SAN FRANCISCO — Her long-standing partner fell to his knees in devoted homage before Tina LeBlanc during the extended, celebratory curtain calls, and one could sense the entire audience collectively joining in that spirit, as San Francisco Ballet said farewell to this most distinctive, exuberantly American ballerina Saturday night. Performing in four representative works during a program sprinkled with video footage illustrating the impressive breadth of her repertory, LeBlanc wound up her 25-plus-year career on an assertively high note.
Opening and closing with touchstone George Balanchine ballets that showcased her exemplary musicality and ability to toss off technical wonders with gracious ease, the program also included more contemporary, dramatic duets by Helgi Tomasson, San Francisco's artistic director, and Lar Lubovitch. It was not a complete portrait of her extended, many-faceted career -- that would require a marathon event -- but it did confirm that, at age 42, LeBlanc has sustained her ability to apply her technical brilliance in service of the choreography, aligning herself inherently with the music and style of each ballet.
Her 17 years as an exemplary ballerina with this company represent, as she noted during one of the videos, "a long career in itself." But the petite LeBlanc had an unusual two-part, bi-coastal career. This company's audience -- the War Memorial Opera House was filled with loyal company watchers, eager to relate how special she had been to them -- watched her bloom and mature, especially as she took on leading roles in the full-length classics. But by the time Tomasson hired her as a principal dancer in 1992, she had long been earning rapturous acclaim with the Joffrey Ballet. Her emergence there coincided with the Joffrey's stint as resident ballet company of the Los Angeles Music Center (1982-92), when the troupe had homes in both New York and L.A.
Possessing a notably pure classical technique and unforced brilliance in speedy allegro passages, LeBlanc set the standard for refinement amid that company's more boisterous, all-American image. At the same time, her innate brio and warmth fit right in with the Joffrey's engaging, feisty style, and she triumphed in a wide variety of roles.
Looking back during a phone interview two weeks earlier, LeBlanc cited her early training at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet -- directed by Marcia Dale Weary and a launching pad for many -- as ideal preparation for a major career.
"The schedule was so rigorous, it basically weeded out people who weren't serious," she said. "She gave us every style, every technique under the sun, so that there was nothing we couldn't do." Weary was in the audience Saturday evening, as were several of LeBlanc's Joffrey colleagues.
Discovered at a regional ballet festival, LeBlanc joined the apprentice company Joffrey II when she was 15 before moving to the Joffrey itself two years later. She was there during founder Robert Joffrey's final years, and soon danced leading roles in many of the landmark and historic works he so scrupulously added to the repertory -- notably as Lise, the sunny farm girl heroine of Frederick Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardee" and as the innocent young girl confronting fate in Balanchine's "Cotillon." She turned a 19th century bauble, "La Vivandiere," into a triumph of sheer delight by virtue of her effortless buoyancy and musical refinement.
By her mid-20s, LeBlanc felt ready to move on. "We were doing the same repertory over and over. I had grown up there; it was all I knew." "Blown away" by a 1991 performance by San Francisco Ballet, she sought out Tomasson. "There were so many wonderful dancers I felt I could learn from. To be in that kind of atmosphere is invigorating and inspiring." LeBlanc knew San Francisco from the Joffrey's frequent tours there, and her husband, Marco Jerkunica, a general contractor whom she married in 1988, preferred working away from New York, so the move west seemed ideal.
San Francisco Ballet offered her an endlessly varied array of new roles. She delved into works by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins -- the former's "Square Dance" and the latter's "Other Dances" became favorites to perform -- and had many roles choreographed for her by Tomasson, Mark Morris, Christopher Wheeldon and others. She arrived just as Tomasson was regularly adding 19th century classics to the repertory, and she danced them all. This season, she was still performing Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake" as well as Giselle. (Reviewing her in December, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote, "she drew the audience into the full detail of Giselle's intricate jumps in Act Two, and showed their fit to the music with a precision I have never seen surpassed.") During her years with the company, she tempered her vivacious exuberance with burnished authority.
She had always intended to have a family before she stopped dancing, and is now the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 11. She returned with renewed commitment after each maternity leave. "She looked better than ever" after becoming a mother, former San Francisco Ballet principal Gonzalo Garcia noted during one of many appreciative video interviews shown Saturday, crediting LeBlanc's "guts, discipline and passion."
Garcia (now with New York City Ballet) partnered LeBlanc in many ballets and returned Saturday to share the stage with her one final time in a sparkling, exhilarating "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." It was he who knelt with such heartfelt affection during the bows as many colleagues -- past and present -- came onstage, offering flowers and warm embraces. Her sons, elegant in suits, joined the throng, and the celebratory stage picture -- like the career -- was complete.