From pre-med to pirouettes: The dance life of Carlos Carvajal

Jul 13, 2017

At the Conservatory of Classical Ballet in San Leandro, nearly 20 young people line-up in rows, paying rapt attention to their teacher, Carlos Carvajal.

In ballet slippers and on pointe shoes, the dancers take off in groups of four, spinning and crossing the studio’s floor diagonally. From a chair in the corner, Carvajal counts them through their steps and plays music from CDs for their exercises.

This is a combined level class just for the summer. Pre-teens mix with experienced, college-bound dancers like Halley Lin-Jones, who’s headed to Smith College in Massachusetts in the fall. She tells Carvajal that she’s going to double major in dance and biochemistry. Carvajal's response: “Before I decided I was a ballet dancer, I was in pre-med and I loved the biology part, the life science particularly.”

Carvajal isn’t kidding about the pre-med classes. His father steered him toward a career in medicine, even though the family is full of performers. Carvajal’s grandparents were opera stars in the Philippines, and his father performed magic tricks and hypnosis in San Francisco’s Fillmore district for many years. But he wanted a different future for his son.

“Dad, coming from the Philippines, as many Asian families do, they want their child to have a secure future," Carvajal says. "My father thought that being a doctor would be secure, so I complied. I went into science in school and I was doing all of that and I enjoyed it a lot.”

Carvajal was drawn to the arts, but had to practice them on the side. In junior high he developed a passion for the cello, but his dad wouldn’t pay for music workshops, so Carvajal had to audition to earn scholarships.

“Then one day, when in high school, I went to a folk dance class," he remembers. "It was something that felt so natural for me to do, being a musician. Going into dance was so easy, and I was able to learn things very, very quickly.”

Soon after, Carvajal formed a folk dance group with some friends. They spent their weekends in and out of all the dance clubs in the North Beach section of San Francisco in the 1940’s. Carvajal competed in the Scottish Highland style of dance, until he had a chance conversation,

“Someone had mentioned the word ‘ballet’ to me, which I had never ever thought of, and I went to see a San Francisco Ballet class. I liked it and I thought I could do that, so I enrolled myself without my father knowing. It was a total secret because, heaven forbid, I was going to be a doctor,” he says.

His father had no idea Carvajal was studying ballet.

“When he would go out, I would go into our living room," Carvajal explains. "We had a linoleum floor and a big mirror and I would close all the window shades. I would shut them all down and secretly I would turn on the music, and then I'd stand in front of the mirror and practice the various ballet moves that I had to do. I kept it quiet.”

Within a year, Carvajal signed his first professional dance contract with the San Francisco Opera Ballet. He was taking pre-med classes at San Francisco State at the same time. The pace of being in the dance company and in college started to take it’s toll.

He says in his third semester of college, things came to a head. “One evening I was doing some work and I said ‘nope.’ I shut my books and I said ‘I am a dancer.’ I affirmed to myself that I was a dancer, and on that I dropped out.”

That decision felt like a relief. “I was able to focus. Knowing that I am a dancer was something that was my strength to overcome all kinds of problems.”                                                                                                       

After touring Europe for a decade, Carvajal returned to San Francisco in the late 1960’s and bought a home in the Haight Ashbury district. He soaked up the counterculture energy of the neighborhood, performing dance improv at events organized by Chet Helms, the father of the “Summer of Love.”

Carvajal brought that Haight Ashbury aesthetic to the San Francisco Ballet when he became Ballet Master. He choreographed a dance called “Genesis 70” to composer Terry Riley’s avant garde piece, titled “In C.”

“‘In C’ is a piece of music that has no thematic move to it. It's a series of numbered musical phrases given to the whole orchestra and they play the phrase, until the conductor puts up a number to direct them onto phrase number two," Carvajal explains. "If they're at phrase number one, they move to phrase two. If they are on phrase number two, they stay there. It's like the orchestra was continuously playing this. So there was no way of finding a melody for the dancers to connect to, no melody. There's only this rhythmic bass, a texture. So we created our own our own visual picture on top of that. It was very, very amazing.”

But not everyone was amazed. Carvajal’s use of mylar, projections, color and pattern on stage struck some audience members as chaotic, and they walked out of the performance. The hippies in attendance loved it, and some critics gave rave reviews but, Carvajal says the San Francisco Ballet management did not.

“They said ‘We do not want that audience,’ and that was the moment that I had to leave.”

“As I left, the dancers who had been working with me, they also left," he adds. "I had the technical, too, and I had the lighting, and I had everything with me. The critics followed us, too, because they were interested in what I was doing.”

He formed his own company, Dance Spectrum. Carvajal choreographed ballets that explored religion, mythology and eastern philosophies, as well as folk dance from around the world.

“As the Ethnic Dance Festival started, I was involved in that because there were those in my studio that were rehearsing and I was engaged in actually in helping in the formation of it,” Carvajal remembers.

Now Carvajal is in his 12th season as co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. He says it’s a centering experience.  “Doing the Ethnic Festival is a complete return to my source.”

Carvajal's ballet students, at the Conservatory of Classical Ballet, learn new dance steps.
Credit Chris Hambrick

Back at San Leandro’s Conservatory of Classical Ballet, Carvajal runs students through a dance they’re adding to each week. They interlock arms and make concentric circles.

“These kids are not fooling around, which is what I love," he says. "They’re not afraid of making a mistake because I don't scold mistakes. So they ask a question nicely and I’ll help out when I can, but they can ask each other. There are those who get it really fast, so I say 'Watch her. Watch her.'”

Carvajal demonstrates the dance moves to the music, while the dancers mimic him. He says it’s partly spontaneous, “We're just going at the moment and seeing how the formations work. That’s the fun of it. It's not pre-planned.”

At 86, Carvajal isn’t dancing like a young man anymore. He jokes, “I always say, ‘If you want to see me dance like I used to, first you call 9-1-1 and then I'll do this.’”

But he’s happy he gets to pass his passion on to others.

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival happens this weekend with shows Saturday and Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For more information go to http://worldartswest.org