San Francisco Ballet Gala
Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in the pas de deux from Petipa's Le Corsaire // © Erik Tomasson

Dancing in Unison

San Francisco Ballet 87th Season Opening Gala, January 16, 2020

It is surely a measure of the dire American moment. In 20 years of watching the San Francisco Ballet, I cannot remember a single occasion when artistic director Helgi Tomasson has so much as alluded to societal tensions. But there he was pre-curtain at the opening gala of his company’s 87th season, explaining he had chosen to launch the evening with an excerpt from George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” because “it has a way of reminding us in challenging times that despite our differences we are all Americans and art can bring us together.”

Moments earlier, the company’s new executive director Kelly Tweeddale had also pled for unity, reminding the audience—a motley California mix of fur-draped benefactresses and blue-jean clad standing-room die-hards—that through ballet we “bring people together, celebrate beauty, celebrate grace, and create community.” Had the dancing that followed been shallow, or preening, or merely pretty, this could have landed as a self-serving ad line. Instead, the company made it true.

Sarah Van Patten and Henry Sidford in Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

To me, the power of ballet is not that it embodies ideals or perfectionism. It’s that it redelivers you, via a real, vulnerable, risk-taking body right before your eyes, to an intensity of experience. And to me that happened most potently Thursday with the return, after pregnancy leave, of Sarah Van Patten, dancing the pas de deux she originated in Justin Peck’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.” Set to M83’s explosive electronica/rock music, this is nonetheless a subtle duet, and as danced by others in Van Patten’s absence last season, it looked like nothing much beyond self-absorbed circling and big leg-fanning kicks punctuated by white sneakers. Van Patten’s ability to transform these steps is magical. She reminds me of the highest Butoh dancers, able to imbue any slow arm stretch with existential intentionality. The young soloist Henry Sidford was her cool and watchful partner, rising in his dignity of presence in proximity to hers.

Dores André and Joseph Walsh in Danielle Rowe’s “For Pixie.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Danielle Rowe’s 2017 work “For Pixie,” as danced by Dores Andre and Joseph Walsh, also brought this rawness of feeling pressurized by cool control. Rowe, an Australian who primarily choreographs for the chamber company SFDanceworks, also had a work on last season’s gala, a commission that seemed a touch too derivative of Mats Ek and more than a touch too melodramatic. No such reservations here. From the opening note sung by the unmistakable husky (and recorded, of course) Nina Simone, this choreography commanded a singular style, with touches of European expressionism (Walsh and Andre shaking their hands between wide legs in unison, straight on to the audience) but integrating more naturalistic, grappling partnering. This was also a refreshingly woman-driven duet, beginning and ending with Andre running in a spotlight, and befitting Simone as the work’s frame of reference, not for a moment romanticized. Andre and Walsh were wonders of tension and release. SFB should commission a full work from Rowe, and soon.

Sasha De Sola and Benjamin Freemantle in Myles Thatcher’s “05:49.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Not all the contemporary offerings were so transporting. The evening included two world premieres. “Foreshadow,” by Val Caniparoli, telescoped Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” into a predictably anguished pas de trois aided by Jim French’s lighting and Kate Share’s minimalist, rippling costumes, but dragged down by Ludovico Einaudi’s clichéd and simplistic music for strings. Dignified Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets lent more artistry than merited to thankless roles as Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky; the irrepressibly pert rising soloist Elizabeth Powell was well showcased as a sharp-edged Kitty. The other premiere, by Myles Thatcher, was perhaps not accessible to someone unversed in the movie that provided its voiceover, the 1967 Swedish erotic drama I Am Curious: A Film in Yellow. Without a mechanism to let us in on his referents, Thatcher gave us Sasha De Sola and Benjamin Freemantle romping youthfully, De Sola jumping with both knees to his brawny chest.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in the White Swan pas de deux from Dawson’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

How you responded to David Dawson’s hyper-contemporary version of the “Swan Lake” pas de deux, created four years ago for the Scottish Ballet, might have depended on how well you know the Petipa. Carlo di Lanno and Sofiane Sylve, clad only in white leotard, executed promenades in a butt-piked position in place of the poeticism of the original, the swan suggested here only by a bit of arm work near the beginning. The dancers were utterly committed, and from the orchestra, Mariya Borozina’s violin solo sang.

Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in the pas de deux from Petipa’s “Le Corsaire.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

But elsewhere, 19th century classicism was superbly served. Misa Kuranga, who apprenticed at SFB but rose in the ranks at Boston Ballet before returning as an SFB principal this season, fired off the fouette fireworks in high style alongside Angelo Greco—who seemed to make a flubbed landing on his first bravura jump into a new, repeated trick?—in the pas de deux from “Le Corsaire.” Wona Park is just a soloist, but raised the ante in a rare chestnut, Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique,” first mastering a slow fondue front-side-back on one leg, three times, after which the audience seemed to emit a collected “phew”—until without rest she did it all again, but bigger! And to loud cheers. Wei Wang was as finely fluttering in his entrechats as he was contagious in sheer pleasure. With the retirement of Vanessa Zahorian, SF Ballet seemed to be in urgent need of technicians two seasons ago. Clearly, they are now amply stocked.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s “Bells” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

In fact, when it comes to top talent, SF Ballet is currently over-stocked, an enviable logistics problem. The roster now counts 20 principals, even after the retirement of Vitor Luiz, a versatile Brazilian who deserved a second curtain call after his career-capping performance of Yuri Possokhov’s “Bells” pas de deux with Yuan Yuan Tan (who is celebrating her 25th year with the company) on Thursday. Not all the principals could be seen at this gala—I particularly missed the charm of Ulrik Birkkjaer and the humility of Frances Chung—and some curiosity-inducing soloists (SFB now counts 15 of them) were missing, too. After a career as principal at Dutch National Ballet, Sasha Mukhamedov (yes, the daughter of Irek) has joined SFB as a soloist and was scheduled to close the gala in the finale from Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” At the last minute, De Sola replaced her soulfully, in a role she has claimed in full Suzanne Farrell regality.

Sasha De Sola and Tiit Helimets in the finale from Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

Still, one hopes Mukhamedov is just resting so that our intrigue can soon be sated. And in the meantime, one is grateful to all the dancers who graced the gala, in performances too singular to receive their due here: Esteban Hernandez and Max Cauthorn in the rarely seen Bournonville “Jockey Dance;” Mathilde Froustey ravishing that Disney-prince Joseph Walsh in the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet;” new corps member Lucas Erni (a former Prix de Lausanne finalist) leading that “Stars and Stripes” men’s regiment with generous humor. I left the opera house feeling broken open, and in this openness I felt attuned to vulnerabilities beyond my own. Could we get just one of those jewel-bedecked gala dinner attendees to donate a million dollars to make more season tickets affordable? Because Tomasson and Tweeddale are right—what those dancers do brings us together. And just imagine the reconnection if we made this community as large as possible.

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