Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Command performance
kicks off ballet season


San Francisco Ballet dancers Esteban Hernandez, Dores Andre and Gennadi Nedvigin in choreographer Johann Kobborg's Les Lutins. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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Big-time dance kicked into high gear last Wednesday with the San Francisco Ballet's gala opening night, which sold out the house to the rafters, sold out every last ticket to the dinners beforehand and the dancing after-party too, and raised in one night over $2 million dollars to support the company. Within the week, not only did SFB begin their own regular season with the classical ballet they do best (Giselle), but also all round the Bay, dance events of major note heaved up on the horizon – of which more later.

The Gala performance defies review. It's like a royal Command Performance, where the show onstage mirrors the crowd who've come, and nothing taxes the royal attention span. In form it's an all-star variety show, with no act taking up too much time, with changes of mood (bucolic to sultry to breezy) and scene (Arcadia to Paris to Hungary, with a stop in a country fair), and a steady emphasis on phenomenal feats.

The audience looked pretty phenomenal, too. Nancy Pelosi smiled at me as she came up the aisle, with that look a good politician has when they recognize someone who voted for them. But while there were plenty of well-heeled elders, what it looked like most was young, bright, well-upholstered folk on a date night. It was not surprising to hear this crowd roar its loudest approval for Soviet-style tricks – e.g., the wheeling/scything big male jumps Taras Domitro threw off in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, or Mathilde Froustey's high-wire balancing stunts in the Grand pas Classique, both of which are excuses to display "gold medal" technique. It will be interesting to see if this audience sticks with the company and shows similar appetite for the deeper mysteries of classic dancing during the season ahead.

They have been warned. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson included a higher quantum of "deep" material than other companies usually include in their galas. Over the years he's made the gala into a sampler of the kinds of dance the season ahead will include; sometimes the material is gnarly, spiky, intimate in strange ways, like Edwaard Liang's duet Finding Light, which was brilliantly danced by Damian Smith and Yuan Yuan Tan, and indeed was a hit with the crowd, so I have my hopes of them.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets in choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

Even more beautiful was the very deep, remote sadness of Sarah van Patten with Tiit Helimets in the Adagio from Shostakovitch's Piano Concerto in F, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan. It is an austere music visualization that relies on the dancers' ability to float on the tides of that gorgeous music in order to cast its spell.

Tomasson uses his galas to make the case that SFB is now one of the major ballet companies in the world, not just by displaying the dancers' world-class skills, but also by bringing in material and dancers from Denmark, London, Paris and Russia who belong to the very top ranks of the ballet world – such as Johann Kobborg, the recently retired principal dancer of London's Royal Ballet (before that, a star with the Royal Danish Ballet), who both a) contributed a piece of his choreography, Les Lutins, and b) partnered our Bolshoi-trained star Maria Kochetkova beautifully in the bedroom scene from MacMillan's Manon, the sort of role at which Kobborg had excelled in his career in London.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Luke Ingham in choreographer George Balanchine's Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Ballet has historically been used to make a case, to argue non-verbally. A case in point is Louis XIV's performance as the sun, le Roi Soleil, in a court ballet that made it clear that he had vanquished all his political rivals. He did not have to say a word about it – the allegory was clear, and it established his power all the more solidly because it was non-verbal. Tomasson has used this way of arguing the importance of ballet to San Francisco, and of San Francisco Ballet's importance in the world, since he took charge of SFB back in the 1980s and instituted the Gala Opening Night. From the crowd's response, it looks like they buy it.

There were some mishaps that night. The most distressing was a faux pas by Vanessa Zahorian, who slipped on her entrance in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux and went on to dance the whole thing on a broken foot, hopping and spinning and darting and whirling as if there were nothing wrong. She received a huge ovation from a crowd who thought she'd just recovered from an embarrassment and had no idea, none, how bad it actually was. She will not be dancing Giselle this week after all, alas.

But she's a trouper. God speed her recovery. And meantime, we get to see one of the best arguments that our ballet has to world-class status as a classical ballet company. In Giselle, we have a production that people could come from all over the world to see and find it deep, rich, and moving. The temper of the times has made it so that this ghost story meshes with the hopes and fears of young people everywhere; the superheroes, vampires and witches, sci-fi and fantasy heroes and heroines that make for blockbuster movies have nothing on poor Giselle and the Wilis who seek vengeance on her behalf. The technique of ballet allows the Wilis to accumulate more real power in actual stage terms, as they float, whirl, dart, like tongues of fire leaping, flashing, attacking, than any trick-photography effects can build up for an actress in Lycra. It's a cumulative effect that's built up over time, and the choreography is genius in its power to accumulate this weight of righteousness. Then Giselle sets herself against their blind blood-vengeance and pleads for mercy – spare his life, he did love me, it's not his fault. You should see it for yourself, and decide for yourself if she's right.

There are feminists who see Giselle as a foolish victim, others who see her as embodying, in fairy-tale form, a spiritual force like that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, visionaries who saw how to endure injustice and yet prevail by non-violence and forgiveness.

Meantime, dance is busting out all over. Robert Moses' excellent Rise has already happened, alas (at Yerba Buena), but you can still catch the last shows of Giselle  this weekend at the Opera House, or the glorious ever-fresh ballet Appalachian Spring at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, performed by the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Berkeley Symphony. If you feel more like smart, subversive dance-thought, check out Gravity's brilliant Experiment #2.2 at the Joe Goode Annex in Project Artaud. And if you're just mad and frightened at how hard it's getting to be to keep a toehold in the Bay Area, the Dance Brigade's Hemorrhage turns feminist critique into furious dance imagery at the Dance Mission Theater.

More next week.


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