The final weeks of San Francisco Ballet’s ninetieth season brought a flurry of news, intrigue, and emotion. On April 20, the company announced an ambitious 2024 season, the first programmed by new artistic director Tamara Rojo. The next morning, the company dropped a bomb: executive director Danielle St.Germain had just resigned after barely a year in the job. Given that SF Ballet offered no reason for the resignation and the enthusiastic way St.Germain had positioned herself as co-leader with Rojo, speculation flew as to whether St.Germain had feuded with the board or Rojo or both. As I write this, news has just broken that may explain St.Germain’s departure: she took the top fundraising job at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Perhaps reports of internal company strife at SF Ballet have been greatly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, the end of such a profoundly transitional season offers plenty of reason for high feeling, and finishing with a run of “Romeo and Juliet” got the tears flowing. Former artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s production, from 1994, is well known here, and the subscriber base adores it. (I have mixed feelings, appreciating Tomasson’s balcony and crypt scenes while feeling a bit oppressed by the excessively dispatched town harlots and acrobats.) The opera house brimmed with fans ranging from small children to glamorous date-night couples, with many a viewer seen eye-dabbing between acts. With final bows for beloved dancers young and old, there was plenty of need for Kleenex at curtain, too.
Most consequential was the last San Francisco appearance of Dores André, at Saturday’s matinee. Trained in her native Spain, André began in the SF Ballet corps nearly two decades ago. Loyal subscribers watched her grow up through myriad performances of R&J’s acrobat role. In her younger years her glamorous face and compact frame marked her as cute but—as hard work in the studio formed an unassailably confident technique—her innate power and passion came to dominate. Unsurprisingly her last Juliet performance was startlingly convincing in the moments of power and determination: defying her parents’ decree that she marry Paris, plunging the knife to join Romeo in death.
André’s Romeo was Isaac Hernández, all brash exuberance, his arms explosive and his head tossed skyward in his big turning jumps with leg à la seconde. But the bigger curtain call went to Max Cauthorn, who played Benvolio, because he and André are headed together to Cathy Marston’s Ballett Zürich.
André’s departure hurts most, but Cauthorn’s stings, too. Trained at the SF Ballet school, he is the cleanest (and most sweetly modest) bravura dancer you could hope to encounter. His gentle jester of a Benvolio bore this out. In a “Romeo and Juliet” production that can be danced raggedly without much consequence, he made me want to hit “replay” on the textbook placement of every turn and tour. His work here done, he was met onstage by Rojo and Tomasson, carrying a magnum of Champagne as the rest of the company dancers pelted André with roses. The woman behind me sobbed.
Saturday night’s cast brought catharsis, too, even though the dynamic between the leads was of a completely different tenor. This was soloist Jasmine Jimison’s third go as Juliet, after the honor of debuting in the role on opening night. She is long-limbed, a swift turner, and with exquisite arms and wrists, which she uses musically and without the slightest affectation or artifice. She doesn’t do obvious facial theatricality, which feels refreshing when she’s so beautifully embodying both spiritedness and worry. When the Capulet parents insisted (after her secret marriage to Romeo) that she marry Paris, she seemed less defiant (as André had) than anguished. But half the magic of this cast was her chemistry with Angelo Greco’s Romeo. Greco didn’t dance as boldly as Hernández —was he perhaps on the verge of injury after a long season?—but this did not matter. In the way he held Jimison, he seemed to want to hug her, protect her. His was a Romeo not just of passion but of tender care.
In both the matinee and the evening performances, the scenes of Tybalt’s and Mercutio’s deaths were nearly as moving as the lovers’ moments. This was partly due to the orchestra playing the Prokofiev score with such a range of dynamics under music director Martin West and guest conductor Maria Seletskaja (the National Ballet of Canada’s conductor-in-residence and a former ballet dancer). But the matinee performance of the fight scenes especially stays with me, and that has everything to do with soloist Lonnie Weeks’s Mercutio, a swaggering, mustachioed, man-about-town reminiscent of Burt Reynolds, with terrific technique to back it all up.
I wish I could have also attended the final Sunday matinee. Yuan Yuan Tan, in her twenty-eighth year with the company, rarely dances full-lengths now, but she gave a single performance of Juliet. Strangers have been writing me, wondering if it would be her final bow, too. The official word from the company is that Tan will be returning next season. But Sunday brought a different departure: that of Anita Paciotti, who joined the company in 1968, moved on to play character roles two decades later, and served as rehearsal director for more than thirty years. (On Sunday, she played Juliet’s nurse.) As a performer, Paciotti served under artistic directors Lew Christensen, Michael Smuin, Helgi Tomasson, and Tamara Rojo.
It is truly the end of an era, with a new one beginning in 2024. The upcoming season will feature a full-length world premiere by Aszure Barton, works by MacMillan and Ashton (both rarely seen here), and international stars guesting in “Swan Lake.” As for who else will be dancing, the company says they will announce the roster in a few weeks.