Out of retirement, Bay Area ballerina raises the barre

She may have been a prima ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet for 19 years, but Joanna Berman has something new to keep her on her toes: 2-year-old twin sons Lucas and Jacob.

“Being a mom is No. 1,” says the Corte Madera resident and Bay Area native. “There’s no question.”

Still, once a dancer, always a dancer. Berman will be back on stage next month appearing with ODC/Dance San Francisco in choreographer Brenda Way’s “Part of a Longer Story,” a three-part contemporary dance piece set to the Mozart clarinet concerto.

This not the first time Berman, 40, has danced with ODC (widely considered San Francisco’s best modern dance company), but it is a challenge given her extensive background in classical ballet.

“It’s not the same style as San Francisco Ballet,” says Berman. “I’m trying to adapt and use my body in a different way. Sometimes I feel like ‘icky ballet dancer’ and all I want is to be ‘cool contemporary dancer.'”

That kind of self-deprecating wit is typical of Berman, who is as down-to-earth as an airborne ballerina can get.

Her passion for dance began as a child growing up in San Rafael. Her mother had come from an Orthodox background and made sure Berman and her two brothers were raised in a Jewish home. The family belonged to Congregation Rodef Sholom (her mother, Shirley Berman, has tutored bar/bat mitzvah students there for decades), and all three Berman kids got their Jewish education at the synagogue.

“Judaism helped me with the bigger picture,” she says. “Ballet can be all consuming. It’s wonderful to come home and have a family life. My mom lit candles and now I do that with my boys.”

Her late father, Milton Berman, opened the Village Toy Store in Castro Valley, a business now operated by her brothers Josh and John Berman.

But Joanna Berman was the artist of the family. She began serious dance training at the Marin Ballet and joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1984 at the age of 18.

Promoted to principal dancer in 1988, she starred in “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as works by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Berman traveled the world with the company, performing everywhere from Covent Garden to the Paris Opera.

A few years ago, she nominally retired, though it appears to have been more of a temporary break than anything. “It was just the right timing,” she says. “I left the San Francisco Ballet, but I knew I wasn’t hanging it up.”

After the birth of her sons (her husband is violinist Rene Mandel), she waited a year to start teaching dance, and another year after that to return to dance class. And though the years and the miles take their toll, Berman thinks she’s dancing smarter now.

“Every year I danced it became more mental,” she says. “Now I feel I can take the time in class to explore things a bit more: What happens when I do this with my rib cage, initiate a movement here or there? I’m in a different realm, more movement-oriented.”

Teaching has remained Berman’s primary connection to the dance world, and has become a fulfilling outlet for her artistry. She teaches at the San Francisco Ballet and at the City Ballet School. Her students range in age from 15 to 60.

Berman can’t say for sure if her appearance with ODC is the start of a revived performing career, but she is glad to be back on stage working with colleagues, many of whom are ardent — and often much younger — admirers.

Which of course requires that she keep herself in tip-top shape. When asked how it feels to be back in fighting form, the ballerina says, “I’ll let you know when I get there.”

“Part of a Longer Story” runs 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2, 8 p.m. Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4; 8 p.m. March 17 and 2 p.m. March 19 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F. Tickets: $15-$40. Information: (415) 978-2787.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.