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A Civil Affair

More than three decades at the helm of San Francisco Ballet has sharply attuned Helgi Tomasson to the political mood of his high society season opening gala attendees.


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, January 19, 2017


Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard

Maria Kochetkova and ensemble in Benjamin Millepied's “The Chairman Dances.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

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Eight years ago, with the gala held one night after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, Tomasson closed with George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes.” Last Thursday, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the only red, white and blue to be found were the Bastille Day colors on Vanessa Zahorian’s sash in the pyrotechnic pas de deux from “Flames of Paris.”

U.S. nationalism on the eve of a tyrant’s installation—you must be joking, the selection seemed to say. Here, take this dose of swashbuckling revolutionaries! And Zahorian and partner Taras Domitro dispatched it with impeccable form and mighty glee, she firing off a long series of double-single fouettés, and he slashing the air with that bravura split leap that pops out of darting jump sequence, then twirling through that legs-together flipping-over-a-barrel jump that looks as though he could fall flat on his face. I looked that one up—balletomanes correct me if I’m mis-identifying it: the grand jeté entrelace battu.

The bejeweled and tuxedoed audience hooted. Staged by former principal dancer Joan Boada, who learned it at the National Ballet of Cuba, this pas de deux was the only number that got the blood pumping. More 19th century-style pull-out-all-the-tricks classicism would have been very welcome. Instead, Tomasson showed off each of his principals’ range and sensitivity, but not much of their chops. Call this limpid lyricism night at the War Memorial Opera House.

Mathilde Froustey in Helgi Tomasson’s “Valse Poeticos.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

The dancers did not betray any disappointment at their assignments, and they did not falter. Mathilde Froustey (who can deliver a barn-burning “Don Quixote” grand pas when given the chance) unfurled her limbs ravishingly despite being stuck in Tomasson’s numbingly long imitation of a Jerome Robbins piano ballet, “Valse Poeticos,” with Carlo Di Lanno all sweetness alongside her. Lorena Feijoo and her innocent young partner Wei Wang twirled with all the swooning nostalgia they could muster to Debussy in a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s “Promenade Sentimentale.”

Vitor Luiz and Frances Chung, who deserves sacrificing company member of the year for wearing one of the ballet world’s least flattering costumes, pumped their arms like they actually felt groovy in between the sudden arabesques of the “Purple” pas de deux from James Kudelka’s turgid “Terra Firma.” Towering new principal Aaron Robinson and the company’s unofficial prima ballerina assoluta, Yuan Yuan Tan, had far more interesting choreography to work with in Stanton Welch’s mysterious, ultimately melting pas from “La Cathedral Engloutie” (to more Debussy)—but it came late in the parade of writhing. Still, Tan’s curious selflessness—she seems never to have any desires of her own, always to be at the man’s mercy—can’t fail to touch you.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Aaron Robison in Stanton Welch's “La Cathedrale Engloutie.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Sarah Van Patten, by contrast, is a woman of fierce and irrepressible desires, and it was up to her to inject energy into the gala’s first half, dancing a world premiere by Trey McIntyre—San Francisco Ballet’s first-ever Trey McIntyre—with Luke Ingham. What a pair! Both big-eyed born actors, he a broad-shouldered Hollywood heartthrob-type (think Mad Men’s Jon Hamm), she a beautiful but goofy starlet. McIntyre channeled them perfectly in “Presentce,” giving them groovy sixties pop music, squaring them off within a spotlight for a bumpy romance with little unison flights of elation followed by shoulder-slumping exhaustion. Their chemistry was riveting, their clarity of shape and intention of phrasing throughout flawless. Van Patten is just returning from maternity leave, and how good it is to have her back.

Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Trey McIntyre's “Presentce.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

“The Chairman Dances,” a world premiere by Benjamin Millepied, was not nearly so well rehearsed (you could even hear dancers frantically counting), but it was, for me, the high point of the evening. A trio of the company’s men stood in front of the curtain as the audience returned from intermission, their Pan Am-blue and hot pink costumes a shock against the gold brocade. A large ensemble romp to John Adams’ eponymous score followed, and though I’ve seen a lot of ballets to Adams’ music, this was the only ballet I’ve seen that I felt really caught his sonic idiom, the jazzy fun between the pulsing seriousness, which Millepied captured in quirky little cha-cha-cha arms.

The costumes, by Millepied, were enormously refreshing, particularly the flattering athletic-yet-chic dresses for the women. And the central role for Maria Kochetkova was one of her finest moments. She’s so often asked to be cute; here she got to be powerful, and her quirky self, engaging in tilt-a-whirl partnering with a winking Di Lanno. I haven’t been a fan of Millepied’s ballets in the past—they’ve tended to strike me as facile—so my enjoyment of “The Chairman Dances” surprised me.

Maria Kochetkova in “The Chairman Dances” by Benjamin Millepied. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Elsewhere in the fun department, Joseph Walsh sailed through the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” solo of Paul Taylor’s “Company B” with gorgeous loft and clarity of shape (perfect rounded Taylor arms)—but I must confess I have a hard time seeing this solo out of its grimly ironic intended context. Yes, the Bugle Boy is suddenly shot at the end and falls down dead. Yes, that is strange. Yes, if we had the whole dance we’d all understand it.

No such context needed for the eternally shocking music of Stravinsky in the pas de trois from Balanchine’s “Agon.” Recently ascendant principals Sasha De Sola and Dores Andre danced it like Greek goddesses, with Jaime Garcia Castilla a wonder of acid-clean style between them.

Tomasson always includes a glimpse of the rising generation in his galas. Last Thursday, this was young soloist Angelo Greco and first-year corps member Natasha Sheehan in “Foragers,” a romantic duet by another young talent, corps member-turned-choreographer Myles Thatcher. A performance of this duet won Greco and Sheehan the prestigious Erik Bruhn prize, and admiring their purity of form you could see why. But Tomasson crowned the evening with a queen from the reigning generation: Sofiane Sylve in the finale of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” After all the corps processing, she stepped out like a woman among girls. It was all about the carriage of her neck and shoulders. There’s civility for you. I kept that much-needed image of grace in my mind the next day as a man with no civility took the oath.

Sofiane Sylve, Tiit Helimets and ensemble in Balanchine's “Diamonds.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.



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