Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

San Francisco Ballet
gala takes flight


San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov's Classical Symphony. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
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If there's a recession on, you'd never have known it from the gay face of the crowd for San Francisco Ballet's opening night gala last Thursday. Whether these were Versace gowns – I wore Perry Ellis – or very good knock-offs, whether these patrons were truly wealthy or had merely saved up for a month in order to do the town, the town got seriously done (amidst a slight drizzle) by thousands of happy revelers, high on civic pride. My favorite dress sheathed a lady in beadwork that looked like millions of purple gummi bears knit into a chain-mail gown. But there was fancy afloat everywhere, with dinners beforehand and a ball afterwards that lasted, as it should, till the wee hours of the morning.

The two-hours-traffic of the performance itself paraded all but four of the principal dancers of this now-world-famous company, plus most of the soloists and the cream of the corps de ballet. It was a nuanced mixed bill, including of course flashy bravura pieces, but also moody solos, a deeply contemplative trio, a heavenly group dance for men soaring like birds, and more. This gala gave an unusually thoughtful portrait of SFB and the community it serves, and what our values are.

The curtain rose on a heavenly vision – or at least, heavenly to a gay man – the sight of young men flying, soaring, cavorting with each other like kids on skateboards, getting air-time, showing style, flourishing their talents, while dancing the strictest and most difficult steps in the ballet canon, in the "Gavotte" from Yuri Possokhov's Classical Symphony. SFB is a man's company – every guy in the troupe could dance Apollo, as Jacques d'Amboise said years ago when he came to set Balanchine's great ballet. Most of these guys are not gay, but they have that feeling for style, fantasy, wit that our crowd lays claim to. So far as I'm concerned they're honorary queers. First among equals in this lot was Jaime Garcia Castillo, but they all deserve honorable mention: Diego Cruz, Isaac Hernandez, Steven Morse, and the identical twins Benjamin and Matthew Stewart.

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Number Nine.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

There followed a mesmerizing performance by Sarah van Patten in  the adagio from David Bintley's AIDS ballet The Dance House ("inspired by Nick, and in memory of him," 1994). She was selflessly partnered by Tiit Hellimets, with Pascal Molat. This heroic piece is set to the nervous and haunting Concerto for Trumpet and Piano by Shostakovich (Michael McGraw, pianist). Afterimages from this ballet have a half-life of many years.

Damian Smith seemed more actor than dancer in Val Caniparoli's masked dance Aria – which is fine, since it's a spooky solo and holds the stage through its connection with the uncanny – even as the gorgeous soprano voice of Nicole Folland floats up from the pit, singing Handel's "Air de Almirena" from Rinaldo. Smith is one of SFB's great partners, the cause of dancing in others; it's wonderful to see him alone, dancing in his own right.

A highlight of the evening for me was the mysteriously weighted duet of Sofiane Sylve and Vito Mazzeo in  Christopher Wheeldon's Continuum, which unfolded in modernist austerity a la Balanchine to the Andante misurato e tranquillo of Gyorgi Ligeti, again played with deep feeling by Michael McGraw. It's all angles, bleak modern intimacy, but it rings true; I believe them.

My favorite thing the whole evening was the incredibly silly and delightful Voices of Spring, in which nearly the first thing that happens is that the boy (heroic Joan Boada) lifts the girl (Maria Kochetkova) overhead, like the Olympic torch, and runs across the stage with her, as she lets streams of rose petals slip from her hands and float out behind her. While we're recovering from that, he puts her down and twirls her, then picks her back up again (like the Statue of Liberty lifting the torch) and runs back across the stage again, turning as he goes, so we see her rotated from every angle, and more rose petals cascade preposterously behind her.

It made me deliriously happy. First of all, this is real dance music, designed to put the boogie in the butt and get people out of their chairs, the "It's Raining Men" of its day, outrageously danceable music. And the moves are all preposterous. The next thing they do is that she dances on air, with him lifting her, so she's doing grand jetes just barely touching her toe to the ground before flying off into the next one. It truly has the spirit of a gala occasion – Ashton made it as "special material" for a New Year's Eve gala version of Die Fledermaus in 1977. I'd never have known if I had not seen Kochetkova at the afterparty and she said, "It is so hard! You have no idea!" since it is typical Ashton confectionery and lighter than air.

Also on the program and very well-danced were the following: Hans van Manen's "Solo" (Hansuke Yamamoto, Gennadi Nedvigin and Garen Scribner); the pas de deux from Vassily Vainonen's "The Flames of Paris" (Frances Chung and Taras Domitro); the pas de deux from John Neumeyer's Lady of the Camellias (Yuan Yuan Tan, Alexander Riabko, the latter on loan from the Hamburg Ballet); and George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" (Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan). The evening concluded with the entirety of Wheeldon's Number Nine, to Michael Torke's exhausting music. Martin West led the superb Ballet Orchestra throughout the evening.

As the year begins, it's good to see how sane this institution looks, as other ballet companies in Oakland and San Jose go through rocky times. Indeed, we must thank the memory of Richard LeBlond, Jr., who died of AIDS 20 years ago, but who came from the Ford Foundation 30 years ago to save SFB from bankruptcy and came up with the constitution that allowed SFB to stay in the black even as it grew under Helgi Tomasson's artistic direction into international stature. As Miami and San Jose Ballets are crumbling, facing outrageous interference in artistic matters by members of the board, we can look at the firewall LeBlond created between the financial and artistic sides of SFB and thank God. There isn't room here to lay out in detail our good fortune that Tomasson had as his board chair a former ballet dancer married to a wizard financier, but we're all in the debt of Chris and Warren Hellman (to whom the performance was dedicated).

Tomorrow night, the real season begins with a performance of John Cranko's Onegin, a dramatic ballet set to Tchaikovsky's music which has had huge success since it was created in the 1960s but is new to SFB and to me. It runs for a week only. Don't miss it; Friday night's performance is an LGBT NiteOut.

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