Jennifer Stahl talks life of prima ballerina, SF Ballet production of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’

A dancer poses with a leg and an arm in the air while on her tippie toe.
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Between intense rehearsals and a new batch of performances for the San Francisco Ballet’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” principal dancer Jennifer Stahl is calm and composed as a new performance season approaches at the War Memorial Opera House.

Currently starring as both the Fairy of Darkness and the Lilac Fairy in the spring production of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Stahl is embracing the spotlight with ease in her 13th year as a member of the company. A show of opulence and grandeur, “The Sleeping Beauty” is a standout among this year’s lineup of productions.      

“There’s just so much impressive dancing and also so many opportunities for the whole company,” Stahl said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s fun to see everyone kind of step up and get those chances.”

The production — in contrast with the “sleeping” label in the title — is vibrant, lively and fully awake, filled with a plethora of chances to showcase each individual dancer’s ability as a performer. Stahl treasured the moments when dancers were given opportunities they don’t usually receive and were in turn showered with support from the community.    

“It keeps everyone going to see the different casts,” Stahl said, noting that the fresh faces of the company are more than ready for the upcoming weekend of whimsical costumes and baroque instrumentals.  

Before every performance, Stahl can be found practicing her pre-show routine: a power nap to recharge and calm down, a slow hair-and-makeup hour and a quick physical warmup before her onstage appearance. Stahl’s routine, of course, didn’t come about overnight — it is one that she has established over years of hard work and a fiery passion for dance.    

After years of participating in gymnastics and ice skating, Stahl officially began her classical ballet career at the age of 8. At just 16 years old, the ballerina found herself moving out of her hometown of Dana Point, California to pursue her dreams at the San Francisco Ballet School. Living on her own and finding more people who shared similar passions, Stahl immersed herself in the world of exploring the city, performing in showcases and engaging in meticulous training.

“It was definitely a year of maturing and kind of getting to know people outside of my … home community,” Stahl said. “I think my parents would have liked for me to be a little more homesick, but I think I felt very ready. I knew it was the right time for it to happen.”

Stahl said her experience at the ballet school ultimately opened her eyes to new perspectives from her peers, who hailed from all over the globe.

“Everyone is so focused and ambitious and driven towards ballet. … I felt like, ‘OK, this is why I’m here,’ ” Stahl said.

Having just turned 31 years old this week, Stahl has made many jumps between being a student to earning her current position of principal dancer. Stahl noted that her most recent switch in 2017 from soloist to principal dancer was “a tough transition,” adding that the extra pressure of expectations from audiences and peers now weighs on her more than it used to — even in spite of the boost in security, recognition and confidence in her position.  

“Now, you really need to deliver at this level, so just kind of fulfilling that title took a mental shift for me to … shed my habits and just some of my thinking from when I was a student,” Stahl said. “Now, (I) use that and kind of move forward and just (appreciate) where I was then versus holding on to … the past experiences leading up (to this moment).”

When it was time for the San Francisco Ballet to cast roles for “The Sleeping Beauty,” the ballet masters and coaches gave dancers parts they believed would best fit each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. This put Stahl right into the place of both the Fairy of Darkness and the Lilac Fairy, a clash of two worlds that displays Stahl’s flexibility, both literally and metaphorically, as a ballerina.

Because most of the company performed in last year’s performance of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the rehearsal process was much smoother and more relaxed for the dancers who had previous experience in the show. With only three weeks to perfect the scenes before opening night, Stahl found the most apparent challenge in the sheer difference between the two distinct roles she represents onstage. Regardless of the difficulty in performing different parts, however, Stahl managed to find a silver lining in playing opposing characters.  

“I think it’s really helpful to do both because then you really know the other part, and you can really react with that understanding of what the other character is doing,” Stahl said. “(It’s important in) fully committing to either being … all the goodness in the world or just completely evil and selfish.”

Despite Stahl’s experiences as a dancer, she can still empathize with people aspiring to pursue professional careers in the arts. Stahl shared her words of wisdom for anyone pursuing a career in the world of ballet, highlighting “staying open and appreciat(ing) the hard work” as key factors in her success. All of Jennifer Stahl’s efforts over the years have definitely proved her mastery of the craft, and attendees of the performance can only anticipate her en-pointe performance as a principal dancer in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

“The Sleeping Beauty” will be showing at the San Francisco Ballet until March 17.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.