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San Francisco Ballet, Cinderella of dance, sheds rags for riches

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For nearly three decades, America's oldest ballet company has rehearsed here at a ramshackle parking garage in a neighborhood of donut shops, wig parlors, cheap Chinese restaurants, and art deco cinemas showing James Bond reruns.

The roof of the converted car park leaked into the costume shop. Low oak beams made dancers' leaps and pas de deux impossible to perform gracefully, let alone safely. Shoulder bruises and splinters were occupational hazards; they came with the territory.

The San Francisco Ballet (SFB), one of the nation's most successful and innovative companies, has operated until recently on a toe-shoestring. It has been the Cinderella of the dance world. Artistically, it deserved glass slippers and horse-drawn carriages. Instead, it was relegated to a pumpkin of a building , one intended for Buicks rather than ballerinas.

The garage had two corroded shower stalls to serve the 51-member company, 650 ballet-school students, and the faculty. The toilets flooded, the shower curtains hadn't been changed in 20 years, and dancers complained it took a half-hour just to get into the dressing room. They shivered in the hallways and were late to rehearsals.

Fortunately the SFB saga, like the classic fairy tale, has a happy ending. With the wave of local patrons' philanthropic wand, the company is moving this month from its 18th Avenue garage to an elegant new $12.3 million rehearsal hall and headquarters behind the San Francisco Opera House, where it performs. The new facility is also making dance history: It is the first building in the United States ever designed and constructed exclusively for a ballet company.

''There's nothing like this building in the world,'' says Michael Smuin, SFB's innovative artistic director. ''Not the Paris Opera, not Theatre Street in Leningrad, not the National Ballet Theater in Toronto, not Julliard in New York. In terms of the space, the floors, barresm, mirrors, and lights, this is the best.''

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