Finding a home with the S.F. Ballet

Photograph of Ellen Rose Hummel by Erik Tomasson

CULTURE | PAMELA FEINSILBER

When Ellen Rose Hummel left Greenville, South Carolina, for San Francisco and a home in Pacific Heights in 2007, she couldn’t know that less than five years later, she would be selected to join the San Francisco Ballet. As a member of the corps de ballet, she’s danced in everything from Nutcracker and Swan Lake to works by George Balanchine and contemporary ballets by hot young choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony last year for choreographing and directing a dance-centric American in Paris on Broadway.

In Wheeldon’s Cinderella, the final program in the S.F. Ballet season, Hummel steps out of the corps to portray Clementine, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.

When did you know you wanted to be a ballet dancer?

I have two older siblings, and my mom put all of us in ballet; I started taking lessons when I was about five. My brother went into sports, and my sister loved ballet but didn’t want to make a career out of it. I definitely knew I was interested, but I didn’t get serious until I was about 12 or 13 — that’s when I had to start adjusting my schedule for ballet and sacrificing certain things. I went from three or four days of ballet to six, and my mom had to drive pretty far for my lessons. Then when I was 16, I moved to San Francisco to take lessons with the San Francisco Ballet School.

At 16? — and by yourself?

Yes, the school has a dormitory on Jackson Street in Pacific Heights. I remember how wonderful the transition was at such a young age. It really helped to be with kids my age who loved ballet like me, even though we came from different parts of the world. Being in a new city can be lonely at first, but Jackson House felt like home, and my friends became family. We were so fortunate to be in such a beautiful neighborhood, surrounded by artists who share the same goal.

That’s how I got involved in the neighborhood. Then when I got accepted into the company I had to move out, and I was lucky enough to find an apartment here. I think [S.F. Ballet artistic director] Helgi Tomasson lives on the same street.

What about dancing as Clementine?

Clementine is a bit softer than her sister, Edwina. She’s the more geeky one. She has glasses and she’s a little clumsy. I see her more as the positive, helpful one. There’s a sweet side to her. Before Cinderella, Clementine was the one who had her place in the household. Where the stepmother and stepsisters are being mean or hitting Cinderella, she doesn’t really want to; you see a little seesaw process with her.

The dancers really have to be actors, too, don’t they?

You can get really absorbed in the steps, but once I paste those glasses on, I’m Clementine. I love being in character. You have to believe it as much as or more than the audience does. The costumes are amazing. The sets, too — like the table, and the way it rotates at the beginning as we’re eating the porridge. I love that part of the ballet, because it gives you a moment to get absorbed in it.

Neighborhood resident Ellen Rose Hummel (right) dances in the S.F. Ballet's production of Cinderella.

Ellen Rose Hummel (right) dances in the S.F. Ballet’s production of Cinderella.

And I’ll be dancing Spring, too. Spring has the green wig and green costume, green face paint, even glitter on the arch of the eyebrows, framing the green. It always feels like putting leaves on my face.

What is a typical day off like for you?

I’ll find time to take a walk down Fillmore or meet up with a friend. I love La Mediterranee; the people are always super nice in there. I love their salmon. I love the atmosphere — it’s very authentic and very cozy — and I like that it’s not super loud.

Palmer’s has very good drinks; sometimes I’ll meet with friends there. I love the atmosphere there, too, and I’ve always enjoyed whatever I’ve gotten. Fillmore Bakeshop — the food is always really fresh, and it’s very family oriented. And Peet’s Coffee, right next to the bookshop — it feels like it’s been there forever. It feels like community.