On her toes: Jewish ballerina starring in S.F. Ballet

If you’ve been in downtown San Francisco lately, you’ve seen Elena Altman on lamppost banners throughout the city — stretched out in an arabesque, a glittery costume hugging her lithe form, tight brown curls hidden by a tangerine wig marking her as Firebird, the eponymous character in the ballet in which she starred in February.

“My friends always say, ‘Oh, you must be kvelling,’ and we are,” said Barbara Altman, Elana’s mother. “It’s very special to see your child achieve her dreams. But it’s all her — it’s what she’s worked so hard for.”

Altman, 25, grew up in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, making her one of only a handful of Bay Area natives in the S.F. Ballet, a company in which more than half of the dancers are from foreign countries. Her father, Joram Altman, was born in Jaffa, Israel, and came to the United States when he was 11. Her mother grew up in Detroit.

When Altman was younger, her mother taught painting and ceramics classes at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, making it a logical place to enroll her 2-year-old daughter in a preschool ballet class.

Her mom also taught art at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, and through the synagogue met a woman named Blossom who also worked as an usher at the War Memorial Opera House, home to the S.F. Ballet. Blossom offered to take Altman with her when she ushered.

“They’d walk up and down the aisles of the Opera House, and she’d take Elana backstage, where they’d peek through the curtains and see all the dancers in costume,” Barbara Altman recalled.

When she was 9, Altman started taking classes at the S.F. Ballet School (a prestigious training center affiliated with the ballet). And for a while, ballet was just one of many after-school activities she loved, along with gymnastics, track, piano and being a teacher’s aide on Sunday mornings at Sherith Israel.

Even when she decided to spend a summer in New York City studying at the American Ballet Theatre, she worked with her cantor to find a suitable Hebrew tutor in New York with whom she could study so she’d be prepared for her bat mitzvah that fall.

Gradually, though, she dropped other activities to pursue dance more seriously.

“I always had a dream of becoming a professional dancer,” said Altman, who currently stars in the S.F. Ballet’s latest production, “In the Night.” “And when I started leaving school early to dance, I thought, ‘Maybe I could really do this.'”

At 17 and as a senior in high school, she joined the company as an apprentice. The following year she was named a corps dancer, forgoing college to dance alongside men and women she grew up admiring.

Three years ago, when she was just 22, she was named a soloist. She got the news while on tour in Paris.

“She got promoted very early [in her career],” said Courtney Wright, a fellow dancer and Altman’s best friend, who said most dancers aren’t named soloists until their mid- to late-20s; in fact, she added, there’s a certain “order” in which dancers are due for such a promotion. The young Altman was not exactly next in line.

“A lot of girls, even her friends, were jealous,” Wright recalled. “It was sort of a bittersweet promotion for her. But sure enough, within less than a month, she was completely fulfilling her soloist position. She really rose to the occasion.”

Ballet is now the center of Altman’s life. Mornings begin with a 10 a.m. company rehearsal, followed by practice for specific productions or solos or physical therapy and massage, depending on how her tender knee feels.

For the first 40 minutes each morning, all the dancers stand at the barre, practicing the basics and shedding layers of tights and sweaters as their muscles heat up. Altman admits there are days when it feels tedious, but she’s come to think of the barre exercises “like breakfast.”

“Sometimes I think it’s amazing,” she said, “that I started here with my right hand on the barre, standing in first position, when I was 9 years old, and I’m still doing it.”

As long as her body obliges, she can say that for many years to come.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.