Onstage or off, Madison Keesler has riveting eyes. A bewitching intensity shines from their depths, which are set in a pretty, delicate face. At 21, Keesler, a San Francisco Ballet corps member, has already drawn notice in soloist roles. In Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle, her engaging glances lent a girlish appeal to her strong technique in the demanding peasant pas de cinq. And as a demi-soloist in Symphony in C, Keesler stood out for a sensitivity and expressiveness in her dancing, for ports de bras that seem to unfurl endlessly, for her fluid transitions, and that piercing focus that connects her with her partners as well as the audience.
Though born in California, Keesler moved around as a child. When she was 6, she started tap, jazz, and ballet, but within two years she had zeroed in on ballet. She began studying at the International Ballet School in Colorado Springs with Mark Carlson and Vaganova-trained German Zamuel. When she turned 10, her family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and she enrolled in Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet under Marcia Dale Weary.
“From an early age Madison was exceptionally talented,” Weary says. “She had great stage presence and was so intelligent. She’s able to focus on both the physical and the mental at the same time.”
After attending the SFB summer program for three years, Keesler decided to move to San Francisco to study at the school full time. The company was about to launch its 75th anniversary celebrations. That year, the school performed John Neumeier’s Yondering in the company’s gala, and Keesler met the Hamburg Ballet director. “We were all learning the roles, but I was low on the cast list,” she says. “One of my best friends really nudged me to put myself forward. So I did exactly that and I ended up performing first cast in the principal role. It was a real moment of growth for me.”
Keesler had always worried about whether her technique would impress. “I don’t have the naturally high legs or crazy turns,” she says. “But working with John answered a lot of things that I had been wondering about. I think he’s always looking for an honesty that comes from within.”
At the end of the school year, Keesler, then 17, decided to take an apprentice position at Hamburg Ballet. The going was tough. Keesler had no family in Germany, didn’t speak the language, and had never been to Europe before. “It was my first apartment, my first paycheck, my first roommate, my first of a lot of things,” she recounts. “It was quite a learning experience.”
Still, Neumeier gave the young dancer opportunities to learn leading roles in everything from hisNutcracker to Daphnis and Chloe. “It really shaped how I viewed the dance world,” she says. “As I met more of Neumeier’s audience, I realized that we’re not just entertainment up on the stage. People would come up to you and say how his work changed their lives, which is something that you always hope to hear, but you never think that you actually will.”
After a year in Hamburg, Keesler felt the pull homeward. At the end of the season in 2009, she made the difficult decision to return to California, where her family now lived. On a visit home, she let Tomasson know that she was interested in SFB, and though she expected to have to audition, he offered her an apprenticeship.
Within a month, Keesler was promoted to the corps, but even more surprising that first year was when Tomasson offered her the chance to understudy the role of Juliet. Working with principal Joan Boada, Keesler learned the role in three days. Though she ultimately didn’t perform it, the whirlwind experience built her confidence.
In Keesler’s second year with the company, she was tapped to learn the principal role of the Princess in Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, at the choreographer’s request. Third cast, she worked on the ballet all the way to the dress rehearsal, but because of complications in filming the ballet for the PBS series “Great Performances,” her cast never took the stage. Nevertheless, Keesler felt it had marked a jump in her artistic development. “Knowing what a rare opportunity this was, I had to ask myself what I could bring to the role that would be different,” she says. “It was a great feeling to find that.”
The questing spirit leads Keesler in a number of directions outside of ballet—acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater, Spanish courses at the City College of San Francisco, singing lessons, and guitar lessons. Ballet is her main focus, though. And where does she see her career taking her? “Of course, I hope to be a principal dancer somewhere,” she says. “But I also hope to continue to grow in a very diverse sense and not just stick with the things that I find comfortable.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes on dance in San Francisco.
An honesty from within: Keesler has drawn notice in soloist roles. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy SFB.