district. When her partner left in the fourth year to get married and move to the South, Bennett kept the school going by herself, eventually moving the studio to a former Druids’ Temple on Page Street not far from the San Francisco Ballet headquarters. Her husband stepped in to help with operations. She hired another teacher and invited several of her SFB friends to guest teach and choreograph.

One of these friends was Christopher Stowell, who had a 16-year career dancing with SFB and is currently associate artistic director of The National Ballet of Canada. His parents, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, were founding artistic directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Damara gave me my first opportunities to teach more seriously and to choreograph,” Christopher says.

City Ballet School churned out dozens of professional dancers, among them Sascha Radetsky of American Ballet Theatre, Joanna Mednick of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Samantha Mednick of Dutch National Ballet, and Maya Collins of New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. Radetsky, who is now artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, wrote in tribute: “Damara was tough but nurturing, hilarious but professional, a total badass but a total softie. She had an enormous heart and the ardent soul of an artist.”

Adrian Danchig-Waring, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, spent a brief time training with Bennett in San Francisco before leaving to join the School of American Ballet. But his relationship with her continued to develop until her death. He describes her teaching brilliance as a “magnetic physicality” that gave way to “the clear communication of her every gesture.” She had a way of emulating movement to hold up a “magnified mirror” that allowed dancers to understand their corrections.

The success of what was a tiny ballet school just a few blocks away from one of the most prestigious company schools in the country might seem baffling. But many alums say it was precisely the small-scale, intimate atmosphere of City Ballet School that was key to their success. Bennett taught every level of students, from pre-ballet to pre-professional, so that for those who, like Maya Collins, were with her from the beginning, Bennett not only formed their technique, she also became a second mother: “She was there for every career decision I made, from the time I was 4 until I retired.” Joanna Mednick echoes this sentiment, recalling Bennett saying, “I know all of you better than you think, just by the way you dance.”

Still, keeping City Ballet School running was a struggle. “The school didn’t make money for its first 11 years,” her husband, Michael Wallace, says. This may have been in part due to Bennett’s casual generosity—she would hand out full or partial scholarships to any students who wanted to dance but couldn’t afford to. She also insisted on having a live pianist for every class. The costs that surely didn’t make it onto paper were those invisible labors performed by Bennett herself—vacuuming the floors, cleaning the bathrooms and dressing rooms—in addition to teaching and rehearsing seven days a week.

When Stowell took the helm as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2003, he invited Bennett to join him as director of the school. She sold City Ballet School and threw herself into this new collaboration with Stowell, which he deemed “a partnership that I will never experience again.”

“The thing I’ve never seen anyone else do as well as Damara,” Stowell says, “and the thing that is so imperative in ballet, is that she taught little kids to be their own best teachers. Of course her steps were brilliant, but she taught the students to be their own eyes and ears.” He praised her system of often asking students to assess themselves and each other, which nurtured their critical faculties as much as their physical capabilities. “It gave them a voice; it turned them into intelligent, articulate, reflective creatures who could carry their training with them inside the studio and out.”

Indeed, as a mother of a student recounted on OBT’s recent tribute, Bennett’s students carried with them much more than technique. Finding her young daughter making her bed one morning, she inquired what had inspired this bout of responsible behavior. Her daughter replied that “Damara said in class, ‘I hope not one of you lets your mom make your bed.'”

This admonishment—along with another one of her favorites, “Don’t dance like a Republican!”—encapsulates the joyous intersection between relentless discipline and uninhibited artistic expression that defined Bennett’s ethos as a teacher. “One thing is for sure,” Stowell says. “When this pandemic is over, we’re having a huge party in her honor.”

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