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San Francisco Ballet Season Kicks Off

by Paul Parish

an Francisco Ballet dancers in Justin Peck's "Rodeo."
an Francisco Ballet dancers in Justin Peck's "Rodeo."  (Source:Erik Tomasson)

Thousands of people came out despite intermittent rain for the Gala Opening Night of San Francisco Ballet's 85th season. The Opera House, which seats 3,000+, was sold out, and standees were several rows deep at the back of the orchestra to see all the stars of the company perform on one program before tout le Monde, the movers and shakers, young and old, of our dynamic city. The Gala has become an affair of state, as befits a dance company that sees itself as a symbol of the culture of the West, but that in the 1970s fell upon such hard times it had to be pulled from bankruptcy. Ever since, they've proved their solvency after being set back on their feet under a new artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, who has made the company one of three big players in this country, and a major player internationally.

So opening night is a showcase for the audience as well as for the dancers; there might as well have been a red carpet. The gowns, my dear! You had to watch your step, some ladies' ball-gowns had trains four-feet-long. Two tall youths in dove-grey shantung suits had epaulettes of silver feathers spilling off the shoulders down the back. The afterparty was thunderous and mobbed, and the audience danced rather well. The corporate presence was so great, you suspected that whole offices had been brought to the show on expense account, and you wondered if they saw anything that made them love ballet and want to come back.

It sure was impressive. To show that SFB is a company firmly grounded in the bedrock of the classics, they hammered it home with the most exacting highlights from the greatest classics, La Sylphide and The Sleeping Beauty, and the whole of Jerome Robbins' contemporary-romantic ballet In the Night, set to four Chopin Nocturnes, with top ballerinas in each role. Tomasson has been a superb director; he understands that ballet is a non-verbal mode of argument, and he's building a case for SFB as the world's leader in taking the traditions forward into the new century, as a foretaste of a festival of new works, Unbound, which will climax the season in April-May, presenting 12 world premieres by international-star choreographers.

So the Gala was party entertainment, a variety show of one-off pieces that don't get quite enough rehearsal. Brave Jennifer Stahl's right shoe collapsed, though she did not, and she made a heroic showing in In the Night, partnered by the great Tiit Helimets. La Sylphide would have been great if we could have seen it, but they showed it with the inappropriate Sarah-Linnie Slocum (of blessed memory) lighting plot designed for a brighter set and costumes, which means the whole thing was too dark and spoiled the SF debut of our new principal dancer, Ulrik Birkkjaer - from the Royal Danish Ballet, where La Sylphide is a classic - whose legs looked dingy in his dark kilt and knee socks, instead of brilliant in the rapidly scissoring batterie that style is famous for, which made international stars out of dancers like Erik Bruhn.

Our new ballerina Ana Sophia Scheller was presented in Balanchine's hilarious Stars and Stripes, which didn't suit her. Stars requires a personality like Reese Witherspoon's, to make the jokes sing out. She did everything acceptably, and advance word from New York, where she's been seen in Sleeping Beauty, says she's fabulous in classical roles. So I'm reserving judgment.

But the only things I loved all night were Rodeo and Edward Liang's Letting Go, a haunting piece set to floating, harmonically shifting music by Max Richter, danced by our big stars Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo di Lanno. Tan is the queen of moving so slowly you can barely see the transitions. Then she's suddenly in another magnificently windswept position, always beautifully supported by di Lanno's generous, sweeping attention. Truly, we all loved Sasha de Sola and Angelo Greco in the first-act finale, the bravura Russian grand-style pas de deux from Le Corsaire. De Sola, who'll dance opening night of Sleeping Beauty and is perfect for that role, simply killed it in Corsaire. Her radiant confidence, rock-solid technique, speed and brilliance in turns, and generosity to the audience were matched by Greco's thrilling technique, the grandeur of his port de bras and control of his positions in jumps. He excels at throwing himself into the air in brilliantly faceted positions, his legs making a diamond shape, and rotating 720 degrees in this position. It flashes past you, you see it from every angle and it's perfect, but it happens so fast you can't really see it. He does it again and again, but never to the point where it's too much. It was not just amazing the first time, the miracle was he could do it again. Totally thrilling, both of them.

The evening was mostly duets; it closed with the only big group piece, Justin Peck's version of Rodeo, which showed the strength, brilliance, and warmth of the men of this company. It's set to Aaron Copeland's popular score, well-known here from SFB's version of Agnes de Mille's original setting. Peck's reimagined the hoedown, the nocturne and other sections of Rodeo as abstract dances for communities of men, who support each other as cowboys might, or the Golden State Warriors. It's poignant, thrilling, touching and very beautiful. There is a romance, for Sophiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno, which is warmer but not more powerful. Rodeo will be performed on Program 2, along with Balanchine's Serenade, in which I'm hungry to see Sarah van Patten dance the role she was born for. I cannot wait to see Rodeo again.

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