Crossroads: Meet Dancer Benjamin Freemantle
“I think dance says what words can’t.”
Benjamin Freemantle was promoted to principal dancer in May, shortly after his debut as the Sea Witch in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. To many patrons, Freemantle’s breakout moment was during 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works, when he premiered the lead role in Your Flesh Shall be a Great Poem by Trey McIntyre, who returns with another world premiere in the 2020 Season.
You’ve said one of your favorite roles at SF Ballet is the Sea Witch. Why, and how did you prepare for it?
I got to be the villain, which never happens for classical dancers—we’re usually princes and jesters. Being the “bad guy” was a great experience. In terms of preparing, some people love to have all the information out there—they want to know what it all is [before approaching a role]. For me, I’d rather have less information and more direction and impulses to work with, so you build a unique, original character rather than something that’s already out there, something that’s been done before.
How do you approach acting while dancing?
I’ve never really thought of myself as an actor. One phrase I came up with was “storyteller,” which I really like. I think all dancers are storytellers, because no matter what piece you get, whether it’s something classical like [Stanton Welch’s] Bespoke or dramatic like the Sea Witch, you always have to find and tell a story.
What are you looking forward to in the 2020 season?
I’m excited to be a principal, to be honest. I have no idea what it’ll be like, or what I’ll be cast in, or what I’ll get to do… I’m looking forward to Trey McIntyre’s new ballet. I don’t know what he’ll do or what his direction is, but I’m excited either to be in it or to see it.
You worked with Trey during the Unbound festival, when you premiered Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem. What’s it like to work with him?
It’s easy—just organic and natural. Both of us have the same kind of movement qualities, so we really “vibed” off of each other. We whipped up [Your Flesh] in 3 days.
What’s it like to “rise through the ranks”?
It’s crazy. It hasn’t all hit me; it’s happened so fast. Less than a year ago I was promoted to soloist, and then boom, principal, with WanTing after Mermaid. I try to do my job every time I come into the building, and that’s not trying to be the best dancer; it’s knowing the choreography and having a good attitude—showing that I want to be here.
In what other ways do you appreciate dance?
I think dance says what words can’t. For example, when I watch speeches by politicians and leaders, while they’re powerful and moving messages, it also feels like we’ve heard it all before. When you experience something like music or dance or theater, these messages are suddenly presented in a new light.
Do you have favorite steps?
I love turns and kicking my legs.
Do you have a favorite place in War Memorial Opera House?
I’m a dressing room kind of person. I’ll stay up there until 10 minutes before I have to go on stage . . . It’s more about stretching and warming up every muscle. I need my own music and roller and to touch my feet. And then you just go jump around, get blood flowing and then it’s like bam—you’re on.
What other hobbies do you have?
I’ll be honest: I have an aggressive amount of hobbies. I have sewn tights and outfits. I direct and choreograph. I’ve written two full screenplays. I model. I host art exhibitions now, apparently, too.
You also cut hair for the homeless. What’s that all about?
It’s about humility and empathy. It’s so easy to see them on the street and say, “that’s the way it is.” But it’s another thing to stop and talk to them, to see them for who they are. I love giving haircuts because everyone looks fresh and happy after a cut. You comb their hair and you’ve styled it and have made them feel more welcomed in society.
What do you do when you have a two hour break?
Depending on what projects I have going on, I could be emailing or editing a video or signing papers. I also like to relax, have a coffee, and talk to people in the dancers’ lounge. Or I’ll go over to the fitness center and lift some weights for a bit or go into the hot tub.
What other work outs do you do?
When I first joined the Company, I looked around at our all our principal dancers and noticed their body type. Everyone was very broad, had lats, had muscles—all the men looked very masculine. At that point I decided to start working out, to get that physique. When [SF Ballet] partnered with Fitness SF I started swimming a mile every day and lifting weights.
For me, I like to see men who look muscular, who look broad and worked, you know? You’re not going to get everything from ballet. It’s your upper body that needs the additional work—it takes going to the gym, working out with weights, and hitting it hard.
How often do you get to see other performances? What do you like to see?
We’ll occasionally get ticket offers through the Ballet. A few months ago, we saw The Jungle over at the Curran. It was a phenomenal show. There was a long moment of silence after the show ended, because everyone was emotionally wiped out by it. It reinvigorated my love for theater and the impact it has.
I think—coming back to what art can do—it’s exactly that. It’s having that reaction and people coming together and feeling the empathy, humility, and humanity of it all. I think that coming to a place to watch someone else’s story is the most selfless thing you can do.
Header Image: Benjamin Freemantle // © Erik Tomasson